© Jesse Marlow
On the death of Kumanjayi Walker and the trial of Northern Territory policeman Zachary Rolfe
Constable Zachary Rolfe is confident and helpful. Solicitous even, as he beats his defence counsel to his own enquiry: “Would you like me to explain it to the jury?” And so, the jurors become a learning group and Rolfe their instructor. He teaches them about “reactionary gaps” (the time it takes to observe a threat, decide how to react, and then to act), flash-bangs (stun grenades) and even the torch attached to his lapel when on duty (Guardian Angel brand).
The heavy court door opens and closes as Rolfe and his defence counsel perform this to-and-fro. Word has quickly spread: Rolfe is giving evidence, now! The spare seats fill with legal aid lawyers and anyone else they called out to as they hurried to the Supreme Court in Darwin, a tall, white building framed with palm fronds.
“Rule of thumb, the accused only gives evidence if the defence thinks their case has gone to shit,” a reporter quipped when we’d earlier wondered if Rolfe would take the stand. “So, no, I don’t think he’ll give evidence.” I’d agreed.
The five-week trial felt tight and the jury inscrutable, as they literally wrestled with the evidence, white folders stacking up in their arms. They entered and exited the courtroom, sometimes four or five times in quick succession, as lawyers argued a point in their absence.
To the eye, they were an all-white jury bar one young Asian woman, after the defence had issued the majority of their 12 challenges to potential jurors as soon as a person of colour was called. Out the door went Africans and several Asians.
The dead Indigenous teenager at the centre of this trial had few Aboriginal peers in the jury pool and none in the final jury, a common anomaly in the Northern Territory, where 30 per cent of the population is Indigenous, yet they represent 84 per cent of the prison population.
Still, having the accused give evidence seemed reckless. Every emotion he failed to contain would be judged, every absent emotion noted. But this fatality, as far as the accused was concerned, was a matter of self-defence.
Constable Zachary Rolfe shot 19-year-old Arnold Walker, who was armed with first-aid scissors from a medical kit, three times inside his grandmother’s house in the remote Central Desert community of Yuendumu. The second and third shots – one of them fatal – were fired at such close range that black soot from the Glock pistol was left on Walker’s skin.
The threat had to be “incapacitated”.
Rolfe was determined in court that day. He leant forward after the last witness and whispered in his counsel’s ear. He was ready.
It had been a big day in Yuendumu on Saturday, November 9, 2019. Family had come from all over, crisscrossing red-dirt desert roads for a funeral. It was hot and dusty, and, by 2pm, the rec hall was packed.
There were speeches, slideshows and a guard of honour from the local footy team, the Yuendumu Magpies. Then, three hours later, with the coffin on the tray of an old troop carrier, a convoy of mourners made its way to the cemetery; others stayed behind, wandering to different houses.
Among them was Arnold Walker, now known as Kumanjayi Walker. The funeral was for his grandfather.
A quiet man, Walker was a bit like a switch. “A faz-dee kid,” a youth worker tells me: FASD, foetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Not that Walker was ever diagnosed; it was just known. People who worked with him when he was younger say it felt like he didn’t understand them.
Whether he couldn’t hear or wouldn’t hear is up for speculation, but his childhood medical history was dotted with ear infections, perforations, referrals for unattended hearing tests.
And the switch thing made Walker hard to deal with. He would be silent, even gentle, then, in a flick, he was in a rage and it was on. Another flick and he was off and running. And Walker was a fast runner. He took pride in it. In the Alice Springs juvenile detention centre, a youth worker says they got a lot of entertainment watching the other kids try to race him. They had nothing on him; no one did. Except one time a police dog caught up with him and left him looking like a Picasso painting.
At the basketball court, a barbecue was firing up.
People were going to be hungry when they returned from the cemetery. Walker walked to the footy oval with his “wife”, Rekeisha Robertson, and friends. “Are you girlfriend and boyfriend again?” one of the Yuendumu-based constables had asked her a few days ago. She had nodded. Just 18, Robertson had a pending domestic violence order out on Walker, but that seemed to be forgotten after he had broken off his electronic monitoring device 330 kilometres away in Alice Springs, left the alcohol and drug rehabilitation centre where he was meant to be on a suspended sentence, and shown up in Yuendumu a week earlier.
Walker used to be a scrawny kid. Was on his own a lot, people say. Whenever something went wrong for him and he’d escaped to wherever he needed to be – the bush, in a corner, back against the wall – he would rock. He’d hug his knees and mutter in Warlpiri.
But he had filled out. Initiated at 14, Walker was a man now. And he had put some thought into his look that day – a Chicago Bulls T-shirt, khaki slacks, red baseball cap. Sneakers a cool canary yellow.
“You and me, after the funeral, we’ll go to the police station,” Eddie Robertson, Rekeisha’s grandfather, had told Walker on Wednesday. “And you hand yourself in.” Walker had nodded and the plan was organised with the Yuendumu sergeant, Julie Frost.
Frost has served as a policewoman for 17 years and before that was a nurse for 16 years, four of them in remote Indigenous communities. She wanted to give Walker the opportunity to turn himself in.
Still, a 5.30am arrest was in the offing if he didn’t show.
An early morning arrest was safest, said Frost. He’d be asleep, they could cuff him before he’d got the gunk out of his eyes. And it needed to be safe because, as of this week, Walker was high risk. It was that switch thing. Three days ago, he had run out of a dark bedroom at Frost’s constables wielding an axe, waving it as he crab-walked around them, before dropping it as soon as he was past the cops and out the front door. You could hear it in the police body-camera footage, the tinkle of metal
“He was always running, that one,” a relative later tells me.
Apart from the risk to Frost’s constables, the axe incident placed extra stress on her. She was already greatly under-resourced. She, her three constables and an Aboriginal community policeman had 125,000 square kilometres to cover, including three remote settlements and a goldmine. All were dry communities, but still hard in their way. Mostly black-on-black violence and break-ins.
To top it off, the nurses in Yuendumu told Frost they would be locking up the clinic on the day of the funeral and getting out – the government service was evacuating them out of concerns for their safety. Their lodgings had been broken into several times as they slept.
Nurses at Yuelamu, an hour away, told Frost they would only come to an incident in Yuendumu with a police escort. Overstretched doesn’t quite cover it.
Then there was Walker. Almost every cop in Frost’s team had arrested him at least once over the years. Derrick Williams, the Aboriginal community officer, had taken him in a few times and never had a problem. Walker called Williams “Uncle”.
But the axe incident put the police in a tricky position. The two constables involved couldn’t rearrest him; if any harm came to Walker, people could say it was payback. The same was true for Frost, as one of the constables was her partner.
Frost needed more numbers to make the arrest safely. And she and her constables needed a break. It had been days since they had had a proper sleep.
After the funeral, Walker leaves the oval and walks to Eddie and Lottie Robertson’s place, known as House 577 in the Yuendumu manner. This is where he has lived with Rekeisha for five years between diversions and stints in detention.
At the cemetery, the Warlpiri women have started a ritual keening. Eddie and Lottie are there with a hundred or so people.
At the same time, coming in from the south-east, three police vehicles are travelling along the Tanami, an old stock route. One of the vehicles has an empty cage. That’s for Walker. They’ve brought swags, bean-bag shotguns, tasers, ballistic vests, Glock pistols, patrol rifles and camouflage uniforms in case they need to change it up, IRT-style. That’s Immediate Response Team, a specialised group employed to “cordon and contain” high-risk targets. Some say they’re really just the only officers motivated enough to answer their phones for extra jobs. There’s the “doggie” too, as the IRT calls him. He’s driving by himself, with his dog in the back. Frost specifically asked for the police dog because, you know – the running.
The “doggie” – Adam Donaldson – arrives first at the Yuendumu station. Sergeant Julie Frost gives him a hard copy of the operational plan for the next 48 hours and a map of Yuendumu. She has a stack of these documents to hand out, and also emailed the plan to the four attending IRT members (Zachary Rolfe, Anthony Hawkings, James Kirstenfeldt and Adam Eberl), acting IRT Sergeant Shane McCormack, two local constables and five superintendents.
Within the plan is a description of the axe incident, photos of Walker, and directions for the IRT to “conduct high visibility patrols” on November 9 and respond to call-outs. At 5am on Sunday, November 10, the IRT team, with the dog handler and a local police officer, is to “effect the arrest of Walker”.
Later, in the Supreme Court, prosecutor Philip Strickland asks Donaldson what he understood his role to be in Yuendumu after reading the operational plan Frost gave him on arrival. “Well,” replied the dog handler, “I was to be assisting with the unlawful entries at the nurses’ quarters to start with. And then the following day, I would be looking for the arrest target.”
With no sign yet of the IRT’s arrival, Donaldson heads out to look around the nurses’ units while it is still light.
It is 6.33pm when Zachary Rolfe and James Kirstenfeldt arrive at the station. Kirstenfeldt has sunglasses propped on his bald head, a beard and one arm tattooed. Rolfe is smaller, jauntier, both his arms sleeved with tattoos. Like the doggie, the two constables had been in the Australian Army before joining the Northern Territory Police Force: Rolfe for five years from 2010 and Kirstenfeldt for 14 years. Kirstenfeldt enters the station carrying his bean-bag shotgun. He has cultivated the tough-guy walk.
Having a presence, says a police trainer who helped form the IRT, is a way of maintaining control. “He was dominating,” Frost would say later of Kirstenfeldt. “He was trying to … take over the conversation and would not listen to me.” He wanted to know about Walker: “What family members are hiding him? Who doesn’t like him and is likely to give him up?”
The footage of Walker and the axe had caused quite a stir in the Alice Springs Police Station. Specifically, Rolfe had taken a keen interest in it after he was tasked to investigate Walker, who was listed as an arrest target. Looking up Walker’s profile on the police database and noticing the high-risk alerts Frost had added the day before, Rolfe viewed the body-cam footage of the axe incident. By the time Rolfe arrived in Yuendumu three days later, he had accessed the footage 30 times.
