HOW the Dundee myth died in one mad day

By PAUL TOOHEY
Australian
7 August 1999
 

PATHETICALLY gaunt, his grimy face and feet (bare, as usual) suggesting a heavy ingrained dirt that looked as if they could never be scrubbed clean, Rod Ansell wore an expression of the utmost misery.

It wasn't just that the man they called the "real Crocodile Dundee" was dead, having collected a stomach full of SG shotgun pellets. Ansell felt no pain from the blast. The look on his face was one he had carried over from life. It wasn't that Ansell's life had turned wretched, suddenly, on Tuesday morning. He had been that way for years.

On the highway, 50m from his body, lay a dying policeman, Sergeant Glen Huitson, whom Ansell had snipered with a single shot to the pelvic bone from a 30.30 lever-action rifle. Near him was a man who police say had stopped at the highway roadblock to ask directions. He had been shot in the behind. Two other shooting victims were already in hospital.

Rod Ansell's rampage had begun 14 hours earlier on Kentish Road, in a mango-growing, bush-block area 60km south of Darwin. Ansell, 44, in the company of his girlfriend, 28-year-old Cherie Hewson, had fired shots into a house. The occupants did not report the attack to police.

Two hours later, he was across the road at another house, occupied by a man, 47, a woman, 36, and a 10-year-old girl. According to the occupants, Ansell was firing his rifle and raving about freemasons. He then shot out floodlights before firing into the fibro walls. A neighbour turned up in a truck to help and Ansell blasted the windscreen, instantly blinding the driver in one eye.

A car - probably driven by Cherie Hewson, who has been described by police as tall, slim and untidy - was heard taking off. The occupant of the house ran downstairs with a baseball bat and found Ansell trying to start the truck. He smashed the bat on Ansell's head, breaking it. Picking up a shotgun the truckdriver had in his cabin, Ansell fired at the man and took off one of his fingers. Then he went bush.

Police said they were neither satisfied nor dissatisfied with claims by occupants of both houses that they never knew Ansell, the so-called bush hero and buffalo catcher.

Crime-scene technicians arrived at the second house. Sometime during the night Ansell shot up the house again, prompting the Territory (tactical) Response Group police to head to the area. They could not locate Ansell, the man who had enjoyed brief international fame as a bush craftsman.

The TRG broke into groups and sat perfectly still in the scrub until daylight, weapons poised. If Ansel[ moved, they would pin him. But he did not show.

Just after 10am, Ansell let go again. It is not known how long he had been hiding in the scrub, watching the highway roadblock just south of Kentish Road.

Ansell was lying behind small mounds of dirt on burned-out ground when he revealed himself by shooting the 22-year-old man who had stopped to ask directions. Then he murdered Sergeant Huitson with a shot that hit below his bulletproof vest.

With Ansell leopard crawling through the dirt - throwing his shotgun and 30.30 ahead of him and scrabbling forward on his elbows, military-style - Constable Jamie O'Brien emptied his Glock service pistol at the advancing maniac.

The TRG, a kilometre up the track, got word of two men down and raced south in two Toyota Troopcarriers. In the confusion as to which side of the road Ansell was firing from, the first vehicle clipped the second and rolled. Ansell now stood and began firing at the overturned vehicle as officers scrambled out the back door.

Constable O'Brien had by then picked up his shotgun. He finished Ansell with a single blast.

Glen Huitson died an hour later at Royal Darwin - the first policeman to be murdered on duty in the Territory for 47 years.

Assistant Commissioner John Daulby said later it would be speculation to say Ansell had wanted to die. But he added: "He could have escaped - he chose not to do that."

Rodney William Ansell was known as a feral - in the animal, not the hippy, sense. In 1977 he overturned his dinghy while on a solo adventure on the Fitzmaurice River and was "lost" for several months. He speculated outrageously - that a whale had capsized the boat and said that he had wandered aimlessly, surviving off the land.

Film-maker Richard Oxenburgh made a documentary about Ansell called To Fight The Wild, and Ansel[ later told his story for a book by the same name.

