Lost - Two Women And A Town's Innocence
As a place to dump bodies, Coober Pedy is hard to beat. Abandoned mineshafts stretch in a 40-kilometre radius
around the town. Just 100 metres below the surface lies an unmapped labyrinth of tunnels, blast holes and dead
ends. As one local says: ``If you want to bury someone out here you just drop them down a hole and follow them
up with a stick of gelignite. There are a million shafts and it's impossible to search every one." Murder isn't
new to Coober Pedy. Locals will tell you that plenty of arguments have been settled with explosives in the past.
But this time it's different. This time the possible victims are those of two young women. And their suspected
murders have released a flood of anger and grief in the town.
Karen Williams, a local Aboriginal girl aged 16, was the first to vanish. As far as police know, she was last
seen at 5am on 4 August 1990 by a young local boy. The pair had been out with a group of friends, dancing at the
An attractive outgoing teenager, Karen was living at home and studying in a local TAFE course. There was no reason
for her to leave town unexpectedly. The local Aboriginal community has contacted communities all over Australia but
she has not been seen since.
Anna Rosa Liva disappeared 14 months later in equally mysterious circumstances. The 30-year-old Italian tourist
arrived in Coober Pedy by bus at 10pm on November 27, 1991. Next morning she booked a 2pm tour of the opal fields
and headed off to the council chambers to inquire about local church services.
As a Jehovah's Witness, Anna was thrilled to discover that the tourist information officer was her resident pastor.
They talked, and she promised to attend a meeting scheduled for 7pm that night. She walked out of the council building,
on to the main street and was seen no more.
When she failed to board the 10pm bus to Adelaide that night, a search of her room revealed a neatly packed suitcase
containing her ID. Her passport and bank accounts have remained untouched and she has not contacted friends or relatives since.
Unlike Karen's disappearance, Anna's has sparked a wave of police and media attention. Over the past six months, the
closely knit community has been subjected to unprecedented scrutiny. Resentment peaked this week at a public meeting
called by investigating police and attended by hundreds of residents. For the first hour the detectives fielded
accusations that the town of Coober Pedy itself had been put on trial by the media and that police had helped them.
``We're not murderers here: if anyone did it they came from outside," said one man, echoing the thoughts of many
others.``Why are you going on TV and calling it murder, why are you saying we know something about someone here
we aren't telling? Do you know what this is doing for Coober Pedy?" His anger and disbelief echo throughout the
town, bespeaking something more than the usual resentment at media inaccuracy and intrusion. Behind such feelings
lie a deep frustration and fear about the way life in Coober Pedy is changing.
A collection of corrugated iron, stone dugouts and red dust, Coober Pedy from the air looks like rubble swept
out to the edge of the desert. The sense of abandonment is heightened by the open-cut mines which ring the town,
lending the surrounding landscape a surreal, lunar appearance.
Since 1985 the isolation of Coober Pedy has been illusory. The sealing of the Stuart Highway, a long streak
of bitumen running from Adelaide to Darwin, puts the town in reach of thousands of tourists _ and a new,
transient class of resident.
Most Coober Pedy residents settled in the 1960s and '70s, coming from all over the globe to try their luck
in the opal fields. Forty-four nationalities co-exist in a population of 5000. Greek, Italian, Serbs,
Croats, German, Anglo-Saxons _ even an Eskimo, the locals proudly point out in the pub. The town is now
dominated by a core of long-term residents proud of the way their town has grown and flourished in such a
Eric Malliotis, an ebullient Cypriot, is the mayor. When it comes to government he takes his cue from the
landscape: less is more. Over a beer at the fish restaurant he runs with his family, he warns me that he
punched the last journalist who denigrated the town. Law and order, he says, is dispensed in the same way.
``It's safe here; you can walk about and no one will touch you. We don't need the police. If a woman is
raped everyone knows and we get the man: I'd kick his head like a football." But the Wild West tag no longer
sticks. There are few Charles Bronsons at the local pub.
The reality is an ageing resident population of miners who are losing a two-year battle with the recession.
The price of fuel and explosives has jumped, making it increasingly costly to work claims. And even when opals
are found they are not fetching the prices they have in the past.
The town's sense of identity is being eroded in other ways. A growing transient population _ mainly single men
who stay one or two years _ is regarded with suspicion by older residents. Coober Pedy is no longer a town where
everybody knows everybody.