Later, in court, Kirstenfeldt told prosecutor Strickland: “We were trying to get information out of her [Frost] … Myself and Zach Rolfe.” Yes, Kirstenfeldt knew Frost was in charge. Yes, he knew she was commander of the operation to arrest Walker. But he and Rolfe wanted to know the houses Walker lived at. “She had a map and she pointed to a dozen houses or so.”
Strickland: Did she tell you during this time, when it was just you and Zach, that she had a plan to arrest Kumanjayi Walker on the Sunday morning?
Kirstenfeldt: Sorry, can you say that one again?
Strickland: Yes. Did she tell you, during this discussion with you and Zach Rolfe, that there was a plan to arrest Kumanjayi Walker on the Sunday morning?
Kirstenfeldt: I don’t recall there being a plan.
Strickland: Did she… What did she tell you about any plan to arrest Kumanjayi Walker?
Kirstenfeldt: I believe it was suggested that… that we go and arrest him at around about five o’clock in the morning.
As for the operational plan, Kirstenfeldt later said he never saw it – in hard copy or via email. Rolfe said the same. In cross-examination, however, the jury was shown a screenshot of the plan on Rolfe’s phone, and the metadata revealed it had been taken at Yuendumu Police Station around the time Frost greeted the IRT arrivals. The constable then explained that Frost had drawn his attention to that specific part of the four-page plan – a list of the houses where Walker might be found – but maintained he hadn’t seen the rest of the document. Pressing Kirstenfeldt, the prosecution reminded him of his police interview after Yuendumu, in which he had recalled seeing an email, stating: “I glanced over the – it was just a quick little couple of sentences – paragraph about us… about us doing… like I said, RBTs [random breath tests] and going out there to help out Yuendumu police, and that the funeral was on … Something about arresting at 5.30 in the morning, I think, or something like that.”
That was a different email, Kirstenfeldt insisted.
The other two IRT officers arrive at 6.58pm. Later, in court, they too couldn’t recall anything about what was said. On CCTV there are five or six minutes with Frost and IRT members standing together, just out of frame. This, Frost said, was her briefing.
Strickland: And did you discuss the operation… any part of the operation plan?
Frost: Yes, I did. I discussed with them that what I wanted them to be doing is conducting high-visibility patrols around Yuendumu. I wanted them to saturate the area around where all the unlawful entries had been taking place. And I wanted them to be on call, and I wanted them to familiarise themselves with community and the layout of the community.
Strickland: And did you discuss anything to do with the arrest of Kumanjayi Walker?
Frost: At that… it was going to take place at 5 o’clock – at 5.30 the next morning.
Strickland: And did you tell them where they should meet up?
Frost: At the muster room.
Strickland: At what time?
Frost: Five o’clock.
Strickland: On the next morning?
Strickland: Did you have any discussion with them about if they happened to come across Kumanjayi Walker, what they should do?
Frost: They – one of them – and I don’t recall which one – had asked me, “What do you want us to do if we come across him?” And I said, “By all means, lock him up.”
Kirstenfeldt had a different takeaway from the briefing.
Strickland: What do you recall that she [Frost] said?
Kirstenfeldt: We went to use the station radios for Yuendumu and she said that they don’t use them, because she doesn’t know how to set it up on the Simplex Channel, because there’s no communications from Yuendumu back to the central police comms in Darwin. So they just didn’t use them. We said we weren’t going to roll out without radios. So we had to set them all up for her. And we were showing them how to set up her station radios before we took them out.
At House 577, Walker wanders back outside where Rekeisha Robertson’s father, Ethan, is raking up the rubbish. Walker tells Ethan he is going to his grandma’s house, before heading off.
It is just on sunset when the police IRT and dog handler leave the station in their three vehicles. They drive to House 577. It is, defence counsel David Edwardson later says, an intelligence-gathering mission.
“Rolling,” the IRT say, when they activate their body cameras.
At House 577, Rolfe talks to Ethan Robertson in the front yard and asks if anyone is in the house. “No one, sir,” Ethan says. “Only me.” Kirstenfeldt goes around the side and peers through a bedroom window, spying two young boys playing a videogame. Seeing Kirstenfeldt, one of the boys stands up. He is wearing a virtual-reality headset, which he removes.
“Arnold inside?” asks Kirstenfeldt. The boy says that Walker left a few minutes ago.
Anthony Hawkings, who had flanked the western side of the house carrying an AR-15 – a semiautomatic rifle – returns to where Rolfe is talking to Ethan. “Don’t tell lies, mate,” he says to Ethan. “There’s somebody in there. I just saw them, okay?”
Ethan looks anxiously at the house.
“Yeah, I’ve got this,” says Rolfe, now in the open doorway. Kirstenfeldt joins him. “Little fella just give me the go,” he tells Rolfe. “[Walker’s] gonna be staying here tonight with his girlfriend, he reckons.” Rolfe looks at Kirstenfeldt blankly, says nothing and goes inside. Kirstenfeldt follows and Ethan tries to as well, but Hawkings calls him back. “No, no, stay out here.”
Rolfe puts his hand on his firearm holster, turns on his torch. It is almost a re-enactment of the axe footage as he goes to the same bedroom door the two Yuendumu constables had approached back then. This time it is open. No one inside. In the next bedroom, the two boys have resumed playing their videogame.
Outside, Hawkings tells Ethan to sit down. “Who’s in there, brother?”
“No one,” says Ethan, before clarifying. “My son, my son is inside.”
Inside, Rolfe disengages the safety lock on his pistol’s holster.
Later in court, Rolfe’s shift sergeant from Alice Springs told the jury that police are not trained to remove the safety lock other than when they intend to draw their firearm. “Normally,” he said, “it’s one fluid action.”
Detective Senior Sergeant Andrew Barram, after observing the body-cam footage of Rolfe “clearing” House 577 – checking the area for an offender – told the court Rolfe’s actions were inappropriate. A police officer in NT for 25 years, Barram remarked that Rolfe was showing “a readiness” to use a firearm.
But former Australian Federal Police assistant commissioner Ben McDevitt disputed in court that this was a problem. House 577 was, after all, the scene of the axe incident.
Strickland: Do you think that before a police officer enters a house, or entered that house, with their hand on the Glock, being ready to deploy it, that any children should have been evacuated beforehand?
McDevitt: It wouldn’t have been practical.
Strickland: How do you… how do you know that, sir?
McDevitt: Sir, I’ve gone into dozens of houses, with far more firepower than what Mr Rolfe had, which have had children inside them.
After clearing the house, Rolfe asks Ethan to point out on a map the houses where Walker might be. Robertson indicates houses 511 or 518.
The sun has sunk below the horizon and, outside House 511, distinctively painted red, Walker is sitting next to his foster mother, Leanne Oldfield, and her partner, Nathan Coulthard. She is swiping on her phone, as the other two lean in. They are looking at photos of family. A young woman is also in the yard with a toddler and jiggling a crying baby on her hip.
The three police cars pull up and Rolfe climbs over the woven wire fence.
Dogger Adam Donaldson waits on the perimeter while the other three move in as well. He hasn’t got the dog out. Rolfe questions two women in the adjoining yard and shows them a photo of Walker. Kirstenfeldt is talking to neighbours on the other side of the house, while Hawkings is flanking the southern side, his AR-15 rifle at the ready as Adam Eberl approaches the red house. “We’re looking for someone,” Eberl tells the young woman when she juts out her chin at Hawkings. “Yeah,” she says. “I’m just figuring out why you have a gun.”
Eberl: Why we have a gun?
Woman: No, why he’s got a gun. [She points to Hawkings.]
Eberl: Oh. Yeah, we all carry guns.
Woman: Yeah, I know but he’s, like, got it aimed to shoot someone.
Eberl: No, he’s not aiming to shoot anyone, is he.
Woman: It’s not right.
Eberl: We don’t have a holster for that one, so we have to carry it, so… Someone probably shouldn’t run at police with an axe, yeah?
The baby cries louder as the woman frowns at Eberl. “Shaqkaila, come here!” She yells as her toddler starts running towards Hawkings. There is an uptick in the air, an anxiety as dogs start to bark. Leanne is on her feet, herding the toddler back to her mother when Eberl sights a male in the house through the open doorway.
“Hey, missus,” Rolfe says to Leanne, not aware she is Walker’s foster mother, “where’s Arnold at?”
“I don’t know,” she says.
“Me and Adam are just going to clear this red house,” Rolfe says into his radio, and they step inside. It is dark. Eberl takes out his torch. The male is standing in a second doorway, his back turned. He freezes, then changes direction, turning towards the police, his right hand in his pocket. It is Walker.
“What’s your name?” the police ask as he walks towards them. Walker doesn’t make eye contact. “Um,” he says, stalling as he tries to walk past the two officers to the yard outside. Eberl puts his hand out. “Stop there, stop, mate,” he says. “We’re just asking you a question. No need to keep walking.”
Walker steps back. “I’m Vernon,” he says.
“Vernon who?” asks Eberl.
Rolfe moves around Walker, and you can see the red circle of his body-cam light glowing in Eberl’s body cam. “Just come over here for a sec,” Rolfe says, guiding Walker to the wall.
“My name’s Vernon Dickson,” Walker repeats.
“Is it?” says Rolfe.
“Yeah – and she’s my aunty.” He points outside.
“Alright, don’t stress, be calm,” says Rolfe, holding Walker with his fingertips while unlocking his phone. It is 7.21pm. He puts the phone next to Walker’s face, comparing a mug shot.
Rolfe: That’s not you?
Walker: Yep, my name is Vernon Dickson.
Rolfe: Okay, good man. Okay, cool.
Eberl: Easy, mate.
Rolfe: Just put your hands behind your back.
“Um,” Walker says, hesitating as he puts his hand in his pocket and takes out a pair of slim scissors. He quickly brings them up, then down on Rolfe. At the same time, Eberl moves in, punches Walker in the head and grabs his left arm. Rolfe yells as he recoils from the scissors, one hand going to his holster as he strikes Walker in the face with his other.
