The Macleay Newsroom’s Statewatch team delivers the first in a series of investigative reports on missing persons. An inquest into the death of Richard Sajko, above, has highlighted the ongoing need for answers in missing persons cases.
The Glebe Coroner’s Court has completed three days of intensive examination of the disappearance of Sydney man Richard Sajko.
But three days of witness statements have provided few answers and raised even more questions about what happened to Mr Sajko after he finished work late one weekend in 1995. The coroner will hand down her findings on September 29.
Twenty years after the events, details are hazy in most minds. But one thing all accounts agree on was that on the night of the May 13, 1995, Richard Sajko finished a late shift at Avis Car Rentals near Sydney Airport, and walked to his car, a red Holden Commodore. Whether he sat in his car for a while or stood outside it for sometime is unclear. On that, and whether he was accompanied by a passenger, accounts differed. By the next morning he had disappeared.
Threats and alleged intimidation
On the first day of the inquest the court heard that on the morning of May 14, 1995, Richard’s car was found abandoned in a driveway in Croydon. In his opening statement, solicitor Ian Bourke, the counsel assisting, listed several pieces of evidence that suggested foul play.
“The evidence gathered to date suggest that Richard is dead. There is evidence to conclude that Richard died and died in very suspicious circumstances,” Mr Bourke said. “He was the subject of verbal threats.”
Mr Bourke told the court Mr Sajko was scared that Samuel Testalamuta “might kill him or blow up his car” over a missed payment for a mobile phone. Mr Burke also noted that both Mr Sajko and Mr Testalamuta were facing charges in relation to a stolen car.
At the time Mr Sajko claimed he was unaware that the car, attached to a tow truck Mr Sajko and Mr Testalamuta were driving, was stolen, “There might have been some pressure exerted upon Richard to change his account,” Mr Bourke said.
“In my understanding it was more about the court case,” Rozi Sajko, Richard’s mother, said of the threats.
Mrs Sajko was the first witness to give evidence. She told the inquest that on April 4, 1995, Richard had told her about Mr Testalamuta’s threats and the pending court case. She had told Richard she would get him an independent lawyer, instead of the lawyer Mr Testalamuta had provided.
Richard stayed with his mother overnight and left the next day. It was the last time she would see her son. She later arranged for him to meet a different lawyer but he disappeared before that could happen.
But Colleen, Mr Testalamuta’s mother, told the inquest that Mr Sajko and Mr Testalamuta were “very good friends” and he would never hurt Mr Sajko. Penny Wass SC, representing the Sajko family, questioned that. She also pointed to Mr Testalamuta’s character, noting that he has been jailed for intimidating a witness in 2002. Mr Testalamuta, who pled guilty to shooting the witness twice, completed a 10-year sentence last April.
The court also heard that on the night of his disappearance Mr Sajko was visited at his work by Mr Testalamuta. A friend, Guy DiBella, told the court he had driven Mr Testalamuta but he claims they left together and did not return. Mr Testalamuta was therefore one of the last people to speak with Mr Sajko.
“Suspicions” but no evidence
The inquest focused throughout on the effectiveness of police and their investigation of Sajko’s case. Central to this was discussion of how the original investigation was handled by detective Frank Mennilli, now an assistant commissioner.
Questions were asked about circumstances in which police refused to hear a purported confession by John Faleata Tuiletufuga, a friend of Mr Testalamuta.
The court was told by Mr Joseph Tuiletufuga that his son had told him he had shot a man at Bondi on the night of Mr Sajko’s disappearance. Mr Tuiletufuga claimed that when he took his son to the police station to tell them about what he considered to be a confession to Sajko’s murder, he was told to come back later.
“They said [detective Mennilli] was not working till Tuesday,” Mr Tuiletufuga’s father said. He recalled the duty officer allowed him to phone Mr Mennilli, but the detective just asked him “Could you come back on Tuesday?” He did so, but on the Tuesday, he told the inquest, his son told Mennilli the whole thing was a joke.
Mr Mennilli told the court he didn’t believe anything John Tuiletufuga told him that day.
Both Mr Bourke and Ms Wass pushed Mr Mennilli on what they saw as inaction on the case, asking why he had not investigated the suspicions he had.
“All the suspicions were there,” Mr Mennilli said in response to the questions. “There was no direct evidence.”
“I wish I could give her some good news. This is still a live investigation in my mind,” Mr Mennilli said of his wish to give Mrs Sajko closure.
The court also heard evidence that phone records showed several calls were made to acquaintances of Mr Tuiletufuga from Mr Sajko’s phone number after Sajko disappeared.
The inquest will hear submissions on July 10. The deputy state coroner, Carmel Forbes, will hand down her findings on September 29.
Report by Andrew Leeson. Video by Callum Birch. Additional reporting by Alisha Buaya, Alex Lee and Isis Oliver. Photographs by Mohammad Rassawala and Rebecca Hopper