Fisherman Michael John Small died after being lost at sea in shark infested waters off the coast near Port Hedland more than 10 years ago, but an inquest has failed to provide evidence allowing a coroner to conclude whether the father was the victim of a drunken accident or a homicide.
In findings handed down this afternoon, Perth Coroner Peter Collins said the cause of Mr Small’s death remained unascertainable and evidence which emerged during an inquest last month did not warrant him making a report to State prosecutors.
But he was satisfied beyond all reasonable doubt that the 42-year-old was dead and had been lost at sea about 80km North West of Port Hedland on August 1, 2001.
Mr Collins said Mr Small had been given a “second chance” after he was released from jail for drug offences and was trying to turn his life around when he was lost at sea while working as a deckhand aboard the commercial fishing vessel Mandy J II.
During the inquest, the court was told that Mr Small had stayed up drinking with another deckhand, Gregory Raymond Norman, on the night before his disappearance.
Norman has since been sentenced to a life jail term for the murder of a woman in Kalbarri in 2005. After Norman was charged with the murder, his former girlfriend, Lisa McDonald, told police he had confessed to killing Mr Small.
Norman repeatedly denied making the confession and denied any involvement in Mr Small’s disappearance.
Mr Collins said Ms McDonald’s account was not corroborated by any other evidence and it remained “no more than a possibility” that Mr Small’s disappearance was caused by unlawful homicide.
He said the possibility of suicide could not be excluded absolutely, but there was no evidence to support that conclusion.
Mr Collins said it was “entirely possible” that Mr Small was drunk on the night he disappeared and could have fallen overboard, but the scenario remained entirely speculative.
Outside court, Mr Small’s sister Debra Foskett said she was disappointed with the findings and the family was no closer to having answers about what had happened to her brother.
Ms Foskett said she was surprised her brother’s disappearance would not be referred to State prosecutors.
“I’d like it to be looked into further,” she said. “If anybody knows anything, please come forward and tell us so we can get some closure.”
Ms Foskett said she found it difficult to accept that her brother may have been drunk and fallen overboard.