Eberl later told the court he had seen a “pointed object”, “something sharp”, as he moved behind Walker, his right arm around the back of the 19-year-old’s neck, trapping Walker’s left arm with his left arm. It is a hold used to take a person to
As Eberl swings Walker around, Rolfe fires his Glock, shooting Walker in the back. “A dull thud,” Eberl later recalled, adding that he’d thought it had come from outside the red house.
Down the pair go as Rolfe steps backwards, staying on his feet, his Glock clasped in front of him. Screaming out, Walker lands first. He is on a mattress, lying on his side, the bullet lodged in a muscle next to his spinal cord and his right arm pressed into the mattress. The scissors are in his right hand.
Eberl lands, partially on top of him, then moves to hold Walker’s left arm down. Eberl’s body cam has fallen off. It lies near Walker’s head, still recording.
Strickland: Could you see where his right arm was?
Eberl: I believe it was sort of underneath his body.
It is 2.6 seconds after the first gunshot that Rolfe steps forward, puts his left hand on Eberl’s back and leans around with his Glock to where Walker is lying. Hawkings is now in the open doorway; the three IRT members later say Walker is still resisting. In the eye of the body cam near Walker’s head, Rolfe leans into the empty frame – and fires twice into the side of Walker’s torso.
Outside, the cracks rent the air and at first what follows sounds like cockatoos clawing at the sky. A shrieking. Screaming. Kirstenfeldt runs towards the noise at the front of the house, snapping back the charging handle of his shotgun.
At the cemetery, community police officer Derrick Williams’ phone buzzes.
Then another phone rings. And another. A car pulls up, the driver yelling as headlights shine over the fresh grave. People start to run off until it is just four men left, draping a football guernsey over the white cross.
Meanwhile, the red house is chaos.
“You good?” Rolfe asks Eberl, re-holstering.
“Yeah, mate,” Eberl replies, distracted. His focus is on Walker, who is moaning, and he yells at him: “Oi, don’t fuck around! I’ll fucking smash you, mate.” Rolfe bends down to help Eberl roll Walker face-down. Together they pin Walker’s left arm behind his back and Eberl suddenly sees the blood. “Did you…? Fuck!”
There is a gurgling sound from Walker as Rolfe replies in a rush. “It’s all good – he was stabbing me, he was stabbing me.” Eberl doesn’t pause, still working to cuff Walker. “It’s all good,” repeats Rolfe. “He’s got scissors in his hands, he was stabbing me, he was stabbing you.”
“Alright, brus,” assures Eberl, and they pull Walker’s right arm out from underneath him. The scissors are still clenched in his hand.
“He’s got scissors right here,” says Rolfe. “He’s got scissors right here. Let go of the scissors!”
“Let go of the scissors!” yells Eberl.
Walker continues to moan. The two police work at his hand to try to get the scissors loose as Walker calls to his foster mother. “Leanne! Leanne! Leanne!” Then he groans. “You mob been shoot me. I’m gonna kill you mob.” But his fingers loosen. Eberl frees the scissors and tosses them aside.
Rolfe is shaking as Eberl holds Walker’s wrists for Rolfe to handcuff him. “We’ve got to glove up,” Rolfe says, taking in the blood. “We’ve got to glove up,” he repeats, and then “Fuck!”, scrambling at the cuffs.
“It’s okay, brus, take your time,” Eberl encourages.
“Leanne,” Walker calls again.
Finally, the cuffs click into place.
Hawkings radios Frost. “We need medics as well, get them prepared at the station.” She reminds him the nurses are gone.
Taking Walker’s elbows, Rolfe and Eberl drag him out of the red house. The noise is ragged. People are screaming, dogs are furious. They go for Eberl’s legs. He tries to kick them off. “Get the fucking dogs off!” Hawkings yells at the women screaming in the yard. “Get back!”
Kirstenfeldt is there too with his shotgun as people start emerging from other houses. “Back off!”
Later, at the Yuendumu station, the police have barricaded themselves in. A crowd is gathering out the front, some of them yelling. In the back cell, Walker has been partially stripped, underwear tangled around his thighs. Julie Frost is on the radio, frantically calling for medics.
There are whumps on the roof as rocks are thrown. Derrick Williams and other elders outside the station quickly turn on the kid throwing rocks, urging calm. A large and gentle man, Williams has served at the station for more than a decade. His phone buzzes intermittently as Frost communicates with him: he can come inside the station, lock down with the cops if he is unsafe, she says. But Williams says no, he will stay with the community.
When Eddie Robertson arrives, he hurries to the front of the building, knocking on the glass-panelled front door. A leader in the town, Eddie is regularly consulted by the community police, but this evening he is ignored.
In the station’s muster room, the IRT members are laying out all their weaponry. They place half a dozen or so semiautomatic rifles on a desk, laying them on top of the copies of Frost’s operational plan.
They’re getting ready for a siege.
Along with Williams, two senior men, Eddie and Jakamarra Nelson, persuade the hundred or so people gathered outside to sit on the ground, to give the station some space, to quieten down. Despite the two Warlpiri elders’ standing, they ask the kardiya (non-Indigenous) residents to wait near the entry in hope the police will trust them with updates.
“Walker is receiving medical assistance,” Williams tells the crowd – a message from Frost – but when the ambulance from Yuelamu arrives an hour later, people are angry. “You’re late!” a man yells as the van veers around to the back of the station.
Then the information dries up.
And so, for three and a half hours, they sit in the dark. Every now and then, an officer peers out through the windows, then darts out of view. At the back of the compound, Rolfe is sweating. He has never worked in a remote Indigenous community since joining the NT police in 2016, a year after he returned from Afghanistan. Tonight, he is again in foreign territory. Warlpiri country.
“I just want to hold that till we’re safe,” Rolfe says as Hawkings tries to take his Glock pistol.
“We’re safe for now,” Hawkings assures him. “If need be, I’ll give it straight to you, but just because of the situation, just coz I’m the senior cop here, I want to retain your weapon just to cover you, mate.”
Rolfe slowly gives up the weapon.
“That’s all it is, fella,” Hawkings says as he seals the Glock in a ziplock bag. “Good stuff.”
“Yep,” says Rolfe in a daze. His face is ashen. But then as Hawkings walks away, Rolfe rushes to him, holding out his hands.
“You’re not happy?” Hawkings asks, his voice friendly and careful. Rolfe’s lips are slightly apart as he takes the plastic bag and re-arms himself.
It’s tense out the front, too. There’s some yelling, but the elders and Williams hold fast, keeping the calm. Mostly it is quiet, like a held breath. When red lights appear in the night sky, and the engine hum of a plane draws near, people look up, relieved. “Flying Doctor,” is the murmur.
Then the station’s interior lights are snapped off. Suddenly, two police vehicles – one of them a troop carrier – and the ambulance roar out from the back, swinging onto the road, forcing people to leap out of the way.
Some give chase, jumping into cars to follow them to the airstrip a kilometre out of town. They assume Walker is still alive and is going to be transferred to the plane, but when the Warlpiri draw near to the airstrip, they get nervous. They stop a little way off and decide to wait for the police vehicles to return – maybe then, with Walker in the air, they’ll get some information.
What happens next scares the shit out of everyone.
At top speed the police cars and ambulance return, roaring around the corner and almost smashing into the crowd. People dive for cover. Nurse Lorraine Walcott, 64, is driving the ambulance, with Heather Zanker, 75, beside her – the police had reassured them that one police car would stay in front of them, another behind. Now, both police cars burn off to the station, abandoning the ambulance. Some people are face-down in the dirt, as the Warlpiri call out, checking that no one has been run over. People are furious now. Teenagers scrounge in the dirt for rocks to hurl at the van. A rock shatters the driver’s window and strikes Walcott in the head. Her eyes blurring with blood, she tries to weave the van through the people and the darkness.
It was like a movie, the nurse later told The Australian, “when you see the zombies are coming for you”. For the Warlpiri, this was no film.
As the ambulance recedes along the road, people start to call out to each other, saying to get the hell out of there, to go home, hide, keep your heads down, as a sick familiar dread pools in their stomachs.
Others light impotent spot fires.
Back at the station, the lights are on again. The nurses made it back and the ambulance is in the compound. A smaller group of locals return and peer in the window. The place is bustling with police putting on riot gear. The ambulance speeding out to the airstrip had been a ruse – the plane had touched down with reinforcements. One cop sees the locals and starts covering the glass with paper and sticky tape.
Walker is still in the cells. His body is going cold.
It isn’t until 8am the next morning that most of Walker’s family are told that he is dead – that he had died at 8.36pm, less than an hour after police had carried him inside the station. By then the media is already running the story, and Yuendumu is dotted with members of the TRG – the Territory Response Group – tactical police in camouflage riot gear, carrying AR-15 rifles.
Walker is now Kumanjayi Walker, meaning “No name”. Among his Warlpiri kin, he is Leanne’s son, Joseph’s grandson and so on. To say his first name would disturb his spirit as he returns to country.
The Tanami Track is patched bitumen, sometimes just corrugations of red dirt. We’re three hours out of Alice Springs, heading north-west to Yuendumu. I watch as the scrub changes from scorched black, due to fire, to pale green, smudged hills and rugged red escarpments. The landscape is rich with sacred sites – and gold.
In one of the last regions in Australia to be colonised, sustained contact between the Central Desert tribes and Europeans began in the 1880s. Settlers staked out cattle stations and mining syndicates sent prospecting expeditions to scour for gold reefs – a continuation of “the making of a nation”, with the usual accompaniments of bloodshed, dispossession and exploitation.
It was here, in central Australia, that a police officer was charged with murder for the first time in the nation’s history. William Willshire, a policeman who’d killed many times – “in the name of duty” – was arrested in 1891 after he and his party attacked a group of sleeping Aboriginal people, leaving two dead. For his legal defence, a hat was passed around to raise funds, as the public was outraged that the policeman had been charged. Willshire was acquitted, following up his trial with a memoir, A Thrilling Tale of Real Life in the Wilds of Australia. Today, in Alice Springs, a street is named after him.
