Police body cam footage played at the inquest into the death of an Aboriginal man in north-west New South Wales shows police discussing how they could hear him after he fled into a flooded river.
WARNING: This story contains images and details of an Aboriginal person who has died. The man's family has given permission to use his name and image in this article.
Gomeroi man Gordon Copeland was last seen alive entering the Gwydir River near Moree early on July 10, 2021, his body was found three months later.
An inquest into the 22-year-old's death opened in the Moree Coroners Court and is expected to last two weeks.
Counsel assisting the coroner Peggy Dwyer has told the first day of the hearing that police followed a speeding car onto a dirt track near the river.
Three people were inside the vehicle and fled the car and Mr Copeland fell down a steep bank into floodwaters.
In her opening address to the state coroner, Teresa O'Sullivan, Ms Dwyer said officers heard someone "jump" into the river around 2:30am and heard groans but, due to the darkness and steepness of the bank, could not see anyone.
Ms Dwyer told the inquest police did not hear any reply after yelling out and believed the car's three occupants had fled on foot.
She said two officers saw Mr Copeland when they returned to the site more than an hour later and urged him to swim towards them.
"Gordon looked at officers as he attempted to swim towards the bank, he attempted to obey what officers were saying," Ms Dwyer said.
Ms Dwyer told the inquest that logs and debris prevented the officers from reaching him and they watched him disappear around a river bend.
Police body cam footage played in court shows police telling their superior, Senior Constable Crystal Manusu, how they "couldn't see anybody in the water".
"There was definitely the bloke, he was young, groaning or crying a bit, so I think he's hurt himself going over the fence," one officer could be heard saying.
In another comment, an officer said "there's a splash, then there was moaning and groaning for a good two minutes".
An officer could be heard laughing as they told their colleagues "I went for a swim, it was a bit slippery".
Under questioning by the counsel assisting, Leading Senior Constable Crystal Manusu told the inquest she formed an opinion that Mr Copeland had escaped.
Constable Manusu: "I confirmed no-one had seen anyone in the water, I thought he made an escape down the riverbank," she said.
Ms Dwyer: "Do you think with the benefit of hindsight you should've looked at the condition of the water? With moaning and groaning?"
Constable Manusu: "Obviously with hindsight and the information I have now things would be different, possibly I should have attended the river myself.
"I trusted what the officers said. If I had any inkling someone was in the river I never would've left in the first place."
Constable Manusu also told the court "it is more common than not that people escape police".
Family told 'he wasn't missing'
In her opening address, Ms Dwyer told the hearing a larger search was then launched involving NSW Fire and Rescue, State Emergency Service (SES) and other officers but the SES boat was not launched till 5am because of the strong river current.
She said this search was called off later that day because police believed there had only been two people in the car and both had been accounted for.
Ms Dwyer said Mr Copeland's family heard differently, and told police he had been in the car.
"The family were extremely distressed when police told them he wasn't missing," Ms Dwyer said.
Almost 24 hours later, on July 11, police reinstated a larger search after learning Mr Copeland had been in the car.
Ms Dwyer told the court even though an earlier search would not have changed the outcome, it was painful for the family to wait almost 24 hours for the search to continue.
The court heard NSW Police conducted a string of searches, which were unfruitful, until October 7, 2021, when police divers found Mr Copeland's body.
"It's important to note the family never stopped searching until his body was located," Ms Dwyer told the court.
"The strain — financial and emotional — on the family was significant."
The court heard the coroner would be considering whether there was a pursuit of the car, how adequate the officers' actions were, and how appropriate it was to call off the first two searches.
'I want justice'
Family and friends of Mr Copeland and their supporters gathered outside the court before proceedings to conduct a smoking ceremony that was attended by Magistrate O'Sullivan.
Among them was Mr Copeland's partner, Josephine Brown, with their two children, who earlier released a statement that outlined her pain that her sons no longer had a father.
"Our littlest one didn't get to meet him and our four-year-old always looks for him," she said.
"I want some accountability. I want justice."
The inquest continues.