Farming exec, former journalist hospitalised after alleged random assault in US

By Jason Gregory
Updated July 10 2024 - 8:52pm, first published 8:47pm

Grain Producers Australia chief executive Colin Bettles has had a lucky escape in San Francisco after being found injured and semi-conscious by the side of one of the city's major thoroughfares.

Mr Bettles had just arrived in America on a two-week work trip when authorities believe he was assaulted given the nature of his injuries and that his wallet and phone were missing.

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The alleged assault occurred around Market Street in San Francisco between 9.20pm and 10.30pm on July 4. A passer-by found Mr Bettles in the street and called an ambulance.

Mr Bettles was walking back to his hotel after dining at a restaurant on Union Street.

He was in an induced coma for almost five days as a "John Doe" patient after suffering multiple fractures to an eye socket and an injury to the back of his head and being admitted to hospital without identification.

Dr Sue Acton, Mr Bettles partner, was out of range in a remote part of the Northern Territory and did not raise the alarm until returning to an area with mobile service and discovering Mr Bettles had not arrived in New York as planned.

Dr Acton then made contact with former deputy prime minister Michael McCormack, who employed Mr Bettles between 2018 and 2019.

Grain Producers Australia chief executive Colin Bettles, left, with former deputy prime minister Michael McCormack. Picture supplied.
Grain Producers Australia chief executive Colin Bettles, left, with former deputy prime minister Michael McCormack. Picture supplied.

Mr McCormack immediately raised the concerning situation with Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials and the Australian Federal Police.

The AFP worked with Interpol and local police before Mr Bettles was found on Monday evening in the neurological ward of a San Francisco general and trauma hospital by Australian Consular officials.

He was taken out of ICU late on Tuesday morning but could be hospitalised for several weeks.

A blood alcohol reading taken at the hospital was zero.

Both Dr Acton and Mr McCormack are seeking CCTV footage from the area where Mr Bettles was found to discover what happened and to identify any alleged assailants.

In addition to his roles with Grain Producers Australia and Mr McCormack's office, Mr Bettles was the national rural affairs reporter for ACM Agri from 2010 to 2019.

Mr McCormack said he had feared the worst after being alerted to the situation.

Mr McCormack said the the most likely scenario was that Mr Bettles had been assaulted and robbed given he suffered blows to both his face and an injury to the back of his head, or had fallen before being robbed.

Mr Bettles checked into a central San Francisco hotel at around 6pm on July 4 before heading out for pizza at Original Joe's with some work acquaintances.

However, hotel staff did not alert authorities after finding his luggage unopened in his room, bed unused and his rental car still in the carpark.

Mr Bettles was due to check-out of the hotel for an early morning flight to NY, where he had set up GPA-related meetings. He then planned to travel to Canada for further meetings.

Mr McCormack said he was angry that the only action taken by the hotel was to put Mr Bettles' luggage into storage.

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"It is hard to believe that the hotel can show such a lack of duty of care to a guest when it was obvious that Mr Bettles, who told them he had an early checkout, had not stayed in the hotel," he said.

"It is difficult to believe they would not raise the alarm with somebody. I would hope that this would not happen in Australia.

"He met with foul play and thank goodness he is alive, it could have been far worse. It goes to show how careful you have to be.

"He does a good job for agriculture, he is well-known to a lot of people and anyone who knows him likes and respects him."

The GPA Board is supporting Mr Bettles' family and, in a statement, said it is "grateful to our networks, the authorities and US health professionals for their assistance in ensuring Mr Bettles' welfare and ongoing care".