RECORD OF INVESTIGATION INTO DEATH (WITHOUT INQUEST)
Coroners Act 1995
Coroners Rules 2006
I, Glenn Hay, Coroner, have investigated the death of
Ian David NICHOLS
WITHOUT HOLDING AN INQUEST
I have decided not to hold a public inquest hearing into his death because my investigations have sufficiently disclosed the identity of the presumably deceased person as well as the presumed time, place and relevant circumstances concerning how the death may have occurred. I do not consider that the holding of a public inquest hearing would elicit any information further to that disclosed by the investigations already conducted by me and by Tasmania Police.
I FIND THAT:-
(a) Ian David Nichols (Mr Nichols) was last seen on 18 September 1989 and is presumed to have died after leaving the place where he was staying at Dago Point, Lake Sorell in Tasmania on or around that date but I am unable to determine with any certainty the exact location, date, manner or cause of death.
(b) Mr Nichols was born in Australia on 13 April 1938 and at the time of his disappearance was aged 51 years.
(c) He was a divorced TPI pensioner at the time of his disappearance.
Relevant Background Material:
Ian David Nichols (Mr Nichols) was born on 13 April 1938. He served in the Australian Army between June 1960 and October 1965 and was a veteran of the Vietnam War.
He was divorced and had one daughter, Christine Behrens, born 1 May 1974. He was in receipt of a TPI pension.
Mr Nichols was involved with the Vietnam Veterans Association in the construction of a shack/retreat at Dago Point, Lake Sorell approximately 35km north of Bothwell in Tasmania (the construction site). He was last seen alive at that place at about 4pm on Monday 18 September 1989. Just prior to that time he had been residing alone in a rented flat at Kingston Beach.
Events Leading Up to the Disappearance of Mr Nichols:
Mr Nichols had a history of mental illness exacerbated by excessive intake of alcohol and had exhibited erratic behaviours prior to and on the last day he was seen alive. He was reported by friends and acquaintances to disappear for periods of time when things got too much for him.
On Thursday 14 September 1989, Mr Nichols went to the construction site at Lake Sorell with Mr Gerard Poulson and Mr Michael Taylor. Messrs Webster, Lewis and Cocker also arrived that day. Between that date and Sunday 17 September, all men participated in the construction of the shack/retreat.
During this period of days, Mr Nichols is reported to have consumed alcohol heavily and exhibited unusual behaviours such as wandering around with no clothing on his upper body despite extremely cold weather conditions.
During the afternoon of Sunday 17 September 1989, all members of the construction party except Mr Nichols left the site and returned to Hobart. Mr Nichols elected to remain at the site, claiming to the others that he would take the opportunity to “get off the drugs and booze”. He indicated that he would still be there when they returned the following weekend and requested Mr Poulson to contact his former wife and his daughter and to also make some other arrangements on his behalf. He also gave the keys to his flat to Mr Poulson with a request to check on the flat.
Circumstances Surrounding the Disappearance of Mr Nichols on 18 September 1989:
At about 3.45am on Monday 18 September 1989, Inland Fisheries Inspector Victor Causby, who was staying in a shack adjoining the construction site, was awoken by a noise outside. He went outside and found Mr Nichols standing near a Fisheries vehicle in the carport. Mr Causby called out and Mr Nichols ran off. Mr. Causby observed that Mr Nichols was inadequately dressed for the conditions.
At about 11.00am that day two members of an angling club arrived to their clubhouse adjoining the construction site. A short time later Mr Nichols approached them and had a short conversation and left. However, he returned several times before 4.00pm. Mr Nichols claimed to the two anglers that he was a private investigator and he was investigating the stabbing of a girl at Bridgewater and he was looking for a red car.
At about noon Mr Nichols again returned to the two anglers and asked where he could find a telephone and he was told to ask at the ‘accommodation hut’. Mr Nichols again left the two anglers.
