Desecration at Stringybark Creek
The following was originally published in a slightly different form by Aidan Phelan on his Facebook page A Guide to Australian Bushranging but it has since been removed, which he will explain as you read on. Aidan doesn’t make a habit of singling out people for public criticism, but in this case he’s willing to make an exception. The reason why will become apparent…
Over the weekend of 22nd and 23rd February 2020, it was discovered that someone had been digging up the ground around the tree identified as the ‘Kennedy Tree’. This spot is believed to be the site where Sergeant Kennedy was killed in 1878 after a confrontation with the Kelly Gang. The group responsible for locating this particular spot, known as the Kennedy Tree Report Group, or KTRG, have been investigating the site for months making various studies while seeking approval for more invasive investigation such as looking for traces of shot or bullets in the soil and trees. Everything the group has done has been according to protocol in order to comply with the appropriate laws and regulations, as well as to maintain the integrity of the site for the sake of heritage and ecology. Descendants of Sergeant Kennedy and Constable Lonigan have been to the site and were very keen for more in depth analysis, all of which would have been accomplished with the appropriate clearance from relevant authorities using the least damaging methods possible. Doing things properly requires patience, but that wasn’t good enough for Bill Denheld – a man whose reputation for antagonising people that don’t agree with his own conclusions about Stringybark Creek has seen him pushed away from many circles of history buffs and Kelly enthusiasts, and even invoking the ire of the much beloved Ian Jones.
Denheld has spent years trying to have his own site identified as the real site of the police killings and when the KTRG announced they had a new site to investigate that they believed was the correct one, Denheld went into meltdown. Egged on and given a platform by everyone’s favourite habitual trouble starter and Anti-Kelly acolyte, Dr David MacFarlane, alias Dee Caruthers, Denheld launched a campaign to discredit and defame the members of the KTRG at all costs.
Now it has escalated to vandalism. But, like every self-aggrandising vandal, Denheld wanted to record his actions for posterity. Now, available for all to see in glorious high definition on YouTube, is Denheld venturing out to Stringybark Creek with a metal detector looking for the shotgun ammunition that killed Kennedy. As can be seen in the screenshots, he hacks at and churns up the ground – plants and all – in pursuit of whatever his detector identifies. He even takes out a shotgun and fires into the soil to demonstrate that a shot from a similar firearm would go into the dirt if it was fired in such a manner. Using basic hand tools (likely as a way to get around those pesky fossicking laws that are designed to protect the environment) he destroys the integrity of the site, obviously figuring that even if he did find something, the location would then hopefully be too compromised to do further investigation on and only he would know (who really knows what was cut out of the video apart from he and his accomplices, after all?).
There is no method to the madness, only the compulsion to dig when his detector goes off. His approach is about as scientific as a dog following his nose to locate an old bone. Regardless of whether this is the actual location or not, the correct procedure was not conducted and there was no consideration for how such actions would be received by the descendants and the KTRG who had been looking for answers there beyond, presumably, the hope that it would make them feel foolish.
Nor was there consideration for how such ham-fisted, hack and slash work would potentially impact the ecology of the spot. Denheld, in response to the original version of this post, argued that the area was covered in blackberry bushes that anyone would want to kill off and the tree is almost dead anyway, as if he has the right to determine what lives and dies based on its perceived value. Horticultural expert, and member of KTRG, Jim Fogarty has stated: ‘The Lepidosperma laterale green tuft plant is a bulb type plant called rhizome. The rhizome can sit in the soil for years. There would have been original rhizomes in the soil from 1878. He would have dug these up. Hundreds of years of botanical history destroyed (see image below).’ Think on that.
All Denheld cares about is making anyone that disagrees with him look like fools at all costs. Nothing is too underhanded, no accusation is too hypocritical. It is no wonder he has gravitated to MacFarlane who is the sort of person that kicks a dog then wonders why it bit him. It is not simply that he had the gall to go digging up a state forest for the purpose of point scoring. This is a site held as sacred by the descendants of the slain police. Such actions are like digging up a battlefield in Gallipoli or robbing a crypt. Sure, some might argue that plenty of people go metal detecting to dig up bullets and relics on old battlefields and nobody really kicks up a fuss, but that doesn’t make it right – especially when the location of even one bullet has the ability to rewrite the history books.
