THE State Coroner has adjourned a hearing into the death of a young man whose body was found in the Maribyrnong River, and requested that police reinvestigate the case on his behalf.
Michael Atakelt was 22 years old when he went missing on 26 June 2011. His body was retrieved from the Maribyrnong River in Ascot Vale eleven days later, on 7 July.
Julian Burnside, QC, appearing as an assistant to the Coroner, applied for the hearing to be halted in light of evidence given by Sergeant George Dixon, from the water police, about the likely location the body had entered the river.
Dixon had not been interviewed by Footscray police investigator, Detective Senior Constable Tim McKerracher, before the inquest began.
Burnside submitted that the investigation should be resumed with a senior officer. “It may be embarrassing for Mr McKerracher to be sent out to uncover things he has overlooked. It may be the evidence is no longer available. To avoid that embarrassment it is preferable that a senior officer be sent in.”
The State Coroner, Ian Gray, said it would be an independent investigation on his behalf and that new dates for the inquest would be set within two weeks. He said that the adjournment was not “intended to imply any criticism of Mr McKerracher”.
Atakelt’s father, Getachew Seyoum, said he did not believe the investigation into his son’s death had been “thorough and rigorous”.
“The whole Ethiopian community does not have trust in the Footscray police investigation,” he said.
Reem Yehdego, from Imara Advocacy, a youth group that formed after Atakelt’s death, said the community had been demanding an independent and comprehensive investigation from the moment his body was found.
“Despite assurances to the community from Assistant Commissioner Stephen Fontana of the quality of that investigation, this has not been the case. The Coroner’s decision today to suspend the inquest and order that a more senior investigator step in is of profound significance.
“The community is delighted that as result of the State Coroner’s intervention Michael’s death is finally getting the investigation it deserves,” she said.
In December 2011, Fontana, who was then assistant commissioner for the north-west metro area, told a public meeting in North Melbourne that the brief prepared for the Coroner was “a very thorough investigation”. He also said that he had “total confidence” in Detective Senior Constable Tim McKerracher.
At the same meeting, Detective Sol Solomon, from the homicide squad, said he had overseen the investigation and that it was “first class” and “all possible leads have been explored”.
The police brief to the Coroner said Atakelt may have entered the Maribyrnong River at the Smithfield bridge, approximately 4 kilometres downstream from where his body was recovered.
On Thursday, Sergeant Dixon said that it was “very unlikely” that Atakelt’s body had entered the river near the Smithfield Bridge. He said it could only have entered the river “a very short distance” downstream and it is more likely that the body entered the river upstream, possibly as far as two kilometres.
The Footscray police had not investigated the possibility that the body entered the river upstream of where it was found.
Earlier yesterday, Mourad Mohammed, 21, from Footscray, gave evidence that on the evening he went missing, Atakelt was upset about being held in police custody two nights earlier. He was also upset about a dispute with his girlfriend and the death of his grandfather in Ethiopia, of which he had been informed that morning. Atakelt told Mohammed he was going to take a long walk.
The hearing was scheduled to last for ten days and hear evidence from 34 witnesses.
A spokesperson for Victoria Police said it would be inappropriate to comment because the matter is currently before the court.