Friday, September 6, 2013

Australians still dying in Bali in robberies, poisonings and murder

31 Australians died in the 2011-2012 financial year in Bali - an average of one Australian death in the balmy paradise every nine days

CHRISTINE Ovenden still doesn't know what really happened to her son, more than a year after he was killed. 

What she does know is that Mark was found by locals on a remote track near a quarry in the upmarket resort area of Nusa Dua in Bali on June 21, 2012. His rented motor scooter lay beside him, and at first it looked like the 33-year-old Sunshine Coast man must have had a motorbike accident, another victim of the Indonesian island's notoriously poor backroads. But it soon became apparent that while the popular surfer from Alexandra Headland south of Maroochydore on the Sunshine Coast was indeed a victim, it was of something far more sinister than substandard road conditions. He had been badly beaten and asphyxiated, his killer or killers still not known.
Mark was one of 31 Australians who died in the 2011-2012 financial year in Bali - an average of one Australian death in the balmy paradise every nine days. It's a sobering figure, and one the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) is quick to point out is largely made up of deaths from natural causes, such as old age or illness; or from misadventure, such as motorbike accidents. Just last month, Gold Coast surfing identity Allan Byrne, 64, founder of the Byrning Spears surf label, died in a Bali hospital following a motorbike accident - his death one of a reported average of three motorcycle fatalities a day on the island. However, for some fatalities resulting from misadventure or unnatural causes, DFAT says it is unable to provide an official cause of death because in some cases it remains unknown, or the families of the deceased do not want the information released.

For many travellers to Bali - and there were almost 3 million international visitors last year, a third of them Australian - it remains a beautiful, safe haven, just a few hours' flight away. They travel in droves to this small, 5780 sq km island in the Indian Ocean to return home a week or so later with sun-kissed skin, braided hair, memories of Bintang beers on the beach, meandering motor scooter rides to the clear, mountain air of Ubud, or surfing the famed left reef break at Uluwatu.

But for others, such as Mark Ovenden, there proved to be a darker side. More than a year after his death, his family and friends are still searching for answers, frustrated by conflicting reports from Indonesian authorities and what they see as little help from DFAT. They are still asking what happened to their son, brother and friend after his Bali adventure came to a lonely end by the side of a dirt road.

"THE crime scene had been trampled, absolutely trampled," Mark's mother Christine Ovenden says, her voice shaky, her hands twisting a white tissue. "When his body was found, there were onlookers prodding at him, some I believe taking photos, and apart from the fact I can't bear to think of him being violated in that way, any evidence that might have helped in the investigation was completely compromised."

Christine, a smart, articulate executive assistant in a large Queensland company, finds it very difficult to talk about her son. She describes him as "a very loving, gentle man who only ever saw the best in people". But she is telling her story to Qweekend because she wants others, particularly young people, to be aware of the dangers in Bali, the ones not shown by companies urging young travellers to "come party in paradise".

"I think Bali is a wonderful place, and Mark loved it and its people - he had a lot of Balinese friends," Christine says. "But there is another layer to it, one where people get robbed, or mugged, or drugged, or beaten, or in Mark's case, murdered, and the aftermath is not like when these things happen at home. One of the hardest things for us to cope with, quite apart from losing Mark, has been trying to negotiate our way through the misinformation - or no information - about what happened to Mark."

What the family has been able to piece together about Mark's last days is he arrived in Bali on June 16, 2012, for a two-week surfing holiday with a mate, and for the first few nights they stayed in Poppies Lane, Kuta Beach. They then moved south to a villa at the well-known surfer haven of Bingin. On the afternoon of their first day there, Mark left on his motor scooter, telling his friend he was going to pick up his surfboard from a friend's place and that he would be back later that evening.

He never came back, and the first Christine knew anything was amiss with her son was when she received what she calls a "strange" phone call from a former Balinese girlfriend of Mark's on the evening of June 21, who told her in a hushed voice that he had been in an accident, and was in hospital in Denpasar. "Then she hung up, and I've never heard from her again," Christine says.
About 6.30pm that night, Christine's daughter and her husband opened their Sunshine Coast home's door to some good friends of Mark's, local surfers, who told them of Mark's death in Bali. "It was on the internet before there was anything official, and I then rang DFAT, who confirmed my son's death to me," Christine recalls. "They said, 'Haven't the police been to see you?' and
I said, 'No-one has contacted me at all'."

The anger and frustration are still evident in Christine's voice as she recounts the next few days, and her panicked trip to Bali with her daughter, to try to discover what happened to her son. "When I contacted DFAT they wanted to know when we were travelling, details of our flights, where we would be staying, our telephone numbers, et cetera, and I assumed, naively I suppose, that representatives from the Australian Consulate in Bali would be there to assist us. But there was no-one at the airport and, after that, it was only when we went to the Australian Consulate that we were given some standard advice."