We take a road doglegging towards the remote settlement and are greeted by seven propped-up car bonnets daubed to spell out WELCOME. Prickled with yellow spinifex, Yuendumu is strewn with mattresses, empty jagged food tins and rubbish clumped in woven wire fences.
Yuendumu, writes Andrew Stojanovski in Dog Ear Cafe (2010), is “the scene of a cultural collision. Like two cars having a head-on, white culture and Aboriginal culture. Scattered remnants of both cultures … Broken boomerangs and mangy half-breed dogs fighting over kangaroo carcasses next to smashed-up houses and the rusted wreckage of broken-down cars.”
But still, like many of his peers drawn to Indigenous ways, Stojanovski (who spent 11 years in Yuendumu) found “something endearing here … people mostly cooked on campfires, and often slept under the stars or on the veranda. Houses seemed to be more like storage places, rather than living places.”
The houses are brick boxes, thickly lathered with concrete and painted rusty red, turquoise blue, lime green or dark blue, and sparsely furnished. Solar panels covered with dust sit on tin roofs and brindle dogs weave in and out of doorways.
A rations depot built at the close of World War Two, Yuendumu was to become a reserve for the Warlpiri people, who were among the last of nomadic desert clans to be herded into stillness. The settlement was run as a Baptist mission until the late ’70s, when control was handed to the Warlpiri.
Today the town is serious business.
Each year, millions of dollars in royalties from goldmining operations are transferred to a Warlpiri trust, which, in addition to government funding, has produced a dozen or so social programs, such as a youth service, an outstation resource centre, an art centre, a dialysis unit and an Aboriginal media organisation – PAW, perhaps best known for its hit TV series Bush Mechanics.
Yet for all the business, most key staff are kardiya.
Programs tend to grind to a halt when the staff return to homes elsewhere for the summer, or drag on ineffectively when they burn out and are not replaced. The same handful of capable elders are on numerous boards and subjected to endless meetings.
According to the NT government, Yuendumu is a “growth town”, and yet the population ebbs and swells to its own Warlpiri rhythm of ceremony, family relations, sports carnivals, incarceration and sorry business.
It is two days after Walker’s death and a crowd is forming along the main street; people walking towards the rec hall. I fold into the slipstream, then pause. Up ahead, under a tree, are four police officers in camouflage riot gear, armed with semiautomatic rifles.
Inside the hall, the basketball court is full.
Women wearing long black skirts and black T-shirts have white ochre smeared across their brows. They stand alongside rows of red vinyl seats that have been filled. At the front are the Territory’s chief minister, Michael Gunner, and the newly sworn-in police commissioner, Jamie Chalker. The two men are flanked by banners. Black Lives Matter. We Stand with Walker.
It is loud – and tense. Police are positioned throughout the crowd. And young men are wearing singlets with Racist NT Police scrawled on them.
A woman, arms long and graceful as she punches the air to make her points, is addressing the meeting. Valerie Napaljarri Martin has “seven questions” for Yuendumu’s fly-in guests. “One,” she says, “why didn’t the police use a taser?” The crowd approves, a loud rumble. “Two: we want to see a photo of the policeman’s injury. Three: how many police does it take to…” She sighs, drops her hands, palms outward.
She faces the crowd and slips into language. It is like water this conversation, the way it flows. Then Martin turns back to the guests. “Three: how many police does it take to tell us a man is dead?” The anger in the hall is palpable. Her remaining questions are lost in the noise. An older man stands. “The murderer,” he says, “is he down? Is he stood down?” It is pin-drop quiet as Gunner and Chalker confer, with each other and their assistants.
Finally, Gunner nods. “He’s down.”
The chief minister wears a hang-dog expression.
“Saturday night,” he says, “was an awful night.”
Camp dogs trot back and forth as Gunner promises that the coronial investigation into the shooting will be “independent” and “consequences will flow as a result”.
At the time, his words seem almost benign. Soothing. But these words will come to haunt the chief minister two years later.
More banners are unfurled after the political entourage is escorted back to the airstrip. Tins filled with white clay are passed around, people scooping some out and wiping it over their brows. A hum starts up among the women as children play tag in the tangle of legs. Many men are shirtless, white stripes on their chests. Kardiya residents are here, too – youth workers, mostly.
“We want justice for Walker!” a chant begins, as 200 or so people start to walk. The wailing women shake and rattle branches of leafy desert oak as they march towards the police station. The front door is propped open and a small group of blue-uniformed police stand outside. Kids armed with red paint break ranks and run ahead to slap bloody handprints over the station’s white-brick walls.
The police do nothing. Among them are community cops who had been confronted by Walker with an axe six days ago, constables Christopher Hand and Lanyon Smith. Hand and Smith’s waists are free of the Swiss Army–style belted armoury worn by the other officers. An older officer is standing well back. He is also unarmed. His face is careful and wary as I approach. “Michael Schumacher,” he says, when I say hello; detective senior sergeant, I learn later. He has served for some 30 years. He jerks his chin at the protest with a sad smile. “I have worked here, too. The Warlpiri are special people.” Together we watch as the women with the branches enter the police station. No one stops them.
One woman parks herself in the entry and organises the marchers into a line, gesturing at the kardiya workers too, placing them at the end. Then, six at a time, people begin to enter the station, disappearing, before coming out via the open roller door to the side. As they emerge, many are weeping, the men holding their faces in their hands.
“Have you ever seen anything like this?” I ask Schumacher. “No,” he replies quietly, “and I hope it’s the last.”
The women inside are sweeping with their branches to remove all traces of Kumanjayi so that his spirit is not tempted to remain among the living. It is a practice with which the Warlpiri are all too familiar. A long-term observer of Warlpiri custom, anthropologist Yasmine Musharbash worries that the chronic, contemporary occurrence of sorry business – in which there are “no restrictions in regard to participation, no knowledge to be gained, no status to be achieved” – comes at the expense of a rich culture.
“At Yuendumu today,” she wrote in Mortality, Mourning and Mortuary Practices in Indigenous Australia (2008), “sorry business relentlessly impacts on Warlpiri lives.”
… sorry is like a negative image of other Warlpiri ritual, not being about fertility, but about death. Other rituals involve songs and dances that are passed on and need to be learned and guarded. There is no song in sorry, and no dance. There are no beautiful patterns applied to one’s body by others in shiny different coloured ochres, there is only the haphazardly self-applied, dull, white ochre.
The sky is losing light. It is just the kardiya workers left in line. They are bustled inside, and I follow. We walk down the corridor, past the police muster room and into the cells. The Warlpiri women have strewn the branches on the floor where Kumanjayi died just two nights before.
Two at a time, we enter a cell, go to our knees and press our bodies flat on top of the desert oak. With my face in the scratch and snarl of twigs I close my eyes. The smell of crushed eucalyptus rushes through me as the women sweep us with their branches.
On the next morning in Yuendumu, my phone is a blast of news. Dogs have woken up the whole settlement as people run from house to house with their phones. A charge of murder had been laid against Constable Rolfe. Online, people want to know “who is Zachary Rolfe?” and the media wants to tell them. A 2016 Canberra Times article by reporter Megan Doherty is instantly rehashed.
A former Canberra man – the son of well-known local philanthropists Debbie and Richard Rolfe – has performed two daring rescues in a flood-swollen Alice Springs river just one week after starting with the Northern Territory police. Officer Zach Rolfe, who graduated dux of his police class in the Northern Territory just over three weeks ago, swam across the raging river multiple times to rescue the two tourists.
Zachary becomes “Zach” and it turns out he is a hero. Just seven months before his fateful visit to Yuendumu, he was awarded a bravery medal by then governor-general Peter Cosgrove for the river rescue of two tourists.
Zach was raised with older twin brothers in what is known as “old Canberra”, in the leafy suburb of Red Hill. His parents are Richard Rolfe, an Audi car dealer, and Deborah Rolfe, a partner in a personal injuries law firm. Both are regular attendees at galas, award ceremonies and fundraisers, and they are keen philanthropists and charity ambassadors. “They have made it [Canberra] a better place to live,” a CBR City News reporter wrote of the couple in 2017, detailing the athletes, sports teams and foundations they have sponsored.
Zachary Rolfe’s childhood couldn’t be further removed from that of Warlpiri in central Australia. He and his brothers grew up in a heritage-listed villa with a sweeping front lawn; a games room complete with billiard table, Star Wars arcade game and Indigenous artwork; and a garden with stone walls, hedges and rose bushes. They attended Canberra Grammar, a private all-boys’ school, as had their father.
Richard harbours great pride in the lineage and military decorations of his ancestry. “We have lived in Canberra for longer than Canberra itself has existed,” he recently wrote, in support of the $500 million redevelopment at the Australian War Memorial. His ancestry, he said, dated back to the 1840s, when “My great-great-great grandfather built Gold Creek Homestead”. Peel back the settlement history of the Australian Capital Territory and you start to see “Rolfe” everywhere: in a street name, in obscure history books such as An Autobiography: Or, Tales and Legends of Canberra Pioneers, even in an odd and often-told story about Ngunnawal woman “Queen Nellie” Hamilton, who successfully argued in court in 1874 that a man had stolen her colt and sold it to one George Rolfe.
A proud patriot, Richard is known for his gifting of luxury cars to Australians of the Year. And he financed the Australian War Memorial publication For Gallantry: Australians Awarded the George Cross and Cross of Valour. In its foreword, he writes of his great-great-grandfather, his great grandfather and four great uncles who all served in World War One – and the medals they earned – as well as of his own son Zach, who “risked his life swimming the swollen and fast-moving Hugh River to save the life of a tourist”.
Deborah, a striking woman with a blonde bob and friendly smile, was profiled by The Sydney Morning Herald in 2013 for her charity work. “The champion of just causes,” said the headline, and the article noted her passion for law.
“Why is it a worthwhile career? You are there fighting for people who don’t have the capacity to achieve justice themselves,” she is quoted as saying. Five years later, both she and Richard were awarded an Order of Australia, also presented by Peter Cosgrove.
Does it need saying that a murder trial involving a dead black teenager was likely the last thing the Rolfes saw themselves getting caught up in?