It captivated the press but local bushmen scratched their heads as to how an "experienced" bushman could possibly get lost on a big river. Ansell simply had to follow the river downstream to deliverance.

It was when English interviewer Michael Parkinson invited him to Sydney to discuss his exploits that the Crocodile Dundee myth began. Ansell had refused to sleep on his bed at the Sebel Townhouse, preferring to unroll his swag on the floor. Like Paul Hogan's character Mick Dundee, Ansell professed to be ignorant of what a bidet was.

Hogan's management later admitted the idea for the film - bushman Ansell in the big smoke - had come from the Parkinson interview. Ansell, always on edge and quick-tempered, later unsuccessfully demanded royalties from Hogan's management.

Ansell lived with Cherie Hewson on an Aboriginal outcamp on Urapanga station, on the Roper Highway several hundred kilometres east of Mataranka. Ansell and Hewson had left Urapanga the day before the shooting.

Friends said he was "at one" with Aborigines at Urapanga, spoke the local language fluently and was a fully initiated white man. Ansell spent most of his time "walking" his herd of brumbies through the bush.

"He walked them," said Cheryl Birch, who had known Ansell since childhood and saw him a week before he died. "That's all he's ever done since he lost his station (Melaleuca): walked them. Walked them through Arnhem Land and that. He does a lot of cattle'work with Aborigines - very devoted to the Aboriginal people."

It is not simply rumour that Ansell was along-time amphetamine fiend and marijuana grower. "(He used) a lot of speed and a lot of ganj," said one of his close friends.

It is speculation to say so, but perhaps there is a better explanation than Ansell's simply "walking" horses for the hell of it. Horses are extremely sentient creatures that will quickly alert you to the presence of concealed humans - particularly handy if you don't wish to be busted checking up on your crop.

Ansell lost Melaleuca station in 1990. He contested the seat of Arnhem as an Independent and lost. He also lost his wife, Joanne, mother of his two sons, Callum and Shaun. Melaleuca was one of four small stations subdivided off Point Stuart station, east of Darwin. Ansell had "drawn" Melaleuca in a property ballot, paying only a nominal fee.

"He basically walked away from it," said current Melaleuca manager Tony Searle. "He had a mimosa problem which he didn't do anything about and it exploded and took over the floodplain. It went from a good station to a next-to-useless station."

Ansell had been fighting the Northern Territory Government's BTEC program, which aimed to totally destock the Top End's brucellosis- and tuberculosis-plagued herds of wild buffalo. America's ABC network paid for his tour of the US West Coast, in which he talked about the buffalo slaughter. At the time, he said: "Every two minutes somewhere in the world a kid dies from hunger, and every day in the Territory buffalo that could feed them are being shot and left to rot."

Ansell's concern for children will now seem particularly galling to Lisa, the wife of 37-year-old Glen Huitson, the father-of-two bush copper from Adelaide River, who will be buried with full police honours today.

Ansell claimed he had not been compensated for his shot stock, but Tony Searle said Ansell got what everyone got. The Government soon forced the station's sale and Ansell grew increasingly bitter.

Among his bush colleagues, Ansell was always weird. "I come across him one time in the Corroboree Tavern," said Terry Halse, a pet meat shooter-supplier who had dealt with Ansell over many years.

"He'd shaved his head and put cowboy boots on. Rod always wore no shoes and he had long hair. And he looked at me and I knew who I was looking at. But instead of saying, 'How you going, Halsey', as he'd normally do, he said nothing. He was just playing little games. Rod liked to play little games.

"This guy's been on drugs all his life. He was always off his face, every time I seen him ... Even when he was mustering buffalo, he was off his face.

"For years he's got away with his bullshit story about getting lost in the Kimberleys. It's ended now. Tell me, why would such a great man as Rod Ansell do something like this?"

Police have not discounted that the tragedy unfolded after a drug deal went wrong. Cherie Hewson, who was described as having one side of her face black with bruising, seems likely to have the answers.

As to why Ansell attacked the roadblock, when he had a chance to escape, is less certain. Maybe he believed some of the things he had written about himself being a hero.