Cop who led Hayez search lacked experience

The police officer who led the initial search for a backpacker missing in Byron Bay was inexperienced, missing vital training and would conduct the operation very differently with the benefit of hindsight.

Speaking at an inquest into the disappearance of Theo Hayez on Wednesday – the same day police announced a $500,000 reward for information in his case – Senior Constable Louis Papworth admitted he had conducted only two minor searches before the Belgian teen went missing.

Both were launched within hours of when the subject was last seen and both people were located quickly.


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Sen Const Papworth said the magnitude and complexity of the Hayez search – which began nine days after he was last seen on May 31, 2019 – made it vastly different to anything he’d ever done before.

It remains the hardest search he’s ever done, and he thinks of the teen on a daily basis, he told the inquest.

Sen Const Papworth ended up coordinating the search over its first two days, despite being recently accredited, simply because he had the on-call phone at the time, he said.

He also had no training in a GPS search mapping tool, and instead relied on paper maps and pens.

The officer was under a lot of pressure from the get go, given time was running out to find the 18-year-old alive.

“I’m not an expert in timeframes of survival, but obviously nine days being injured or in need of medical attention is a very long time,” Sen Const Papworth said.

“It was concerning.”

Due to the urgency of the search and his inexperience, he told the inquest he had made some mistakes.

His paperwork from the first day of the search wasn’t up to its usual standard, and he had deployed volunteers without a picture of Theo and had also sent out teams without GPS devices to log their movements on at least the first – and probably the second – day of the search.

“I’ve sort of got a belief now that if there’s not GPS data, (in my eyes) that area hasn’t been searched,” he said.

Sen Const Papworth was also asked why a helicopter or drone capable of thermal imaging hadn’t been requested to help find a body.

“I don’t really have an explanation for that. I suppose it was an oversight on my part in regards to my inexperience.”

He said he could not recall receiving a text from another officer who earlier gave evidence she had suggested he do so.

With the benefit of hindsight he would also have tried to find out more about Theo’s interests and behaviour, to help tailor the search.

If he had access to location data sourced from Theo’s phone on those first two days, Sen Const Papworth agreed he would have approached the search “in a very different way, and with a lot more intensity”.

The data showed Theo had spent seven minutes at a local sporting field, before charting a route through the Arakwal National Park to Cosy Corner Beach.

The current police theory is that Theo clambered up the beachside cliffs, dropped his phone, then fell and was swept out to sea, something his family says goes against the teen’s sensible, risk-averse nature.

Another search and rescue operator who searched the cliffs in the area with a drone and by abseiling down some told the inquest on Wednesday they were incredibly steep and crumbly.

“I’ve been off many, many, many cliffs and that one made me nervous,” Senior Constable John Stirling said.

The inquest will continue on Thursday, when it is due to hear “significant” new evidence that could narrow down the teen’s last movements, the counsel assisting the coroner said.

She also said investigators are hopeful they’ve tracked down someone who was exchanging messages with Theo shortly before his phone stopped transmitting his location.

© AAP 2022