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  • Writer's pictureValentine Smith

“Where’s Damian?” Missing in Action, Lost Boys in the Wilderness​

Updated: Jan 27, 2023



“Every year hundreds, if not thousands, of children are reported lost. All of these children have grieving parents anxiously awaiting some news of the whereabouts of their child. For most there is a successful location and recovery. For others the news is that of a sad tragedy, but this usually provides an answer, and, ultimately, some closure. For a small number there is no closure, no ability to grieve, and although emotionally wounded, to move on. These cases include children lost in the bush, of which pre-adolescent boys are over-represented. This is one of those cases.”


Introduction

On 4th September 1974 a 10-year-old schoolboy named Damian McKenzie disappeared whilst on a youth camp near Marysville in mountains in the Australian State of Victoria. The subsequent search for Damian would, at the time, be one of the biggest of its kind in the State’s history, with up to three hundred searchers combing the rugged bush for any sign of the missing boy.

Newspaper reports of the day would state that Damian disappeared around 11.30 am in the morning, after running off into the bush near Steavenson Falls on the Steavenson River. At the camp with Damian were two of his young mates from Cobden, in Western Victoria, lads who, to this day, still carry the pain of unreasonable responsibility for not knowing the fate of their mate or being able to prevent his disappearance.

The boys were reported to be part of a group of at least forty children, all taking part in a youth camp experience provided by the Young Australian League (YAL), a Western Australian enterprise created to encourage the strong positive growth of young Australians. The YAL camp in the Marysville area was based at a site on the Acheron River at Taggerty, from where buses would take the children to various locations for a range of activities.

The physical search for Damian would last for about a week, before finally petering out and succumbing to the grey effectual realities of a freezing, wet mountain climate on a young ill-equipped and lightly dressed boy of ten.

I didn’t know the brief details above until early 2013; from then the cold case part of the investigation began.


THE INVESTIGATION

  • The investigation of a cold case incident, no matter if it is a crime or some other historic event, is littered with obstacles, from scattered and missing witnesses to fading memories, inadequate notes and other lost records.

  • The analysis of all the elements within the operating environment is crucial to understanding the causes and influences of each stage of the event contributing to the incident. Consequently during this investigation we have examined everything from weather conditions to river flow and the various kinds of natural predators reasonably expected to be in the area.

  • We have also examined cases of known human predators who were active in Victoria at the time.

  • We have examined the realistic likelihood of hypothermia and other physiological and psychological impacts that could have influenced the outcome of this missing person report.

  • Whilst initially this investigation was about Damian McKenzie followed by other cases of missing children in Australia, it was quickly identified that cases occurring elsewhere, especially the United States, were so strikingly similar that these also needed to be examined.

  • We have interviewed a number of witnesses regarding Damian’s disappearance who were there at the time and could give firsthand accounts of what they know about this case.

SOME OF WHAT WE KNOW

  • We know a number of things concerning the tragic event, but there is a lot more we need to know. Some aspects are re-produced here, however many other details are withheld for investigative reasons.

  • We know the weather conditions at the time. The temperature, especially on the second day, was easily low enough to produce hypothermia conditions for anyone unfortunate enough to be lost in the bush.

  • We know what sort of a boy Damian McKenzie was. He was a good-natured country boy, with a strong sense of responsibility. He was well behaved, yet like most boys his age, he enjoyed adventure.

  • We know that he came from a loving, caring, good Aussie family; Country folk, with a connection to the land and good old-fashioned small town community spirit.

  • We know that the Young Australia League adult chaperones were mostly qualified schoolteachers, dedicated, many with experience in conducting these types of camps.

  • We also know that the Taggerty camp was a tried and tested activity that was not likely to produce an environment where a child was expected to go missing.

  • We know that the trip to Steavenson Falls was often a night visit to view the falls under floodlight. On this fateful trip, the falls were first visited on Monday 2nd September. Due to faulty flood-lighting that night, the falls were visited again during the day on Wednesday 4th September, an even less likely time for a tragedy such as this to happen.

  • We know that there was likely a side trip occurring on that same day, perhaps to Gould’s saw mill, or a splitting of the group, to take the girls horse riding while the boys visited the falls.

  • Damian was reported to have run excitedly ahead of the group and up a track on the right side of the river that eventually reaches the top of the falls, intersecting with other bush tracks along the way.

  • There are mixed reports of him being either with others from the group, or that he was with at least two older boys who were not part of the group.


