Victoria Police Command has been asked to explain why it refused to use sniffer dogs to search for a grandmother who was later found dead.
Colleen South, 58, drove her Hyundai Getz from her home in Renown Park, South Australia, across the Victorian border on July 1 last year and was spotted on the side of the Calder Highway on July 2 before disappearing the following day.
Her body was found a month later just 5,000 feet from where her car was found abandoned.
Colleen and her daughter Veronica South (right) in happier times. She had searched frantically for her mother after her car was found abandoned in Victoria
Farah Mak, Ms. South’s niece, made repeated public appeals for information on Mr. South
On Monday, Victorian Coroner David Ryan took charge of the investigation into how Victoria Police handled its search for Ms South.
Although an inquest is not mandatory in Mrs South’s case, the coroner decides whether to hold one anyway.
The court heard Judge Ryan was anxious to know why the police command refused a request to provide dogs in the ground search.
‘The dog brigade has not been deployed before. It’s not clear to me at this point why the dogs weren’t deployed sooner…and then. There may be good reasons for that, but it’s not clear to me,” he said.
‘This jurisdiction should not be about blaming, but about prevention options and trying to identify what could have been done differently and points for improvement.’
Judge Ryan said the use of dogs may also have helped forensic scientists determine how Ms. South died.
The court heard that while Ms South’s body had been found with a broken rib, pathologists were unable to determine her cause of death.
“On the matter, what I’m looking at is whether there was any possibility of finding Mrs. South before she did. It may be that even with the best of intentions and the best practice search conducted, she may not have been found alive, even though she had been found before,” Judge Ryan said.
“But an earlier discovery of Mrs. South’s body would certainly have saved the family a lot of anguish and worry associated with what happened to her.
“It would have saved the constant commitment of Victoria Police resources and possibly – and we don’t know this – but it might have given pathologists a better opportunity to find or formulate specific causes of death.”
A worrying note asking for help was found in Mrs South’s diary near her abandoned car
Ms South was last seen by a witness in her Hyundai Getz (pictured) on July 3 last year. The car was found abandoned an hour later
Medication found by Veronica South and her friends in the area where her mother disappeared
Colleen South (pictured) was known to disappear only to be found under a tree later
Veronica sent a message to her mother on TV a few weeks after she went missing, telling her to ‘don’t give up’ trying to find her (pictured with her aunt and Mrs South’s sister)
Ms South’s mysterious disappearance made headlines after reports circulated that a handwritten note had been found in her abandoned belongings saying ‘please help me’.
Farah Mak, the niece of Mrs South’s actress who previously appeared in Neighbours, soon became the public face of the search and subsequently targeted Victoria Police for botching the investigation.
She told the Daily Mail Australia on Sunday that she was looking forward to finally getting some answers to the police’s search for her aunt.
“It is positive news that the coroner is thoroughly investigating everything,” said Ms Mak.
“Hopefully the systems and policies will be changed so that no other missing person or family experiences this.”
The court heard that Ms. South suffered from a range of medical conditions, including bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia.
She had been reported missing nine times before and was known to often visit rural properties and sleep under random trees.
Mrs South argued with her daughter Veronica before jumping into her car and driving to Victoria.
Her damaged vehicle was spotted days later by a farmer, who noted that the airbags had deployed.
Ms. South’s personal items, including bags and keys, were found 20 yards from her car
On July 5, more than a month before Mrs. South’s body was due to be found, a local police officer asked his superiors to send in the dog squad and police helicopter to assist in the search.
The request was denied and dogs did not touch the ground until days later.
Although drones were deployed in the area, the police air wing was not used until July 20.
The court heard internal bickering between Victorian and South Australian police will also be investigated by the coroner.
While Mrs. South had disappeared in Victoria, until 16 July Victoria Police refused to take the lead in finding her.
Her body was found under a tree by a farmer on August 8.
The discovery ended a desperate search by Mrs South’s family, who feared she could be the victim of crime.
A relative of Ms South previously claimed that her uncle had ‘found spent shotgun grenades at the scene’, but detectives ‘had neither acted nor reported it’.
Although Victoria police were “out of character,” they stated they did not consider the grandmother’s disappearance suspicious.
The hearing will return to court in eight weeks to allow Victoria Police to try to answer some of the coroner’s questions before deciding whether a full inquest is needed.