Brutal death of a lonely man in a 'forgotten' crime

CHANCES are January 20, 2004 doesn't mean much to most of us.

But in that day's early hours, a diminutive indigenous man named Howard Hobson was mercilessly attacked - beaten on his 55th birthday and left to bleed on a Cairns footpath.

He was found about 1.30am in front of the Jack & Newell building on Wharf Street by council workers.


Howard Hobson
Howard Hobson

Unconscious and bleeding from a severe head wound, he would die a few hours later in hospital.

An autopsy revealed he had been bludgeoned, most likely by a solid object at about 12.40am.

Howard was one of the Cairn's unseen and ignored - the now nearly 2000 homeless people that sleep rough on the streets and parks, couch surf or bed down in shelters and boarding houses.

Not much is known about Howard Hobson - he was from Lockhart River but kept to himself in the CBD area, making information about him particularly scarce.

If Howard had a fixed residence, vocal friends or a support network, chances are he would not be almost forgotten 14 years after his brutal and undignified death.

Two years after Howard Hobson died, the State Government issued a $250,000 reward for information which leads to the apprehension and conviction of whoever was responsible.

Then police minister Judy Spence described the incident as a "callous and brutal assault on a homeless indigenous man".

The reward still stands for Cairns' only remaining open murder.

Unfortunately policing in 2004 did not have the benefit of electronic street surveillance or the advances in mobile phone technology that is taken for granted today.

"Everything that could conceivably be done was done at the time," Detective Acting Inspector Rob Campbell said.

Detective Acting Inspector Rob Campbell. PICTURE: BRENDAN RADKE
Detective Acting Inspector Rob Campbell. PICTURE: BRENDAN RADKE

"At the time the first thing that would have been done is plodding the streets, knocking on doors and talking to people."

Police working to solve the murder did not have the reams of vision that they may have had access to 14 years later.

"We didn't have the CCTV assets or intersection cameras we have now," Det Acting Inspector Campbell said.

"Mobile phones weren't used like today and there were no dashcams.

"The technology did not exist at the back end to collect and exploit the data.

"Now one of the first things would be to download those resources.

He said the open case was at a standstill unless someone came forward.

"The only way to move forward with this is with new information," Det Acting Inspector Campbell said.

"This crime was done for a reason.

"The amount of violence used does indicate that someone has done this for whatever reason - it is not just his bad luck.

"Someone is still living with this in themselves."

Clothes that Howard Hobson was wearing when he died.
Clothes that Howard Hobson was wearing when he died.

Cairns homeless welfare groups believe the suffering of victims like Howard Hobson is twofold - the trauma of crime and the indignity of being largely overlooked by society.

"A lot of people we support have suffered complex trauma," Anglicare's Ian Roberts said.

"People who present to our services have a complex background and we need to consider from the point of view that we all in some way have our own story."

He said only six per cent of the homeless population in Cairns sleep rough on the streets.

"If we could see people from the human perspective then it would be a lot easier to discuss the issue," he said.

" For any number of reasons they may have gotten themselves into a difficult situation."

Access Housing's Donna-Maree O'Connor said the issue of homelessness was more complex than appearances would suggest.

"It is easy to think that everyone who is homeless is an addict or alcoholic," Ms O'Connor said.

"It is a deeper problem than moving them from the CBD.

"There's a whole range of reasons people sleep rough; some come down from the Cape for health reasons, some are out of prisons. A lot of them have serious health issues."