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Mystery surrounds the role of a former Liberal candidate's involvement in a heroin-related death, writes Hedley Thomas

MARDI McLean, the willowy young model with a million-dollar smile, was the Liberal Party's overnight sensation, a glamorous but flawed candidate for a Labor-held seat.

As a heroin addict who swore she had stopped injecting and wanted to help others, her credibility was talked up by the party's Queensland leaders in a campaign that complemented Prime Minister John Howard's declaration in 2001 of a war on drugs.

But there were no political leaders at the Brisbane Magistrates Court yesterday afternoon. McLean, now 27, stayed away. As magistrate Michael Halliday, who five years ago ruled McLean should be tried on charges of murdering her uncle with an overdose of heroin, turned the page on the unresolved death of Mitch Collins, his parents stifled sobs.

``It's like we've been up against a brick wall,'' Mitch's mother, Desley Collins, 63, tells Inquirer.

``Some days I just want it all to stop so that I can get some normality back into our lives, but then I think of Mitch and how unfair that would be to him. He is entitled to justice.

``I have accepted that without further evidence coming to light, there will never be a murder trial. I have overcome my desire for revenge. That would cause further grief to my family, who have already suffered too much. But I don't believe that we will ever get closure. Our lives are changed forever.''

McLean has always asserted she had nothing to do with the death of Collins, who was renowned for his loathing of heroin and the damage it caused. She has described him as a mentor during her troubled life, ``like he really cared''. She could not be contacted yesterday, but her grandmother, Lorna McLean, says: ``Everything has fallen into place for her. She is having a baby. She is extremely settled and happy and she deserves it. Anybody who knows her would not think for a moment that she had done anything like murder.'' Conflicting forensic evidence about whether the heroin that killed Collins was ingested orally or intravenously led to the Director of Public Prosecutions withdrawing the murder charges two years ago. McLean is unlikely to face a jury.

``If I had any doubts about what happened I would probably accept it. I have no doubts. We have been let down by the courts, the police, Mardi and the forensic centre,'' says Mitch's stepdaughter Bobbi Spence.

A fit and healthy 41-year-old, Mitch ran a labour-hire business, partied hard and shared his parents' passion for racing cars and motorcycles. He also had a reputation for helping people in need.
``He was the family member who kept us all in touch,'' his mother says.

``He was a highly intelligent person, a prolific reader on a wide range of topics, and a free thinker. He trusted people, often to his own detriment, unless, or until, they proved they were not worthy of his trust. What you saw was what you got with Mitch. There was no pretence and no hypocrisy.''

His last party, a funeral service, drew more than 500 family and friends, many of whom rode motorcycles.

For the past five years, his parents, retired academics, have trained themselves in forensic toxicology and pathology, hired private detectives to trace McLean's calls to drug dealers, spent a small fortune on scientific reports and studied criminal law. They bought a medical dummy to better understand how the bile duct empties. They launched a website celebrating his short life.

Were it not for McLean's story that Mitch was a heroin user who went too far and fatally overdosed nine days before Christmas 2000, his parents would have let it go. Mitch's closest friends and relatives knew him as avowedly anti-heroin to the point of being openly hostile towards users.

They remain angry that his membership of the Odins Warriors motorcycle club may have influenced police and the investigations into his death.

``He had seen how heroin ruined other people's lives. He saw that the people who did use heroin stole and cheated and lied and were basically killing themselves while harming everyone else,'' says Spence.

Members of the Odins Warriors went out of their way to let his father know that ``Mitch had been involved with the drafting of a particular clause in the club constitution which outlaws the use of heroin in any form in the club and if anyone is found using that, they're immediately kicked out''.

For years before his death, Mitch was a volunteer in a medical research project. Tests on his blood and tissue samples never showed any trace of heroin, morphine or their metabolites. Graham Cooksley, a professor who had close contact with Mitch during the project, says he does not believe Mitch was addicted to anything.

He was no angel, his parents agree, but there were no needle marks on Mitch's body apart from where paramedics had attempted to revive him in the bedroom of his Brisbane townhouse. The heroin that killed him, bought hours earlier from a local dealer by McLean, is believed to have been ingested orally, and Mitch's parents suspect he drank it unwittingly from a bottle that had been spiked.

In pursuing justice, they became suspicious about the quality of the forensic evidence regarding the fatal dose of heroin, which McLean claimed Mitch had injected.

Mitch's father, Patrick Collins, is a former psychologist, not a forensic scientist, but his growing dedication to obscure textbooks and journals about the human body's absorption of heroin made him worried.

When he pointed out fundamental mistakes by the state Government-run forensic science facility, the John Tonge Centre, he was at first fobbed off. Senior scientists who conducted a review were eventually forced to admit their errors and misleading testimony.

``There was absolute and total forensic incompetence,'' Patrick Collins says. ``I learned very early in the piece that if you do not have the evidence, you should shut your mouth. It's their job. They should do it properly.''

Mitch had let McLean stay in the spare room of his Brisbane apartment for a couple of weeks after she assured him she was no longer using heroin. After his death, $20,000 which he had withdrawn from his business to repay his parents was missing.
Before yesterday's judicial hearing in Brisbane, Patrick Collins put thick folders of documents on the dining room table at his home and broke down while playing a CD.

It was a recording of McLean's hesitant contact with the ambulance service at 12.38pm on the day Mitch died. She had hung up seconds after being connected. When the operator traced the number and called back, McLean sounded unperturbed: ``Yeah, I'm sorry, it's all right. It's just a friend of mine, but he's OK.''

``He was dead for nearly two hours by then,'' Collins says.
In a subsequent emergency call McLean sounded worried. ``He's not breathing. This man's just gone blue. He's dead,'' she told the operator.

Six weeks later while Mitch's grieving family puzzled over the many inconsistencies in McLean's story and urged the police to treat the death as a homicide, she announced her political ambitions and drew commendations from community leaders.
``Too many of my friends have died,'' she said at the time. ``That's why I am contesting for the Liberals. It is imperative that we make drug rehabilitation an issue.''

During the subsequent inquest, the police officer assisting magistrate Halliday said: ``Well, I'll put it to you, Miss McLean, that on the day that Mr Collins passed away you assisted him by administering a dangerous drug to him. What have you got to say about that?''

McLean: ``You are completely incorrect.''

``And on the day in question you removed $20,000 from his unit?''

McLean: ``You are completely incorrect.''

Desley and Patrick Collins accept they have come to the end of the road with the formal closure yesterday of the original inquest, but they hope more people will question forensic science when it seems faulty.

``I can understand people saying we have been obsessed,'' says Patrick Collins. ``We had wrong evidence coming out and we tried to do something about it. We checked everything and we kept finding mistakes. Nobody else has tried to find out exactly what happened.

``Do I want to see McLean tried in front of a jury of her peers? Mitch deserves that, but there is a threat for the rest of us, especially Desley and me. We are old, and getting older, and we have already lost too many precious moments.''
Before concluding the inquest yesterday, Halliday said the concerns of Mitch's family about the quality of the forensic evidence ``can be fully appreciated''.

After admitting their comprehensive submission as a formal exhibit he said there were still serious questions over the expertise of toxicologists at the John Tonge Centre.

Articles reprinted with permission from The Australian.


Articles reprinted with permission from The Australian.

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