AN INQUEST has heard details about how police thought they saw a man disappear into a raging Moree river, before leaving the scene only to later discover he was missing.
Gomeroi man Gordon Copeland, 22, died in the early hours of July 10, 2021, after he vanished in the Gwydir River, on the outskirts of Moree.
The raging river was swollen from recent bad weather and full of debris. His body wasn't discovered for three months.
A coronial inquest into his death and police actions opened in Moree on Monday morning after a traditional smoking ceremony outside the courthouse.
Counsel assisting the inquest Dr Peggy Dwyer said Mr Copeland was picked up by two people about midnight while he was out walking.
The two occupants he was with saw police near the train station and "got scared" and drove away.
The black Corolla sedan continued out of Moree onto the Carnavon Highway, before turning left down a dirt track. It continued until it got bogged. Mr Copeland and the other occupants got out and ran to avoid police.
The court was told three officers in the marked police sedan had been patrolling Moree in response to a spate of stolen vehicles in the town and "from the manner of driving", thought the car might have been stolen.
Dr Dwyer told the inquest the officers had told police radio they were not in pursuit of the black Toyota Corolla, could not make out the registration plate, and did not have their warning lights or sirens activated.
She said the evidence from police in their statements was that they were carrying out "high-vis policing", and "we just saw a car take off so we just followed it".
The police had to stop the vehicle on the dirt track because of the wet and muddy conditions, and an officer fell over several times on the slippery ground.
The court heard one of the occupants of the vehicle had outstanding parole, was disqualified from driving and the car was unregistered. Police at the time did not know any of this information, the inquest heard.
Dr Dwyer said officers recalled hearing groaning sounds and continued to yell to see if anyone needed help in the river. After initially spotting what they thought was a young man, they lost sight of him when he disappeared around a bend.
After confusion about whether Mr Copeland was in the car, a search involving police, the SES, fire brigade was mounted along the Gwydir River.
The court heard the search was later abandoned when a detective received information that there had only been two people in the car.
The court heard the call to stop the search "remains very painful for the family" and was distressing.
A new search for Mr Copeland was later launched about 11am on July 11, with a command post set up that involved police divers, PolAir - the force's airfcraft, SES, police and family members.
Dr Dwyer said the search was "very hard for the divers" because their visibility was zero, the water temperature was 11 degrees and fast flowing - an object could travel up to 10km downstream.
A new search, initiated by the coroner on October 6, involved a side scan search to locate snags in the river.
The following day, the police divers found a large tree submerged several metres underwater and cameras and specialist equipment discovered Mr Copeland's body.
The body was found 447m downstream from where police had estimated Mr Copeland entered the river.
A postmortem found Mr Copeland most probably drowned, and could have died within minutes of entering the water.
Dr Dwyer said "this has caused enormous distress" to family and witnesses.
A solicitor for the Commissioner of NSW Police "expressed the commissioner's regret that Gordon's body was not be able to found until [October]", he told the inquest, and that the "uncertainty of those months must have been extraordinarily difficult".
The inquest, before NSW Coroner Teresa O'Sullivan, is scheduled to run for two weeks in Moree.
The inquest will examine a list of issues including what led police to follow the car, and whether that amounted to a pursuit; if the police response was appropriate; if the search conducted at the scene was adequate, or more could have been done; whether the search on July 10 was adequate and if the decision to call it off was appropriate.
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