Man cried for help before river drowning, coroner told

By Rex Martinich
Updated May 15 2024 - 6:10pm, first published 6:07pm
An Indigenous man drowned while trying to evade police by crossing a river, a coroner has heard. (Dan Peled/AAP PHOTOS)
An Indigenous man drowned while trying to evade police by crossing a river, a coroner has heard. (Dan Peled/AAP PHOTOS)

A young Indigenous man was caught up in a stolen car pursuit before drowning in an attempt to evade police by crossing a river, a coroner has heard.

Robert 'Robbie' Malayta, 18, was found dead by police divers in the Ross River near the Townsville suburb of Kirwan in north Queensland at 11.48am on February 25, 2022.

During a pre-inquest conference in Brisbane on Tuesday, coroner Terry Ryan heard that Mr Malayta had fled in a stolen red Toyota Corolla driven by his older brother Shakur McLennan in the early hours of February 24.

Counsel assisting Carolyn McKeon said it was likely Mr Malayta and Mr McLennan entered the river via a jetty within three or four minutes of leaving the Toyota.

Mr McLennan later told police he saw Mr Malayta drop below the water surface then yell out "big bro, I can't breathe" before disappearing into the darkness.

"I'm trying to swim back to him and I'm nearly going under. His last breath was like 'big bro, help'," Mr McLennan said.

Ms McKeon said Mr Malayta, Mr McLennan and a female friend Erin Barnes abandoned the Toyota and entered the Riverway Skatepark at 3.36am after the vehicle hit a police tyre deflation device.

"The officers were placed to lock the area down. No officer chased the group at any point," Ms McKeon said.

An officer posted at a school on the river's bank heard someone calling out "Robbie" or "Robert" for a few minutes after 3.42am.

Police scanned the water with their torches and searched the river bank between 4.11am and 5.51am with the aid of a police dog after reporting back that unknown suspects could have attempted to swim across the river.

Mr Malayta's family members searched the river banks at 7am and reported him missing at 5.56pm.

"Police commenced land searches of the park and river within hours of the report," Ms McKeon said.

An autopsy found Mr Malayta showed no signs of internal or external injuries, or natural disease, and his cause of death was determined to be drowning.

Ms McKeon said Mr Malayta looked up to McLennan, who was breaching parole at the time, and only joined him in the car after some convincing.

Mr Malayta's sister saw him chastising Mr McLennan for stealing $100 from their mother, Patricia McLennan.

"Patricia found a note written by Mr Malayta saying 'Mum - gone with big bro to get your money back'," Ms McKeon said.

A police ethical standards command investigation later found that the officers' actions during the early hours of February 24 2022 were justified and there was no misconduct or breach of discipline.

Mr Ryan ordered an inquest to be held on October 17 and 18 at Townsville and it would inspect the riverbank site of Mr Malayta's death.

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