Even so, the organising and all-reaching spirit of the Rolfes and the Northern Territory Police Association – the police union – quickly kicked in, producing a counter-campaign to the growing cries of “Justice for Walker”.
NTPA president Paul McCue slammed Chief Minister Gunner’s promise in Yuendumu that “consequences will flow”. “It was an incredibly poor choice of words,” McCue told the ABC. The Walker incident merely highlighted “the incredibly dangerous environment police work in, every day, to keep communities in the Northern Territory safe”.
The legal arm of the NTPA had advised Zachary Rolfe to stay silent when it became clear the Director of Public Prosecutions had given the green light to arrest him – a decision that had been based largely on body-cam footage and the constable’s refusal to make a statement. McCue said Rolfe and his family would have the union’s full support. Police unions nationwide echoed McCue. “We condemn the charge,” said Scott Weber, chief executive of the Police Federation of Australia, adding that he was “absolutely appalled and disgusted”.
“Blue Lives Matter” and “I Back Zach” became catchphrases among police, the latter echoing a Facebook page set up by Richard Rolfe and his son’s peers. They were selling I Back Zach T-shirts and stubby holders, the text printed over a dripping blue handprint in reference to the red handprints hosed off the Yuendumu police station.
An NT police officer produced white singlets reading Don’t wanna get shot… DON’T stab a cop!
Things were reaching fever pitch.
NT police officers swore to me that Rolfe’s stab wound was on his neck and “so big you could stick your thumb in it” – in reality, the wound was a 3x3-millimetre puncture, approximately 2-millimetres deep, on his left shoulder.
In the Territory union’s Police News, one regional official wrote of the feeling of “betrayal” running deep in the Alice Springs police community and sense of “abandonment” by police management. “I don’t know how we can fix this and restore the bonds of trust that we once had.”
Amid McCue’s allegations of “political interference”, rumours abounded that the chief minister and NT police commissioner were “in the room” when the DPP decided to charge Rolfe, a conspiracy further inflamed by the NT’s Independent Commissioner Against Corruption, Ken Fleming, who trashed his own neutrality by speaking at a Justice for Walker rally.
The murder charge practically set Alice Springs on fire – the inferences of political corruption and police brutality triggered an all-smothering wave of perceived victimhood among both the NT police service and the Indigenous population. Seizing his moment in the spotlight, McCue doggedly hung onto his criticism of Gunner’s promised “consequences”, while, unsurprisingly, those keen for the Country Liberal Party to dislodge Labor and return to power also leaned in, sensing a possible alliance between them and the police union. After all, the last time the CLP had been in charge, three of the ministers were ex-cops. It made for good relations.
Paul McCue’s accusations of “political interference” were a bit rich. Politicians have long been haunted by police union campaigns for more officers on the beat and enhanced powers, and against legislation seen as being “soft” on criminals.
It is also worth noting that since the ’70s, as public demand for police accountability has grown, police unions have maintained a hostility to scrutiny and civilian oversight. Numerous state governments attempting to reform police-complaints legislation were ferociously set upon and Indigenous policing issues copped the brunt of this union stonewalling, with the federal police association rigorously opposing Aboriginal-specific legal services while the Western Australian police union sought to shut down the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody. It is telling that one of the recommendations to come out of the 1989 Fitzgerald Inquiry in Queensland was for the police union to “revise its rules to preclude any concern with police disciplinary matters other than as relevant to industrial relations”.
And so, from the outset, the police investigation into Kumanjayi’s death was on the back foot. Leaks were prolific as staff mutinied: general details about the case, statements from two senior detectives critical of Rolfe’s arrest, sections of the prosecution brief, and even the confidentiality agreement that was meant to have gagged the police involved, all found their way into the hands of the NT union and media outlets, including The Sunday Telegraph.
Dissent from detectives who believed Rolfe’s arrest was rushed fuelled a theory that he was a sacrificial lamb fed by the “top brass” to the Black Lives Matter mob.
In contrast, the Justice for Walker campaign seemed a far more careful, curated affair, with the Warlpiri and their supporters aware of the tightrope that lay ahead of them. In two days, a GoFundMe page raised $60,000 for the coming legal battle. It would reach over $400,000. The campaign’s manager, Lisa Watts, is a white woman who came to central Australia in the ’70s, marrying a Pitjantjatjara-Warlpiri man. A researcher and filmmaker, Watts ran a tight ship: apart from official spokespeople, Yuendumu residents were barred from speaking to media. In-depth discussion of Walker himself was strictly off-limits.
In time, the campaign would sell T-shirts: a comic-style headshot of Kumanjayi on the front, his cap on backwards, a pencil moustache and soulful eyes. Justice for Walker, Never Again read the text.
Duelling merchandise, duelling social media, duelling heroes/victims, and, in the future, duelling in-house documentaries. But in the eyes of the Warlpiri, their power couldn’t compare to that of Rolfe’s and his supporters. To them, even his arrest reeked of privilege. He was granted a shower before being taken into custody, and it was also revealed that two and a half hours into his time in a holding cell, at 9.30pm, a judge granted Rolfe bail over the telephone.
Regarding this, the Warlpiri weren’t the only ones open-mouthed.
“I have never, in my entire policing career, seen a person charged with murder granted bail like that,” a veteran NT cop told me in disbelief.
In Yuendumu, Leanne Oldfield gestures for my pen and paper. We are sitting on a blanket next to a house painted blue. She has a round face, puffy with grief, her black hair shorn short as part of sorry business. She begins to draw. She traces the shape of her mother’s house, the red house. Then she draws a rectangle in the yard with two circles on it where she had been on a mattress with Nathan near the front door just two days ago. She draws a circle next to them.
It is Kumanjayi.
Leanne’s voice is low and deep. Earlier she told me how she had come to foster the seven-month-old baby who had been left in Alice Springs Hospital 19 years earlier. “His mother had gone off,” she explained. Leanne was living with the baby’s father, Frank Walker, and the boy’s families urged her to take him home.
As Leanne draws, a woman starts to wail in the distance. Our ears prick as the howl is met by another until there is a chorus.
Heavy and silent, Leanne draws a tree and now lines between the circles, showing movement.
Kumanjayi goes inside the house. Then three rectangles pull up outside the fence line. Police cars. She adds strokes to show officers entering the yard. “In a rush,” she says. A line for herself as she herds a child away from the house; another line as she returns, looking in the doorway at the police and Walker. “They were jamming him. Jamming him in the corner.”
The lines are black and thickening as Leanne is walking back and forth, lines crisscrossing. Then her hand freezes. “Three shots,” she says. The line restarts, her hand fast now. “I saw him lying on the floor.”
“I was screaming,” Leanne says, her voice disbelieving. “I started tearing off my clothes.” She draws another line, this one coming out the door, a long angry swishing line. “They dragged him. He was handcuffed. They’d handcuffed him.
“I lost my son, not at the police station. I lost my son at my mother’s house. When they dragged him, I listened. Nothing. No sound.”
She says she knew he was dead. “They were keeping it a secret for themselves. The plane… I knew it wasn’t help.”
In the driveway of a dark green house, a sorry camp has been set up. Women sit under a blue tarp. At the centre is Peggy Brown, a Warlpiri matriarch. She gestures at a group of kids in the yard. “The young people, they are angry and sad,” she says. “We tell them to slow their anger down.”
Brown thinks the police were angry the day they went to arrest Walker, too. “As soon as the burial started, they were straight in. They came to get him with rifles. He made them angry. They had other options, but they shot him.”
When I ask what Walker was like, the women all chime in. “He was a lovely boy.” “He was always on the run, always hiding.” “He was a kind boy. Everyone loved him.” A Warlpiri man visits the sorry camp and tells me: “I’d calm him down. Drive him around, tell him funny stories.”
As I leave, I am wrestling with a sinking feeling that Kumanjayi Walker is being remade in death.
It is only when I describe what I’ve learnt about Kumanjayi to a straight-talking kardiya resident that I hear a different story. “He was stressing everyone out – people wanted him out of here.”
We join the convoy of cars leaving for a rally in Alice Springs, giving Warlpiri man Carson Brown and his girlfriend a lift.
Reception goes dead and for a while our phones are silent. I’ve put the feelers out, seeking information, and when we get a signal, there is a ping on my phone. It is a list of Kumanjayi’s charges. In among his convictions of theft, break-ins and property damage, there is aggravated assault. Walker had bashed Rekeisha’s head with a rock, dragged her by the hair, broken her hand with a length of steel. The list went on.
Nearing Alice Springs, there is another ping. This time, as I read, I feel my jaw drop. It turns out the Zachary Rolfe story may not be so straightforward either.
In August 2019, Zachary Rolfe was struggling. He wanted out of general duties policing. He had completed the assessments for the Territory Response Group, but had been told he had to wait for a vacancy. He was ready, but it felt like he was being held back. It felt the same in the army when he had wanted to try out for the Special Air Service Regiment and his commanding officer blocked his application because he was on probation. A bullshit probation, too: nicking a pouch of tobacco from a fellow soldier, big deal.
“Alice Springs sucks ha ha,” he texted an army mate. “The good thing is it’s like the Wild West and fuck all the rules in the job really… but it’s a shit hole. Good to start here coz of the volume of work but will be good to leave.”
He wasn’t sleeping well, was feeling flat. Low. A local GP prescribed antidepressants. He had applied again for the SAS, but so far, nothing. At the same time, complaints were coming in, alleging the constable’s excessive use of force. And worse, professional standards were taking it seriously. He was being investigated and ticked off for not activating his body cam.
Other things were being noticed, too.
In a few of the complaints, investigators reported that Rolfe’s statements and evidence did not match footage captured by his peers or their statements. In an interview after the constable’s arrest, Acting Senior Sergeant Alistair Gall told detectives he was aware there were a number of complaints of excessive force against Rolfe, but this didn’t affect how he utilised the constable. “Because I have faith in Zachary’s work ethic and how he operates,” Gall explained, “and he gets the job done.”
