“NOTHING adds up.”
They are the words of a worried father whose mind is “running riot” trying to join the dots to explain the disappearance of his son.
“The worst thing for any parent is to say their child is missing,” Brendan Tompsett said of his son, Jayden Penno-Tompsett, “a wild Newy boy” who went missing almost a fortnight ago on a road trip to Cairns for new year celebrations. “We all know sometimes that kids don’t want to talk to their parents, but he hasn’t even talked to his mates. It’s the not knowing, the mystery of it all, that’s most troubling.”
In Charters Towers, police are at a loss as locals speculate in the street about what came of that 22-year-old from Newcastle – “somewhere down south” – who was passing through their town on New Year’s Eve, and hasn’t been seen since.
Detectives have spoken to friends and family, farmers and those who work on the Flinders Highway, the connecting road between Townsville and Mount Isa, while scouring the town from west to north.
Charlie’s Trousers, as some of the 8000 or so residents affectionately call the place, is around 135 kilometres inland, or south-west from Townsville. Founded in the 1870s, it was once a booming gold-rush town. Not so much anymore.
First, the search for Mr Penno-Tompsett focused on an area near a suburb called Towers Hill, which is littered with uncapped mine shafts and bunkers from World War II that have since become a tourist attraction.
The second area authorities turned their attention to was Stockroute Drive, 20 minutes north-east of the CBD, where they will look again on Saturday to make sure nothing was missed. It’s a lonely, dusty road that cuts through cattle farms, and it’s also Mr Penno-Tompsett’s last known location – more than 4000 kilometres from his home in Birmingham Gardens.
Police were told the 22-year-old became “upset and agitated” some time after he visited the Puma roadhouse on the Flinders Highway at dawn.
Mr Penno-Tompsett and his travelling companion, Lucas Tattersall, got back into the car and continued driving on the highway, with traffic still light at that hour. Still angry, Mr Penno-Tompsett pulled the maroon Nissan Pulsar off the highway and possibly onto Titley Road, which bears a billboard with federal MP Bob Katter’s grinning face and the words “Australia not for sale” at its entrance.
Mr Tattersall gave a general description of the area to police – his recollection was vague, which authorities understand, given he had never been to Charters Towers before. He described the location where Mr Penno-Tompsett got out of the car as being near a property that had a red steel fence with yards at the front.
Another key part of the description was the nearby property had a bull skull at its entrance.
Police could not find the bull skull (neither could the Newcastle Herald), but they believe – while not being certain – that the general area matches the description given by Mr Tattersall, who police confirmed sought assistance from a number of property owners in the area.
Helicopters were called in to scour a five-kilometre area while crews on the ground door-knocked properties.
One of the choppers was piloted by a cattle grazier with extensive local knowledge.
Not a trace.
Stockroute Road resident Doug Miller, a retired farmer, said authorities looked “all over”.
It was a lot of action for a part of town where cicadas usually make the most racket.
“I’ve been trying to figure this whole thing out,” Mr Miller said, adding that he’d never “seen or heard” anything like Mr Penno-Tompsett’s disappearance in the 40 years he has lived in the area.
“You just think of the family, as anyone would, and what they must be going through.”
It’s a similar story across town. Diana Lynch, who works in the local gift shop, said the case “feels odd”.
“As a mother, if it was my kid, I’d be beside myself,” she said, adding: “Closure is such a stupid word, but that’s what you want for the family. This family needs answers. To not know would be awful.”
At the roadhouse, a missing person poster greets everyone who walks in. People stop to read it.
And those who have followed the news talk between themselves about the missing man from Newcastle – “Is that near Sydney?”.
“People do go walkabout here,” said a man who only gave his name as Tom.
“Some of them don’t want to be found, but what the whitefellas don’t understand is the climate here. It’s not like what you get down south. Very, very different to where you’re from. You can’t be walking around out there.”
Trudy Brown, the managing editor of the town’s local paper, the Northern Miner, agreed: “It’s a part of the world where you could go off the grid.
“This is a mystery. They [the town] want to know the answer to the mystery.”
The temperature pushed into the high-30s during the days after Mr Penno-Tompsett’s disappearance.
It has cooled this week but remains hot and dry. Very dry. Hasn’t rained in a long time. In Townsville, the water level in the main dam is just 15 per cent. But the Burdekin River is still flowing, and police believe if Mr Penno-Tompsett needed water he would have found it there.
If he needed help, police said, it was likely he would have also found a door to knock on.
The Stockroute Drive area is expansive, but it is still dotted with homes, which leads detectives to another theory to explain Mr Penno-Tompsett’s disappearance – that he is safe and well, possibly even unaware that people are looking for him.
Hitchhiking in these parts is not unusual. Some hitchhikers are backpackers, others are jackaroos or roustabouts, locals said.
Dwain Potter, who clocks up nearly 5000 kilometres per week in his road train travelling between Charters Towers and Mount Isa, said hitchhiking was “fairly regular” at roadhouses on the Flinders Highway. He alludes to the long stretch of bitumen’s infamous history before stepping back into his big rig: “It’s called the highway of death, you know. A lot of people went missing along here in the ’70s and ’80s … but that was a long time ago.”
Older locals are well aware of the murder of Robin Jeanne Hoinville-Bartram, 18, and the haunting disappearance of Anita Cunningham, 19. They also reference the disappearance of Tony Jones in 1982.
Still unsolved, they say.
But Charters Towers is no Wolf Creek, they laugh.
The town’s officer-in-charge, Senior Sergeant Graham Lohmann, said police were “not closed to any possibility”, stressing that Mr Penno-Tompsett’s disappearance was still a missing person investigation.
Senior Sergeant Lohmann said police were pleased with their main witness, his travelling partner Mr Tattersall, and can substantiate the majority of his statements.
Mr Tattersall has hit back at social media criticism with a Facebook post that reads, in part: “He is my mate and I’m hurt too please stop making out I’m just some heartless prick that left him out there to die.”
Senior Sergeant Lohmann also said while Mr Penno-Tompsett had recently battled mental health issues – sparked in part by the sudden death of two close friends – at this stage “there is nothing to suggest” his state of mind was dangerously unstable.
“It is certainly an unusual disappearance,” the officer said. “But the community are very keen to help out. Everyone wants to find Jayden safe and well. That is our only concern, finding Jayden.”
For Mr Tompsett, the return of his son would mean “the world”.
“Hope is still the big word that I’m using,” he said.
“I just want to know where my son is.”