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  • Writer's pictureValentine Smith

“Cold Case Challenges” Missing in Action, Lost Boys in the Wilderness​

Updated: Jan 27, 2023

‘The incident scene is born through a set of circumstances. It explodes into life and then immediately begins to die until there is virtually nothing left. It loses its warmth, its lifeblood and grows cold. Thus the cold case evolves until it disappears, but whilst the physical might be gone, the recollections remain within the distant and often distorted memories of witnesses, until, they to, disappear.’1

  • What does the above quote tell us?

  • What are we looking at here?

Primarily it tells us that the physical scene is an incident, an event, which like any event generally embeds itself into a physical location and into the minds and memories of those who attend it. Similarly, like any other event, the passage of time breaks down or changes both the physical and the memory, until eventually there is little left, other than that which was carefully captured or preserved at the time.

Secondly, ‘The incident scene is born through a set of circumstances.’ This implies two things, one is that a ‘…scene is born’. I have dropped the word crime, because it should not only be a crime before we swing into action. The response should be just as intense in any incident, especially one where there is likely to be death or serious injury.

Thirdly understanding that passing time diminishes the availability and value of useful evidence, the implied suggestion here is that the attendees and first responders need to preserve as much as they can. This includes, notes, photographs, physical evidence, detailed descriptions and comprehensive witness statements, all collected, kept, written into a narrative and preserved for the future. Without those preservatives the investigators and scientists who may re-visit the event are often dealing with lost specks of dust and decomposing confusing inaccuracies.

The Scene

The science of visiting old incident scenes is not complete without the input of forensic archaeologists. These scientists employ a variety of techniques in order to identify an area suitable for a micro-search to look for evidence and other clues.

I have discussed this topic with eminent Forensic Archaeologist, Doctor Jon Sterenberg. In response to my mentioning of the Damian McKenzie case2, Dr. Sterenberg suggested that in order to have any hope in identifying an area within which a micro-search could be conducted I should perhaps consider the use of ‘Winthropping', originally the initiative of a British army officer during World War 1. The technique uses natural or man-made features in the landscape to lead a person to a particular location known only to them. To retrace such a route involves a type of scene-based process where people (known entities) and the geo-physical area are profiled in order to determine the most likely route taken and the location where evidence may be discovered. Winthropping reminds me of the ‘tracking’ skills of nomadic indigenous hunters, who often used their knowledge of prey behaviour combined with physical marks, landscape features and tracks, to drill down and find food.

A difficulty in cold case lost-in-the-bush scenarios is to be able to pinpoint a likely search area after decades of change and evidence loss. Over time the physical features of an area change dramatically. In the Damian McKenzie case, (an Australian boy lost in the bush in 1974) the area around Steavenson Falls and Marysville, where he was last seen, raise a number of considerations:

  • There has been over forty years of forest debris falling from the trees to alter the surface layers of the forest floor, which is further altered by ever changing tree falls, root destruction, erosion and scavenger disturbance.

  • In addition to the naturally evolving cyclic change within the forest there is the unwanted dramatic event of forest fire, which, in the case of the Steavenson River catchment, happened with devastating effect.

  • In 2009 an apocalyptic firestorm swept through the Steavenson Valley, all but destroying the town of Marysville, killing scores of people and turning the ranges into a ‘napalmed moonscape’. The fire of 2009, however, did reveal one thing that would not normally be obvious to the tourist or casual onlooker. The ranges around Steavenson Falls are on an exposed bed of bouldering rock with thousands of nooks, crannies, and crevasses for a tiny ten-year-old boy to slip into and vanish.

Schematic for stages of a missing person investigation:

Figure 1 - Cold case incident life cycle © Valentine Smith 2017

First Responders and Initial Action

‘The examination of any incident scene should focus on understanding the circumstances and identifying all of the causes and influences surrounding them’.3

What of those first responders at Steavenson Falls in 1974, how would they have reacted, what would they have identified, captured and preserved?

We cannot and should not critique 1974 accountabilities, capabilities and responsibilities in a comparison against contemporary methods. The culture, environment and methods of forty years ago, were in many ways different to that of today.

