Even in bush this dense, it is hard to hide if you are on the move. The noise of every leaf cracking under foot, of every snapping twig, is amplified through the foliage.
The team are excited but incredibly nervous. This is the adrenaline-pumping work they had signed up for. But it is hard yakka.
There is just three of them and a police dog named Ranger as they close in on Australia’s most wanted fugitive – a violent double killer and child rapist who has embarrassed police for more than six years as he roams free across the remote Barrington Tops and beyond.
Malcolm Naden has morphed from a murderous villain to a popular enigma in these parts as he somehow stays a few leech-filled steps ahead of his pursuers.
But, finally, this could be the moment the police hierarchy are waiting for. A chance to nab their man and parade him around following years of torment.
Nineteen days beforehand, Naden had taken the bait – a sleeping bag containing a tracking device from “Alkira”, a property just outside of Nowendoc, a tiny village on the northwestern edge of the Barringtons.
It was pure glee for the hunters. A series of increasingly costly ploys had failed and the pressure was mounting.
But they knew Naden enjoyed the confines of a remote hut to the barren rock walls of a cave. They had quietly named parts of the enormous national park as Naden’s Highway as he trudged across huge expanses of land without being noticed.
And the same wonderful traits that attracted paying visitors to places like “Alkira” were also perfect for Naden – they were incredibly remote and could go weeks without being used.
So when Naden helped himself to the sleeping bag at “Alkira” on November 18, 2011, it was game on for Strike Force Durkin, the police investigation codename to hunt him down.
They just needed to be patient.
Enter Leading Senior Constable Andrew Mahoney and Senior Constable Brad MacFadyen, both part off the crack Tactical Operations Unit, as well as dog squad member Sergeant Sean McDowell and his dog Ranger.
The trio were thrown together as one of several search parties sent in day after day in search for a ping from Naden’s sleeping bag.
And the previous day, they had struck gold – finding a cache of weapons belonging to Naden deep in the even-deeper undergrowth.
So it is just after dawn on December 7, 2011 – not quite three weeks since Naden first took the sleeping bag and less than 24 hours since he lost most of his weapons.
Mahoney, who was the leader of the search party, takes his crew back to where the guns were found. He is armed with a M4 .223 carbine rifle.
His fellow TOU officer, MacFadyen, also has an M4. But he is also in charge of the all-important tracking device. And this is not something from a James Bond film.
No. This is a bit more antiquated than that. Such is the need of the NSW Police to find any means necessary to hunt Naden down, they had looked well outside the law enforcement square.
These trackers were usually in the arms of animal conservationists. They had spent most of their time finding koalas in treetops than killers on the ground.
The antenna is cumbersome and is coloured black and blue – a contrast to the greens and browns in the thick foliage.
To receive the transmission from the sleeping bag, MacFadyen needs to hold the antenna above his head, the thin metal blades continually catching on branches and leaves, the reaction of snapping back into place echoing movement through the bush.
Adding to that is the fact that the receiver can only track the pinging in a direction. The noisy pings would accelerate as they got closer to the sleeping bag, but there is no specific distance reading until they get to within about 50 metres, when the pinging becomes a constant noise. Hit and miss is a fair description.
As they close in on where they think Naden’s little bush camp is situated, the tracking device gets busier.
MacFadyen, who has only been shown how to use the tracker a few days earlier, does not have the headphones on. How can you when you are hunting a double killer? You need to keep in touch with your surrounds.
It is now 6.45am and MacFadyen is the first to spot the sleeping bag. He tells Mahoney to take cover.
They don’t bleat out they are police and Naden should give himself up. One, they still haven’t seen him. And two, Naden is renowned for his escapes. And when you are this close to the biggest arrest of your career, patience is a virtue.
They are not to know, but their failure to see Naden is not reciprocated.
The fugitive first heard them. But now he can see them, or at least parts of them.
Naden was to later tell homicide detectives that he was aware of suggestions that bounty hunters – or “cowboys” as he put it — were keen to hit the Barringtons for a chance of reaping the $1 million reward for his capture, the first such arrest bounty since the times of the bushrangers.
And Naden was to also tell detectives that he was not aware that police wore camouflage. Maybe these guys were civilians, or maybe they were army. Either way, he knew they were there to capture him. And he wasn’t ready to go quietly.
So he continues to watch the men in camo get closer through the sight of his stolen .22 calibre rifle. They are only a few metres away and he sees one crouch. It is McDowell with Ranger, and MacFadyen moves to cover them as a fierce crack pierces the air.
Naden later tells detectives he was going for a “body shot” and that he shot to kill. But MacFadyen recalls moving just a split-second before the shot rings out.
That movement may well save his life.
As NSW Supreme Court Justice Derek Price would recount in sentencing:
“Although the offender said … that he aimed for the chest and heart of Senior Constable MacFadyen, the agreed facts reveal that the police officers were close to one another when the offender discharged his rifle.
The offender recounted that “[he] moved [the rifle] from the first, the bloke that [he] did
shoot to the one behind him, that was kneeling behind him, so you know, I was debating which one to shoot, you know, I didn’t know how many there were”
Even as they were within a couple of metres, Naden was playing eeny meeny miny moe.
The bullet crashes through MacFadyen’s shoulder. Mahoney and McDowell both call “police, don’t shoot”.
Things have quickly gone pear-shaped. Their location means communications with Strike Force Durkin headquarters is scratchy at best. They now had a shot officer bleeding profusely.
And to add insult to injury, during all the commotion Ranger has become spooked and launches at MacFadyen.
In fact, the webbing on his torso would have to be cut to remove Ranger’s tight jaws.
The trio spend another three hours in the bush, not knowing where Naden is, before they are rescued. But the fugitive is well gone – despite him being wanted for the murders of Lateesha Nolan and Kristy Scholes in Dubbo in 2005, this coward would rather flight than fight.
The shooting of MacFadyen – it will be nine years next week – is a moment that would reverberate through the corridors of law and order for years to come.
It also becomes the moment when NSW Police draw a line in the sand as far as hunting Naden is concerned.
He had tried to kill one of their own. It was now a win-at-all costs scenario.
Open the cheque book and end this thing.
But it would take more than four months – at more than $300,000 a day at its height – before Naden is captured in a midnight raid on a property at Rawdon Vale, more than 70km away from the shooting of MacFadyen as the crow flies.
As part of the sentencing process, Justice Price officially sentencing Naden to 16 years’ jail for the shooting of MacFadyen, with a non-parole period of six years, on the charge of shooting with intent to murder.
To the majority, it means little. Naden’s complete term is life imprisonment.
But to MacFadyen, it remains poignant. Because the now former cop has been sentenced to his own lifetime of imprisonment via the horrific post-traumatic stress disorder that he now suffers from.
He successfully sued NSW Police for a long list of alleged shortcomings that led to the shooting and the parties settled out of court last year for a secret sum believed to be many hundreds of thousands of dollars.
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