The Horrific Unsolved Case of the 1981 Alice Springs Poisonings

WARNING: The following article contains names, images and descriptions of people who have died.

On Sunday March the 29th 1981, a group of Indigenous Australians sat at a camp near the Todd River settlement in Alice Springs, Northern Territory. They were likely chatting away the day’s events when a friend approached carrying a bottle of ‘Yalumba Barossa’ Cream Sweet Sherry. He told the group he’d found it lying beneath a pepper tree completely untouched with its labels still intact. With its deliciously sweet taste that could be likened to toffee, the group was eager for a sip and graciously accepted the man’s offer. The wine wasn’t as sweet as the sherries the group were used to, but they thought nothing of it. What happened next was unimaginable.

Members of the group began to shake, their stomachs gurgling and their bodies weakening. Some began sobbing and crying out for help as others vomited up a sickly mixture of bile and sherry. Many passed out and many clenched up in terrifying bouts of painful convulsions.

In the centre of the chaos lay a bottle of sweet sherry; its syrupy contents laced with “less than a level teaspoon” (The Canberra Times) of a powerful rat-poison known as ‘Strychnine’.

What is Strychnine?

Strychnine was discovered in 1818 by French chemists in the Philippine-native vine Saint-Ignatius-beans. It is often described as a ‘strong, odourless, bitter crystalline power‘ (Facts about strychnine, 2018), and is primarily found today in the seeds of the native to Australian and East Asian plant Stychnos nux-vomica.

The fruit of the Strychnos nux-vomica plant – similar in appearance to a common citrus plant – and its incredibly toxic seeds. Source: ResearchGate

Though the poisoned seeds were once used as a stimulant to combat medical conditions, the dose needed to effectively stimulate the body is now considered too toxic to be used by the medical industry. Instead, strychnine became popular as a lethal ingredient in common rat poisons and is occasionally used as an ingredient in drugs such as LSD, heroine and cocaine.

Bottle of chocolate-coated strychnine tablets once used to treat medical conditions. Source: VL McBeath

Strychnine Poisoning

Strychnine poisoning occurs when strychnine, usually in powder form, is ingested via the mouth, nose, or by injection into the body (when strychnine is used as an ingredient in drugs such as heroine).

Styrchnine in powdered form. Source: Melissa Sugar Writes

How Does Strychnine Poisoning Work?

When strychnine enters the body, it binds to specific cells in the body known as motor neurons. Motor neurons control the movement – both voluntary, such as moving arms and legs, and involuntary/automatic, such as breathing and digestion – of muscles. Strychnine causes motor neurons to become ‘over-excited’, increasing the amount of messages it receives. These messages are all passed on to the muscles the motor-neuron controls, leading to an abundance of random and uncontrolled muscular activities, resulting in muscular convulsions known as tonic-clonic seizures.

Example of the ‘knee-jerk reaction’. The stimulus (the hammer hitting the knee) is sent as a message to the motor neurons in the spinal cord (left), which creates an ‘action-message’ that is sent back to the leg’s muscles, causing the leg to kick out. When strychnine attacks the motor neurons, random messages without any stimulus (eg hammer hitting knee) are sent to the motor neuron. The neuron, now unable to sort through messages to find the important ones, may pass on this repeated message to the leg muscle, causing uncontrolled leg movements. Source: Biology Dictionary

Symptoms of Strychnine Poisoning

Strychnine poisoning will usually occur between ten and fifty minutes after consumption, depending on how much has been consumed.

The following information has been sourced from the Centres for Disease Control and PreventionFacts about Strychninepage.

If a small to moderate amount has been consumed, symptoms may include:

  • Jaw tightness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dark urine
  • Agitation
  • Painful muscle spasms
  • Uncontrollable arching of the back or neck
  • Apprehension or fear
  • Ability to be easily startled
  • Restlessness
  • Initial consciousness and awareness of symptoms

When a small to moderate amount of strychnine has been consumed, treatment is generally effective if it is accessed quickly.

