Australian police 'ignored' call in backpacker case

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The Independent Online

Australian police ignored a vital telephone call from a woman who may have heard the British backpacker Caroline Stuttle screaming shortly before she fell to her death, it was claimed yesterday.

The caller heard cries and spotted the shadowy figure of a man looking over the bridge where the 19-year-old died, yet officers did not react for another three-quarters of an hour.

Yesterday, the Queensland Police Commissioner, Bob Atkinson, announced a "thorough" internal investigation was under way into claims his men failed to follow up the call.

Ms Stuttle, from York, was attacked when she left a caravan park in the quiet town of Bundaberg, 200 miles north of Brisbane, to call her boyfriend in the UK from a telephone box. Her body was found on 10 April after, the police believe, she was robbed and then either pushed or fell from a bridge at about 9.30pm that night.

In an article entitled the "The Lost Minutes", Queensland's Sunday Mail newspaper claimed a "crucial" 43 minutes were lost between the anonymous phone call at 9.32pm and 10.15pm, when Caroline's friend Sarah Holiday reported her missing and a search began.

It said: "Although several police patrols were working, none was asked to investigate the report that a woman's scream had been heard by a driver crossing the Burnett Bridge.

"The woman who made the 9.32pm call said later that she had phoned police only a few minutes after hearing the scream and seeing the shadowy figure of a man looking over the edge of the bridge."

Detective Inspector Jeff Oliphant, leading the murder hunt, confirmed a woman had driven to a telephone box and called police after hearing the screams. Such a call should have been logged, he said, a duty sergeant advised and a patrol sent to investigate.

Yesterday, Mr Atkinson promised that the force's Ethical Standards Command would mount a "thorough internal investigation" into the allegations and should report back by Wednesday. The conclusion would be made public.

"A request will also be made from the service to the Criminal Misconduct Commission to overview the investigation and the outcomes," he said in a statement.

"It is important not to pre-empt or pre-judge the outcome of the internal investigation or compromise the investigation into the murder of Caroline Stuttle. Despite the obvious concerns that these allegations raise, the public can have confidence in the team of police investigating the murder."

¿ A 43-year-old British tourist has drowned alongside a local man off the coast of eastern Australia after being caught in a rip tide.

Raymond Marshall, from Strood, Kent, was swimming outside a supervised area off Mermaid Beach, on Queensland's Gold Coast, with his wife and 33-year-old Australian Arthur Skellern when they got into difficulties in strong currents. Surfers helped Mrs Marshall to safety and alerted lifeguards, who found the men but could not resuscitate them.

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