By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
For the past eight years, Sergeant Gerry Thornton has never swayed from his view that “nothing seemed right” about the 2009 death of Lainie Coldwell in Charleville, south-eastern Queensland.
Now, almost a decade after her death, the officer has finally been recognised by the Queensland Police Service for his dogged persistence which put an ex-police officer behind bars, and gave a grieving family some closure.
The story of Lainie Coldwell
Emergency Services found Lainie Coldwell’s corpse at the base of a large gum tree. She had suffered a severe head injury. Her partner Louis Mahony, who was a former policeman decorated for bravery, told attending police and paramedics the deceased had been trying to remove party lights from the tree when she fell.
Ms Coldwell died from her injuries two days later. Charleville police accepted the former officer’s explanation with little question, and the coroner ruled the death as accidental.
But when Sergeant Gerry Thornton, who was stationed about 80 kilometres away in a neighbouring town called Morven, heard about the ‘freak accident’, his gut feeling was that something wasn’t quite right.
While visiting Charleville the day after the incident, officer Thornton made a point of driving past the house where a ladder was still standing on the back of Mahony’s ute, leaning against a large lemon-scented gum tree.
“Nothing looked right,” the officer recalls “To me it wouldn’t have been possible for anyone to dismount the ladder or even actually climb the ladder without it tilting.”
A few weeks later, Sergeant Thornton discovered that Mahoney had taken out a life insurance policy on his partner worth close to $2 million, just a few months before the incident.
When the officer sought to delve deeper into the case, he was blocked at almost every turn by policies and procedures. The coroner’s ruling meant there was no case to answer. But officer Thornton couldn’t ignore the nagging feeling inside.
After undertaking a solo investigation which also uncovered that police failed to take relevant evidence from the scene – including an antique iron with blood on it – the sergeant accumulated sufficient grounds for the case to be re-opened in 2011.
Good old fashion policing
Sergeant Thompson spent many hours door knocking and talking to the community in what he describes as “good-old fashioned policing.” Several members of the local community were “exceptionally helpful”, providing statements and even ultimately testifying in court.
It was discovered during the course of the investigation that Mahoney had asked colleagues about the effects of certain poisons – specifically those that could kill a person, and had also spent time ‘googling’ the forensic science of head injuries.
Louis Mahony was arrested in 2015, and his case went to trial in 2017, when a jury convicted him of murdering his partner of 18 years.
He is now serving life in prison and won’t be eligible for parole for at least 13 years. He is also facing charges relating to insurance fraud.
The Queensland Police Force says it was only through the sheer determination of sergeant Thornton that the case was re-opened.
“When someone can’t speak for themselves, and in this case it was Ms Coldwell, when they don’t have a voice anymore and we have officers like this who are persistent, resilient and know what’s right and are tenacious in tracking the evidence and bringing together of the brief — I think that’s exceptional,” said Police Commissioner Ian Stewart.
Lainie Coldwell’s family have also praised Sergeant Thornton’s tireless efforts to seek justice.