Detectives almost died in crime scene chopper plunge
TWO detectives injured in a helicopter crash while investigating the 1978 Spear Creek murders have spoken of the horrifying moment the aircraft plummeted to the ground, exploding on impact and showering them with fuel.
Former detectives Neil MacKenzie and Jim O'Donnell were part of the original team called in to investigate Queensland's real-life "Wolf Creek" shootings - the murders of Karen Edwards, Tim Thomson and Gordon Twaddle. The case is currently being reviewed by homicide detectives, who say they are confident it can be solved.
The three friends were on an outback adventure and planned to travel the country on motorbike for months, but were killed just days after starting out from Alice Springs. Police believe they were befriended by another motorbike rider on the road.
They were last seen at the Moondarra Caravan Park at Mount Isa on the morning of October 5. Police believe the same man came to collect them from their campsite in a white and brown Toyota LandCruiser and returned on nightfall alone to pack up their camp.
Their bodies were discovered in bushland at Spear Creek, 12 north of the town, on October 24.
Mr O'Donnell, now retired, was among a group of police officers who took to the air in the chartered helicopter to survey the crime scene from above.
"We went over the dam and went over the scene. There was people, police down there, sifting through the scene, looking for anything, shell casings, things that might be of benefit," he said.
"Then there was a clunking noise and a red light. I remember a red light and a buzzing noise from the cockpit."
Then chopper dropped. Mr O'Donnell said the pilot had tried to get to a clearing but it soon became obvious they wouldn't make it.
"And, incredibly, not one word was said. No-one said a word. I think we were just all frozen.
"I just remember hitting the ground and there was this noise, and shrapnel and the canopy getting ripped apart. And then it just stopped.
"And of course, the first thing you think of is, I've got to get out of here."
Mr O'Donnell said he and another detective, Ken Cant, crawled back to help their colleague Reg Ashmore get out of his harness. He said Mr Ashmore had been terrified of flying and had strapped himself in so tightly he wasn't able to get out.
"But we all survived. I had bruised vertebrae. All our backs, we all had sore backs for a long time."
Mr MacKenzie was a police photographer who was in the helicopter to take aerial shots of the crime scene.
"The chopper disintegrated virtually," he said.
"It was still ticking and there was fuel on us and I thought, this could explode here. This is not good. My seat had broken out and it was sort of over on its side.
"To be quite honest, I did panic, and I was trying to get my seatbelt to release. And I thought, get out of here as quick as you can.
"I couldn't get up and walk away because I was in such pain and I had to crawl away. I honestly thought it was going to explode."
But after crawling away, Mr MacKenzie realised he had left his camera behind - along with the undeveloped aerial pictures.
"It was a bit silly in a way but I thought, oh, the photos and the gear, and I sort of crawled back in to get it out."
Those photographs remain in the investigative file currently being reviewed by detectives.
Mr MacKenzie said a fire truck arrived on scene within minutes - having seen the helicopter go down from their base at the nearby airport.
Both he and Mr Ashmore spent time in hospital with crushed vertebrae.
Mr MacKenzie and Mr O'Donnell spoke about the crash as part of a new push to solve the triple murder.
CAN YOU HELP SOLVE THIS CRIME?
Anyone with information on the movements of Karen, Tim and Gordon is asked to call Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.
Police particularly want to speak to anyone who saw the group - who would have stood out with their motorbikes, sidecar and Doberman puppy - as they travelled between Alice Springs and Mount Isa between October 2 and October 4, 1978.
They'd also like to hear from anyone who remembers the group being joined by a man on a motorbike or anyone who saw a man in a Toyota LandCruiser visit the group at the Moondarra Caravan Park on October 4 or 5.
The compelling story of the unsolved murders will be told in a four-part podcast series called Spear Creek, launched by The Courier-Mail and available from today.