Coroner releases findings into missing Grafton teen
THE findings of a coronial inquest into the disappearance of missing Grafton teenager Jasmine Morris have been released, with the NSW Deputy Coroner recommending the case be transferred to specialist unsolved homicide and missing persons units.
Deputy State Coroner magistrate Derek Lee said the inquest provided sufficient evidence to find that 19-year-old Ms Morris, who was reported as a missing person on October 20, 2009, is now dead, but the date and cause was unknown.
"Jasmine died on a date unknown sometime on or after October 6, 2009," Mr Lee said.
"The available evidence does not allow for any finding to be made as to the place of Jasmine's death.
"The available evidence and the absence of any post-mortem examination also does not allow for any finding to be made as to the cause or manner of Jasmine's death."
Mr Lee said Ms Morris was a young Aboriginal woman who was last seen by her mother on October 6, 2009, and was reported missing two weeks later.
However, despite rumours and theories circulating in the 11 years since Ms Morris was last seen alive, as well as numerous inquiries by police investigators, Mr Lee said "no reliable evidence has been uncovered as to Ms Morris' whereabouts or as to precisely what happened to her after October 2009".
Mr Lee said Ms Morris was born in Victoria and initially lived in Shepparton before later moving to Coffs Harbour with her mother.
When Ms Morris was eight she and her mother and younger sister moved to Grafton, where Ms Morris attended Grafton Public School and later South Grafton High School, before leaving school in Year 8.
"Despite the personal challenges that Jasmine experienced from a young age she was described as a beautiful girl who had matured into a lovely young woman," Mr Lee said.
"(Her mother) described Jasmine as someone who was always willing to make time for others, and selflessly put the needs of others ahead of her own. It is clear that Jasmine is much loved and greatly missed by her family members."
The inquest findings state that Ms Morris was the alleged victim of two sexual assaults when she was 12 and 16 years old, and after she left school began to drink alcohol and smoke marijuana regularly before starting to use methylamphetamine and intravenous drugs in 2007.
Mr Lee said by 2008 Ms Morris reportedly began frequenting an all-night service station on the Pacific Highway at South Grafton in order to hitchhike, and allegedly engaged in sexual favours in exchange for money to buy drugs.
"In 2009 Jasmine was known to frequent the area around the Post Office Hotel in South Grafton where she apparently sought to obtain money, drugs and alcohol from persons who also frequented the area," Mr Lee said.
"It is evident … that by October 2009 Jasmine was a highly vulnerable person. She had a relatively lengthy history of illicit drug use for someone of a young age; she had had a number of interactions with police, including time spent in detention; she had formed volatile relationships with much older men; she had engaged in risk-taking behaviour in order to acquire money and drugs; and she lived an itinerant lifestyle and frequently associated with other persons who also engaged in illicit drug use."
The last confirmed sighting of Ms Morris was by her mother on the afternoon of Tuesday October 6, when she left home at about 3pm to go to the pub. On October 20, after not having seen Ms Morris for about two weeks, her mother went to Grafton police station to report her missing.
Another associate told police he had spoken to Ms Morris on the phone that afternoon and he told her to meet him at the Post Office Hotel, and later saw her again at the Bi-Lo Complex between 3-4pm. At that time the man reported seeing Jasmine talking to an unknown male person seated in the driver's seat of a white coloured van.
Police inquiries revealed Ms Morris last accessed her bank account on September 28, 2009 when she withdrew her fortnightly Centrelink payment, which was her usual practice, but by October 7 her next payment was not withdrawn.
The inquest heard evidence that a number of rumours had been looked at during the course of the police investigation.
Some of these lines of inquiry included evidence from witnesses that had seen Ms Morris be verbally abused and threatened by another woman over an alleged affair.
Police also investigated the possibility that an argument had escalated into physical violence while Ms Morris and others were drinking and consuming alcohol at an area known as the "Sunshine Bar" near the South Grafton Marina and that Ms Morris had died as a result, with her body being dumped in the Clarence River.
There were also rumours that Ms Morris had suffered a fatal overdose and her body was disposed of either at a Clarenza property, in the Clarence River or transported to South West Rocks and dumped in the ocean.
Mr Lee said despite the rumours circulating in the Grafton community in the years after Ms Morris' disappearance, "little evidence has been discovered which corroborates any of the rumours or which is considered to be of investigative value".
"As a result, neither the police investigation nor the inquest has been able to effectively separate rumour from verifiable fact," the deputy coroner said.
"This in turn has prevented any conclusion being reached, even on the balance of probabilities, as to the precise circumstances in which Jasmine went missing, or what happened to her on or after October 6, 2009.
"Despite extensive and comprehensive physical, documentary and electronic searches no evidence has been uncovered as to either Jasmine's whereabouts or her being alive after October 2009.
"The conclusion that must, sadly, be reached is that, on the balance of probabilities, Jasmine is now deceased.
"It is a significant part of this conclusion that in more than 11 years since Jasmine was last known to be alive, despite repeated checks, no evidence has been found of any signs of life.
"Indeed, to the extent that any reliance at all can be placed on the rumours that have circulated since Jasmine was reported missing it is noted that they all consistently refer to the fact that Jasmine is now deceased."
Mr Lee also commented on the nature and adequacy of the police investigation, and stated that while there were a number of resourcing and workload challenges to investigating officers of Coffs/Clarence Police District, there were several shortcomings associated with the missing person investigation.
"Guidance and advice was not sought from investigators with expertise in missing person investigations, there was an absence of formal supervision, all avenues of investigation were not exhausted as there was a delay in reporting the matter to the Coroner," Mr Lee said.
Ultimately, Mr Lee recommended that the Commissioner of Police hand the investigation into the suspected death of Ms Morris to the State Crime Command Unsolved Homicide Team, noting that NSW Police Force Detective Inspector Glenn Browne, the Missing Persons Registry manager, had formed his own suspicions and "considered that it would be beneficial for her case to be referred to the Unsolved Homicide Team".