If a high amount has been consumed, symptoms may include:

  • Respiratory failure
  • Brain death

The most significant symptom of strychnine poisoning is convulsions. These convulsions cause severe contractions of the diaphragm and, in turn, extreme difficulty breathing. It is usually these contractions that result in death, as the affected individual’s respiratory system will fail, resulting in suffocation or brain death (lack of oxygen to the brain).

Strychnine Poisoning Treatment

Although there is no antidote for strychnine poisoning, treatment can be effective if the individual is tended to quickly.

Treatment of strychnine poisoning usually includes:

  • Gastric Lavage or Stomach Pumping. A ‘lavage’ tube is inserted through the mouth, down the oesophagus and into the stomach. Doctors will then poor warm water or saline into the tube, allowing it to enter the stomach before draining the fluid back out of the stomach to dispose of. This process is repeated. This ‘flushes’ the poison from the stomach before it can be further absorbed into the body.
  • Oral Activated Charcoal. Doses of charcoal are given to the patient, usually via tablet or powder form. Charcoal as a substance prevents poisons from being absorbed into the body, halting the effects of the poison.
  • Muscle Relaxants. Medications such as Diazepam (used for sedation and anxiety relief) and Phenobarbital (used to slow brain and nervous system activity) are dispensed to the patient to ease the intensity convulsions.
Oral activated charcoal tablets, commonly used to reduce the absorption of poisons. Source: Medical News Today

Individuals who have consumed low to moderate levels of strychnine will usually make a full recovery if treated urgently. Individuals who have consumed significant levels of strychnine, or who have delayed treatment, and have survived may suffer with issues relating to the damage caused by the initial consumption of the toxin such as damage to the kidneys and the brain.

The 1981 Strychnine Poisonings

On the night of Saturday the 28th of March, an aboriginal man walking along the John Flynn Memorial Church grounds came across an abandoned bottle of wine. Sitting below a pepper tree, the 750ml bottle of Yalumba Barossa Cream Sherry seemed too good to be true. At a bit below the average price of most sweet sherries, the bottle of Yalumba Barossa certainly wasn’t top of the line, but with its label still perfectly intact – displaying a vintage date of October 14 1978 – and the contents completely untouched, it was far too good to waste.

The John Flynn Memorial Church, Alice Springs, in 1970. Source: Churches Australia

For the rest of the night, the man brought the wine bottle with him on a tour around Alice Spring’s city centre and the Todd River dry bed regions. It was Aboriginal tradition to share food and drink, and that was exactly what the wine’s founder intended to do: sit down, have a chat and share a drink of sweet sherry – anybody’s idea of a great Saturday night. Only, it seems he never found that group. Instead, he passed on the bottle of wine to another person, who then passed it on to another. According to the 1981 Sydney Morning Herald article by Malcolm Brown, the bottle ‘went through 6 pairs of hands and travelled 1.5km’ (Brown, M., 1981).

At 7:30am the next day, a large camp known to be home to people of the Pitjantjatjara and Pintubi tribes, set up for breakfast. The camp was one of the largest and busiest in the area. When the bottle of sweet sherry wine arrived at the camp, it was most likely received with open arms. There were certainly enough people to share with and even though it was still early, the soft toffee taste was just what the group needed to get them through the day.

Alice Springs’ Todd River. Source: Trip Advisor

However, instead of the sweet taste they were used to, this wine was harsh and bitter, not nearly the morning pick-up they were looking for. Many spat the wine out, desperate to get the taste out of their mouths, but still, the group continued passing it around. It was a whole bottle of wine after all; they couldn’t let it go to waste.

Almost immediately, things turned south.

Campers fell to the ground in severe convulsions, others vomited and their stomachs grew painful. People watched in horror as their own family began dying in front of their very eyes with nothing they could do but call for help.