Christine and her daughter were left to negotiate their way through the maze of Indonesian bureaucracy and police interviews by themselves. Christine recalls a particularly harrowing three-hour interview in a South Kuta police station. "We had no translator, so a friend of Mark's came along to help us. We sat in this tiny, dirty room with three policemen who would ask us questions, which our friend would translate, then we'd answer, then he'd translate again. In between, they would just break off to have a smoke, or start talking together, or laugh, and I wanted to scream. They wanted me to sign a statement and I said, 'I can't even read it'."
Since that day, Mark's family has continued to search for answers. The autopsy revealed just how badly Mark had been beaten before he died. Police now believe he was asphyxiated, the report said, with "some sort of blunt object against his neck" before being dumped at the site where his body was found. His scooter was allegedly then placed beside him, to make his death look like an accident.

Christine says her son, who attended Nambour High School, had earned tickets in forklift driving, rigging and heavy machinery operation, and was planning to move to Western Australia to find work in the mining industry. "Mark was a free spirit, a traveller and a surfer. He wasn't a conventional man, in that he didn't always work a nine-to-five job, but he was a wonderful son and brother and he did not deserve to die the way he did, in such a violent way, and so far from home."

She believes she knows what could have happened to Mark, and that someone within the Balinese police does also - that he inadvertently found himself in a situation that got "way out of hand". "I think the reason my son died was that he was trying to help somebody, because that was my son - he was a helper."

JUST over six months after Mark Ovenden's death, another young Queenslander's life was lost in Bali. Denni North, 33, was found barely conscious beside the pool at her villa in Canggu, a small, coastal village about 10km north of Kuta, on December 30 last year. She was taken to the Bali International Medical Centre in Kuta, but was pronounced dead shortly thereafter.

Originally from Deception Bay, north of Brisbane, Denni had travelled the world for four years before making her home in Bali, and working as a public relations consultant at the luxurious Cocoon Beach Club and resort in Seminyak, just north of Kuta. Local police originally said Denni had drowned in the early hours of that morning, but later withdrew that claim, while a toxicology report undertaken in Bali found no detectable drugs in her system. Her body was flown to Brisbane in January and an autopsy undertaken, with the results not made public.

When Qweekend contacted Denni North's mother, Wendy, she declined to be interviewed but said she remained "absolutely devastated" by the death of her daughter.

These two Queenslanders are part of a growing list of people who have met mysterious or violent ends in Bali, a list that includes Sydney fashion designer Heidi Murphy, 34, stabbed to death in a robbery at her Canggu villa in 2008.

Then there are those who fall victim to the island's bootleg alcohol industry. A high import tax for liquor of up to 200 per cent has spawned a market for cheap, locally distilled alcohol, such as fermented rice wine, or a particularly dicey brew known as arak, which can contain methanol if distilled incorrectly or lackadaisically. Just 10ml of methanol can cause blindness, and any more than 100ml almost always proves deadly. In 2009, 25 people died during a two-week period in Bali and nearby Lombok of arak methanol poisoning, four of those international visitors.

In September 2011, 29-year-old Perth man Michael Denton died after drinking a methanol-laced cocktail at a hotel in Kuta, and in January this year, 19-year-old Liam Davies, visiting Gili Trawangan Island off Lombok, died after unknowingly drinking a methanol-laced "vodka and lime" at a well-known bar. Liam's death was horrific, the Perth roofing carpenter taking care only to drink branded vodka at the popular Rudy's Pub, even warning his friends to "be careful". Just a few hours later, the young man was in serious trouble. After a medevac to Perth the next day, his parents made the traumatic decision to turn off his life support, a frantic team of doctors unable to save him from the poison shutting down his organs.

As for a growing number of young travellers, one of the reasons Liam was in Bali was to join in the end-of-year celebrations known as "Schoolies".

SKY Garden, The Bounty, Paddy's, Embargo are all well-known clubs along Kuta Beach's nightlife strip, where last year 6000 young Australians partied for their week-long Schoolies celebrations. Increasing numbers of school leavers are eschewing the traditional Gold Coast annual end-of-year event for the delights of Bali's party scene. So many revellers are expected this year that Red Frogs, the not-for-profit organisation dedicated to supporting school leavers through their annual blowout, is sending a record number of staff to the island. Already on the ground is Paul Mergard, 38, the Red Frogs Bali Coordinator, a position created last year.

