The Grindell murder case

John Grindell

It was not until 1918 that John Grindell of Worturpa became known, not only in the northern Flinders Ranges but also throughout the whole of South Australia. Unfortunately it was for all the wrong reasons. Hidden in the rugged Vulkathunha Gammon Ranges Grindell ran his small cattle station at Worturpa Pound, where not all that long ago hundreds of gold diggers had camped and worked hoping to make a fortune. Grindell's 'homestead' was a small simple one roomed stone building covered with corrugated iron, looking out over Illinawortina Pound. Already in his sixties it was his last attempt to make a success of the final years of his life.

Grindell had many problems. His wife Meta, was in poor health and living in Adelaide. His son was at the front in Europe and his daughter Florence married to George Windsor Snell whom he had never liked. Snell and his younger brother William owned Angepena and Yankaninna stations. There were also the recurring droughts, isolation, loneliness and lack of financial resources. Most of all there was the problem with his cattle. It kept mysteriously disappearing from Worturpa without a trace.

Cattle rustling in the north had not been uncommon. After all, Captain Starlight had made his name when he drove a mob of stolen cattle down the Strzelecki Track and sold them at Blanchewater. Later it would be said that Kidman also practised it to build up his herds. This was different though, this was his cattle, his livelihood and it was disappearing.

There could only be one person responsible for this. According to Grindell it had to be his son in law, George Snell. Despite the mistrust between them George had assisted Grindell several times with mustering but after the unexplained death of his mule, and a few violent encounters between the two men, Grindell had no doubt any more about the cause of all his troubles. Even at stations as far away as Wooltana and Umberatana people new that trouble was ahead.

At about this time Grindell was joined by his son George, better known as Joe who had recently returned from the war in Europe. Both son and son in law would assist Grindell with the August mustering of his cattle. After the job was finished Joe was instructed by his father to go to Balcanoona and Snell went back to Angepena where Florence and their children were staying for a little while. Snell never arrived at Angepena.

Visiting the scene some sixty years later.

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When George Snell failed to arrive at Angepena and when after fruitless searching by his brother only his horse was found, without saddle or bridle, the police at Beltana was informed. William Snell also telegraphed his brother Arthur to let him know about the disappearance of their brother. Mounted Constable Edward Waterhouse from Beltana took charge of the case and with the help of Aboriginal trackers William Austin, Edward Treloar and Richard Coulthard and several station men from Balcanoona, Wooltana and Wertaloona, an extensive search was begun.

Recent rain made the task even harder but eventually, little by little enough evidence was found to solve the disappearance of George Snell. First there were the half eaten wild carrots found in a campfire but no signs or tracks from the camel who had eaten them. Footprints of both camel and a man were found eventually by the trackers but not where an animal would go voluntarily. The next discovery was another old campfire which after some raking revealed a charred bone and tooth. Later again they found some rope and a bridle. The bridle had been presented to Snell by the workers at Mount Lyndhurst station as an appreciation of his work and frienship there.

As it was well known that George Snell had lived more than fifteen years in the area and most certainly knew his way around, most men involved in the search now believed that a foul crime had been committed and Snell met his death at or near Worturpa Hut. The next day Waterhouse arrested Grindell on suspicion of murder and took him to the police lock up at Beltana.

Another search party, made up of Farina policeman James Joseph Kerin and a tracker, set out from the other side of the Vulkathunha Gammon Ranges and found a blood stained camel which was also taken to Beltana. Although Grindell had been arrested, the search was not called off yet. Detective Wylie from Adelaide had joined the group and inspected the fires again. This time they found George Snell's badly burned pocketknife and what appeared to be parts of intestines. Nearby they also found his saddle. Enough evidence was collected and on 23 September 1918 John Grindell faced the court at Beltana for a preliminary hearing.

There was great local interest and the hall was filled to capacity. At this hearing before Magistrate John Wood much of the evidence suggested that Grindell had a case to answer. However some of the damning evidence later proved to be inconclusive. Dr Edward Angas Johnson of Adelaide established that the tooth was an upper right wisdom tooth. However, two witnesses stated that the tooth could not be from George Snell as he never had any wisdom teeth. Even so there seemed to be enough evidence to commit him to stand trial at Port Augusta.

On 2 December 1918 John Grindell faced His Honour Mr Justice Gordon and a jury at the Port Augusta Circuit Court. The prosecution team consisted of Shierlaw and Abbott assisted by A.C. Thomas of the Crown Law Department. W. F. Owen of Adelaide appeared for the defence. Numerous witnesses were called, among them Grindell's daughter Florence and sons John and Joe, several station owners and Aboriginal Trackers.

On 3 December the judge summed up the case for the jury, who took only thirty minutes to arrive at the Guilty of Murder verdict. Grindell, who had stated his innocence throughout the trial, was sentenced to death by hanging at the Adelaide Gaol on 2 January 1919. During December a petition was presented to save Grindell but the government considered the evidence against him so strong that the request was denied. After several more petitions from Grindell's wife, daughter and sons and those from the Rev F. Webb and Mrs Annie Collins the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Perhaps that was Grindell's only stroke of luck!

Ten years later John Grindell, seventy-five years old, was released from gaol. He died in May 1930.

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