Ambulances arrived, quickly hauling the sickened campers into their vehicles and speeding off to the Alice Springs Hospital. It was only a few minutes’ drive but for two of the campers, a few minutes was just too long.

Nabbutta Abbott Narabula was around 50-years old when he passed. Not much is known of Nabbutta’s life other than him being originally from the Papunya community in Alice Springs and reportedly having a wife within the Todd River camp. His wife was also allegedly related to the director of the Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service, Bob Randall; a man who’d go on to be 1999’s NAIDOC person of the year for his Indigenous rights activism.

Charlie David was in his 30’s when he passed away. He was formerly a member of the Indulkana community of South Australia, and had only lived in Central Australia for approximately three years.

Both men died on their way to the Alice Springs Hospital. Six or seven others were admitted with symptoms of poisoning, but were able to recover with treatment.

In all, sixteen people were impacted by the poisoned Sherry on the 29th of March 1981.

The Investigation

Once the victims had passed, autopsies were conducted on their stomachs, confirming the presence of the toxic rat-poison strychnine.

Chief inspector Collin Pope of Darwin’s Criminal Investigation Branch immediately flew to Alice Springs and formed an eight-man investigation team. Their first point of call: track down the bottle of sherry and trace it back to the killer.

A 750ml bottle of Yulumba Barossa’s Fino Champion Show Sherry. Though it is not the same wine as that used by the Todd River killer, the bottle of cream sweet sherry was likely similar in appearance. Source: Langtons

The bottle of Yalumba Barossa sweet sherry was found at the campsite with only a measly two-centimetres drunk. Testing results came back positive for strychnine, indicating less than a teaspoon was present. It was approximately 68-136 times the lethal limit.

The bottle of sherry itself was able to be traced to a specific store in Alice Springs, but the purchaser could not be confirmed, and tracing down the wine’s origins was more difficult than expected. Although the wine had been through the hands of several people, none of those people appeared to have any clue as to where the wine had truly originated. The story always remained the same: they got it from someone, who got it from someone else, who found it sitting free-for-grabs under a pepper tree.

Example peppercorn tree, likely similar to that the bottle of poisoned sherry was found beneath. Source: Native Shop

When the investigation first commenced, police wondered if the bottle of wine had been used to store strychnine. Perhaps a farmer kept a makeshift bottle aside in case of a mouse plague, pouring the contents onto bait when the pesky rodents starting digging up his soil and chewing on his crops. Maybe the bottle had been stolen from his home by somebody with more malignant means. Police quickly released a public plea for ‘anyone who had a bottle of the wine’ (The Canberra Times, 1981) to come forward, but this led to no new leads. Whoever had purchased the bottle of wine clearly didn’t want to be found.

Antique bottle of strychnine poison. Source: The Sale Room

White Alice Springs residents began to fear an anguished Aboriginal may hunt down those who had handled the wine and kill them in a violent act of retribution. A detective in a 1981 article with The Sydney Morning Herald (The Sydney Morning Herald, 1981) stated: “Contrary to popular belief, the old tribal system is still very strong”. No payback killing ever occurred.

On the 16th of October 1981, seven months after the poisonings, an inquest was held in Alice Springs into the deaths of Nabbutta Abbott Nabarula and David Charlie. The Coroner – Mr Dennis Barritt – found both Nabarula and Charlie to be victims of homicide, their killer unknown. As to the bottle of sweet sherry, Mr Barritt stated: “Its label when found was in an as-new condition, indicating it had been in a store or a house during the intervening years since its first filling” (The Canberra Times, 1981). The coroner found the cause of death to both victims to be a result of strychnine poisoning, and found the bottle’s contents to have been deliberately spiked with the intent ‘to kill’. Regarding the killer, Mr Barritt told the court: “I cannot believe that anyone adding a poison of such widely known propensity as strychnine to wine would have had any but the most base motives for such conduct” (The Canberra Times, 1981).