WHAT WE WANT TO KNOW

Whilst we have already located and interviewed a number of witnesses, we would still like to find anyone who was on the YAL camp of 2nd – 6th September 1974, or has knowledge of this case and may have information that will contribute to the investigation’s outcome.

We would also like to locate and speak to any boy, who was reported to have been on the camp and who may have been with Damian at some time on that day.


WHAT ARE THE LIKELY SCENARIOS?

Until this investigation is complete we cannot speculate conclusively on what happened. What we can do is to continue to look at all of the likely causes and influences that could have contributed to the circumstances.

We know that there are a number of possible scenarios. Unless there is strong evidence to point beyond reasonable doubt towards a particular situation, each will ultimately be subjected to the balance of probabilities, in order to at least determine different options. We are only going to discuss some of those scenarios.


1. Lost in the bush?

The first of those possible scenarios is that Damian moved quickly up the falls track, perhaps not concentrating on direction, then becoming disorientated and going in a wrong direction away from the falls. From then he may have kept going, hastily moving along in order to return as expected to the bus. In doing so has he then covered a lot of ground and put himself a long way from the point where he was last seen?

By the time first responders and the police search had swung into action, this first scenario could have seen Damian well away and possibility outside of the corralling cordon of the newly commenced search operation. In our research we are seeing strong indications that some young boys can travel a lot further in inhospitable country than most would reasonably expect, so this is possible.

If Damian had put himself well away from search operations on that first day, then, as the second day commenced, it is likely that he was already beginning to suffer the effect of hypothermia, when the temperature, influenced by considerable rain, dropped to about two degrees Celsius.

The effects of hypothermia may have seen Damian succumb to the unusual behavior of terminal burrowing (1). If he has done this it is likely that, eventually, unable to respond or move, he has tunneled into thick ground cover where he would have not been seen by any searchers and conversely not tried to attract the attention of any passing nearby.

A related, yet speculative option, is that Damian may have at an early stage been on the Keppell’s Falls track and reached a point above Marysville and the Steavenson River. At this point he would have been able to look down, through the bush, on to the town of Marysville in the valley below. If he has then panicked and attempted to ‘bush-bash’ in a direct line to the town he would have placed himself into inhospitable and almost impenetrable undergrowth, from which it is unlikely he would emerge. Alternatively if he has mistakenly continued on towards Keppell’s Falls then he could have become hopelessly disoriented and gone further into the bush.


2. Drowned in the river?

The second scenario is that Damian has fallen into the Steavenson River and been washed down stream. Ordinarily the Steavenson River does not produce the volume of water that would carry a small body far, however, on occasion it can turn into a raging turbulent thundering white water race easily capable of defying expectations. On 4th September 1974, reports are that the river was running high and very fast, boosted by snow melts in the catchment higher up.

Even though the river is interspersed below the falls with a number of small weirs that hold back water for controlled release into the Marysville town water supply, the depth and size of those weirs should not restrict police divers from later finding a body.


We now know that the river was extensively searched as a primary consideration and that the search leaders were reasonably confident that Damian was not in the river.

3. Abducted?

The third scenario is that Damian was abducted and perhaps even removed from the location. This is often put forward as an explanation, by those, who for whatever reason, cannot grasp at the notion that a human can disappear in the bush and not be found, even though there is a formidable search operation ensuing. The reality is that people do disappear in the wilderness, and humans, like any large animal, are soon subject to the ravages of nature, resulting in their almost complete breakdown and blending into the undergrowth, forest litter, and earth.

Even though abduction, in this case, is very unlikely, it is still possible. There is always the remote risk of a pedophilic predator being in any location, and we do know that there was at least one known and highly dangerous predator active in Victoria at precisely that time.

This predator abducted another small boy from a hamlet near Ballarat, Victoria on 12th September 1974. He ultimately murdered the lad and partially buried his body in the bush at Trentham, Victoria. The circumstances of this case are tragic and horrific, yet from an investigative point of view, interesting and will therefore be the subject of a later article.

One interesting aspect of the Ballarat case is that the offender, with his victim and over about twenty-four hours, traveled a triangular distance of approximately 210 kilometres, from Ballarat to Melbourne’s Western suburbs and on to Trentham. Whilst this offender obviously had a willingness to travel, there is nothing known, or apparent in his antecedent behavior, that suggests he ventured to the Eastern side of Victoria.

Some might think it unlikely that a murderer of this kind would strike twice in a ten day period, however this offender, especially when not on medication, was well known to have a voracious uncontrollable sexual urge to offend. Whilst this offender was well capable of committing multiple offences, he was much more likely to find his young male prey on the quiet roads and lanes of small rural communities, rather than on walking tracks in the bush. From an investigative point of view no further information can be obtained from the offender as he died in prison in 1975.

