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‘Wrong skin’ tragedy: death, drugs and violence in a divided town

“Help, my partner is here!” the 17-year-old boy pleaded with nurses after ringing the emergency intercom at Newman Hospital in the early hours of May 6, 2020. “I’ve taken it too far, I’ve hit her.”

Lying face down in an empty ambulance bay was the battered body of 18-year-old *Nyaparu, tipped out of a green wheelie bin, her arms stretched out across the pavement.

Her head had been so brutally bashed with a rock and her face so swollen and bloodied that one of the emergency nurses at the hospital who knew the young woman did not recognise her.

At 4.30am, Nyaparu was pronounced dead in the hospital’s parking lot, just weeks after giving birth to her second son.

The crime sent ripples through Newman, a small mining town of 7200 – more than 1000 of whom are Aboriginal – which serves as the epicentre of the remote Pilbara region’s lucrative iron ore industry. But after making a few headlines in Perth the tragedy was mostly forgotten. There was no outcry or tribute for Nyaparu, who friends and family described as a beautiful girl full of life and a devoted mother.

Just days after her body was pulled out of that bin, Nyaparu’s story, just like the complex issues that surrounded it, faded into oblivion.

It is a story about violence, destitution and neglect in one of the nation’s richest regions, and a system so flawed it enabled an ‘invisible boy’ to fall through the cracks until he brutally killed his girlfriend in a relationship banned under traditional law.

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Born to an alcoholic teenage mother and an absent father, the 17-year-old boy, who cannot be named for legal reasons, grew up surrounded by drug use and violence in the Pilbara.

Raised between Newman and the remote community of Jigalong, his childhood was one of extreme neglect. He was left alone for extended periods of time with no food, and because nobody ever spoke to him, he didn’t learn how to talk until he was six. He started sniffing paint at the age of five, moving to solvents and cannabis shortly after.

Family friends describe the boy as “very traumatised” and having spent most of his early years being passed from one relative’s care to the next. He suffered constant ear and respiratory infections, skin conditions, and head injuries as his great-grandparents struggled to bring him up with several of his cousins.

Some of the details of the boy’s upbringing are so horrific they have been suppressed by the courts.

Later tests confirmed he suffered from a raft of cognitive impairments, including post-traumatic stress disorder, most likely the result of the extreme neglect and drug abuse. He also has Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), a condition affecting many children growing up in WA’s remote communities.

Data is limited on the prevalence of the condition in Australia – the global rate among children and youth is about 7.7 per 1000 births – but estimates by the Australian Medical Association suggest it could be as high as 12 per cent in high-risk Indigenous communities.

Trapped between two worlds

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When the boy met Nyaparu he felt noticed for the first time. He’d lived a life where he seemed invisible. But their relationship quickly ran into trouble after elders from both families ruled they were in a ‘wrong skin’ marriage which was inappropriate under traditional Aboriginal law.

Martu society is divided into skin groups assigned at birth according to each person’s maternal lineage. These groups determine who a person can marry, their roles and obligations and seek to prevent incest.

As a Milangka woman, Nyaparu could only marry a Purungu man, but the boy was a Karimarra, which meant their union was ‘poison’ and brought shame to both families.

Family friends later told of how the couple had been harassed and bullied by fellow Martu people for two years as payback for their relationship, and their relatives punished for failing to intervene.

Boarded up homes outnumber occupied properties in some areas of Newman, where BHP owns many of the houses.

Boarded up homes outnumber occupied properties in some areas of Newman, where BHP owns many of the houses. Credit:Marta Pascual Juanola

In the months leading up to Nyaparu’s death, the relationship turned volatile and dysfunctional, marred by heavy drinking, drug abuse and jealousy.

Her partner – who had gone through traditional lore to become a man which involves several days of learning about culture and ends in a circumcision ritual just weeks before the murder – had been under growing pressure from elders of both families to break up the union when the pair started arguing at a house party on the night of May 5, 2020.

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Witnesses saw the boy punch Nyaparu and drag her by the hair before the couple disappeared into bushland at the end of the cul-de-sac, where they talked for more than an hour. But as the conversation heated up and she threatened not to allow the teen to see his sons if they separated, he became enraged.

He grabbed a rock from the ground and struck Nyaparu repeatedly in the face and head until she lay motionless on the ground.

“Something made me hit her more,” the boy later told his lawyer, Cillian Stockdale.

He then scooped up Nyaparu’s battered body, slung her over his shoulder and walked almost two kilometres to his great-grandparents’ house in the centre of town, where his great-grandmother told him to go to the hospital. In a panic, he put Nyaparu in a wheelie bin and took her to the ambulance bay outside Newman Hospital, a few hundred metres away.

The “beautiful girl” full of life spent her final hours inside a rubbish bin.

Nyaparu was laid to rest next to her grandmother at the cemetery in Wiluna, a hamlet on the fringes of the Western Desert. Her father says he took her two babies, aged 22 months and 10 months, to visit her grave often but it would be years before he could tell the boys what happened to their mother.

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“She was our first baby, our beautiful girl,” he says. “We are all dealing with it in our own way. It builds on itself and makes it hard. Some of my family have turned to drinking.”