The Theories

An Indigenous Killer

Murderers will usually target members of their own race. In a majority of murder cases, the perpetrator will be someone close to the victims.

As investigators began to trace down those who had handled the poisoned wine, public speculation no doubt turned rife. Local newspapers reported police were hunting for an Indigenous man who had handled the wine and reportedly fled town. Many began to believe the killer himself must have been an Aboriginal man.

Alice Springs’ Indigenous community themselves, however, had a very different view. Though they undoubtedly felt the pressure of police and public scrutiny, they believed that the poisoning was not the act of an Indigenous man, but a racism-fuelled attack on the Indigenous community by a white man.

It was Aboriginal culture to protect your community as your own family. Had an Indigenous person set up the wine poisoning, the reckless placement of the bottle in a public setting and the common sharing ritual among Indigenous people would have put members of their own community at risk.

Most of Indigenous populations also regarded strychnine as being ‘white man’s poison’, believing that an Indigenous man would have used a more traditional ‘bush poison’ instead (Brown, M., 1981).

With the assumption the poisoner was white and the use of strychnine, another vital question was raised: was this killing racially motivated?

A Racist Killing

In early Australian history, the poisoning of Aboriginal people by white colonists wasn’t just existent, it was a trend.

In 1838 Narrandira, New South Wales, a white station owner, sick of Indigenous families walking on his hundreds of acres of land, poured vats of poison into a waterhole the families were known to camp near. In Queensland, 1842, two men – known as the Mackenzie brothers – employed shepherds to give flour spiked with strychnine and arsenic to a group of Indigenous people from the Kabi Kabi tribe. Approximately thirty to sixty people were found later deceased.

Painting by Vincent Serico depicting two shepherds handing out white bags of strychnine-laced flour to Indigenous people. This event led to the deaths of approximately 30-60 people of the Kabi Kabi tribe. Source: Independent Australia

1847 saw the death of twenty-three Aboriginal people after they were given arsenic-laced flour by a farmer who had just recently employed the victims to work on his land. That same year also saw the murders of approximately fifty to sixty Indigenous people of the Gubbi Gubbi tribe, as a group of white men spiked flour with arsenic and left it in a hut where they knew Indigenous people could access it.

The use of sweet sherry itself in the 1981 poisoning was also alarming. Sweet sherry was known to be a preferred drink by Indigenous Australians, so much so that the wine was even used in racist anti-Aboriginal propaganda at the time.

With all this circumstantial evidence, it’s easy to see how Alice Springs’ Indigenous community could see the poisoning of sixteen Aboriginal people as a racist attack. The investigation team, however, had a different view.

Though Alice Springs was known to have a decently large Indigenous population, the church grounds the poisoned wine was found was known to be visited by both white and Indigenous people alike. In the eyes of investigators, the poison could just have easily been picked up by a white passer-by, and it was likely a mere coincidence an Indigenous man was the first to have found it.

Suspects

The Alice Springs Dog Poisoner

On Saturday the 8th of May 1954 a young boy took his dog down the street shopping. Described as a ‘gentle creature’, Lassie the dog was adored by her family, specifically the family’s youngest children who strove to have Lassie ‘every care possible lavished upon’ at every opportunity they had.
The boy stopped and tied up Lassie out front of a store. He knew he wouldn’t be long – he couldn’t leave poor Lassie waiting after all – so he dashed in to make his purchase.
When the boy returned to untie Lassie and continue their walk, something was terribly wrong. A man standing by Lassie turned to the boy: “you’re dog’s had a bait, sonny”, he said. It was only minutes later that Lassie, once her typical bubbly self, was dead. All it took was a few minutes, a toxic bait, and a sadistic pet-killer known as the ‘Alice Springs Dog Poisoner’.

When exactly the Alice Springs Dog Poisoner began their reign of terror is unknown, but terror they certainly brought. In the early to mid-1950’s, Alice Springs went into panic as dozens of pets – specifically dogs – became violently ill.