Justice Greg Borchers, an Alice Springs–based judge, held a different view. In May 2019, at a hearing in which Indigenous man Malcolm Ryder was alleged to have hindered an arrest and assaulted Rolfe, Borchers delivered a scathing dismissal of the charges after a cast of police officers doled out their evidence.
Instead of speaking to Ryder in the dock, Borchers blasted Rolfe.
“I find that Constable Rolfe’s evidence lacks credibility. He lied.” The judge’s summary of the hot January day in 2018 when an Indigenous middle-aged couple, Ryder and Rebecca Hayes, returned home to find their property busy with police searching for Hayes’s son, Bentley Poulson, makes for sobering reading.
Justice Borchers found the hostility and aggression with which the couple had been treated by the officers made it understandable they were worried when they heard Poulson cry out and rushed into a back bedroom to find him lying face-down on the floor with five officers in the room.
Borchers then read out Rolfe’s statement about 43-year-old Ryder:
I … observed Ryder and a female enter the bedroom aggressively. Ryder had a phone in his right hand and I observed him raise both hands in a fighting stance and throw a number of punches at [Constable] Duranis. I then observed Duranis raise his MK9 OC [capsicum] spray and spray Ryder with it in an attempt to gain control. Concurrently, Duranis was using verbal commands to tell Ryder to stop to comply with police directions. The spray seemed to have no effect on
Ryder and he continued to attempt to strike Duranis.
But in cross-examination, said Borchers, constables Lehrain and Duranis, who were closer to Ryder, said they saw no punches thrown by Ryder, who was sprayed with capsicum within four seconds of his entry into the room. Borchers goes on to recount Ryder’s version of events, distinctly noting that the following 27 seconds were unrecorded as Rolfe’s and another officer’s cameras had not been activated:
… he [Ryder] had his hands on his face because his eyes were affected by OC spray … He was not facing the police officer as he left the bedroom but was grabbed by the collar at the back of his neck. He was then pushed onto the ground roughly. The police officer punched him to the left eyebrow. Ryder turned away and the police officer then grabbed his hair and pushed his head into the floor. He didn’t remember anything after that as he was rendered unconscious.
Borchers then turns to Rolfe’s evidence, focusing on this statement by the constable:
When Malcolm Ryder left the room, he needed to be dealt with because he was a threat. He now needed to be arrested and he had committed an offence and needed to be arrested.
Rolfe said Ryder had “struck him in the face with a closed fist, causing immediate pain to my forehead” and that as he and another officer moved to “ground stabilise” him, Ryder scratched his arm and then his face with his nails. “I was fearful that he was going to gouge my eyes, and in order to defend myself I struck him once on the left side of the face with my closed right fist. This gained subject compliance and Ryder stopped fighting.” After placing him in handcuffs, Rolfe says he noticed Ryder had a cut over his eye and assumed Ryder had hit his head as they tackled him to the ground.
Justice Borchers had none of it:
He [Rolfe] has lied in a statutory declaration about what happened in the bedroom. Nobody can say how Malcolm Ryder was knocked out but him and he surmises [that] Ryder may have hit his head while he was being tackled to the ground. If that is the case, it is highly likely that he was unconscious when Rolfe punched him in the face. It is more likely, however, that Ryder was punched first to the left eyebrow by Rolfe’s right fist and then he received the injury to his right eyebrow when his head was pushed into the floor.
Borchers also put on the record his observations of the way Poulson was arrested, first by Rolfe and Constable Xhenita Zendeli, then a third officer, as he lay face-down on the floor. “Rolfe said that he [Poulson] was resisting in a semi-passive manner,” Borchers noted. He then queried whether Zendeli’s allegations that Poulson was yelling “Fuck you! Fuck you!” as she and Rolfe engaged him on the floor were made to justify her “distraction punches” to his elbows in order for her to click the cuffs on his wrists. The footage, suggested Borchers, shows a very different scene: the officer’s blows landing on Poulson’s back as he moans, “I’m not resisting – please.”
“This was a violent arrest on a man lying on the floor trying to hide,” Borchers said. “He was punched and had two police officers place their knees into his back. He called out that he was not resisting.”
Seventeen months after the incident, Rolfe’s allegations were dismissed and Ryder was free to leave the dock.
“I hated that Malcolm Ryder thing,” said Claudia Campagnaro, Rolfe’s ex-fiancée and a former NT police officer, in an interview with detectives investigating Walker’s death. When she started at Alice Springs Police Station in early 2018, Campagnaro was a new recruit and young, in her early twenties. Rolfe had already been on the beat for a couple of years. One of her first interactions with Rolfe, she told the detectives, was when she was tasked to interview Malcolm Ryder due to Rolfe’s allegations that the Indigenous man had assaulted him.
“I didn’t actually like him [Rolfe] in the beginning,” she said. “I thought he was… just loved himself.”
Before she interviewed Ryder, Campagnaro alleged Rolfe bailed her up, telling her that he’d gotten a detective “from upstairs” to scratch his face to justify his use of force against Ryder by claiming the Indigenous man had attacked him. It was a surprising admission and Campagnaro, now a nurse, had groaned when she saw the detectives’ ears prick. “I can’t say I know for a fact,” she said. “This is what I’ve been told by Zach himself.”
But why would he tell you such a thing, asked one of the detectives.
“I think he wanted us to get a guilty statement out of Malcolm Ryder,” she said. But in her interview with Ryder, Campagnaro said the Indigenous man barely spoke any English and kept saying “he hit me, he hit me”.
“We couldn’t understand him, and my partner wasn’t comfortable with it, and neither was I.”
Campagnaro lasted a little over a year in NT Police. She resigned a month after the romance with Rolfe ended, explaining that he broke it off with her. She moved home to Adelaide and was now watching the crisis from afar.
But she had delivered curious tidbits in her interview with the detectives, such as Rolfe’s interests: exercising, shooting and walking the dogs. “He was a really active policeman,” she said. “So he loved arresting people. He was active, like… he was good in that sense, I suppose … [H]e had said to me, for a fact, that he got his gun out frequently to any… he would be at a job, and he would be the first one to get his gun out if ever required.”
“He said that to you?” one of the detectives said, disbelieving.
“He said that to me,” replied Campagnaro.
Later, as the investigation into Rolfe continued, an analysis of 46 “Use of Force” incidents involving the constable would find that Rolfe’s self-reported usage of firearm was nearly 5 per cent more than the organisational average and his use of OC spray 11 per cent higher than the organisational average.
When she learnt about the shooting in Yuendumu, Campagnaro says she felt conflicted. “I still feel sick about it, I think it’s awful the whole thing. But I wasn’t surprised … If it was gonna be anyone that was involved in that kind of thing, it was gonna be him.”
When social worker Andrew Lockyer, an Arrernte man, heard there had been a fatal police shooting at Yuendumu, two names for the likely victim came to mind. One was Walker. “And the other name?” I ask. “How is he doing?”
“In and out of jail,” says Lockyer.
Walker, he says, was very disconnected. “He had low English and when you said something he didn’t like, he’d go into a corner and sit there mumbling in Warlpiri. He’d be on his own, sometimes in a group but couldn’t maintain it.”
“There was more than the usual trauma,” says another social worker. Walker stood out.
In 2015, Alice Springs juvenile detention was at capacity and Walker was sent north to Don Dale detention centre, where over a year later an ABC Four Corners program titled “Australia’s Shame” revealed footage of young inmates being tear-gassed and left in restraint chairs wearing spit hoods.
A teacher who taught at the school inside Don Dale says Walker was unpredictable. “All the desert kids struggled in Don Dale, but Walker, he was like a switch.” In turn, it is likely some of those in charge of Walker responded in kind. A royal commission into NT’s youth detention revealed inmates being abandoned in solitary, and subjected to excessive force and exploitation, often by unskilled staff that included bodybuilders, martial arts practitioners and bouncers from an Alice Springs nightclub.
For fleet-footed Walker, detention was hell. Not that life on the outside was much better – but at least he could run. “He was so damn quick,” says Lockyer. A glimpse at Walker’s medical records suggests that his athleticism was a feat in itself. His birth mother had sniffed petrol, and drank heavily while pregnant. By the time he was six months old, Kumanjayi was diagnosed with a “failure to thrive”.
After repeated hospitalisations, Leanne Oldfield took him home to the Warlpiri town camp in Alice Springs and the baby was passed around between families. Pneumonia, ear and chest infections, deficiency anaemia and lacerations from broken glass. Then, in 2004, Oldfield shifted north to Katherine with her new partner, Sampson Anthony, and brought Walker with her.
They lived at the Warlpiri Transient Camp outside town, a lot with two tin sheds, an ablutions block and no kitchen. At times, 30 people lived there, sometimes more. For seven years, this was home. Walker did a little bit of school. Could write his name. Oldfield and Anthony had drinking sessions that inevitably built up to Oldfield being bashed.
Again, Walker’s life is recorded in medical notes. Scabies, boils, ear infections, hearing problems, the removal of eight rotten teeth, and hospitalisation for infected wounds. At some point his biological father died. Then, at 11 years of age, Walker moved with Oldfield to Yuendumu. Anthony was set to follow, but then he, too, died.
By the time Walker was 12, his biological mum was dead as well – her heart giving out at 30 years of age.
Yuendumu is a dry community with little alcohol violence. But it was a bad time to move there. Walker arrived as the Warlpiri were in the throes of an ugly feud in which violence and payback went on for years.
“It was fucking awful,” says an outsider living there at the time. “Community don’t want to talk about it because it’s over and it took a lot of work and mediation to move past it. But for the kids who were in their formative years then – lots of them exhibited some strange behaviour after that time.”
Walker went to school briefly, but kids teased him. And the teachers couldn’t control him. So, with children as young as eight, he roamed around, digging under fences, getting inside buildings. “He couldn’t listen,” says Oldfield. He was looking for food sometimes. A social worker says, “First thing a lot of kids in remote communities and town camps do in the morning is start looking for food.” But it was for the thrill as well. Kids trying to find car keys. Looking for stuff to drink, smoke or sniff. Offices broken into, files set on fire.
