29 May 2024

'We never gave up': family finally sees inquest begin after First Nations man vanished 'without a trace'

| Albert McKnight

Family and supporters hold a banner showing Nathan Daniel Booth outside the ACT Courts. Photo: Albert McKnight.

Readers are advised this article contains the name and image of a First Nations person who has died. His photo is used with his family’s consent.

The family of a First Nations man who vanished “without a trace” has finally seen the hearings for his inquest start after their long push for justice.

The hearings for the coronial inquest into the death of Nathan Daniel Booth began on Wednesday (29 May), almost five years after his body was found in the Murrumbidgee River near the Kambah Pool on 1 December 2019.

In an unusual step for the ACT Coroner’s Court, the inquest formally opened at Pine Island Reserve as the popular recreation area is near where his body was discovered.

Coroner Ken Archer began by apologising to the family, admitting “Nathan’s case had been left to languish for a period of time”.

“That shouldn’t have been allowed to happen,” he said.

He said when he first started in his role, other coronial investigation cases had been similarly neglected. There were 40 cases of people who had died before Nathan and their cases “hadn’t been progressed properly”, he said.

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Nathan’s mother, Rayleen Booth, told those gathered at the reserve that he was “a very much loved son” who was “always loving and supportive”, while his aunt, Coral King, said he was the father to four daughters and was “so proud of them. They were his whole world”.

“He now has two grandsons he hasn’t met. He would have loved them so much,” his aunt Wilma Dalton said.

“We love and miss Nathan very, very much.”

A huge number of family and supporters later gathered outside the ACT Courts, holding banners with pictures of Nathan.

“We are here because we never gave up. We wouldn’t be here if we hadn’t persevered and kept knocking on every door until the truth was found,” Nathan’s cousin, Ida Hanley, said when reading out a statement written by the family.

Members of Nathan Booth’s family gather at Pine Island Reserve on Wednesday. From left, Rayleen Booth, Stancy Booth, Wilma Dalton, Deanne Booth and Coral King. Photo: Albert McKnight.

She said the family thought there were major issues and flaws with the police investigation.

“From the moment his remains were discovered on December 1st, 2019, the authorities’ actions and words demonstrated nothing but a lack of care, interest and racist bias. The crime scene left unprotected, potential evidence contaminated – all pointing to a premature conclusion by police authorities that Nathan’s death was an unfortunate ‘misadventure’,” Ms Hanley said.

“The facts are that the term ‘misadventure’ has historically been used as a way to dismiss or downplay Aboriginal deaths, avoiding proper investigation and accountability.”

Inside the packed-out courtroom, counsel assisting Joe Kellaway said Nathan was 39 when he was last seen alive on 27 June 2019.

He left his home in Kambah at around 1 pm, went to the methadone clinic at Canberra Hospital at around 3 pm then was not seen again after he left hospital. Rayleen reported him missing on 2 September 2019.

“He had quite literally disappeared without a word and without a trace,” Mr Kellaway said.

The ACT Coroner’s Court released a flyer calling for information on the death of Nathan Booth. Image: Supplied.

Police began a missing persons then homicide investigation. They found he had gone to Centrelink on 14 June, made a withdrawal at his bank on 17 June, then went to the hospital on 27 June.

On 1 December 2019, two teenage boys were trekking along the Murrumbidgee River between Pine Island Reserve and Red Rocks Gorge to go fishing when they discovered a body in the water, slumped over, wedged between rocks and partly submerged.

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Due to how decomposed the body was, police had to conduct a dental post-mortem to identify it as Nathan. During an autopsy, a forensic pathologist said the only injury he could find was a broken ankle.

The pathologist said this likely occurred around the time of Nathan’s death and an injury like this was often the result of jumping or falling from a height, although a person would still be able to walk after such a break.

Methamphetamine and methadone were discovered in his body, while the court also heard he had struggled with drugs in his life and spent time in prison. However, an expert thought it unlikely that the drugs could have been a direct cause of his death.

In March 2020, the homicide team said his death remained suspicious, but by February 2021, police had concluded he died as a result of his own misadventure.

A large number of Nathan Booth’s family and supporters gathered at the ACT Courts on Wednesday. Photo: Albert McKnight.

Mr Kellaway finished his opening remarks with Nathan’s words, which were recorded during an interview when he was asked about his goals.

“I want a happy life,” Nathan said.

When asked what that meant, he replied, “My family being together”.

The inquest’s hearings will run this week.

The coronial inquest started in 2023, during which the court called for information to help answer the questions in the case.

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