Another notorious abductor and murderer of pre-adolescent boys had absconded from Victoria whilst on bail for child-sex offences committed in 1971. He would later surface in northern Western Australia, where he was closely examined in relation to the disappearance of another small boy. Ultimately he would be arrested and imprisoned in Tasmania for the later abduction and murder of two small boys in that State. His complete whereabouts during the 1971 to 1975 period is not known, however much of it is believed to have been outside of Victoria.

In recent years it has and continues to emerge that the 1970’s was a period when there appeared to have been a high incidence of child sex offences committed against young boys. Many of those responsible for these crimes are now being arrested as old men, however at the time of their criminal activity in the 1970’s many were young men in their 20’s and 30’s. Many held positions of trust in the community, where they had ready access to their pre-adolescent prey.

Whilst I have only briefly mentioned two cases here, it is accepted that there were many more active pedophiles during that time.


4. Natural predators?

The Victorian bush is not the natural home of well-known land predators in the global food chain, such as those found in other continents. However it is home to some animals that can cause harm to the unwary or unlucky, and there are a number of animals that are commonly referred to as predatory or opportunistic scavengers. These include the large monitor lizards, some birds and a number of feral animals such as wild pigs and wild dogs.

I am personally aware of there being, in the 1970’s, a small pocket of wild pigs and wild dogs at Mt. Torbreck, barely forty kilometers from Marysville, and well within the territorial range of wild dog packs.

One nine year old boy who, in 1967, was lost and later found at Toorongo Falls, Noojee, which is also about fifty kilometers from Marysville, said that among the many environmental concerns of his father and searchers at the time, was a modicum of concern relating to the possible presence of wild dogs in the area where he was missing. Historical records dating back to the late 1800’s also mention the presence of wild dogs in the upper Yarra River catchment area.

Some government reports mention that the behavior and breed structure of wild dogs is evolving. The mixture of domestic dog breeds with, in the past, dingoes, has created a blend of unknown territorial and pack behavior with native cunning. There are a number of isolated reports occurring of incidents where there is concern that these dogs may become more of a potential threat to humans.

In relation to wild dogs, I am personally aware of their presence in other parts of the Victorian bush, having encountered them up close in wilderness areas, as well as hearing their howling across the ranges, especially after dusk. However any encounter I have had where a wild dog has been disturbed has always resulted in the dog hurriedly scurrying off into the bush. I am also aware, nonetheless, that wild animals may react differently to the presence of human children as opposed to adults and particularly where someone may be incapacitated.

In addition to known and substantiated reports of wild predators in the nearby bush, there are also some reported sightings of large non-native members of the cat family in various parts of the Victorian bush.

A 2012 Victorian Government Report assessing the evidence in relation to the presence of a wild population of ‘Big Cats’ in Victoria concluded that ‘The available evidence is inadequate to establish that a wild population of ‘big cats’ exists in Victoria’. At this stage, without firm and credible primary evidence of their existence, this line of inquiry as a possible explanation for the disappearance of Damian and others is noted but not pursued.


5. Fallen down a mineshaft?

There is not much of Victoria’s bush-land and high country that was not surveyed for gold and other minerals; this was especially the case in the 19th Century. The area around Marysville itself had some limited prospecting interests, whilst the town was established in the 1860’s as a resting place for miners heading for the more popular Wood’s Point mines.

Further adding to the connection of the town with the gold rush, Surveyor John Steavenson, after whom the Steavenson River was named, used the town as his base in the 1860’s whilst he surveyed the gold field’s roads deeper in the ranges and further to the east of Marysville.

These days most abandoned mines in the area have either been purposely filled in, or they are full of the forest debris that has fallen into them over the past 150 years since they were active.

THE SEARCH

Initially, at about 11.30 am, once Damian was discovered to be missing, the YAL adult chaperone went with two other boys to conduct a preliminary search of the falls track. This revealed nothing and the local police were contacted, however due to the absence of the Marysville policeman at that time, the first police to arrive came from Alexandra, forty-five kilometers away. The details of the initial searches are unclear and it was not until later in the evening that elements of the Victoria Police Search and Rescue Squad and members of the experienced bush-walking clubs arrived.

The Victoria Police Search and Rescue Squad were briefed by Central Communications (D24) during the mid-afternoon of 4th September 1974 and immediately began to mobilize resources and equipment.

