On the morning of July 19, Debbie arrived at her 36-year-old daughter Rebecca’s house for a coffee and chat, like any normal day. But Rebecca wasn’t there. Unbeknownst to Debbie, Rebecca was dead.
“I went over to her place in the morning. I made a coffee and waited for her to get home, did a bit of cleaning up for her, made her bed. Sat near the window, looking out, waiting for her to come home,” recalls Debbie. Eventually, at about 12.30pm, the police turned up and told Debbie that her beloved daughter had died - in their custody.
Mother-of-four Rebecca Maher was the first Aboriginal person to die in police custody in New South Wales in 16 years. What transpired after police picked her up at around 12.45am from a street in rural Cessnock is now shrouded in mystery. Acting on a call from a concerned member of the public who said Rebecca appeared intoxicated and was swaying by the roadside, the police escorted her back to Maitland Police Station where she was put in a cell, but never arrested. Rebecca had been in custody for five hours when police discovered her deceased body at 6am. It was another six hours before they reported the death to her family, at around 12.30pm
At the time, police were unable to explain why Rebecca was in custody, and why it took so long to inform her family. Debbie has since discovered that no alcohol or illegal drugs were detected in Rebecca’s system. She died of suspected cardiac arrest.
“If someone was [thought to be] inebriated, why wouldn’t [the police] check them? It’s common sense,” Ken Canning, spokesperson for the Indigenous Social Justice Association, told the ABC’s 7.30 program last night. Australia’s first indigenous police officer Colin Dillon agreed, explaining that police must follow duty-of-care protocols that involve checking on inmates at regular intervals.
Debbie is desperate to know why her daughter didn’t receive any medical attention, and was not checked for five hours. “I don’t want it swept under the carpet like she doesn’t matter. Because she did.”
Marie claire contacted the NSW Police Force for comment. “A critical incident investigation is underway, with all information to be provided to the coroner. It would be inappropriate to comment further at this stage,” a spokesperson said.
A coronial inquest in due to start next month.