The losses were devastating. In 1951, twenty dogs were killed by poisoning over the span of just three weeks. From January to June of 1954, at least thirty pet deaths were reported and in October 1956, six dogs were killed all on one single Friday.

The method of these poisonings was also extremely worrying. Sometimes the killer would stuff raw meat with powdered strychnine, occasionally adding ground up glass to maximise the damage and other times, the killer would dip biscuits in a strychnine concoction. These poisoned items would then be scattered around Alice Springs, sometimes left in public parks and walkways and other times thrown into the backyards of homeowners known to keep pets. Very rarely would wild animals become victims.

Meatballs found in a Brisbane family’s backyard containing rat bait and small shards of glass (brown). Source: The Courier Mail

Residents began fearing for the safety of young children, wondering just how long it would be before an innocent child picked up one of the strychnine-laced biscuits and took a bite. With the use of biscuits rather than meat, others began to wonder if tempting young children may have been exactly the killer’s plan.

The Alice Springs Dog Poisoner themselves appeared to be rather inconsistent. Some weeks would be devastated with dozens of poisonings, then some months would pass with no poisonings at all.

Although poisonings would still occur throughout Alice Springs over the decades, it appeared that the Dog Poisoner’s reign ended in the 50’s to 60’s.

However, over twenty years later in 1981, just months before the poisoning of 16 Indigenous people along Todd River, it appeared the Alice Springs Dog Poisoner – or some crude copycat – had returned. Between January and March, twenty-three animals were reported as being killed. On the same weekend of the Todd River murders, five dogs were reported as poisoning victims. All poisonings were conducted using strychnine on meat.

Two Aboriginal men with young dingo pups. Dingoes were also subject to strychnine poisoning at the time, as farmers blamed them for attacking their cattle. Dingoes are now classified as a threatened species in Australia. Source: Animalogic

With the same poison used and the same ‘random’ placement of the poisoned items, many began to fear that the Alice Springs Dog Poisoner had escalated to killing humans. Psychologically, it made sense. The MacDonald Triad theorises there are three predetermining factors indicating a person may turn to violent crime later in life. One of those factors is cruelty towards animals. Many serial killers also have links to animal cruelty in their past, such as Ted Bundy and Ivan Milat.

On the 14th of April 1981, in an article with The Sydney Morning Herald (Brown, M., 1981), Chief Inspector Colin Pope, head of the Todd River poisoning investigation, confirmed that ‘apart from the poison used, there was no evidence to link the dog poisonings with the deaths on March 29’.

Andy Albury

In 1983, 29-year-old Indigenous woman Gloria Pindan was walking down the main entertainment strip in Mitchell Street, Darwin, when she was approached by a 22-year-old man. The man, named Andy Albury, lured Gloria into a vacant lot where he chatted to her for a few minutes. He then proceeded to beat her and use a broken bottle to mutilate her body.

Gloria was found naked with her nipples severed and her eyes gouged. She had received twenty-eight external wounds. A pathologist found it was a combination of all injuries that caused her death, and she was likely alive throughout a majority of the attack. Blood splatter reaching one metre in height was found on a nearby wall.

Albury was apprehended almost immediately. He had dumped a bloodied shirt in a public rubbish. Police, knowing they were looking for a man with a clean shirt and soiled pants, found him wondering the area searching for his shoes. Once he was arrested, he confessed to the crime without hesitation. When detectives asked why he committed the gruesome crime, Albury replied “no reason, I enjoyed the killing” (O’Brien, K., Dunlevie, J., 2016).

22-year-old Andy Albury after his arrest for the brutal murder of Gloria Pindan. Source: NT News

Although Albury made many attempts to convince the justice system he was insane, his only agreed upon diagnosis was psychopathic personality disorder, a condition that would be likely diagnosed as Antisocial Personality Disorder today. When speaking to a psychiatrist, Albury stated killing Gloria felt “about the same as thumping on a cockroach” and said about the act of killing: “I think I’ll do it again. I get enjoyment out of it, don’t know why” (Dillon, M., 2017). Albury was found guilty of his crimes and after being labelled “an extremely dangerous man” (Dillon, M., 2017) was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.

