For decades, tragic theories have swirled around North Queensland about Tony Jones, who went missing in the region while hitchhiking in the summer of 1982.
Did he encounter serial killer Ivan Milat and become his eighth victim?
Was he king hit in a brawl with some local thugs in a tiny country town and buried in the local slaughter yard?
Or did he just succumb to the heat, losing his way and perishing on some featureless sun-scorched plain in the far west?
There remains no definitive explanation for the 20-year-old’s disappearance, which has become one of Queensland’s most baffling missing persons’ cases.
His tormented family has spent years retracing his route and tirelessly lobbying for investigations to continue.
Inquest yet to conclude
This year, the Jones family had hoped to finally gain deeper insight into these theories, with a long-running coroner’s inquest into his disappearance due to hand down findings.
But the family have become concerned that not all key witnesses have been interviewed and there are further leads that still need following up.
They fear they do not have a clear picture of the investigation, hindering their ability to provide their own final submission to the coroner.
Last week, their concerns were further fuelled when the ABC was able to locate and contact a witness living in Italy who was supposed to have been found decades earlier.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” Mr Jones’s frustrated older brother Mark Jones said this week.
“We are faced with writing final submissions to the coroner, but we are concerned that key leads remain in limbo.”
Hitchhiking on a road with a reputation
Anthony “Tony” Jones was a West Australian lab technician.
His last contact with his Perth-based family was via a reverse-charge call to his mother from a public phone box on the outskirts of Townsville on the evening of November 3, 1982.
He told his mother he would hitchhike west to Mount Isa, where he was expected to meet up with an older brother, Tim Jones, a day or so later.
He was going to travel along the Flinders Highway, a lonely 906-kilometre strip of bitumen that snakes through vast expanses of deserted bush, barren rocky outcrops and gorges, and featureless outback plains.
At the time of Mr Jones’s disappearance, the road had something of a disturbing reputation with several young people going missing or being murdered along its route.
Among the most infamous at that time was the case of student nurses Robin Hoinville-Bartram and Anita Cunningham, who went missing while hitchhiking in 1972.
Ms Hoinville-Bartram’s body was found under a bridge on the highway about 240 kilometres west of Townsville in December that year.
She had been shot twice in the head.
No sign was found of Ms Cunningham, but she is also thought to have been murdered.
The killer has never been caught.
No evidence despite large reward
In Mount Isa, Tim Jones waited for his brother for several days then finally alerted their parents when he failed to show.
A week later, their distraught mother reported her son missing after learning his bank account had not been touched since November 3, the day of his last phone call.
Police launched an investigation, but no sign of Mr Jones was ever found, despite the offer of a $250,000 reward.
In 2002, an inquest ruled he had been murdered, but failed to pinpoint any suspects.
Frustrated from the start by the slow progress in solving the case, the Jones family mounted a long-running campaign to ensure the investigation continued.
Their lobbying led to the establishment of Australia’s Missing Persons Week in 1988.
In 2010, they convinced then Queensland attorney-general Cameron Dick to reopen the inquest after they sent him a pair of Mr Jones’s shoes and dared him to walk in them.
Ivan Milat an early suspect
Hearings in the reopened inquest took place in 2016 and 2017 and revealed that some suspects had been eliminated while new ones had been uncovered.
Notorious backpacker murderer Ivan Milat — initially considered as a person of interest — had effectively been ruled out when it was decided he was unlikely to have been in the area, according to evidence given by police at the inquest, held in Townsville.
Allegations were raised about two men who lived in Hughenden, about 350 kilometres south-west of Townsville at the time of Mr Jones’s disappearance.
This theory revolved around Mr Jones’s body being disposed of at the Hughenden slaughter yard after he was killed in some sort of fight with one of the men.
The inquest heard allegations that one of the men had been heard speaking of being involved in an incident where someone was killed.
But the men denied any such conversation or involvement in the case, or any contact at all with Mr Jones.
Hearings concluded in 2017, but the release of the inquest’s findings was stalled by legal challenges.
The findings were expected to be handed down this year after submissions from the Jones family and police had been given to the coroner.
But just as the Joneses were due to complete their submission, they became aware that an Italian hitchhiker who could potentially provide important information had not been interviewed.
“We were shocked. There’s blank spots and unknowns left, right and centre,” Mark Jones told the ABC.
