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Grisly case baffles

Wednesday, 30th March, 2016

The McGowen Street home of the Smithson family who disappeared in 1971. INSET: Sandra Reed outside court during the case. The McGowen Street home of the Smithson family who disappeared in 1971. INSET: Sandra Reed outside court during the case.

By Darrin Manuel

The region’s water crisis has once again thrust the Menindee Lakes into the national spotlight, but as many locals would recall, the lakes held Australia’s attention for a far more grisly reason almost 50 years ago.

In Autumn 1971, all five members of the Smithson family travelled to the Lakes for a picnic by the water at Menindee’s main weir. Only the family’s father, 29-year-old Harold, would return alive, sparking a mystery that has endured for generations.

About 4.30pm on March 16, Harold Smithson, a teacher at the local Technical College, drove his wife Jeanette (25) and children Craig (4), Sharon (3) and Michelle (3 months) to the main weir for the family outing.

The family left the car and headed to the waterfront to set up and prepare to go fishing, however what occurred next has never been fully explained.

Smithson claimed that he left his family at the water’s edge and returned to the car to fetch a bottle for the baby, stubbing his toe in the process. He said when he turned back, his entire family had simply vanished.

About 5.30pm passing motorist Ronald Williams and his 11-year old son said they saw Mr Smithson drop a bundle into the river then begin immediately stripping and screaming for help.

Mr Williams, who was on the opposite side of the bank, yelled to Smithson that he would have to go back the way he came in order to get help, and drove to Menindee to alert the authorities.

He travelled to Marsden’s shop and alerted the Water Commission’s second-in-charge Mr Radcliffe that there was a body in the water, and then alerted Menindee policeman Sgt Turner.

In the meantime two fisherman - John Butcher and Eddy Hocking - later found Smithson running down the road in a hysterical state with mud on his face and only wearing blue pants.

The body of Craig was pulled from the water shortly afterward by Mr Butcher, and authorities took the body to Broken Hill with a subsequent autopsy showing the boy had drowned.

The search continued the next day despite fast-running waters hampering efforts, and the body of Jeanette was soon found floating around 100 metres from where the family had disappeared.

Her body had become entangled in old fishing lines while submerged in the churning water, and officers said this was likely the reason she had not been found sooner.

With the seriousness of the matter intensifying, two detectives from Sydney were dispatched to help investigate the incident, and before long the body of three-year-old Sharon was found not far from where her mother’s remains were discovered.

The search went on for baby Michelle and the main weir was closed to calm the waters and allow for dragging operations to be conducted, however the baby’s body was never found.

The investigation became the biggest case since a woman drowned in Proprietary Dam in 1952, with six local detectives aiding their Sydney counterparts and over 150 locals interviewed.

Scrutiny intensified on Smithson as the case unfolded, and on March 25 he was formally charged with four counts of murder.

He was granted bail at 2000 pounds and retreated to Wollongong to live with his parents until a local hearing was held on May 10.

The first day of the hearing was reasonably uneventful, with Technical College Principal Douglas Smith describing Smithson as an “above average” teacher, and neighbour Anne Lucas saying she had never heard any significant arguments between the couple.

However, Jeanette had told her neighbour that the family was in fact planning a picnic at Umberumberka - an unsurprising move given that warnings had been posted by the Water Commission about the dangers of the river given its turbulent state.

Ms Lucas also said Jeanette had been in particularly high spirits because baby Michelle had recently been born without a hare lip - a family trait inherited by their son Craig, but avoided by middle child Sharon as she was adopted.

The case then took a sinister twist on day two when Mr Williams was called to publicly recount what he had seen take place on that fateful day.

Mr Williams said the Smithson had dropped the bundle in the river then began stripping off his clothes, and screaming wildly for help - a story that was correlated by his son.

Another witness, Joseph Dorrington, then took the stand, and he too reported seeing picnickers around 5.30pm, but did not see any disturbances during his time by the weir.

Despite Mr Williams’ damning testimony, his credibility was thrown into doubt by Smithson’s lawyer, G. G. Buckworth, who “grilled Mr Williams for hours” over minor details in his evidence.

