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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Sarah Collard Indigenous affairs reporter

Gordon Copeland: inquest begins into death of Indigenous man who drowned after being followed by police

The Gwydir River
The Gwydir River, north of the town of Moree, where Gordon Copeland was last seen. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

An inquest into the death of a 22-year-old Gomeroi man who drowned in a Moree river after allegedly running from police, has heard harrowing evidence about his final moments.

The New South Wales coroner is examining the circumstances surrounding the death of Gordon Copeland, who died in the Gwydir river in the early hours of 10 July 2021.

The Moree court heard Copeland, a father of three, ran into the swollen river after police followed the vehicle in which he was a passenger.

Gordon Copeland’s family said they remember the 22-year-old father as a “bubbly and bright” young man.

His mother, Narelle Copeland, is hoping the two-week probe into her son’s death will bring them answers and justice.

“I want to find out exactly what happened that night. I want answers. Life is just not the same without Gord,” Copeland said in a statement.

The inquest is examining the events leading up to Copeland’s death, including the decision by police to follow the vehicle, their subsequent search efforts and whether they could have done more to help Copeland after he entered the water.

Counsel assisting the coroner, Dr Peggy Dwyer, said in her opening statement that the final moments of his life would have been “distressing and painful”.

The inquest heard evidence from an expert that Copeland could have survived for as long as 40 minutes in the cold water – with an estimated temperature of 11 degrees.

“He had a slim build, and after about 40 minutes Gordon would have become hypothermic, he would have had diminished muscle strength,” said Dwyer.

Gordon Copeland with his first son
Gordon Copeland with his first-born son. Copeland passed away shortly before his second son was born. Photograph: Supplied by the family & ALS

On Monday Dwyer told the inquest police officers had begun to follow the black sedan in which Copeland was travelling over misplaced concerns the vehicle was stolen.

The coroner heard that officers saw the occupants leave the vehicle after it became stuck on an unsealed road. After searching the river and not locating anybody, the officers left the scene in the early hours of the morning, returning an hour later to collect evidence.

The coroner heard there was confusion over whether or not Gordon Copeland had actually gone into the river, with officers initially believing there were only two occupants in the car, not three, and that family members were initially told all of those believed to be in the vehicle were “accounted for”.

Dwyer said his mother received a text message from police “to say that there was nobody in the river and everybody had been located”.

She said that his family were told to file a missing persons report after they had failed to locate him and were told incorrectly that he was in custody before local police then told the family he was not.

“This uncertainty was upsetting and frustrating,” Dwyer said.

Dwyer told the inquest harrowing details about how Copeland had been “moaning and groaning” as he struggled to survive in the strong current in the cold river, at the bottom of an eight-metre cliff.

The court heard that the officers who had returned to the scene and heard his cries had called to him saying he wasn’t in trouble, and advised him to grab onto something to prevent himself from being swept away. The officers were unable to reach him and called emergency services when they lost sight of him in the current.

Dwyer told the court that body-worn cameras showed probationary constables searching the river in the initial stages, before police returned for the second time, had spent only 13 minutes looking for anyone who may have fallen down the embankment.

Despite continuous and intensive searching by Copeland’s family and friends and several later searches by authorities Copeland’s body was not found until October 2021 – nearly three months after he disappeared.

Copeland’s aunt, Jacinta Copeland, said in a statement the family hoped the inquest would prevent any family from experiencing a similar tragedy.

“We want to prevent this from happening to other kids. Narelle’s got a lot of nephews and grandchildren who still have to grow up in Moree,” she said.

The inquest continues.

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