The disappearance of David Eason

More than 600,000 tourists visit Queensland’s lavishly tropical Fraser Island each year. The world’s biggest sand island, covering 184,000 square kilometres adjacent to the coast, seldom seems crowded. With its sweeping beaches, towering dunes framing freshwater lakes, and horizons of coloured sand, the island is infused with the primal hush that stilled the lips of the earliest white settlers.

Named after Eliza Fraser, whose ship “Stirling Castle” foundered on the Great Barrier Reef in 1836, the island has long been characterized by poets and novelists as a place of mystery. Perhaps the greatest mystery of all was the sudden and inexplicable disappearance of an English tourist named David Eason. Police, who conducted massive and prolonged searches for the missing man, described the total absence of possessions, clothing or other clues as ‘bizarre’ and ‘beyond belief’.

Eason, aged 46, was an art director of a British advertising company specializing in pharmaceutical products. On the 29th of March 2001 he visited the island as part of a 4WD tour group. Around lunchtime, following several hours of sightseeing, the group’s leader announced that everyone should now head for Lake Wabby, two kilometres inland. From there they would proceed to Kingfisher Bay on the other side of the island, where they would board a tour bus at 3.00 pm and then leave the island.

MapFraserIsland
Map of Fraser Island – Lake Wabby is approximately halfway on the eastern side.

David Eason hadn’t yet experienced enough of the island. Fresh from a grey London winter, he was entranced by the wild crashing surf, endless stretches of dazzling beach, kauri pines and gigantic ferns, and the sting of the tropical sun. He told his companions that he would sunbathe for 30 minutes and before following them on foot to Lake Wabby.

When police individually interviewed the other members of the party the next day, they all shared the same recollection. As they departed, Eason, who was wearing a green singlet, shorts and sandals, had laid back smiling, against a dune and placed a cigarette in his mouth. He seemed relaxed and carefree. Beside him on the sand lay a leather bag containing his expensive camera gear. The time was approximately 1.00 pm.

The tour group waited an extra 30 minutes at Lake Wabby, but with no sign of Eason, they decided to continue to Kingfisher Bay to meet the tour bus. At 6.00 pm, when there was still no sign of him, the tour’s organisers alerted police and park rangers. That night, police officers and volunteers search the island, using spotlights and torches. The next day helicopters and lights places scanned the island from the air – the first of many searches over the following days and weeks.

Particularly puzzling were the results (or lask of them) obtained by 80 State Emergency Service workers who picked painstakingly over an area of two square kilometres surrounding the spot where Eason was last seen. They found nothing: no tracks, no scraps of clothing, no cigarette butts and no leather bag – Eason had vanished off the face of Fraser Island.

Police printed flyers and posters, asking for information from the crowds who had been on the island during the Easter holiday break. No-one could help. The missing man’s sister, Janice Eames and her husband Harvey flew to Queensland from England. They told reporters that they were ‘dumbfounded’ by David’s disappearance- and dismissed suggestions that he might have drowned or committed suicide as ‘just not on’.

EasonPressClipping

According to his sister, David was financially secure and was in a stable and happy relationship with his girlfriend Jo. There was absolutely no reason why he would have harmed himself – and if he had done so on the island, there would have been evidence left behind. Detective Sergeant Bruce Hodges of the Queensland Police force summed up the bafflement of his colleagues. ‘People have gone missing – but usually there is some sort of trace’, he said.

One months after Eason’s disappearance, a nine year old boy, Clinton Cage, was mauled to death by dingoes on the island. Could David Eason have suffered a similar fate? According to police, it was extremely unlikely. Dingoes would have left traces: body parts, bloodied clothing, and they would have not eaten either the leather bag or the camera in it.

After debating and exhausting a broad range of explanations, David Eason’s family was left with only one theory – that he had been murdered. Why, by whom and for what reason they could not begin to imagine. They asked police to treat the case as a homicide enquiry. But with no body, no belongings, no tracks no idea of Eason’s movements, police admitted it would be almost impossible to find the murderer.

For two years there was no new information or leads until the 14th of April 2003, when English tourist Arwen Heaton discovered near Lake Wabby human bones and personal property that was identified as belonging to David Eason.  The scattered bones and personal property were found along the sides and at the bottom of a steep slope.

A coronial inquest was held, with the State Coroner rejecting the theories of homicide (personal belongings were found with the bones) and suicide (stable financial situation and personal relationship). The most plausible theory advanced by the coroner was that Eason was returning to the rendezvous with the tour group when an event occurred which caused him to stumble down the slope, where he died. The Coroner’s best theory was that Eason suffered a fatal heart attack when walking back to the rendezvous, although the possibility that he was suffered a snake bite or other paralysing injury could not be discounted. The Coroner also made recommendations regarding future searches for missing persons, as well as better signage for the walking tracks around Lake Wabby.

While this sounds logical and reasonable, I am still intrigued as to why Eason’s body wasn’t found immediately after his disappearance, especially if the SES volunteers had gone over that area with a fine-tooth comb.

The basis for this blog post was John Pinkney’s book “Great Australian Mysteries” (Five Mile Press, Melbourne, 2003, p. 232-235), along with the exhaustive and thorough inquest of the Queensland State Coroner.

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