Killer Hunt In Hippie Commune
The Sun Herald
Sunday December 13, 1992
ON August 29, 1976, police and customs agents, wearing paramilitary gear, swooped on an isolated hippie commune in thick scrub between Cairns and Cooktown.
The raid cost more than $50,000 and involved a helicopter, light aircraft and a Navy vessel.
The result was the arrest of 12 young people on drug and vagrancy charges.
But some police involved in the operation were later accused of taking part in an orgy of wanton destruction, which led to 25 charges, including arson, being laid against four officers.
The allegations opened a can of worms within the police force and thrust the then Queensland Premier, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, into a slanging match with Church groups, civil libertarians, the State Opposition and even his own police commissioner.
The public began to wonder why such military-style planning, enormous expense and considerable State and Federal police manpower had gone into a small-time drug raid.
Queensland’s Federal Member for Leichhardt, John Gayler, who represented the Cedar Bay residents during the inquiry, claims hippies were arrested on”trumped-up” drug and vagrancy charges to cover up a blunder by Cairns police
Mr Gayler, breaking 16 years of silence, said the real target of the raid was a murderer who had escaped from Cairns watch house earlier that month.
Bernard Wilton, in his early 30s, was facing drug charges when he escaped from the lock-up through a hole in the roof.
A furore erupted within police circles when, hours later, Interpol revealed Wilton was also wanted for drug-related murders overseas.
“The police went ape when they found out they had an international murderer in their grasp – and let him escape,” Mr Gayler said.
“When police received information that Wilton was being looked after by hippies at Cedar Bay they planned the raid with Federal Police and the Navy.
“The raid had nothing to do with cannabis but the police were not going to admit their blunder.
“When they found Wilton wasn’t at the camp at all, they needed to justify such time, effort and expense.” Wilton, who was believed to have been involved in a drug-smuggling operation from Indonesia, is still wanted by Queensland police.
Former Queensland Chief Superintendent Don Becker said his investigations with Inspector Syd Atkinson into allegations of police arson and destruction of property at Cedar Bay led him to believe the raid was intended to snare drug smugglers.
“It’s possible the raid was solely intended to capture Wilton but, if so, it would make it one of the biggest fiascos I’ve ever heard of,” Mr Becker said.
“To try to capture one man – a very cunning criminal – from a helicopter is absurd. Whichever way you look at it, whether to capture Wilton or break a drug-smuggling ring, the entire operation was a fiasco.”
HIPPIES involved in the raid, and former Queensland Police Commissioner Ray Whitrod, who insisted on an inquiry into police conduct during the blitz, remember the bitter Cedar Bay affair with regret.
Former hippie Charles Gifford, who was a key witness at the Cedar Bay inquiry into police misconduct in 1977, describes the time as an “intense period of frustration and anger”.
Mr Whitrod, now living in South Australia, was then fighting for police reforms and said he was sorry the controversy “didn’t do more to raise public awareness” of the extent of police corruption during the Sir Joh era.
At the Cedar Bay inquiry, police were accused of burning huts, smashing personal belongings, destroying clothing, chopping down fruit plantations and, ironically, consuming alcohol at the site following the drug raid.
Police, in their defence, tendered evidence of squalid living conditions and described the commune’s inhabitants as “filthy, criminal hippies”.
They maintained they had done the right thing because it was “in the public interest” to burn the settlement to the ground.
Mr Gifford, however, believes the anarchic streak police displayed during the raid was fuelled by an “intense fear of people who chose to adopt an alternative lifestyle”.
He now lives with his family at Bloomfield, 10km south of Cedar Bay, and says his occasional visits to the site spark bitter feelings over the incident, the inquiry into police conduct, and the acquittal of the four police officers who faced arson charges.
“We were just harmless people living the way we wanted to,” he said.
“The raid started with a helicopter buzzing our camp, then came a troop of about 20 guys wearing paramilitary gear jogging up the beach, taking cover, then jogging up again.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes; it was just so weird. I dashed into the bush, hid, and watched.”
Mr Gifford said police trashed the camp, shot coconuts out of trees with their service revolvers and ripped out fruit and vegetable plots.
He said the most frustrating aspect, as a witness at the inquiry, was”knowing what really happened but not being able to do anything about it”.
“The police had done a great injustice and we just watched in amazement as they got away with everything,” he said.
“The stories and lies they told about us during that trial were absolute rubbish; they made it up as they went along, and they got away with it. I keep in touch with people who were involved with the raid and I think they feel pretty much the same way.”
Mr Gifford said he was living at Cedar Bay with friends in a “bush camp”arrangement at the time.
He said there “may have been a bit of smoke” (marijuana) at the camp but he had never envisaged a full-scale drug raid involving the armed forces.
“It’s pretty scary when people become so angry and resentful of others who choose to live differently. Perhaps they see it as a threat to their own way of life,” he said.
Mr Whitrod, 78, said the Cedar Bay episode was one of the most traumatic experiences of his life.
He said a great source of his angst lay in his terse relationship with the Premier, Sir Joh.
“My relationship with Joh at the time was severely strained because he felt he was acting as a perfectly reasonable person who was doing the right thing. I disagreed,” Mr Whitrod said.
“I insisted on an inquiry into the affair because I felt that police had acted improperly in destroying dwellings.
“I knew there had to be something more to the Cedar Bay business than just a drug raid but at the time I was in the dark about it.
“To my utter frustration, all police who were charged were acquitted – but then it was very difficult to get a conviction against a policeman in those days.”
Mr Whitrod said he believed Sir Joh “wasn’t acting in the best interests of Queensland” when he tried to stifle the inquiry.
“But he (Sir Joh) steadfastly believed he was acting in the best interests of the public and probably still does,” Mr Whitrod said.
“The potential for an incident like that to happen again in Queensland is certainly there. It will be only a matter of time before history repeats itself.”