The officer in charge of the search operations recalls that he arrived at the scene sometime after dark. Our investigations reveal that a fully coordinated operation was commenced at first light on 5th September 1974. In the meantime some police SAR and Forestry Commission search teams were deployed overnight from the 4th to the early hours of the 5th.

The plan for the search of 5th September was for a normal search, with an experienced searcher in each party. This foot search plan was conducted, whilst maintaining cordoning 4wd patrols of tracks and roads on a wide perimeter. Federation of Bush Walkers, volunteers and other available personnel, conducted foot patrols and search patterns in the most likely areas. Line searches were difficult due to the terrain and the difficulty in keeping the line together. It was also difficult to deploy vehicles up into some of the back areas because of recent snowfalls.

By Friday 6th September there were over 280 personnel deployed in the search, reaching a peak of 310 by Saturday 7th September. These large numbers of mostly volunteer searchers were deployed as small search parties to various locations, however there were understandably not enough skilled SAR specialists to allocate one to each search party. This resulted in some search groups perhaps limited in their navigational skills.

In addition to foot searchers and 4wd vehicles maintaining constant perimeter patrols, a helicopter was also used on 7th September, however its use was limited, due to poor visibility through the blanketing cloud-cover.

By Sunday 8th September those searching were reduced to just over 150 personnel and from then, until 14th September, due to competing demands elsewhere, the search was systematically scaled down to two police SAR members, assisting local police and remaining volunteers still on location.

The search coordinator said that diving equipment was not used as the pools could be accessed with ropes and support equipment from the edges.

Search dogs, although called in, were not effective, as the area was too wet and the whole search grid had already been contaminated by a lot of people during the preliminary searching.

The search groups consisted of various elements of the Federation of Bush Walkers, (now all included as part of Bush Walking Victoria) as well as Civil Defence crews, Australian Red Cross volunteers, district police and a lot of volunteers from the local and Cobden communities.

As far as the accuracy of the search is concerned, the coordinator said, that because of the difficult terrain and the checking of map coordinates’, some areas were double-searched or over-lapped and, in some cases, other small patches may have been missed. He explained, that, due to the varying experience of volunteers and the type of terrain to work in, a full one hundred percent coverage was not always guaranteed.

The coordinator said that the search was conducted to the best of everyone’s ability, but that it was generally very difficult due to the hostile operating environment.

This investigation has discovered that the search was in full operation from the 4th to the 8th of September, with large numbers of coordinated personnel eliminating, as best as they could, the area within the Paradise Plains and Cumberland Roads. Whilst the main search was scaled down from 8th September, there were, as earlier mentioned, some SAR, police and volunteer searchers still in the area up until at least 14th September 1974.

An examination of search maps and other, recently discovered, correspondence, indicates that the search was a combination of small parties walking the tracks and 4wd vehicles constantly patrolling a network of roads and vehicle tracks in the area. In addition large numbers of search personnel were deployed to work through the bush between the tracks. This whole operation was, on at least two occasions, supported by both helicopter and fixed wing search aircraft.

It is also recorded that the Steavenson River was examined by police SAR dive personnel and was extensively covered, as was the areas where Damian would most likely have been expected to be.

The historical search information and terrain of the area also needs to be considered with the knowledge of the devastating impact of the 2009 “Black Saturday” bushfires in the Marysville area.

To date, no trace of Damian has been found.

By the way...

Whilst this is to be read as the conclusion to this article it is not to be taken by any means as the conclusion of this investigation.

Any of the scenario based options are still open possibilities, and each of those options are already worthy of investigative comments, however we will not commit to showing a preference to any option whilst this investigation is still open. We are still searching for witnesses, conducting interviews, and still collecting and examining material, information and evidence.

In 1974 this disappearance was treated as a ‘Lost-in-the-bush’ scenario. Whilst the greater search area is almost limitless, the most likely areas where Damian would have been expected to be were extensively searched, however this does not mean that he was not there. The bush country around Marysville is both thick and rugged underfoot. If he attempted to traverse this country away from the dedicated walking tracks and bush-bash it is highly likely that, if he had fallen, or became immobile, he would never be found, even if searchers were walking within a few feet of where he lay.

If you can provide information on this or any of the cases we are examining, please contact your local police, Crime Stoppers, or let us know. Similarly if you can offer any support, advice or feedback please respond to this article.


[1] “Terminal burrowing behavior” —a phenomenon of lethal hypothermia International Journal of Legal Medicine, 1995, Volume 107, Number 5, Page 250 M. A. Rothschild, V. Schneider

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