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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Sarah Collard

Gordon Copeland’s family handed a Post-it note by police with search location, inquest hears

Gordon Copeland is pictured with his first-born son
Gordon Copeland, a 22-year-old Gomeroi man, drowned in the Gwydir River in July 2021. The NSW coroner is investigating his death. Photograph: Supplied by the family & ALS

The family of Gordon Copeland have told an inquest they were given a Post-it note by police with information about where to look, and felt disrespected throughout the “hurtful, heartbreaking” search for their loved one, after the Gomeroi man went missing in a Moree river.

Lesley Fernando, Gordon Copeland’s aunt, gave emotional testimony on Thursday, telling the inquest the Copeland family had waited desperately for information for hours the morning after his disappearance.

Copeland drowned in the Gwydir River in the early hours of 10 July 2021. The inquest has heard the Gomeroi man entered the water after police followed the vehicle he was in, mistakenly thinking it was stolen.

Police officially called off the search after three days but his body was not found until authorities resumed the search three months later, after sustained community pressure. His family had not stopped looking for him.

Fernando said she was given a note by one of the officers at the Moree police station after combing the riverbank but not knowing where he went into the water.

Fernando told the inquest how she repeatedly asked for more information at the police station on 11 July 2021 – the night after Copeland disappeared, as the family wanted to report Copeland as a missing person.

The inquest has heard an officer had seen a male person in the river the night before.

However, police did not necessarily believe Copeland was missing at the time as they had been given inaccurate information regarding the occupants in the vehicle.

Officers on duty at the station that night had been told the person in the river had been “accounted for”.

“Can you please give us something to help? We’re out here knee-deep in mud and grass. We don’t know where to look,” Fernando said she asked at the time.

She said an officer then left the room and came back with a note and handed it to her in response.

“That was our resources given to look for our loved one. It said on the Post-it note: 500 metres west of the bridge,” Fernando said.

Fernando told the inquest that family members of Copeland as well as his partner and mother of his children, Josephine Brown, had waited for hours in the police station.

“There was a lot of fear for Gord’s safety and wellbeing. We were definitely scared, we knew by then that Gord hadn’t made contact with anyone,” Fernando said.

She told the inquest that over the three months between Copeland’s disappearance and his body being discovered, the family continued to search daily, making repeated calls.

“On Friday the 5th of August, I made 12 calls in one day. On the 14th of August, I made 14 calls to the Moree police station.

“We needed resources and it was only fair that they come to the table with something,” Fernando said.

Under questioning by the family’s lawyer, Bill Neild, Fernando said the family had felt “disrespected” throughout the search process.

“It was disgusting. It was frustrating. It was hurtful, it was heartbreaking and it was very, very tiring,” Fernando said.

“The attempts from myself and other family members that were being made were going on deaf ears.”

Narelle Copeland, Gordon Copeland’s mother, also gave brief evidence.

She detailed how the family had spent thousands of dollars and campaigned to raise funds to pay for wetsuits, drones and other equipment to help in their search.

“Boats, food, petrol, GoPros, everything we needed for the search,” Narelle Copeland told the court.

She said Gordon Copeland had difficult experiences with police officers before his death, growing up in multiple places around western New South Wales.

“He was scared of police, he didn’t trust them,” she said.

She said he had previously been “bashed by police” and had been dragged off his motorcycle in a previous interaction with police.

Fernando told the inquest how difficult she found watching evidence during the proceedings, hearing police officers give testimony and seeing body-worn vision that showed an officer swearing and using expletives during the search.

“We will never unsee that or unhear that,” Fernando said.

“I’m a mum, and honesty and respect is a trait that I’ve taught my kids. That’s what we would have liked to see in this courtroom to help us move on with our lives.”

The inquest is expected to finish this week with family members scheduled to give evidence tomorrow followed by closing statements.

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