A top police officer has told a court how he would have tackled the search for an elderly man who was found dead in a shopping mall stairwell despite a frantic three-week manhunt.
Tasmanian dementia sufferer Bernard Gore, 71, was reported missing on January 6, 2017 after he walked into the stairwell at Westfield Bondi Junction, Sydney, but couldn’t get out.
Forensic analysis showed by the time he was found he had likely been dead for one to two weeks, meaning he had spent a week slowly dying in the locked stairwell.
The inquest into his death heard on Monday the under-resourced search to find him had been led by a junior constable with no missing persons experience.
As the inquest resumed on Tuesday, New South Wales Missing Persons Registry boss Detective Inspector Glen Brown said his ‘immediate’ reaction to the report of Mr Gore’s disappearance would have been one of extreme concern.
‘I would be gravely concerned for that person and my immediate consideration would be to engage in a suitable search to try to gather together the proper resources to conduct that search,’ he said.
Det Insp Brown said he had overhauled police investigations into missing persons in NSW following his appointment to his role in 2019.
‘When I was given this position to build this missing persons registry… it simply was the case I thought we needed a greater level of expertise within each command,’ he said.
He said the process of investigating missing persons cases was now overseen by a co-ordinator who is normally a senior detective, news.com.au reported.
On Monday, Constable Rebecca Daniels, who led the search, broke down while reliving her fruitless search for the retiree.
She said the three-week investigation ‘consumed’ her and the entirety of the Rose Bay Police Station.
‘Even if we were patrolling other areas for different jobs … we still had Mr Gore in the back of our mind,’ Const Daniels told the inquest.
‘I was looking for him on my way to and from work.
‘I would purposefully go out of my way and go to train stations on my way home from work, just to see if he was there, particularly since we had such a good description of him.
‘I remember I had his name in the search field of my phone. I would constantly refresh it just to see if he’d been found.’
Const Daniels and Constable Ramon Gilarte attended the Westfield’s security control room on January 9 in a bid to pin down his whereabouts.
‘It was mentioned that they had reviewed the CCTV and hadn’t found him … attending the Westfield in the three or four days between Mr Gore being declared missing,’ she said.
The two-officer team searched the centre for several hours and Const Daniels claims they asked guards to assist by checking the fire stairs which – unbeknownst to them – were up to 14km long.
‘Looking back on it now, we should have done it ourselves,’ Const Gilarte said.
‘Rather than trusting their protocols.’
The inquest has also previously heard a ‘code grey’ which would have triggered a full search of the centre was not activated by staff.
Mr Gore’s daughter Melinda last year cried as CCTV of the moment he walked into the stairwell on January 6 was played at his inquest.
‘There is no further CCTV footage of Bernard after the time Bernard entered the fire stairs,’ counsel assisting the coroner Anna Mitchelmore SC told the NSW Coroners Court on Monday.
Hundreds of thousands of shoppers came and went as Mr Gore sat trapped inside, hearing their voices echoing down the stairs. More than 20 million people visit each year spending $1.1 billion.
Known as ‘Butch’ to his mates, Mr Gore was staying with his daughter at Ocean Street in Woollahra in the weeks before his disappearance.
He went missing carrying only $30 and his transport Opal card when he did not turn up to meet his family at the shopping centre on January 6.
The footage showed him walk inside the Westfield at 12.48pm, up to level four and through door L407 at 12.50pm.
The door could not be opened from the inside and though there was an exit downstairs and through a corridor, Mr Gore had not found it in time.
The next time anyone saw him was when a janitor found him in the fire escape near the level three access close to luxury stores like Scotch and Soda, Chanel, Jimmy Choo and Leona Edmiston.
Mr Gore was found lying in a ‘semi-kneeling position’ in the stairwell.
His family spent weeks searching for him and Westfield faced questions about how Mr Gore’s body went undiscovered for such a long time – in a time where temperatures skyrocketed to the mid-40s.
Records obtained from the shopping centre showed the exit door at the bottom of the stairwell was not opened in the three weeks between Mr Gore enering, and his body being discovered.
Mr Gore was taking medication for hypertension and a mild cognitive impairment at the time of his death and had gone missing in Hobart once before.
However, he had successfully made the journey between home and the shopping centre several times before and had a well-established routine.
In their search for Mr Gore, security officers and police only reviewed CCTV from certain Westfield pedestrian entrances and the area surrounding Woolworths, leading them to believe he never arrived.
The last CCTV videos recorded of Mr Gore entailing his entry to Westfield, his walk through the shopping centre and the moment he paused and turned into the fire stairwell were not examined by searchers.
‘Our dad was not frail,’ his son Mark Gore told Daily Mail Australia days after the body was found. ‘He was a strong and resilient man.’
Mr Gore said reports his father – a barber who still cut his friends’ hair to his last days – was ‘confused’ were not correct.
The family said they were grieving and waiting for the results of the investigation before they pass judgement.
‘We’re just not there at the moment,’ Mr Gore said.
‘My father would not want to bother anyone if he was lost, and I think it’s unlikely he’d approach a stranger for help,’ Mark said at a press conference.
‘I hope someone will notice him alone and ask if he needed help; he’d probably say he was fine but people need to contact police if they think it is him.’
Westfield’s parent company, Scentre Group, offered their ‘deepest condolences to the family of the man found today at Westfield Bondi Junction.’
‘Investigations are still underway to determine exactly how these sad and tragic circumstances could have occurred, and Scentre Group will continue to work with police in their investigations,’ it said at the time.
The inquest before deputy state coroner Derek Lee continues.