Dodgy gun blows open shooting cold case
AN EXPERIENCED shooter who was believed to have accidentally killed himself with an old shotgun in a workplace incident "flatly refused'' to use the firearm because it was so dangerous, witnesses say.
A cloud of mystery hovers over the death of 24-year-old aquaculturist Jeffrey Brooks, from Lismore, at the Beenleigh Crayfish Farm on March 13, 1996.
More than 22 years on, his parents, Lawrie and Wendy, want this cloud lifted.
Backed by new evidence uncovered during a special Courier-Mail investigation, they will push for the State Coroner to take a fresh look at the case.
They believe their son was murdered and police were wrong to stick with a theory of accidental death when statements from family, friends and the property's owners indicated he had been threatened by co-workers and feared for his life.
Mr Brooks' body was found slumped on a dilapidated shotgun owned by the farm's manager.
Police ascertained that he shot himself after trying to pull it, barrel first, from a small utility to shoot at birds swooping on stock in a nearby dam.
The expert shooter's use of the weapon, which was falling apart and held together with radiator clamps when his own new shotgun was only a stroll away, stands out as one of the most baffling aspects of the tragedy.
Several people gave evidence at the inquest into Mr Brooks' death - which returned an open finding - that he had expressed concerns about the gun's safety.
One told Coroner Trevor Anders he had delayed a shooting operation until a safe replacement could be sourced.
In his statement to police, tendered as Exhibit 31 at the inquest in 1997, former farm co-owner John Pick said Mr Brooks had been employed for his extensive knowledge of crayfish production techniques and management.
Mr Pick, now deceased, said the job required a shooting licence as this was a way of dealing with the birds that preyed on stock.
He said an operation was launched to check what was predating on the crayfish, to what level this was occurring, and how best it could be overcome.
"This experiment was put down for a collective visit, where we were to shoot cormorant, blue crane, night heron and diver duck. It was at that time that Jeff first refused to use the single-barrel shotgun (owned by the farm manager) because it was in a poor state of maintenance, with a rusty barrel. The gun, in Jeff's opinion, was unsafe.''
Mr Pick told officers Mr Brooks was so firm on not using the weapon, the mission was postponed "for some weeks'' until he could return with his own, safe, firearm.
Co-owner Greg Milham gave a statement in which he confirmed he had paid for a new shotgun because of Mr Brooks' fears about the old one.
Mr Brooks' best friend, Paul Martin, told police Mr Brooks had a "supreme knowledge of firearms''.
Mr Martin said he had known Mr Brooks for 10 years and had observed him using firearms on several occasions.
"When I learnt that Jeffrey died as a result of a gunshot wound, I knew that it would not have been an accident on Jeffrey's part,'' he said.
"Jeffrey had always demonstrated a supreme knowledge in the use of firearms ... he used them with common sense and showed a mature approach to the safety aspects - towards himself and others.''
In his recorded statement to police, seasonal worker Chad Goodwin, who was not working on the day Mr Brooks died, brought up the old gun, unprompted, telling officers Mr Brooks refused to use it because it was too dangerous.
"Hang on,'' the police officer says. "Jeff refused to use the single shot?''
"It was the farm manager's gun,'' Mr Goodwin replied.
The Courier-Mail tracked down two other people who had been employed as seasonal workers.
Once was Miles Yeates, who went on to have a successful career in marine and environmental science fields; the other, Tarren Summers, went on to work in finance.
Both said they never saw Mr Brooks use the old gun during their time on the farm.
Mr Summers said he found the idea of Mr Brooks accidentally shooting himself "an odd conclusion''.
Neither Mr Summers nor Mr Yeates were working on the day of Mr Brooks' death.