Missing teen inquest reveals burden on local police
AN INQUEST into the case of missing teenager Jasmine Morris has revealed just how under-resourced local investigative teams were in the time surrounding her disappearance.
The coronial inquest which is underway in Coffs Harbour is seeking to determine whether there was unreasonable delay in the investigations of Ms Morris' disappearance - now suspected murder.
Ms Morris' mother reported the 19-year-old missing on October 20, 2009, two weeks after she was last seen. The court heard Ms Morris was known to "take off" but by this point her mother was concerned.
Head of NSW Police Missing Persons Registry, Detective Inspector Glen Browne, had informed Counsel assisting the Coroner, Maria Gerace, that investigations began 10 days later.
Det Insp Glen Browne shared his concerns that the investigations had not been done in a timely manner. He said a number of procedures had not been undertaken when they should have been, including that the case should have been referred to the coroner after 12 months of no signs of life.
The Det Insp further added all avenues of investigations should have been exhausted by 12 months, but this had not occurred.
Ms Morris' case was not referred to the coroner until 2011, 20 months after she was reported missing.
The investigations manager for the Coffs-Clarence Police District, Detective Senior Sergeant Peter O'Reilly, however painted a much different picture in his statement to the inquest - revealing just how much of a burden the under-resourced teams were facing at the time.
Sr Sgt O'Reilly, who has held the position since 2006, said the team consisted of one Detective Sergeant and five detectives based in Grafton, and one Detective Sergeant and eight detectives in Coffs Harbour.
In the two weeks following reports Ms Morris was missing, the Coffs/Clarence investigation teams were faced with 11 major crimes requiring serious investigations - including a violent home invasion, a violent sexual assault, a murder and the discovery of human remains in a river west of Coffs.
In total, between when Ms Morris was reported missing on October 20 to the end of the year, the region's small investigative teams were faced with 36 incidents.
From January to March 2010, resources were further stretched with another 39 major incidents taking place - including the Valentines Day Yamba Riots.
Sr Sgt O'Reilly stated that in January 2010, due to an officer sustaining injuries, there was only one fully operational member of the criminal investigations team at Grafton. He had to temporarily move an officer from Coffs and allocate officers from property crime duties to assist with criminal investigations.
He further added that the allocation of a massive nine new criminal investigations positions in 2011 was indicative of just how under-resourced the Coffs-Clarence District's investigative responses were.
The inquest heard that it was of Sr Sgt O'Reilly's opinion that the response was ongoing and thorough despite these challenges.
Counsel assisting Maria Gerace told Deputy State Coroner Derek Lee that a review of all the material suggested the greatest barrier to understanding what happened to Ms Morris was instead the lack of willingness of witnesses to speak with police early on.
She said many of the people interacting with Ms Morris prior to her disappearance were using drugs at the time, and were drug affected during police interviews.
The 5-day inquest continues at Coffs Harbour courthouse until the end of the week.