Forgotten murders—Still a mystery: Jim Toner

(Published Una Voce, September 1997, Page 38)

Jim Toner: Chief Clerk, District Office, Mendi 1957-59; District Office, Rabaul 1960-64; Field Manager, New Guinea Research Unit (ANU), Port Moresby 1965-73

Forty years have passed since two bodies were found on the sixth green of the Rabaul golf course but the killer of Adela Woo and Leo Wattemina, if still living, remains unpunished.

It is said that colonisation brings first the soldier, then the trader and missionary but in the case of Australia and its administration of New Guinea from 1914 to 1975, the golfer certainly arrived next. Flat land around the port of Rabaul is at a premium but an 18 holes course was established between the airstrip and an area known as Malaytown. Before WWI the Germans had zoned that land for mixed-race housing and, although Rabaul was flattened by bombing during WWII, former residents gravitated back afterwards. Most homes were timber and corrugated iron shacks but their ugliness was concealed by a lush tropical blanket of trees and foliage.

Freddie Smith was a 19 years old “half-cast” living at the home of “Mumma” Alden. She and five of her children slept in one bedroom and Smith shared the other bedroom with his brother and sister-in-law.

On Saturday evening, 19 May 1956, Smith, his boyhood friend Wattemina, Adela Woo with whom he was friendly, and some others of the same age sat outside the Alden house. There had been music and some beer drunk but not to excess. Everyone appeared to have parted the best of friends at midnight. Leo and Adela went off to the golf course and Smith said he went to bed (alone, his relatives being away).

At 6 am on Sunday another friend, Igasaki, found Smith in bed and awakened him. He then had breakfast and appeared quite normal to the rest of the Alden household. A little later the first golfer of the day discovered Adela Woo buried half up to her knees in sand at the foot of a pawpaw tree near the sixth green. Wattemina lay nearby alive but unconscious. He died three days later still in a coma.

Igasaki lived in the house of Jack Yamashita and Smith was visiting there in the middle of Monday morning when Sub-Inspectors Vonhoff and Young of the RPNGC arrived. They asked him to go to the police station where after being questioned three times he wrote a confession. In summary he said that he had followed the couple to the golf course and “flag Leo because I was out of my mind. I hit him with an iron peg I found in the grass. Was the girl a start to cry so I hit her to and they bought her on the ground so I took the girl and bery half of her I carried Leo into the busses and I trod the peg away I went home to bed. I have made this statement of my own free will, it is true no one has forced me to make this statement”.

Subsequently Smith was driven to the golf course where he was asked to point out where he had placed the two bodies and he was said to have identified the correct places. When asked to show where he had thrown the peg, Smith said, “I don’t know, I forget”. On return to the police station in Mango Avenue he was charged with wilful murder.

That day Inspector Carroll had been to the Alden home and taken possession of Smith’s meagre belongings including a suitcase which contained a letter written by Adela Woo to him from Kavieng the previous Christmas. An appeal judge described it as appearing “to be just a friendly letter that a girl of Adela’s type would write to a boy friend” but clearly the police had to consider jealousy as a motive for the crime.

On Monday afternoon Carroll asked Smith what clothes he had been wearing on the Saturday night and was told that he was still wearing them. They consisted of a khaki shirt, khaki trousers and a pair of sandshoes. Those shoes were the only footwear he owned.

After being remanded in the District Court on the Tuesday morning, Smith was taken to the golf course again and asked to locate the iron peg. He pointed towards a crater near the clubhouse but when they walked to it said that it was not there. The party was about to return to the lock-up when Smith—according to Vonhoff— said “I think I took that piece of iron back to the house.” Vonhoff then drove to Yamashita’s house, searched it but found nothing. However, the police driver, Rupen, found lying on the grass nearby a steel rod some three feet long with a ringed handle at one end and a U-shaped portion of metal at the other. Its function was to scrape ashes from a furnace.

Vonhoff stated that Smith looked at the scraper, drew his body back, shuddered, shivered and shook, dropped his eyes and said, “This is the piece of iron I used.” Rupen told the Supreme Court that the accused then looked as if he was about to cry. This was something he had not told the District Court, even though it was the only matter on which he was questioned, because he had “forgot that part”.

Seemingly the wheels of justice spun rather quicker in those days because only nine weeks passed before Freddie Smith was found guilty of double murder by the Chief Justice of PNG sitting without a jury. At a subsequent appeal hearing the three judges were unanimous that the conviction should be quashed.

Beaumont CJ had considered it unsafe to find that the scraper was the killing instrument and no wonder. It was found a half-mile from the scene of the crime, unconcealed in any way and although allegedly used to bash in the skulls of two persons revealed no trace of blood or organic matter. Although Carroll had removed Smith’s possessions from the Alden house, Vonhoff had detained Smith initially at the Yamashita house so that was where he went when the prisoner allegedly said that he had taken the iron “back to the house”.

The trial judge, after considerable investigation, accepted the confession but the appeal bench (Williams, Taylor and Webb J) cast much doubt on the procedures under which it was obtained and, there being no other evidence, found for Smith and he was discharged.

A most telling point is that Freddie Smith was an unemployed teenage resident of Malaytown who basically lived in the same clothes. He was alleged to have smashed skulls, dragged bodies over some distance, half-burying one, yet twenty-four hours later not a speck of blood was to be found on the trousers or sandshoes which he was still wearing.

Young Smith was found a job on a copra plantation away from Rabaul which relieved tensions amongst the Chinese and mixed-race communities. The golf club’s groundsman found it necessary to replace portions of the sixth green seemingly chopped out to permit the pools of blood to be absorbed more readily: that Freddie Smith would have bothered to do that after killing his close friends beggars belief.

So there was a murderer at large, almost certainly in Malaytown, who endeavoured to keep his local golf course tidy. Whether the RPNGC enquired further after the shaky confession it had put forward was rejected is not known but it seems certain that any bloody evidence would by then have disappeared. As indeed has the golf course with much of Rabaul after the volcanic eruptions of 1994.


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