During the early afternoon Mr Nichols apparently hitch-hiked and attended at the Bothwell Council offices and made enquiries about a donation of concrete for the Vietnam Veterans Association. He spoke with a Council employee and she observed he spoke to himself and was pacing backward and forth, asking for a glass of water on two or three occasions and again spoke of a girl being stabbed at Bridgewater. The Council employee was frightened by his general attitude. Mr Nichols telephoned Mr Poulson from the Council office.
He was referred to the Council workshop where at about 1.30pm he asked another Council employee to give him a lift back to Lake Sorell. During the journey Mr Nichols again exhibited strange and nonsense behaviour. The witness observed of Mr Nichols’ conversation that, “nothing made much sense”.
At about 4.00pm Mr Nichols again spoke with the two anglers and asked for a lift to Hobart. They were unable to do so. The anglers last saw Mr Nichols heading towards a boat ramp to enquire about a lift to Hobart and they noted he was inadequately dressed for the cold wet day and was not carrying any luggage. They did not see him again and there was no person present at the construction site from that time until the next day when several members of the Vietnam Veterans Association arrived.
On Tuesday 19 September 1989, Mr Poulson and Mr Allwright arrived at the construction site at about noon and found the shack open and with nearly all of the cooking utensils having been used and unwashed and strewn around the living room and the word ‘shit’ had been scribbled on a wall. Mr Poulson’s nearby caravan had also been ransacked. Mr Nichols was not seen, although his belongings including clothes, some medication and tools remained. They made enquiries of the anglers who reported they had not seen Mr Nichols since the previous afternoon and reported to them their last conversation with him. Mr Poulson and Mr Allwright left the construction site on 20 September not having conducted any search for Mr Nichols, other than in the very local area of the construction site.
The barman of the Castle Hotel in Bothwell reported to Bothwell police sometime prior to 27 November 1989 that Mr Nichols was known to him and he saw him about noon on Tuesday 19 September 1989. Mr Nichols went to the hotel and borrowed a packet of cigarettes, but left the hotel without the cigarettes and was last seen opposite the hotel. Unfortunately there is no affidavit material on file to confirm this report. It is possible this witness may have been in error in reporting these events as having occurred on the 19 September, as they are consistent with Mr Nichols being in Bothwell on 18 September. Further, there is another report in the original police file noting this information was provided on 27 September and that report refers to the event having occurred on 20 September. Given the discrepancy in the information, it is not possible to accept the accuracy of the date the barman may have seen Mr Nichols.
On Wednesday 20 September, Mr Poulson returned Mr Nichols’ personal belongings to his Kingston flat, noting a stereo was turned on and Mr Nichols' cheque book was on the fridge. Mr Nichols was not present.
At 10.20am on 21 September 1989, a counsellor with the Vietnam Veterans Association, Mr Perkins, telephoned Tasmania Police to report that Mr Nichols may be missing. It was his information to police that Mr Nichols’ companions believed he was ‘laying low’.
At 5.00pm on the 25 of September the 84 year old mother of Mr Nichols attended the Kingston Police Station to formally report Mr Nichols missing.
It appears that police did not commence any investigation until the afternoon of the 26 September 1989. On that date Mr Poulson spoke with Kingston police and informed them that he would be returning to the construction site the next day and would report if Mr Nichols was or had been in the area. It seems police were not going to undertake any search of the area until they heard back from Mr Poulson. Interestingly and unfortunately that proposed visit was never followed up nor did Mr Poulson make reference to it in subsequent affidavits.
On 26 September Tasmania Police Search and Rescue were notified of the disappearance, but no searches were conducted by that agency. The following day Search and Rescue was informed by Dr Graham Perkins of the Vietnam Counselling Services that Mr Nichols had been seen in Hobart the previous Friday “so there are no fears that he is lost in the bush at Lake Sorell”. Unfortunately the source of this information to Dr Perkins was not recorded.
On 27 September 1989, Bothwell police made enquiries in the Bothwell and Dago Point areas to no avail, other than as noted above.
On 29 September, local media outlets were notified and press reports were published the next day in relation to Mr Nichols being a ‘missing person’.
