Sandstone, October 2020 - part 1
Have you heard the one about when the pastor and the pessimist walk into the outback?
2020 was a wild ride, huh? Everyone got shafted in one way or another. Our 2020 started out with the Coronial Inquest in January, then went into complete pandemonium from thereon out — a global pandemic being the eye of the storm. So far, 2021 seems to be trying to raise the bar yet further, but those are stories for another time and platform.
Our family sat through the entire two weeks plus two day Coronial Inquest—the Inquest into the Suspected Death of Jennie Anne KEHLET and the Death of Raymond Keith KEHLET—in January 2020. Every day was equally harrowing and exhausting. 0/10 experience, would not recommend. Necessary though, if you want to fill in the dark spaces, the unknowns in your mind to clarify what may have happened. And, also what may not have happened. As a wise man once said: “It is just as important to know where the enemy isn’t”. So, sat through it we did. Then we sat through the following months, waiting for the Coroner’s Findings to be released. The wait was excruciating. We hoped that the Coroner would ultimately see the scene as we knew it to be: that Ray was murdered, and therefore Jennie likely thereafter, too. Ultimately this was how it came to be, however the findings were not released until this May, sixteen long months after the inquest.
The findings are a public document, you can download and read them here. All 118 pages and 40,000+ words. It is a harrowing and exhausting read. Brilliant though; it is difficult to fathom the discipline and focus it would take to put such a detailed report together. Necessary to read, too, if you want to fill in the dark spaces, the unknowns in your mind to clarify what may have happened; but, more importantly what did not happen.
The findings are not the length they are to detail what happened in Ray and Jennie’s camp back in March 2015; they are such a length to negate any suggestions or posturing otherwise. 118 pages that sift through and remove all doubt, suspicion, or speculation otherwise, including my own—that the missed opportunities were due to incompetence.
The findings dismiss any evidence that would prove contentious, and conclude with logic and purpose. They are brilliant. Her Honour, State Coroner Ros Fogliani, is brilliant. If I ever met her again in person I would probably hug her uncontrollably until the guards were forced to wrench me off.
Ray was murdered. We're allowed to say that now, murdered. The incident that led to Ray being down that mineshaft was no accident. It has been made official by way of The State Coroner. Murdered, at the bottom of that HOLE photo’d above. We cannot suggest names, but we can now say how.
Murdered. At forty-seven young years of age, for someone else's perverse pleasure.
Anyway, this update is not about the Coroner’s Findings (although it sort of is), this is about the trip to Sandstone that my older brother, Mal, and I made last October. It was my third visit to the area. Doubtful that it will be the last…
The wait for the findings had entered its ninth month. Not that the long wait was unexpected, yet it was torturous nonetheless. The global pandemic was in full swing, too. The inside of my brain was a vortex of mush. I’d catch myself staring off to space at work, mouth open like one of those Bozo the Clown faces at the Royal Show. To get myself back to earth, I’d open Satellite Maps and scan the terrain. That inevitably led to me opening my folder of old mining tenement maps that I’ve accumulated since 2015, and start making notes. Abandoned tracks, geological abnormalities, mine shafts—places a psychopath might hide a body.
I had visited the Sandstone area twice before. The last time was when my wife, Sally, and I visited in December 2015. We had driven most of the abandoned tracks within a hundred-kilometre radius of Ray and Jennie’s camp, so these areas were mostly disregarded. Although, it would be easy to miss something, such is the vast and unforgiving landscape. There’s also the sheer remoteness of the area to consider. If the site was anywhere in the lower half of our state, we’d probably be out there most weekends, searching. But, when it is an eight-hour drive to simply reach the area, and then you are hours and miles from help if something should go wrong, then . . .well, there is much to consider.
Sitting in my office, referencing between old tenement maps and satellite images, I had a sudden lightbulb moment. Of all the geological, geographical locations where a psychopath may perhaps hide a body, limestone caves seemed a possible logical conclusion. As if I’d know how such a twisted mind may work. Sally and I had passed many of them on our search five years prior. I considered the likely path the perp would have taken, then pinned all the Breakaways where the caves would be. I knew they were not in the locations searched by Police, and they are not a tourist site by any means, therefore a prime spot to search.
The decision was made, I would make a third trip to Sandstone. It would not be possible to ignore it regardless, the thought of Jennie possibly being hidden in a cave up there was now an earwig burrowing into my brain. Until I at least tried, there would be no peace.
I informed Sally: “I need to go back to Sandstone.” She sighed. Her work was hectic, and there was also the memories of nearly dying of an anaphylactic reaction to an unknown new allergen up there last trip. “I’ll go on my own,” I said, reading the room.
“Why don’t you ask Mal if he can go with you?” Sally suggested.
I winced at the idea. Not for my concern; I was concerned for Mal. It’s fair to say that our flight paths took a wide fork after being jettisoned from the family nest all those years ago. Mal is the all-round country boy. Not the rootin’ and shootin’ type. Mal works for the local shire. He was married at twenty, has three grown kids, all the good stuff. He’s even a Pastor at his local church. Mal and I hadn’t spent more than fifteen minutes alone together in the last thirty years, more for his safety I’m sure. On contemplation, I considered it would be a bonus to potentially lead him astray for a weekend, so I sent him a message and assumed he’d think twice and decline anyway.
Hi Mal, I’m going up Sandstone for the weekend of 16-18. I’ve felt the need to “get away” for a while now, and thought rather than doing a cape-to-cape or the like, I might as well spend that time wandering somewhere on purpose... What I mean is, I’m headed to areas south of where Ray was found, that have not been previously searched and that I think are worth searching. I’d really appreciate it if you would want to join me. There will be PLBs and Satellite phones and the like, so it will be all above board.