"[Last year] was our first year in Bali, we had 18 people here; this year we are looking at about 40," Mergard tells Qweekend from Kuta, where he is setting up a schoolies network between hotel managers, bar staff, emergency services, medical personnel, the consulate and police for this year's event. "It's needed because something seems to happen to some young people in that six, seven-hour plane trip from Australia, where they suddenly think it's okay to behave in ways they never would contemplate at home. They can lose their common sense, their ability to judge situations and their manners. The thing I saw mostly causing trouble last year was a lack of respect for locals and their customs, speaking to them rudely or treating their possessions with disrespect. It's a recipe for trouble, and you don't want to get in trouble here."

Mergard also cautions against cheap drinks. "Stay away from the bars that serve dollar drinks. If a drink seems too cheap, too good to be true,

it probably is, so don't touch it with a ten-foot bargepole," he cautions. "Methanol poisoning is a very real risk. Last year we found a boy just wandering the streets with what he said felt like pins and needles in his eyes. He'd lost his mates, he was in real trouble. We threw him on a motorbike and got him to hospital where methanol poisoning was instantly detected. His mother was later told if we hadn't found him, he would be blind, or dead."

Mergard says a catch-22 situation exists on the island - rules and regulations do appear to be more lax, but if you break them, the consequences are far more serious. "Take out travel insurance, stay with your mates at all times, don't drink cheap drinks and treat the locals with respect," he says. "Of course, don't take drugs. Maybe even get out of Kuta and see some of the island, and you should have a great time."

One schoolies event company has attempted to circumvent the problems of partying in Bali by not offering it as a destination this year. Popular schoolies website is instead planning a "schoolies-only zone" for the 2014 end-of-year celebrations, booking out an entire resort in Nusa Dua. The company plans to take over the Club Med resort, offering round-the-clock day and night activities, and staffing it with their own personnel and security teams. CEO Matt Lloyds says the move is an effort to "make schoolies safer in Bali". "My personal opinion is that it is not as safe as the Gold Coast," Lloyds says. "There just aren't as many safeguards in place; not so many volunteers, police, ambulance, fire crews, not as many checks on underage drinking. You can ride a scooter without a helmet, the room for error or an accident happening is larger, and if it does, it can be much trickier to help someone out."

The Gold Coast event, with alcohol-free parties, organised activities and chill-out zones all policed by various officials, has become so controlled that one reveller last year wryly noted, "We may as well still be in school". Bali is seen as the polar opposite, an "anything goes" party where underage drinking is common, drugs are - despite Indonesia's strict anti-drug laws - easily obtained, and food and drink are cheap and plentiful.

There's also a widely-held perception among many Australians - not just the younger generation - that DFAT will be able to help those who find themselves in hot water. In reality the department has limited powers, as Christine Ovenden and others like her have sadly discovered.

WHEN Qweekend contacted DFAT regarding the death of Mark Ovenden, it provided a written response: "At the outset, the Department offers its condolences to Mrs Ovenden, and to Mark's sister, on Mark's death … However, Australian consular officials do not have the jurisdiction to intervene in proceedings, conduct investigations directly or intervene in legal matters in foreign countries. We do encourage local authorities to resolve cases as quickly and transparently as possible. [DFAT] consular staff in Australia and in Bali continue to provide assistance to the Ovenden family."

Reading it, Christine Ovenden shakes her head. "I don't think I'll ever find out what happened to Mark," she says. DFAT has told her it really can't do much more. The Indonesian police say the Mark Ovenden case remains open, but there have been no leads. "I suppose I feel like I have failed Mark in some way by not finding out what happened to him, or who did this terrible thing to him," Christine says.

While she says she will never get over losing her son, Christine finds some solace in visiting the places he was happy, such as Cotton Tree near Maroochydore on the Sunshine Coast, where the friends of the surfer all chipped in to buy a memorial plaque for a table at a park, and where their mate loved to sit and contemplate the river.

She also likes to walk the beach at Alexandra Headland, where in July last year, 150 surfers from around "Alex" and Maroochydore did a "paddle-out" in Mark's honour, watched by 200 more of his family and friends on the beach.

Christine and her daughter and son-in-law were in the water too, scattering Mark's ashes and joining the circle of surfers, hooting, hollering and splashing for their mate. She always feels closer to her son by the ocean, watching the surfers run in from the waves, boards tucked under their arms, some of them trotting over to pay their respects to Mark Ovenden's mother. Many of them still surf Bali's famous breaks, and they do so with her blessing.

"I still think it's a beautiful island, full of beautiful people," she smiles, "but I want to tell people, especially I suppose the young ones, to take care of yourselves and each other there. Mark used to call me his angel - and now he's mine."  Brisbane, The Courier Mail

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