Far from being critical of the old methods versus the modern, sometimes it was the case that the slower more ‘hands-on’ logic of yesteryear yielded a more effective outcome than some of the scientific and technology boosted methods of today, however that is generally not always the case. Nowadays we have DNA, incredible advances in bioscience and technological boosts, with thermal imaging. There are all manner of supports to police and other response agencies who are pressured by a more informed, less accepting and more demanding community.

The first responders in the Damian McKenzie case were adult supervisors from the party he was with. Local police, who were later called, understandably took some time to arrive on the scene. Already both the daylight was fading and many potential witnesses had left. Minimal statements were taken and the case was considered to be what was reported, that is, a lost child.

The police action involved responding to the lost child report. An indication was given as to where he was last seen and a large and enduring coordinated ground search lasting six days sprang into action.

However, there was no corresponding police inquisitorial investigation to determine the truth or otherwise or what was reported, nor to collect sophisticated details that could provide value to any later investigative review.

There are no known police photographs available in relation to the Damian McKenzie case; likewise there are almost no copies of original police statements.

There has not been a coronial inquest into the disappearance of Damian. This however is not uncommon in these types of cases. The police did not request an inquest and the McKenzie family, accepting the lead and direction of the police at the time and grateful of the overall response, remained silent on this topic.

Physical Remains

I mentioned the complete evolutionary morphing of the location of where this event is reported to have taken place, but what of any evidentiary remains specific to Damian, what is likely to remain? The short answer is probably nothing.

Assuming that he lay on the surface somewhere and open to the elements of weather and animal scavenging, little if anything would be expected to survive except the possibility of a few small and very scattered visually unidentifiable bone fragments that could be identified as human by a forensic anthropologist if one were available. If he had metal in his clothing, such as belt buckles, shoe eyelets or zippers, these could be partially intact and locatable using a metal detector, but again, given corrosion, hardly identifiable to the naked eye.

So where do we look for these physical things in a landscape dressed down with forty years of changing topsoil and torched in a firestorm? We can return to the valued advice of Dr. Sterenberg, but where do we conduct a painstaking hand and knees archaeological dig? We need a clue, a message that communicates to us a location. If we could find such a location then the professional scientific support of the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, with incredibly dedicated and supportive scientists, would not hesitate in assisting. But we do not have a micro-site to search; instead we have the denseness of the Victorian bush and a likely search area as big as some European countries. That area could be narrowed down through a review of all of or any surviving notes from the time of the event and putting these into a geospatial information system (GIS) to analyze any discernable patterns.

How do you find answers if you don't have all the facts?

Without physical and credible witness evidence and records, how do you even begin to understand what has happened in a cold case such as the Damian McKenzie investigation? Whilst we may not have an opportunity to examine evidence that is directly linked to the case, we can look for similar fact evidence in other cases. The method is to treat the circumstances as an event and the event as an entity with its own unique character and life. Now we can not only look for other events where the circumstances have been similar, but we can also look closely at those that display those similarities and, just as importantly, differences, so as to avoid experiential or confirmation bias.

Notes taken at the time

Given the basic needs mentioned above, one of the most crucial elements of a good start to a cold case incident investigation is the availability of notes taken at the time. These are the notes made by witnesses, first responders and by others during any corresponding investigation. The importance of why notes taken at the time are so vital to an investigation cannot be over-emphasized, for this reason this topic will be discussed in a later article.

By the way…

My interest in this topic is related to the investigation into the disappearance of Damian McKenzie, a ten-year-old boy who was lost at Steavenson Falls, Marysville on 4 September 1974 (See: Damian Mckenzie

Later articles in the series, ‘Lost Boys in the Wilderness’, will include – ‘Notes taken at the Time’, ‘The Cyclic Evolution of a Cold Case Incident Scene – 1 Hectare over 100 Years’, and numerous other articles, including many relating to individual cases and the patterns of and influences on victim behaviour.

If you have any information in relation to this case please notify your local police, or call Crime Stoppers. Alternatively you can also respond to the investigation or provide support by leaving a comment following this article.

1 Valentine Smith © 2017

2 Damian McKenzie – Lost at Steavenson Falls, Marysville, Victoria, Australia in 1974

3 Valentine Smith © 2017

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