“We are faced with having to make the final submissions with so many things at a loose end. It’s just unfair.”
Resemblance to another hitchhiker
The Italian hitchhiker was reported to have spent the night at a church in Hughenden on the Flinders Highway, about 10 days after Mr Jones disappeared near Townsville.
The Jones family said he bore a vague resemblance to Mr Jones, and they had long feared his presence in Hughenden gave some witnesses the idea that Mr Jones was still alive and hanging around the town, even though by then it had been more than a week since he had last contacted his family.
This man’s presence was raised in the 2017 inquest hearings.
Detective Sergeant Brenden Stevenson confirmed to the hearing that there were reports of the man being admitted to a church in Hughenden for overnight accommodation and leaving an address and phone number in Italy as his contact details.
He said the Australian Federal Police (AFP) had checked their database and were unable to find any record of the Italian hitchhiker leaving or entering the country.
“I think it’s a time issue, but the records aren’t there,” he said.
During the hearings, it was revealed the man’s name had been spelt differently in some police documents.
Evidence was given that police had yet to speak to the man, but were making ongoing inquiries to remedy this.
Italian man tracked down
But, using Facebook, this week the ABC located the Italian man, who is living on an island off the coast of Italy.
The ABC is withholding his name to protect his privacy.
He confirmed he travelled to the Hughenden area around November 1982.
The ABC is confident he is the man sought by the inquest, and his details have been provided to police and the coroner.
Asked if he had ever been contacted by any authorities about the Jones case, he said he knew nothing about the case of Tony Jones or anyone trying to contact him.
Confirmation of the Italian man’s visit to Hughenden in November 1982 makes it far less likely Mr Jones was in the town nearly two weeks after his last phone call to his mother.
Mark Jones said this had heightened his family’s concerns about the police investigation.
“The point is, these sightings could have been anyone,” he said.
He said it was critical to establish the movements of the Italian or any other travellers known to have been passing through.
“There were claims that Tony was kicking around Hughenden and drinking in a pub for weeks when his stranded brother was desperately awaiting his arrival in Mt Isa.”
He said it was important to investigate whether the Italian man was the person seen in Hughenden.
Request to search slaughter yard
As well as being concerned about potential witnesses not being found, the Jones family wants a ground-penetrating radar search done of the Hughenden slaughter yard.
The family’s lawyer raised the matter during his address to the coroner in the 2017 inquest hearings, saying the family wanted to pay to have the search done.
This week, the current owners — who bought the property after Mr Jones went missing — confirmed to the ABC that no search had been done by anyone using ground-penetrating radar.
“It’s exasperating,” Mark Jones said.
“We are sitting down to do a submission on a case that has gone on for 40 years and everywhere we look there are missing pieces of the puzzle.”
Police said this week it would be “inappropriate to comment”, given the matter was still the subject of a coronial inquest.
Coroner hopes to make findings ‘expeditiously’
On Friday, a coroner’s office spokesperson said the state coroner had been advised that the Queensland Police Service “has requested assistance in relation to interviewing the Italian man through formal channels”.
The spokesperson said that in regard to a search of the Hughenden slaughter yards with ground-penetrating radar, the coroner ruled on July 31, 2017, after considering evidence from a forensic anthropologist and submissions from legal representatives of the Jones family at the time, that there was insufficient evidence for an order to be made.
On April 21 this year, the coroner wrote to Mark Jones in relation to his concerns about the timeline for providing submissions, the spokesperson said.
“The state coroner advised Mr Jones that he wished to make the findings required under … the Coroners Act as expeditiously as possible. He noted that if he was unable to make those findings it would be necessary to refer the investigation back to the Queensland Police Service after the conclusion of the inquest,” the spokesperson said.
The spokesperson quoted from the coroner’s statement of April 21: “I confirm earlier advice that your final submissions may include any submission you wish to make in respect of material you believe should be in your possession or further investigations you submit the inquest should pursue.
“This will provide the other parties to the inquest with an opportunity to respond to those submissions. If I subsequently consider further investigations are required or that material should be released to you, a further period may be given to allow submissions in respect of that additional material,” the coroner said.
The spokesperson said the Jones family and other people granted leave to appear were invited to make submissions to the coroner on these and any other matters of concern.
“Natural justice requires that the Queensland Police Service be given the opportunity to formally respond to the family’s submissions as part of the inquest process.”
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