Murder stuns remote Pacific home of the 'Bounty' descendants

  • @kathymarksoz

Norfolk Island, a speck in the South Pacific that is home to descendants of Fletcher Christian's Bounty mutineers, is in turmoil following its first murder in 150 years.

The island, a tax-free Australian territory with a colourful history and an idyllic setting, is a popular holiday destination for elderly Australians and New Zealanders. It is a quirky place where cows have right of way on the roads and locals speak a hybrid of archaic English and Polynesian.

But Norfolk's image as a peaceful haven is in tatters after a young Australian woman was found beaten and stabbed to death at a secluded picnic spot. Janelle Patton, 29, who had been working in a local hotel for two years, was last seen walking to a supermarket to buy lunch for her parents.

An atmosphere of fear now infects a place where locals used to leave houses unlocked and car keys in the ignition. "It's kicked the stuffing out of us," said Geoff Gardner, the island's Chief Minister. "The community's soul has been laid bare."

Australian police flew out to help the island's three officers investigate, but two months later no arrests have been made. Detectives have sent questionnaires to Norfolk's 1,800 residents and 800 tourists, asking for a detailed account of their movements on the day of the murder. There is talk of asking all adults to give a voluntary DNA sample.

Islanders have convinced themselves that the murderer is a visitor rather than a local, but police think otherwise. Tom Lloyd, editor of The Norfolk Islander newspaper, said: "Police have indicated to us that their feelings are that it is someone from the community, and if that is the case, there will be a lot of soul-searching and heartaches."

Police also believe that certain islanders know the killer's identity but are reluctant to come forward. Norfolk has a history of reprisals against police informants. "There is a scary feeling in the community," said Mr Lloyd. "There is an underlying current of fear."

The island is home to Colleen McCullough, author of The Thorn Birds, and the singer Helen Reddy. About one-third of residents are descended from the Bounty mutineers, who came to Norfolk after Pitcairn Island – their first hiding place – became overcrowded. The telephone book is full of surnames such as Christian.

Norfolk was formerly a British penal colony with a brutal reputation, and the many ghosts reputed to stalk the rocky island are thought to be a legacy of convict days.

The tranquil, crime-free image that Norfolk has acquired in modern times was undermined two years ago when a local pillar of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Stephen Nobbs, was convicted of repeated child sexual abuse.

The murder has exacerbated tensions between islanders and "outsiders" who go to Norfolk to earn a tax-free income for a couple of years. "We don't want to accept the fact it was one of us," said Tracey Crane, one of the last people to see Ms Patton alive.