Feature Article: Arrested for Witchcraft – Australia in 1990

Arrested for Witchcraft

This recount by Bret Fishley was originally published in our old newsletter, The Spokes of the Wheel, Volume 1 issue 2, Beltane 2014.

Charged with Witchcraft… I look back on that time and it seems like a life-time ago. The names have been altered but otherwise it is a true story…
How do I describe Fitzroy Crossing back in 1990? It was a frontier town then and still is I guess in many respects. The Fitzroy River, amazing tropical thunderstorms, the heat, up to 50 degrees sometimes, the crows and brown shouldered kites, willy-willy’s, dust and more heat…

The main thing you would have noticed is that there were more black faces than white ones in town that I loved. There is a good reason for this. Back in 1969 when slavery was abolished this was the place where people drifted to when the Bunuba, Guniandi, Mangala and Walmajarri-Wankatjunka people were told to leave the surrounding pastoral stations.

I was living in an old native welfare house/shed/shelter built in the early 70s to accommodate the Walmajarri-Wankatjunka people at Mindi Rardi reserve when this story I am about to tell unfolded. It was just me and a few old people at that stage.

I was not your average work gear or neatly casually dressed whitefella. I was getting around in a sarong with my bronze pentagram with a snake wound around it, a t-shirt, my didge and my dingo. It was a quest for spiritual connection with the land that had brought me to Fitzroy Crossing. A desire to learn about Aboriginal law and culture that earned me something of a reputation in town as a devil worshipper among the local fundamentalist Christians from the Assembly of God and the other denominations.

It all began when I went down to Broome for a few weeks and arrived back to discover that someone had taken over the shed I was living in, so I stayed with a school-teacher friend in a government employees’ house for a little while. Whilst he was away the Christian Fundamentalist house-mate, Vik, asked me about some seeds that my friend had germinated in the kitchen. She was somewhat perturbed to my response that they looked like marijuana seedlings and threatened to call the police if I did not remove them. I said I had no right to get rid of them, that she should talk to Pete and find out what they were first.

I woke up next morning to the police banging on the door saying they had a report that there were drugs in the house. I thought it prudent to take the initiative to get rid of the seedlings just in case, whilst the police were searching the lounge. That afternoon I decided, what was in retrospect, a rather provocative course of action, that being to set up a small alter in the kitchen with candles, some Aboriginal healing liquid from tree bark, some dead grass woven into a pentagram and Vik’s bible.

When Vik got home she denied calling the police. I knew she would. We entered the kitchen and I said “well if you did not do it then swear on your bible and I will believe you”. She glared at me and said “I told you I would ring them” and she snatched her bible off the table and marched off to her room in a furious rage slamming her bedroom door.

I went off to visit friends, waving to a bunch of coppers on the way, who were all half-pissed having a BBQ at the neighbours’ house. Several of them acknowledged my wave as I passed.

I returned home later that night and heard several cars pull into the front yard. The school head master and several half pissed police swarmed into the house and told me to pack my things… I was being evicted! Ha! Eventually I got all of my stuff in the police ute and they took me to the police station.

What followed was a comical but intimidating interrogation about my links to people like Tim Ryan, that they interchangeably described as Witches and Satanists. It turned out that Gorje, one of the police who I came to know quite well later, had spent the day researching links between cults and criminality. I do not think I won many friends when I rebutted their accusations of my being a satanist by pointing out the pentagram I wore had the pentagram up the right way. Whereas their Police insignia incorporated an upside down pentagram. The symbol of the devil… And they were accusing me of being a devil worshipper? I did not even believe in the devil.

They then set to work trying to intimidate me into leaving town, suggesting the midnight bus would be the best option, insistently suggesting it might not be safe to stay. I said no and that they should drop me on the bank of the Fitzroy River where I would camp. Thankfully I had the good sense to hide because I awoke in my swag later that night to the sound of approaching vehicles. It was the Police, and from the sound of their voices they were angry. Thankfully they did not find me. I still remember my heart thumping in my chest as I watched them searching with their torches from about 200 metres away. Frightening.

What followed was a six-month campaign mainly run by Gorje, to try and charge me with something, and well, just generally make my life uncomfortable. This included him finding me on subsequent full moons with a search warrant signed by a local red neck court official. On a couple of other occasions he arrested some Aboriginal guys I was socialising with, on the rare occasions I went down to the Crossing Inn. Just because they were with me. The police even tried to apply pressure on the local Dept of agriculture guy to shoot my dingo, Erintja.

The last straw was one day when I was abseiling off a bridge with a friend and Gorje leant over the railing telling us we were in trouble and that we should report to the police station. I rang the Ombudsman’s office and explained the situation and he said they could not do anything unless they had a charge. So I showed up to the Police Station with my friend and asked what the charge was. I waited, tapping my foot and feeling somewhat annoyed. After a few minutes I said, “Well, what is the charge, officer? Can’t think of a charge, eh? Well, come and find me if you can find one.” I then motioned to my friend to lead the way out the door and we left.

I made a complaint of Police harassment and some Special Investigations Police from Broome were sent up to investigate. But they completely exonerated the police involved in the harassment. I was thus able to take the next step and go back to the Ombudsman who agreed to look into the issue. The police were out–raged and were hell bent on finding something to charge me with. This was when they decided to charge me with witchcraft under the Public Nuisance Act. I was served with a court summons by Gorje.

Meanwhile there was a lot of communication with the Ombudsman, who also enjoyed chatting with the old Aboriginal people that I lived at Mindi Rardi with, if they happened to answer the public phone when he rang. Apparently Gorje ultimately shot himself in the foot getting stuck into the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman made the next move and Gorje disappeared from the local police station and another officer was also disciplined.

This all happened concurrently with the court case. Vik, who had been sacked from her teaching job for spreading rumours to the kids about her housemate being a homosexual, was the star witness for the prosecution. I represented myself. The Police Prosecutors went in pretty hard, but I just answered all the questions honestly and openly. The Judge reserved his decision until his next visit.

His judgement was scathing, labelling it a witch-hunt and absurd. He described the Police utilisation of resources, to bring this matter to trial, as a gross misuse of public funds.

A win for witches everywhere.

It’s all quite surreal looking back on it… Who would have imagined something like this might have happened in modern times, in the Australian outback, in a place like Fitzroy Crossing?

– Bret Fishley

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