Then came the diversions and detention.
Walker was driven to family in other communities to relieve his carers but was only allowed in the car if he emptied his pockets, to take out knives, that kind of thing. The boy was frozen in a hyper-alert state. But when he and Rekeisha met and fell in love, there was a softening. “I said no, but secretly they loved each other,” says Rekeisha’s grandmother Lottie. “I decided to take him under my wings. I’d hear them laughing. He was a quiet young man.”
Lottie says she wanted to help Walker, help him change. “But he never had time,” she says, “the police were always there.” It was Lottie and Eddie Robertson who persuaded Rekeisha to report Walker when he assaulted her. They tried to draw a line – but still, they cared for the teenager.
“Now, there is nothing to be embarrassed about this,” says defence counsel David Edwardson in a soothing if somewhat syrupy voice. It is day three of Zachary Rolfe’s murder trial, two years and two months after the fatal night, and police solidarity is showing strains.
Edwardson is cross-examining Constable Lanyon Smith, the Yuendumu-based police officer who attempted to arrest Walker when he rushed at him with an axe.
“I’m not,” retorted Smith.
“It’s a terrifying experience, no doubt, for you?” says Edwardson. The inference is clear – Smith and his colleague, Constable Christopher Hand, had failed where Rolfe had succeeded. “And you froze, didn’t you?”
The trial had initially been earmarked for Alice Springs but was shifted to Darwin after the defence successfully argued it would be otherwise difficult to select an unbiased jury. It was delayed three times, twice due to COVID-19 and the third time after an appeal to the High Court by the prosecution, following a ruling by five judges in the Territory’s Supreme Court that Rolfe could argue special police immunity defences – most controversially, that of “good faith”.
In the eyes of the prosecution, the ruling had left them with a virtually unwinnable case. With the allowance of a threefold defence – that Rolfe was acting in self-defence, that he was acting in good faith as a police officer, and in reasonable accordance with his duties to effect Walker’s arrest and to protect Eberl’s life – the ways these defences would overlap and shield one another offered little chance for the prosecution to carve a path through.
Good faith, for example, meant that even if the jury concluded Rolfe’s actions were unreasonable in the performance of his duties, if they were also persuaded of his honest belief that he was acting reasonably – that is, in good faith – then he must be found “not guilty”.
An expedited High Court decision then ruled that an “error” had been made by the Territory court, though it was a minor one, merely clarifying the protective application of NT’s Police Administration Act. In a sense, it was a red herring. No airing was given to the fact that what was under scrutiny were amendments – which included a defence of criminal immunity for individual police officers – that had been quietly introduced into legislation in 2016 by the then corrections minster John Elferink, a former NT police officer.
Essentially, the substance of the Territory court’s ruling remained. Rolfe would merely need to satisfy the jury that he honestly believed it was necessary to fire the shots.
And so, at the end of the Wet season, the trial began.
His entrance is confident. Rolfe is flanked by an entourage of men, among them long-term friend and NT police officer Mark Sykes, who was also in Afghanistan with him, former SAS soldier and political aspirant Heston Russell, and NT police union boss Paul McCue.
Rolfe’s walk is striking; his gaze steely, shoulders back, arms bowing outwards, as his hips swivel to an internal metronome. His shirt buttons look set to pop, action-figure style.
Police union bosses are flown in from around the country, suited up and serious. Nine of them arrive together and stand in a row at the back of the courtroom, arms folded.
Rolfe’s parents are there every day. During pre-trial sittings, their son would sit in the dock. It was something he clearly loathed, a red heat creeping up his neck. But come February 2022, due to social distancing, the jury is spread across the jury box and the dock, and Rolfe is sitting in the public gallery. He chews gum, jaw grinding under his face mask, a staggered seat between him and a young female solicitor, his parents behind him.
“And you froze, didn’t you?” Edwardson now proposes to Constable Hand, the other officer confronted by Walker with the axe. When Hand replies yes, Edwardson pushes harder:
And this is what you told the police, isn’t it: “I froze, which I’m not proud of, but it is what it is. I was, yeah, frightened, you know, fear. Fearful that, you know, we’re going to [be] hit, not necessary killed, but, you know, severe damage, probably to your head.” That’s how you described it to police isn’t it?
Hand nods. “And quite understandable, can I suggest,” continues Edwardson. “It must have been a truly terrifying experience?” Again, Hand agrees.
Rolfe’s lawyer then refers to a conversation between the Yuendumu constables and Lottie Robertson recorded on their body cams in the aftermath of the axe incident.
“You said to her, if he does that again, he could get shot?”
“In Alice Springs,” interrupts Hand. “If you read the next sentence,” the constable explains, pointing to the transcript. “It says, ‘If this were to occur in Alice Springs’, then that’s—”
Edwardson cuts over Hand, exasperated. “Why does it make any difference whether it’s in Alice Springs or Yuendumu?”
Hand’s gaze is steady. “Community,” he says. “It is a different way of policing on Indigenous communities. We always like to be as non-violent as we can with arrests because we have to live in those areas, in those communities. And we, you know, were trying to build partnerships with the people of the communities. Obviously if force needs to be used, we will use it, but we police differently on Indigenous communities.”
This is the crux of it: are police guardians or are they warriors? Everything is right there in Hand’s answer.
There are two styles of policing being applied across the Northern Territory. One is built on gaining trust and building relationships, the other divides a community into those who deserve protection and those seen as a threat. The latter style relies heavily on “accoutrements” with a paramilitary style.
The two overlap – there is no doubt – and sometimes necessarily so. As Rolfe’s shift sergeant, Evan Kelly, tells the court, police being confronted with a weapon is a common occurrence, be it in town or on community. On Groote Eylandt, for instance, he says, “we were regularly engaged with spears”. Kelly lists large homemade machetes, purchased machetes, edged weapons. “It is the same in Alice Springs,” he adds. “Quite often large sticks, nulla nullas, rocks…”
But how one responds – that, it seems, is up to the individual.
“You could be using a rifle,” an Alice Springs sergeant tells the court, explaining there are hundreds of ways to “incapacitate” someone. “You could use a vehicle.”
There is a flinch among the media.
After the death of Walker, the Territory Response Group was deployed to Alice Springs – the town a tinderbox of racial tension – and an unmarked police car driven by TRG members did exactly that, chasing a 23-year-old Indigenous man, reportedly armed. A witness said the car flew up the gutter to cut the man off and he bounced off it “like a rag doll”. He was flown to Adelaide in critical condition.
But Hand did not incapacitate Walker. In an email to a colleague, he surmised the axe incident ended in the “best result”.
“Why did you write that?” asks prosecutor Philip Strickland.
“He wasn’t injured,” replies Hand. “We weren’t injured. No one in the house was injured. There was a lot of young kids in there. And we knew who Kumanjayi… where he lived. And allowing him to run out of the house, we can formulate a plan later on to effect an arrest.”
There was no rush.
“Time is on our side,” Detective Senior Sergeant Andrew Barram tells the court, explaining that “assess and reassess” is a training term taught to officers, to be used in planned and
unplanned police responses. “The essence of that is, well, the step-back principle,” says the detective, adding later, “It’s all about not rushing in.”
Of Rolfe and fellow Immediate Response Team member Adam Eberl entering House 511, Barram says, “It doesn’t appear that they followed their training.” They were aware the man could be Walker, whom they knew was high-risk with a propensity to arm himself.
“Why,” asks the detective, “would you put yourself in such close proximity to him?”
“Officer-created jeopardy” is a term to describe situations where police officers put themselves in danger and then use force to protect themselves. It is a concept, writes Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and a former police officer, that includes “the actions of officers who, without sound justification, willingly fail to take advantage of available tactical concepts like distance, cover and concealment”.
Stoughton is pushing for a rethink in the United States as to how courts view critical incidents when deliberating if “use of force” is reasonable or not. Stoughton is adamant that juries and judges need to consider all the actions – both the subject’s and the officer’s – in the lead-up to the use of force.
This, in part, is what the prosecution in the Rolfe trial had been arguing: that Rolfe wanted to put himself in a position in which he had an opportunity to use extreme force. That his actions in the lead-up to the arrest were important. The defence argued that it didn’t matter that Rolfe went about arresting Walker in a way Sergeant Julie Frost hadn’t approved.
“What this trial is not about,” declared defence counsel Edwardson, “is an alleged breach of general orders, some form of noncompliance with training, or poor tactical decisions.” What the trial spun on, the defence inferred, was Rolfe’s critical decision to fire two or more times – that what the constable “saw, heard, felt and perceived” in those moments is what matters.
And in a sense, Edwardson was right. Given that both parties had agreed Rolfe’s first shot was legally justified in self-defence, the prosecution’s narrative was largely cruelled from the get-go.
If the arrest was wrong, then why was the first shot right?
Two alternative charges – manslaughter and engaging in a violent act causing death – had been added alongside the charge of murder. The Ryder case and three other allegations of excessive use of force by Rolfe would not be put to the jury, on the grounds they were prejudicial. And, added Justice John Burns, the presiding judge, each allegation would require a trial of its own.
It would take months.
In an interview with The Australian, Rolfe would later refer to “a number of complaints against me about use of force … They have all been investigated, and in all cases I’ve been cleared.”
This is patently untrue. In the criminal investigation into Rolfe, scrutiny was applied to 12 incidents involving Rolfe looked into by the police force’s Professional Standards Command, many resulting from public complaints. These internal investigations have cleared Rolfe in some instances, but others have met resistance as fellow officers have refused to give evidence, leaving cases “unresolved”, “unsubstantiated” or “ongoing”, with reports detailing “ancillary” issues such as Rolfe failing to activate his body camera and “elements of dishonesty” in his statements.
One internal investigation was triggered after Rolfe’s mobile phone was seized in relation to Walker’s shooting. This led to the discovery of unauthorised copying and distribution of body-camera footage of a separate arrest incident involving Rolfe and other officers entering a house with their firearms drawn. In this case, concerns were raised not only about the incident and the behaviour of the officers involved, but also that Rolfe’s phone had been used to record the footage from an NT police computer and then to distribute it to several people, including his parents.