Let’s say he accidentally proved the KTRG correct and located the fatal shot. Who can truthfully say that he wouldn’t be above concealing the fact and hiding the evidence by, say, pocketing the shot and digging up more ground than what is shown in the video he edited together to disguise where he found it?
Incidentally, what the KTRG and the visitors they took up there on 23 February found was a lot more churned up earth than what we see in the video, resembling a suburban garden bed covered in mulch (make of that what you will). Some may remember the outrage at a certain someone plunging steel rods into the graves in Greta Cemetery to try and prove a hypothesis about Dan Kelly and Steve Hart escaping the Glenrowan Inn. Even the rush to steal Ned Kelly’s bones when his coffin was uncovered at Melbourne Gaol in the 1920s warranted criticism at the time, and not all of the bones were recovered because there are plenty of people who are morbid and selfish enough to hold onto something like that for bragging rights. This is no different. It is arrogant, self-serving, disrespectful and cynical to say the least. Imagine someone walking into Old Melbourne Gaol and hacking into a wall because they have a theory that Ned Kelly’s skull is inside, or digging up soil over your grandmother’s grave to see if there really was a coffin buried there. Denheld perceived no need for decorum because in his mind he’s right and they’re wrong. Why, after all, should the shepherd concern himself with the opinions of sheep?
I have personally been to Denheld’s site. He took me there when Matthew Holmes and I were doing research for the short film Blood and Thunder that we were developing at the time. I was even there when he took Kennedy descendants into the bush and got everyone lost because he couldn’t remember where his own ‘Kennedy Tree’ site was.
This is a man who believes that even when he’s wrong he’s right. I’ve listened to his complaining in person about people not taking his word over the studies performed by professionals, and the authorities removing the signs he puts up to indicate where his site is (turns out you can’t just go into a state forest and attach things to trees wherever you feel like it). I’ve been scratched up and covered in leeches while following him bumbling through the bush, because it was important to me to see what he believed to be the real locations of the police camp and the Kelly hideouts in order to make an informed opinion about whether I agreed with him. He’s nice as pie so long as you agree with everything he says (or if he doesn’t realise you’re mocking him), but if you step out of line he snaps like a glass goalpost. Is it any wonder that a person like that would have such a disdain for anything he doesn’t personally approve that he would record himself physically destroying a potential heritage site?
Whether or not you agree with the KTRG, this behaviour is unacceptable and the perpetrator must be held to account. If he had accidentally located exactly the proof that he was looking for, that would confirm the group’s hypothesis, he was still not adhering to the appropriate procedure to record such a find – wobbly, poorly framed video does not cut it.
And what was stopping him from working with the KTRG rather than against them other than ego and hubris? If only Denheld was as concerned about the likelihood of destroying the only evidence that could settle whether or not this was the spot where Kennedy died as he was about getting bitten by ants while scooping up handfuls of topsoil and leaves, perhaps he could have been proven right by the proper means in time, but now we may never know who was right about the spot. Bill Denheld has proverbially cut off his leg to take off his shoe – and that’s without even looking at the potential legal ramifications of what he has done. Even if he has followed the restrictions put in place by the law just enough to avoid prosecution, his behaviour is still not in the spirit of the law. He’s merely exploiting loopholes. If we permit such vandalism to go without comment or penalty, where will it end? Where do we draw the line between what is the pursuit of truth and what is simply childish destruction because of a bruised ego? Rules exist for a purpose, whether you like them or not. There is no excuse for such a reckless and selfish act as what Denheld has done.
I would like to point out that both Denheld and MacFarlane took such exception to the original, shorter, version of this post that they reported it for ‘hate speech’ on Facebook. The post was removed by Facebook and after a review by their automated algorithm the removal was upheld without a single, solitary example of where in the text I had attacked anyone based on gender, sexuality, disability, age, race, religion, or ethnic background. Unfortunately there is no avenue for a manual review by a human being so that’s that. In none of my utterances had I stated anything that was not verifiable or self-evident, but I suppose for some people truth is just a matter of spin. Aidan Phelan