But to Albury, being convicted of one murder just wasn’t enough. Albury claimed he committed his first murder at only 15 years old by killing a 14-year-old and burying him under a boat shed in Melbourne. He admitted to hacking somebody to death in Adelaide and dumping the body in the Port Adelaide River, then to stomping a 52-year-old man to death at an Alice Springs river bed in 1982. He also claimed to have ‘used a bottle of poisoned alcohol to kill three Aborigines in the Todd River, Alice Springs’ (Dillon, M., 2017).

It’s difficult to tell just how much of what Albury says is truth. After confessing to killing 12 backpackers, Senior Sergeant John Mahony traveled from Townsville to Darwin in 2014 to interview Albury. However, Albury was unable to give any specific details about the killings he confessed to. When asked about the murder of a Mt Isa man, the only information Albury gave was that “he buried them and they’ll never find him if they ask about it” (Anderson, C., 2016).

Image of Kelvin Condren (left) who was sentenced to prison for the murder of his wife Patricia Carlton in 1984. His conviction was overturned in 1990 and he was awarded $400,000 for wrongful imprisonment. Albury later confessed to Patricia’s murder, though he has never been tried for the crime.

Early newspaper reports may also have inspired some of Albury’s confessions. Not long after the Todd River poisonings, there were a number of inconsistent articles describing a third wine-poisoning victim. Though this appeared to have been simple confusion – with the homicide count narrowed to two in the Coronial Inquest, it appeared Albury hadn’t gotten the memo – confessing to three murders at Todd River that night.

Though the Todd River poisoning does seem to differ when compared to the brutal and violent slaying of Gloria Pindan, the potential motives do appear to line up. Albury had a notable hatred for Aboriginal people – aligning himself with the Ku Klux Klan – and admitted to beating local Indigenous children with sticks when he was younger. Many of the crimes Albury has since confessed to have also been murders of Indigenous people, though he has never been put on trial due his mental state and propensity toward lying. Had Albury been the one to commit the Sherry poisoning, he would have been twenty years old at the time.

Conclusion

The 1981 Todd River murders may have poisoned sixteen people, but it devastated thousands.

Whatever sense of safety the Indigenous people of Australia had managed to find in colonial Australia had been cruelly snatched away all in one tragic incident. Vince Forrest, general secretary of the congress, stated: “the old people are thinking back to the 1930s when their water holes and flour were poisoned and poison meat was left out for them” (Brown, M., 1981).

Those who handled the poisoned wine began to blame themselves. One man moved to South Australia, hoping to escape the community he felt he’d left down. Another slashed his leg in a traditional Aboriginal ‘sorry’ gesture. Both felt the shame of a crime they did not commit.

Whether the attack was racially motivated or simply random, the effects it had on the lives of Aboriginal Australians was abundantly catastrophic. Nabbutta Abbott Nabarula and Charlie David were two innocent men, sacrificed all in the name of sadism and hatred. The fourteen surviving victims will spend the rest of their lives in distrust, reminded of that terrible day every time they’re offered a drink or a bite to eat. Each knowing that if they’d taken even the slightest extra sip of that sweet sherry, they would have lost their lives. Each knowing that, to this day, the Todd River killer has never been found.

If you have any information related to the 1981 Todd River Poisonings, or the 1950’s Alice Springs Dog Poisonings, contact Crime Stoppers at 1800 333 000 or go to the Crime Stoppers Northern Territory website at: https://nt.crimestoppers.com.au/

If you believe any of the information in this article to be incorrect, or know of any information that has not been mentioned in this article that may assist with the public’s understanding of this case, please contact me using the ‘Contact Me’ page on this website.

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