Honors to Kevin “Dookie” O’Loughlin
and Uncle Jimmy James
and Uncle Jimmy James
Tracker who could see the invisible Sunday Mail, Adelaide Now – February 11, 2007
© Nigel Hunt
Jimmy James was the humble hero police turned to when all else failed. Nigel Hunt looks at the extraordinary talents of this South Australian legend.Jimmy James had every reason to hate white men. Used and abused after venturing off the Pitjantjatjara Lands as a youth, he felt the full force of the white bigotry that pervaded the early 1900s. After escaping enslavement on a cattle station, he could easily have grown into an angry man, just like many of his brothers. Instead, he emerged as one of the greatest healers of relations between the Aboriginal people and white Australians. For almost 50 years he worked closely with SA police and, in doing so, Jimmy James, the black tracker, became one of the most significant Aboriginal figures in SA’s history. Using tracking skills and instincts honed by generations of Pitjantjatjara men, Jimmy was instrumental in catching murderers, escapees and just about any other rogue who was silly enough to flee into the bush. Of the 104 times police enlisted the services of the proud tracker, two cases have become celebrated. The first was in 1966 when he found a young girl who had been wandering lost in the Adelaide Hills. For three days, more than 150 police and volunteers had been scouring bushland near Mylor searching for Wendy Pfeiffer, 9, following her abduction. On the fourth day, police called in Jimmy. It took him just three hours to find her. After picking up her trail he led police through 20km of scrubland to where she was on the banks of the Onkaparinga River. His actions in finding the girl ensured a place for him in the hearts of all South Australians at the time. The second case is perhaps even more recognised. In 1982, he spent six days tracking child killer James George Smith after he escaped custody in the Riverland. The chase covered more than 100km through some of the state’s roughest country. In the end, Jimmy’s brilliance prevailed. The Smith case is remembered fondly by veteran police officer Sid Thomas, now a Senior Sergeant at Sturt CIB. In 1982, he was attached to the former Special Crime Squad, assigned to the Smith manhunt several days after it started. He recalls taking a woman Smith had raped shortly after his escape to the last location she had seen the child killer in the Riverland. From then it was a game of cat and mouse. While some clues were obvious, others were only noticed by Jimmy. A broken twig, disturbed insect nest or a barely perceptible footprint Smith left behind as he headed for the border. Sen-Sgt Thomas remembers Jimmy explaining his work to him and other police officers involved in the manhunt as it unfolded. “He tried to teach us,” he said. “He told us what animal tracks belonged to, how big and even what they were doing and how he knew. “He could tell how long a twig or a branch had been broken by looking at it, but we had no idea. “It made the whole thing quite interesting. Often he joked that he had taught us enough and we should take over the tracking.” Sen-Sgt Thomas said Jimmy’s skill was evident when he lost Smith’s trail. He would sit and study his environment, the landscape and the terrain and try to predict the path his quarry would take. Invariably, he was spot on. This occurred for the umpteenth time on day six of the manhunt when, seemingly out of nowhere, Jimmy told police to stop. He walked into the scrub for a few hundred metres until he again picked up the trail. But this time he would walk no more, simply pointing to a rise another few hundred metres away. Sure enough, Smith was found sleeping under a tree, just where Jimmy indicated. A polite tap on the head with a shotgun barrel woke Smith from his slumber. “You could see the look of satisfaction on Jimmy’s face that he had achieved what he set out to do,” Sen- Sgt Thomas said. “He loved it, he loved helping.”
A genius at work—you can bet on it——
In the late 1970’s, Jimmy was called on to help track a man who had tried to rape a girl, 5, in a Riverland orange grove.
While he missed his target because of a delay in reporting the crime, Jimmy did give police a description of the man, based on his footprints. He said he was a sloppy walker, overweight and had a left foot which pointed in. Police never found the man—until a race meeting at Berri.
The breakthrough came when Riverland detective Max Jones bumped into Jimmy, who like a bet, and Jimmy asked him if he wanted a winner.
Mr. Jones replied “yes” and asked what race it was in. Jimmy replied: “In the human race. You know that fella that was rude to that girl? He’s here today.”
Jimmy had picked up the trail after recognising the man’s footprints near a track toilet.
He told the policeman where he was and when the man was quizzed he admitted the sexual assault and was charged and convicted.Even today, 45-odd years after he first met Jimmy, Mr Newman is in awe of his tracking ability.Retired police officer Bill Newman is another who fondly remembers his working relationship with Jimmy over a seven-year period when he was a detective based at Berri. He enlisted his help to find escapees from Cadell, missing people and even the odd firebug. He also worked with him chasing Smith. In one slightly humorous case, Mr Newman even used Jimmy’s services to settle a minor dispute with Victorian police. A body had been found on the border fence—on the wrong side for Victorians, who suggested the murder may have occurred in SA and, as such, was Mr Newman’s problem. Jimmy soon set them straight, saving Mr Newman a lengthy inquiry. Mr Newman says he can still remember walking with Jimmy, astounded at the “invisible” things the tracker could see. “Sometimes he could point things out you were oblivious to,” he said. He cited one such example when they were tracking Smith. Jimmy suddenly stopped and said to him: “He is getting angry.” “He pointed out a spinifex bush and said: ‘He sunk his boot into it.’ And well, when you put your boot in the impression, that’s what had happened. A white fella would just never know that.” He said, in another case he was following Jimmy and he suddenly turned at a right angle to his path, walked 20m and picked up a half-eaten apricot. Incredibly, he knew his quarry had thrown an object while walking. While Jimmy seemed to enjoy hunting fugitives, he stopped short of being part of the finale. “All of a sudden he would stop and I would ask him what was wrong,” Mr. Newman said. “‘Go over that hill and he’s there,’ would be his reply and, sure enough, nine times out of 10 he would be there. “He would never want to front the bloke he was tracking. He didn’t like the confrontation. He was a very peaceful man.” Jimmy’s work with police was recognized in 1983 when he was awarded the inaugural Aboriginal Person of the Year award. The following year he was awarded the Order of Australia. Although no one knew exactly how old James was when he died in 1991— possibly in his 80s—it is known he moved to SA in 1946, settling on the Gerard Mission, near Berri. While his tracking skills initially were utilised to provide food for the mission, he would soon be called upon by those who recognised his unique talents. Sadly, in the decade leading up to his death in 1991, it appears Jimmy James knew he was the last of a generation. During the Smith manhunt he often spoke to Sen-Sgt Thomas about his frustration that none of his clan wanted to learn the secrets of the age-old craft. As more and more Aboriginal people moved from their traditional lands and changed their lifestyles, the need to track and kill their own food simply disappeared. When Jimmy James died in 1991, he took the secrets of his ancient art with him.