“Those incidents all required force to be used,” Rolfe told The Australian. “That force was never excessive – it was relative to the situation on the day.” And so, in his own words, core ethics give way to a kind of ad hoc situational ethics.
It is one of the greatest challenges in law enforcement: how to maintain an officer’s core ethics in the face of ugliness? How to ensure that the special authority police are granted is not emboldened by the damage and tragedy they encounter? That an officer’s perception of harm caused is kept in line with what society expects of them? And most importantly, how to prioritise integrity over loyalty?
Zachary Rolfe was an exemplary candidate in the NT police recruitment process. Sure, there had been omissions: Rolfe failed to mention he had been subject to disciplinary action in the army, or that he’d applied to and been rejected by other police services, though he later admitted to a “public nuisance and violent behaviour” fine he’d been issued by Queensland Police. But he was polite and courteous, fit and motivated. And he knew how to correctly answer the exam question on whether it is appropriate for an officer to accept a free coffee:
We are not authorised by policy or legislation to accept the free coffee. Under acceptance of benefits or gifts, the free coffee may be seen as preferential treatment (which is prohibited) or as having a potential to create a real or perceived conflict of interest.
Tick, tick, tick. Fifteen out of 15 for ethics and conduct.
The required psychological assessment was similarly glowing: Rolfe was of “excellent potential”. However, the report provided by the Australian Institute of Forensic Psychology did note two aspects that would require further evaluation.
After making a mistake, Zachary is less likely than many others to accept responsibility. He may brush off the significance of the error, seek to minimise his own role, or to blame others.
The “Aggression” score is above average. Whether Zachary will act with firm assertiveness or frank aggression cannot be determined from this scale alone.
Cops, it turns out, are human. In the Territory, one cop will allow youth workers to sit in a cell with a juvenile, talk to them and make them feel okay. Another cop won’t. One cop will walk the streets of a remote community at night, pulling his taser out at kids playing up, saying he’s going to take them out bush and electrocute them. Another cop gathers all the broken pushbikes and sets up a repair clinic after school.
And after seven months of training, Zachary Rolfe, as we all now know, graduated dux of his squad.
When Rolfe takes the stand, something happens to the Warlpiri in the gallery. There is a change in the way they hold themselves as the constable looks around at the jury – dotting his evidence with “The way I was trained”, before explaining a police term or concept. And it is not just because they have a stake in this. I try to put my finger on it. It is like watching a series of windows being shut inside themselves, a recognition of “Oh, this again”, a white man explaining their lives, how to police their lives, how to do this and how to do that.
And when Rolfe tells the court he had informed Frost that “generally when IRT would attend a community we would introduce ourselves to the community, because we are guests in the community…”, and that this is exactly what they did while gathering intelligence on Walker, it is like a slap, and yet the Warlpiri do not flinch.
“I don’t know why they keep jumping fences,” one Indigenous observer of the IRT footage says to me at one stage. “I mean, use the fucking gate.” The evidence continues – no, it flows.
Tell us about the IRT, asks Edwardson, and Rolfe knows the difference between right and wrong. In a private text message to an army mate, he described the IRT:
We have this small team in Alice, IRT, immediate response team. We’re not full time, just get called up from Gd’s [general duties] for high-risk jobs, it’s a sweet gig, just get to do cowboy stuff with no rules.
To the jury, the IRT is a “semi-tactical unit … to deal with high-risk events and cordon and contain that event if possible until TRG arrives”. Rolfe describes specialist skills the IRT learnt in close-quarter combat, “which is just weapons tactics in urban environments”, and reconnaissance, “which is gathering intel on offenders, generally covertly…”.
And, Edwardson asks, your thoughts on the axe incident?
“It showed to me an extremely, potentially deadly situation,” Rolfe replies. “From my observations, I saw it was a perfect example of a human fear-based reaction … I am aware of fight, flight, freeze posture and I saw a perfect example of ‘freeze and flight’.”
Rolfe’s answer is telling. He is more interested in the constables’ reactions than Walker’s. He describes how he disseminates the footage, starts conversations about it, and calls his IRT supervisor to say Walker looks like a job for the unit.
In comparison to close colleagues who seemed struck with amnesia, Rolfe’s recollections are vivid. On the way to Yuendumu, he says he told IRT member James Kirstenfeldt, “We should have been sent out a lot earlier.”
“I know it’s very difficult,” says Edwardson, who asks him to describe the incident, not frame by frame, but what “you remember seeing, hearing and perceiving” at first gunshot.
Frame by frame. After all, Rolfe, as his lawyer says often, did not have the luxury of pausing, or even, as Andrew Barram, suggests, reassessing. The situation was “dynamic”.
Rolfe recalls the incident in House 511 vividly and even introduces a new element, saying that Walker had put his hand on the constable’s holster.
Rolfe: I twisted my hips back, which we’re trained to do with speed, to knock that hand off my Glock, and step back. As soon as I stepped back, Kumanjayi’s focus turned to Eberl, and I immediately feared for Eberl’s life. Kumanjayi started stabbing Eberl in the chest and neck area.
Edwardson: What could you actually see?
Rolfe: I… My perception was that Eberl was being stabbed.
He drew his Glock pistol, Rolfe says, and fired when it was safe to fire. This is as Eberl spins Walker around, the bullet lodging in the teenager’s back. Was Walker incapacitated from that first shot? “No,” says Rolfe, “not at all.” Eberl and Walker fell to the floor, Rolfe continues, “and they began fighting on the ground”.
Rolfe: Most of Kumanjayi’s body was behind Eberl’s body, but they were facing the same direction. I saw… I could see Kumanjayi’s right… Kumanjayi’s right arm, with the blade in it, still moving and stabbing Constable Eberl on the ground.
Edwardson: And that is the perception that you had?
Edwardson persists with this query – that is the perception you had? – and it is important. Because through the lens of Rolfe’s body-cam footage it appears Eberl is blocking Rolfe’s sightline of the scissors, that Walker had hardly moved once landing on the mattress. But the camera is not Rolfe, and what matters is how he himself saw the incident and if his perception was reasonable.
Rolfe says he then stepped forward, put his hand on Eberl’s back so that his partner would not move into his line of fire and shot Walker two more times. “At which point, I observed [Walker’s] right arm stopped trying to stab my partner. At which time I holstered my Glock.”
As for when Eberl said “Fuck! Did you…?” Rolfe explains this, too. “At this point,” he says, “I believed that Eberl and myself had just been involved in a potentially lethal fight and he was at a heightened state.
“And the symptoms of that include tunnel vision and auditory exclusion, where you… you focus on the specific thing in front of you, and you don’t hear everything that’s going on. I believed he was just suffering from auditory exclusion, so I needed to tell him, I needed… did give him all the facts, so he could come down from that heightened state.”
In other words: “It’s all good – he was stabbing me, he was stabbing me.”
When court is adjourned there is stifled pleasure from Rolfe’s side and a mute heaviness among the Warlpiri. Among media and legal observers, there is the odd raised eyebrow, but the job is done. Doubt has been sown.
I trawl through the evidence regarding Eberl – was he stabbed?
There is a photograph taken of a small scratch near his left armpit that he discovered and reported two days after the incident at Yuendumu. He was unsure of its origin. A textile analysis on his police shirt yielded a tiny hole on the back, “puncture type damage which could have been caused by a pointed object with a blunt tip”. But on the front, where the scratch was, there was no damage to the fabric. A stain on the tip of the first-aid scissors tested positive for blood, but forensic analysis on its origins was inconclusive, returning a DNA match for each of Walker, Rolfe and Eberl – a jumble, no doubt, of sweat, blood and skin cells.
In cross-examination, there is an attempt by the prosecutor Philip Strickland to show that Kumanjayi Walker was not just an object animated with scissors.
Did Rolfe hear Walker crying out? “Afterwards,” says Rolfe.
“He cried out a name, didn’t he? ‘Leanne, Leanne,’” says Strickland. Rolfe agrees.
Did it appear to Rolfe that Walker was in agony after those two shots were fired? “Yes – he seemed to be in pain.” In extreme pain? “Potentially,” answers Rolfe.
And that is that. Rolfe will not be moved.
Strickland turns to Rolfe’s aspirations.
Yes, says Rolfe, he attended a five-week private course in Arkansas with security, policing and military training organisation Trojan Securities International before joining NT Police. “I paid for it out of my own pocket”, and while he can’t recall exact names of the training modules, “there was a hostage rescue component … a defensive driving counter-ambush driving course … a weapons familiarisation course”.
He wanted to upskill himself, he explains, to improve himself.
And just as he helped his lawyer with technical explanations, Rolfe wants to help in cross-examination, in this instance about how one might describe the two bullets he fired in quick succession into Walker’s side.
“Do you want me to explain the difference between a double tap and a controlled pair, for the jury?” Rolfe offers.
“No, thank you,” Strickland replies dryly.
And Rolfe smiles. There is a flutter of amusement in the courtroom. This is a game – a high stakes one, yes, and I don’t doubt that the Warlpiri believe it to be rigged. And yet, as I watch Rolfe, I see that the murder charge just won’t hold.
It’s worse than that, I think. Walker was just there for Zachary Rolfe to prove himself against.
I look down, trying to get my own measure, to untangle and understand a sadness that is rising in my chest. I want to weep.
Walker never stood a chance against Rolfe. Not in life and not in death.
Wiyarrpa, I want to cry. Poor thing.
Zachary Rolfe was acquitted on March 11, 2022 of murder, and of manslaughter and engaging in a violent act causing death. Two weeks after his acquittal, hundreds of votes poured in from NT police members nominating Rolfe as their “Cop of the Year”. In 2020, NT Police reviewed and disbanded the Immediate Response Team. The NT ICAC has announced an investigation into the four-day process leading to the charge of murder against Zachary Rolfe amid allegations from the NT Police Association and the Rolfe family of political interference. The coronial inquest into Kumanjayi Walker’s death is to take place in September.
By Anna Krien
Photographs by Jesse Marlow
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