To my utter shock, he accepted. We discussed plans. The plan was simple, we would load the Landie with enough fuel, camping gear, water, beer, and roasted chooks to last the apocalypse into and onto the Landie, then gun it northward. Two weekends later, the plan was enacted.
Ray and Jennie do not have a voice. Their version of events from the morning of the 19th March 2015 onward are given by others—their colleague who they travelled with; the police and rescue crews who investigated their disappearance; the forensic scientists who studied whatever evidence remained. These versions of events all painted incredulous pictures when you compare them to the reality of how and where they were on that fateful day. Ray and Jennie’s latest voice, that of the Coroner, finally reveals the truth. Or, at least what she has painted matches our witnessed reality.
Discussions I’ve had with friends and colleagues since the Coroner's findings were released have confused me. They seem confused by the conclusion. Some still seem to believe it completely plausible that an accident may have occurred. Or, that there is another mystery Wolfcreek type character out there in the outback, randomly disposing of husbands down mineshafts and stealing their wives. Which of course, given history, is potentially completely feasible… yet, what about in this case? What is the Occam's razor?
It is strange that I can recall in crystal-clear, 4K imagery every possible scenario of that weekend in March 2015, considering most of the time my mind attempts to dissociate itself from the whole saga for self-protection. I guess living and breathing it for so many years will cement those scenes. What I know for certain is that if you visit the area, and you rolodex through every possible scenario, you will quickly disregard all but a select few. One you will frame as the most logical.
Which is what Mal and I did, in October 2020. We arrived at the scene late afternoon after an eight-hour drive, two of which were on the Payne’s Find to Sandstone gravel road. We brought with us two heads full of knowledge from the Coronial Inquest nine months prior.
“Get ready for shit to get real weird,“ I said to Mal as the GPS pinged and we turned onto an almost unrecognisable track off the road to the east. “This is the track they entered on, there’s another one to the north and it’s pretty much a loop road past where Ray was found,” I said as we slowly bumped and climbed over the track in the Landie. We soon arrived at their campsite a kilometre or so inland. I pointed it out to Mal. “They were camped under that tree,” I pointed at the tree which was surrounded by a cleared space and the remnants of a campfire. Mal was breathing deep, taking it all in. “Shall we go up to the mineshaft now, or do you want to have a break?”
“Let’s go now,” said Mal. I could see he was confused, perhaps emotional, but holding it together while the clarity of the scene took form.
We drove north. The track gets rough in patches with washouts and sharp rocks, but taking it slow and carefully we made it up a small rise. “That’s where they found the quad bike,” I said as we passed the spot five hundred metres up the rise, pointing left towards a patch of gnarly shrubs. Another kilometre and a half later, up over the rise and along a flat section of track, we reached the shaft. “This is it.” I parked, turned the Landie off, and we got out.
There are a few abandoned mine shafts in that small area, but the one that Ray was found in is the most prominent. It has a large piling of old diggings atop which flags its location markedly in the surrounding landscape. There are two openings, the one that was used to descend into the shaft being the largest. Mal spent some time searching around, carefully looking down the shaft, piecing it all together in his mind. I went to the Landie and retrieved two beers from the esky.
“It is customary for us to make an offering to our ancestors,” I said. We clinked cans together and poured a mouthful each down the hole before taking a sip of our own. A “cheers,” was offered all round.
“So, that track we just drove from the camp to here, past the quad, is where Ray would have been chasing Ella on foot before slipping and falling down that hole, according to the search and rescue report,” I said, pointing my beer at the track behind us then swinging back over the pile of diggings to the shaft opening. “Seem feasible?”
Mal simply shook his head and sighed.
“Then, Jennie was so distraught that she sat here near the shaft until dark, then couldn’t find her way back to camp and instead wandered off into the unknown.”
Mal looked at the tracks and the surrounding landscape. His head shake gained momentum, and his breathing deepened.
“And now that we know that Ray was donged on the head down the hole,” referencing the Specialist Orthopaedic Surgeon’s report that the Coroner had allowed us to read months prior, “what do you reckon the chances are that Ray would have climbed down there on his own, without a plan nor all the right gear?”
Mal stood near the collar of the shaft, peering over the edge. The collar was century-old wood, broken and in disrepair. Small rocks tumbled down the shaft as Mal got closer. “Not a chance in hell,” he said, confirming what any sane person who has ever visited the site and knew Ray would conclude.
“I’m not sure how many abseiling prospectors come out this way, but I’m guessing they are a select bunch.” I said sardonically.
Mal took another look over the edge of the shaft. “What the hell were you thinking, Ray?” he murmured down the hole.
We spent some time near the shaft, kicking rocks, swatting flies. Not too long though, it doesn’t take long to cover all bases once there. That’s the great paradox of the site, it takes a whole day to reach yet minutes to appreciate. We soon made our way back to the campsite to setup for the night.
We camped light, just swags on the ground. Building a fire was our greatest priority. We collected dried wood from the surrounding area, then chopped it all into a pile to last the night. It didn’t take long to settle in, with swags at the ready and camp chairs unfolded near the esky full of supplies: boiled eggs, several cans of baked beans, two whole roasted chickens, a bag of salad, potatoes, and a month's supply of Bush Chooks (beers) that would not last the weekend.
A fire was lit. We watched it dance in the moonlight with the Milky Way above. Tomorrow we would start our search.