The disappearances have exposed many of these underlying tensions. The most common reaction, relayed through
rumors, is denial: they don't want to admit the possibility that the girls were murdered by someone in the town.
Ricky, a young Italian boy who was born in the town, repeats the most common rumor. Karen Williams, the Aboriginal
girl, was, he says, killed in a panic by four of her own people. The police need not worry because the elders
will deal with the boys. Anna Liva, the Italian girl, staged her own disappearance. Or perhaps Anna wandered
into the minefields and fell down a shaft. Or maybe Karen simply took off with some friends. None of these
stories is consistent with police evidence about the young women _ but they are retold with vehemence.
Contrary to local rumors, the police believe the women were murdered: neither had a reason to leave
town unexpectedly and both were close to their families. They say it is unlikely that either fell down
a mineshaft. Karen knew the area well and as I saw, contrary to popular perception, the mineshafts are
marked out by big mounds; you'd have to be blind drunk to fall into one in broad daylight.
Ricky's uncle, Sergio, a miner who came to Cooper Pedy 32 years ago, tells me with conviction that an
out-of-towner must be responsible.
``Truly it's someone outside. I know this place is wild _ I call it the mental hospital without a
roof - but it's not bad." Anger in the Aboriginal community has a different source. The search
for Anna Liva has been extensive: locals conducted a dangerous three-day search of mineshafts and
police were prominent. In contrast, the search for Karen was left largely to Aborigines. One
community member, Mr Robin Walker, said: ``It's very hard for us: we are part of Coober Pedy
but when we saw the helicopters and the dogs we said: `Why didn't they do that for us?' "
Coober Pedy - A Town Fearful Of Itself
South Australian police are expected to offer a $100,000 reward for information revealing the fate
of a German tourist, Anne Margarete Marlies Neumann, who disappeared recently from Coober Pedy.
Ms Neumann, 29, is the third young woman to disappear from the outback mining town in the far north
of South Australia in as many years.
Many residents of the close-knit community say they are sure that the latest disappearance is the
work of a local. At the same time they say it is difficult to believe someone they know could be
Police have impounded a car belonging to a local man who is being questioned. Chief Inspector Bill
Newman said: ``We know she got in the vehicle but we don't know where or when she got out.
Ms Neumann arrived in Coober Pedy from Alice Springs last Wednesday. A little over two hours later
The town's business people are guarded. The bad publicity is affecting the tourist dollars on which
the town thrives. Backpackers have begun cancelling hostel rooms and staying on the express buses
running through the town.
The manager of the Bedrock backpackers hostel where Ms Neumann was staying, Mr Dieter Sternberg,
said he had been told tour operators were warning female backpackers not to stay in the town.
``This town is worried; we think it was a local, but we hope that it wasn't," Mr Sternberg said.
One of the last people to see the German pastor's daughter, Mr Sergio Ilbrigo, said she had ordered
a small meal in his main-street restaurant. She paid her bill at 9.30pm last Wednesday night and
apparently returned to her room at the nearby Bedrock before setting out again later in the evening.
Police are treating Mr Ilbrigo's evidence as an unconfirmed sighting, but the restaurateur said he
identified the woman from her photograph and also a shoulder bag she was carrying.
In November 1991, an Italian backpacker, Anna Rosa Liva, 30, disappeared in similar circumstances.
A man closely questioned by police at the time is not the same man under interrogation at present.
In August 1990, a 16-year-old Aboriginal girl, Karen Williams, disappeared in the early hours of the
morning after setting out to walk home from a disco and private party.
Theory and rumor run rife in Coober Pedy. Some factions claim the two missing backpackers simply fell
in love with Australia and disappeared so they would not have to go home.
This view is not accepted by police.
Other groups say the disappearances and possible murders were probably carried out by ``some crazy"
who came into town once a month to shop.
This is not ruled out by police.
But the majority feeling is that Ms Neumann, like Ms Liva, has been killed by someone from the town.
Coober Pedy's mayor, Mr Eric Malliotis, said no-one in the town wanted to believe ``there is
a sick person who would abduct a girl and kill her _ this is a great place, I hate to think
this is a local, but I can't forget that it might be.
``We all know each other here, we are so close-knit, it's the only place in the world where
Serbs and Croatians are friends," Mr Malliotis said.