Crucial case files on the disappearance of an Indigenous woman in the Kimberley almost 20 years ago went missing, and the initial investigation was shut down prematurely, an inquest has been told.
Petronella Albert was last seen in a taxi leaving a house in Broome one night in April 1999.
A two-day inquest looking into the circumstances of her suspected death is underway in Broome.
Detective Sergeant David Palmer gave evidence to the Coroners Court about several cold case investigations held in the years since Ms Albert vanished.
He testified the original case files had been “destroyed or lost” at the Broome Police Station, possibly because they had suffered water damage during flooding at the building.
He also said the original missing persons investigation was closed within nine months, because a cousin reported seeing Ms Albert at a train station in Broome.
Detective Palmer testified the sighting did not appear to have been corroborated or confirmed, and cold case investigators had been unable to locate the relevant paperwork.
In his opening address, council assisting the coroner Lyle Housiaux said police had since changed their view on the case and believe Ms Albert was likely to be dead.
“In March 2007 this case was reviewed by the Special Crime Squad and it was from this review that the disappearance of Ms Albert was considered to be suspicious and that she may have been a victim of foul play,” he said.
Relatives appalled by ‘sloppiness’ of investigation
Stephen Baamba Albert says the police investigation has been sloppy. (ABC News: Vanessa Mills)
Ms Albert’s relatives gathered at the court house to hear the evidence.
Speaking outside the court, cousin Stephen Baamba Albert said he was appalled at the sloppiness of the police investigation which he believed was handled differently because Ms Albert was an Aboriginal woman.
“I think the inquest is well overdue. My disappointment is my family haven’t been informed of what the cops were doing and all that sort of thing … I think it’s a thing of ‘blacks in the back, forget about them’,” he said.
“It feels like it’s just a bloody kangaroo court. The files are missing, and they expect people to remember what they said 20 years ago or whatever … to see our family break down in court, it’s terrible.”
Relatives described Ms Albert as a fun, kind and good-natured person, whose disappearance had haunted them.
“She was very beautiful girl, and happy go lucky. She loved everybody … she had kindness in her, always smiling,” Esther Albert said.
“We’re hoping she’s still around and we’re hoping someone will find her body … or somebody will come out with it to bring out the body, so we can bury her and have a graveyard for her. That would be good.”