The invisible child

Despite being able to read only two-letter words at 17, the boy was only diagnosed with borderline intellectual functioning and FASD after he was arrested.

Tests carried out in detention concluded he was so impaired he had the mental ability of an eight-year-old at the time of the murder and could not understand the consequences of his actions or control his impulses.

He was sentenced to eight years and four months behind bars, which he will serve at Banksia Hill juvenile detention centre in Canning Vale, 30 kilometres south-east of Perth and 1200 kilometres from his home in Newman. The youth correctional facility, where nobody speaks his language, has the highest number of inmates with FASD and cognitive impairment in the world.

“It is literally as if he were put on an aeroplane and flown to another country where he knows nobody and does not speak the language,” Judge Hylton Quail said during the sentencing on February 12.

The findings raised questions among family and friends about whether the crime could have been prevented had the teenager received appropriate help.

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Outback ghetto

Nyaparu and the boy grew up in a town marred by a stark wealth divide, where the Martu community lives in overcrowded and rundown homes just kilometres away from some of the state’s biggest mine sites.

This is despite the fact almost a quarter of Newman’s housing stock is sitting empty, after mining giant BHP reduced operations in the region, moving most of its workforce out of East Newman, where most of the Martu community live and Nyaparu was murdered.

Stray bush dogs sit on a dusty mattress in Parnpajinya, a reserve on the outskirts of Newman. Despite a big sign banning the consumption of alcohol in the community, cans and shattered bottles litter the streets.

Stray bush dogs sit on a dusty mattress in Parnpajinya, a reserve on the outskirts of Newman. Despite a big sign banning the consumption of alcohol in the community, cans and shattered bottles litter the streets.Credit:Marta Pascual Juanola

WA Police statistics show assaults of family members in Newman have steadily grown since 2011, with officers attending more than 200 call-outs in the 2019-20 financial year. Since June last year, police have been called to 130 instances of assault and eight of threatening behaviour towards family members.

Local pastor John Wilmot, who also runs a not-for-profit supporting Newman’s Martu community, says depression and destitution were part of the iron ore town’s everyday picture, where everyone knew someone who had been murdered or whose father beat their mother.

Wilmot says the life expectancy of the Martu was 40 years for men and 38 for women, nearly 20 years lower than that of the conflict-ridden Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of the world’s poorest nations.

“No Martu child has graduated from the high school in the 10 years we have been here,” he says.

“Unemployment is rife and so is the number of Martu cut off from welfare and now extra dependent on those who have access to income. I feel comfortable to say that in the time I have been here East Newman has become a ghetto.

“Being Martu should not be a death sentence.”

Telethon Kids Institute’s Dr Hayley Passmore, who has been researching FASD among juvenile offenders since 2015, says that FASD was so under-recognised that most children were diagnosed behind bars.

She says the condition often caused impulsivity, hyperactivity and trouble understanding the consequences of one’s actions, which led to children getting involved with the justice system at a higher rate.

A study conducted by the institute in 2018 found nearly all of the children at Banksia Hill had severe cognitive impairment. More than a third had FASD, but only two had been diagnosed before being detained.

“That is showing us that there is a high number of young people with FASD and other neurodisabilities [who] have never had their needs recognised,” Passmore says.

She says there was no good data on the prevalence of the condition among mainstream Australians, but the rate of WA children in detention with FASD was the highest in a justice setting worldwide.

Empty cans and goon bags litter the suburb of East Newman. According to the Shire of East Pilbara, 90 per cent of domestic violence incidents in the shire are alcohol-related.

Empty cans and goon bags litter the suburb of East Newman. According to the Shire of East Pilbara, 90 per cent of domestic violence incidents in the shire are alcohol-related. Credit:Marta Pascual Juanola

Devon Cuimara, the founder of Newman’s Aboriginal Males Healing Centre, says the Pilbara was full of invisible children like the teen.

“The fact of the matter is, the issues with the boy are the issues of many. He could be any one of those children in Newman,” he says.

“It took him to kill somebody for [FASD] to be recognised. Why did someone have to lose their life? It’s a common theme in our community.”

Cuimara says the Martu are losing an entire generation to alcohol, substance abuse and violence, which in turn is eroding culture.

“We attend six to seven funerals a week. We are traumatised by the amounts of death. They are certainly not through old age,” he says.

“When will it ever end?”

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The teen will be eligible for release in 2023 and will need to face tribal punishment – a spearing and beating – when he returns to his community.

He will likely require support through the National Disability Insurance Scheme for the rest of his life to deal with his impairments and it’s not clear whether he’ll be allowed to reunite with his children in the near future.

Meanwhile, Nyaparu’s family will need to learn how to live without their bubbly girl while raising her two young sons.
“I can’t explain the pain and suffering,” her mother says.
“Nothing can explain how much we want her back. She did not deserve this and we have always loved and looked after her. I will always feel sad for what has happened.”

* WAtoday has chosen to refer to the victim as Nyaparu for cultural reasons. In some Western Desert communities, Nyaparu is the name given to deceased people who can no longer be named due to traditional cultural beliefs.

The Alcohol and Drug Support Line is available 24 hours a day for information and support on 08 9442 5000 or 1800 198 024 (Country).

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