On 29 September, Bothwell police reported that a search of the area at the construction site was not fruitful. It was on about this date (29 September) that Mr Andrew Copping later reported seeing a person he believed was Mr Nichols in Murray Street, Hobart. He has subsequently remained firm that the person he saw was Mr Nichols. This reported sighting and several others over the next 2 to 3 weeks could not be otherwise corroborated or confirmed.
On 8 October 1989, ABC TV was requested to re-run the missing person request, but no new information was obtained.
In the next seven months police investigated the disappearance and ascertained that Mr Nichols did not access his bank accounts and there were no confirmed sightings of him. He was treated as a missing person.
In April and May 1990, police (CIB) investigated reports that Mr Nichols may have been the subject of foul play; however following further investigation there was no corroborated or credible evidence to support this.
In 1998 police reviewed the file and no further information was gleaned to assist in the whereabouts of Mr Nichols or the circumstances surrounding his disappearance.
In 2003 and 2004, following a request by Christine Behrens, police again reviewed the file and conducted further investigations, including obtaining affidavits from relevant persons who may have relevant information relating to the disappearance. No further information came to light to assist in the whereabouts or in relation to the disappearance.
In 2006 police again reviewed the file, investigated further and interviewed other persons, however no further information came to light to assist with knowledge as to the whereabouts of or the movements of Mr Nichols since his disappearance in September 1989.
At the end of 2009 the ‘missing person’ file was referred to me for further consideration pursuant to the provisions of the Coroners Act 1999. Further investigations were directed by me.
Findings, Recommendations & Comments:
Mr Nichols’ disappearance has to this date been considered to be a ‘missing person’ matter as no body has been found, however his suspected death must have been a reasonable likelihood at all relevant times.
I am satisfied that over the years police have conducted a thorough investigation into the disappearance of and subsequent suspected death of Mr Nichols. However AND with the benefit of lengthy hindsight, I comment that at the time of the first notification to police that Mr Nichols was missing, police had information to confirm he was in a poor mental state and had a history of mental illness and was last seen in a remote area. Despite information that Mr Nichols may just be ‘laying low’ and there were unconfirmed sightings of him over the next few days, why a coordinated land and water search was not conducted in the area of Dago Point is not readily apparent.
Having said that, time has most probably shown that such a search may well have been fruitless.
Given Mr Nichols’ state of mind at the time he was last seen and his history of mental illness and alcohol consumption, I cannot rule out that Mr Nichols may have committed suicide and his body never recovered.
I cannot rule out that he left the Dago Point area on or about 18 September 1989.
Without evidence suggesting otherwise it is more likely he went off into the bush or nearby water adjacent to Dago Point and that he may have met with some accident or medical event where he has become incapacitated and succumbed to the adverse elements of that environment and his body has never been located.
What is clear is that there have been no confirmed sightings of him since that date, he has not been heard from by those who loved him which is at odds with close relationships he enjoyed prior to his disappearance and he has not operated any of his bank accounts or any of his personal affairs since that time and there is no evidence he is still alive.
Enquiries between September 1989 and this date have failed to locate any trace of him or any evidence which would suggest he is alive and I accept that police have exhausted all enquiries in relation to locating the reported missing person, Mr Nichols.
Given the circumstances surrounding his disappearance and the lack of evidence unveiled throughout the investigation including that there is no reliable evidence of any person having sighted him since that day, I find that he is presumed to have died on or soon after that day and in that approximate area.
I am satisfied he can be presumed to be deceased and did die on or soon after 18 September 1989. I am unfortunately unable to state with any certainty the reason for his disappearance, or the exact location, or the manner and cause of his presumed death.
While police investigations did not identify the involvement of any other person in the circumstances of the disappearance of Mr Nichols or any motive for any person to be involved in his death, I cannot exclude that possibility.
I conclude by conveying my condolences to the family of Mr Nichols.
Dated:- 15 July 2012 at Hobart in the State of Tasmania.