Former investigator looks back on the Childers Hostel Fire
20 YEARS ago, 15 lives were claimed in the darkness of smoke after Robert Paul Long set fire to The Palace backpacker hostel in Childers.
Nine women and six men from all over the world including the UK, Australia, The Netherlands, Japan, Ireland and South Korea never made it out of the inferno.
Long was found and arrested just days later, but was only every charged with the murder of Australian backpackers and twin sisters Kelly and Stacey Slarke.
Former detective and now Bundaberg MP, David Batt, was one of the people involved with the investigation of the fire to bring Long to justice.
He recently reflected on the investigation.
“Back in 2000 I was a Detective Senior Constable working here in the Bundaberg Criminal Investigation Branch and I was one of the detectives who attended the Childers Backpacker Fire on June 23, 2000,” he said.
“A few hours after the fire began, we were called out to start investigating what had happened and who was responsible.
“When we got there, the scene was overwhelming, especially for the small, sleepy down of Childers.
“We knew very early on in the investigation that lives had been lost, but it took a few hours to establish how many.
“The first thing we had to do was find a place to set up the Major Incident Room, so we had a location to start talking to witnesses about what they heard and saw that night.
“Robert Long was named a suspect in the investigation very quickly, he was named by numerous people on multiple occasions and we were told by witnesses that he had been acting suspiciously in the lead up, including having been seen near an earlier fire which had been lit and extinguished in a bin in the hostel.
“After the fire, Long was on the run but numerous people reported seeing him in and around farm and bushland in the Childers area, the first confirmed sighting was on the corner of Stockyard Creek and Goodwood Roads which we attended to investigate, so it was just a matter of following up each sighting after that until we found him.
“Five days later, Long was taken into Police Custody after we tracked him down near the tiny town of Howard, less than 40km south of Childers.
“One of our Special Emergency Response Team (SERT) officers cornered him on the bank of the Burrum River and he pulled a knife on the Police dog and handler, stabbing the officer in the chin and another officer discharged his weapon on Long to protect his colleague.
“Long obtained some injuries in the altercation and at the time he thought he was dying, so he made some confessions regarding his actions in relation to the fire.
“In what’s referred to as a ‘dying declaration’, Long told officers he was responsible for lighting the fire in Childers and the officers gave him a ten dollar note to write his confession on, as that’s all they had on them at the time.
“This month, Long is due for parole but whether he will be released, is entirely up to the parole board.
“Back in 2000, people who were found guilty of murder were given a life sentence of 15 years in jail, but if you were convicted of two or more murders you were given a life sentence of 20 years before you were eligible for parole.
“Long was charged and convicted of just 2 murders and received 20 years, despite murdering 15 people and attempting to murder 73 others, because regardless of how many murders he was charged with, he still would have received the same life sentence.
“In my opinion, Robert Long should spend the rest of his life in custody and should not be given any privileges after he took away the lives of 15 innocent people and attempted to do the same to 73 others.
“The Childers Backpacker Fire was not the first or only offence Long has been charged with, he had a previous criminal history and had been charged with some very serious offences in other states, as well as Queensland, including previously lighting fire to a caravan his partner was in at the time.
“Long is a dangerous man and if he gets released on parole, there will be a lot of people very concerned about his whereabouts for the rest of his life.
“The laws regarding murder sentencing are different now to what they were back in 2000, but those laws aren’t retrospective so unfortunately, they don’t apply to Long’s sentence.
“At the time and on many occasions since, the Childers Backpacker Fire received international media attention and the tragedy has undoubtably had a lasting impact on our region.
“No one will ever forget what happened and we will always remember those who were never able to return home to their family and friends.
“The Childers Backpacker fire is one of the biggest murder investigations in Queensland’s history, with many resources tasked to assist the local police, including the homicide squad, arson squad, forensic and victim identification officers, as well as the SERT teams.
“It was certainly one of the most trying investigations that I was involved with during my career as a detective.”