Mr Williams had recalled that Smithson had been wearing white underwear after stripping, but he had in fact been wearing green underwear, there was also uncertainty over whether Smithson was wearing blue or brown pants. Mr Buckworth also said it was odd that both Mr Dorrington and Mr Williams had been at the weir around the same time, yet hadn’t seen each other.

Mr Buckworth even went as far as to suggest that Mr Williams in fact had chatted with other locals and “dreamed up” the scenario of Smithson throwing the bundle into the water - a notion Mr Williams dismissed as “ridiculous”.

As the case continued all investigators acknowledged that Smithson had vehemently protested his innocence at all times and appeared genuinely distressed by the disappearance of his family.

However Det. Sgt. Williamson noted that Smithson had previously denied associating with any other women - a statement that would contrast with later evidence and cast a shadow over the trial.

The case came to a temporary standstill on May 21 when Jeanette’s father, Jim Watson, “broke down completely” while taking the oath in court, and his wife collapsed and had required medical aid.

After the interruption, numerous locals associated with the technical college were called to the stand, with student Vicki Hoskings, gardener Gordon Florence, and a host of other locals noting that they had seen Mr Smithson spending a lot of time with a local woman, 17-year-old typist Sandra Reed (also often reported as Ms Sandra Read).

The case was then moved to Sydney and reconvened on June 21 and attracted national prominence, with Jeanette’s father, James Watson, saying his son-in-law had become a “changed man” since the birth of baby Michelle.

Mr Watson said Smithson had also told him things that contradicted previous statements, including that Smithson could not go into the water to save his family as he had just retrieved Craig’s body (Craig was in fact pulled from the water by fisherman John Butcher), and that he had removed his clothing because he had “scratched his chest”.

Mr Watson added that Smithson was also concerned that Broken Hill police were now convinced that he had been having an affair with Ms Reed.

As the trial neared its conclusion, Mr Buckworth made a powerful argument asserting that his client’s evidence and recollections of events simply didn’t fit the profile of the dishonest “cold, calculating” killer the prosecution had portrayed him to be.

“It would have been simple for him to say he heard screams, or he saw them splashing in the water,” said Mr Buckworth.

“He could have said he rushed to the river and realised it was folly to throw himself in after them, but he made none of these false claims.” 

He added that pushing the family into the river was also a very unreliable method of murder given that the unpredictable waters could swirl them back to the bank and allow them to survive. 

The next day the prosecution made their final statements, saying Smithson pushed his family in the water then dumped the baby in with them as they were a barrier to his new love, Ms Reed.

Police Prosecutor Sgt. Hyde said Smithson was acutely aware of the dangerous nature of the water below the weir, and drove his family to the spot with the intention of murdering them.

Sgt Hyde said the relationship between Smithson and Ms Reed was a “blossoming love affair”, and not the innocent friendship Smithson claimed.

“We suggest the outward platonic relationship was a camouflage for a deep and serious relationship with a view to marriage,” said Sgt Hyde.

The exact nature of the pair’s relationship appears difficult to ascertain as although Ms Reed admitted she was attracted to Mr Smithson and often lunched with him, she said he had never “touched her in any improper way” and her doctor confirmed that she was a virgin.

However she did concede they’d “embraced each other” in Mr Smithson’s car and confessed their love for each other while riding in a speedboat at Copi Hollow.

In late June, after hearing weeks of arguments and statements, Judge M.Farquhar said he would weigh up all the evidence and decide whether Smithson should stand trial for multiple murder.

After weeks of anticipation, the front page of the July 20 edition of the BDT was emblazoned with the words “SMITHSON DISCHARGED”, with the judge stating the evidence simply could not justify a murder charge.

While Judge Farquhar conceded a number of factors in the case were suspicious, he said there was simply insufficient evidence to move forward with the case.

“...there must be more than mere possibility of suspicions,” he said.

After he was discharged Smithson said Justice had been done, but added that he had endured “four months of agony”.

“I’m free, but my wife is gone. My children are gone,” he said, before vowing to return to a life of teaching.

* Do you know anything about the case? Contact the BDT if you have information that has not been previously reported. Email editorial@bdtruth.com.au or phone 8087 2354.

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