Crimes that shook us to the core: ‘The night Douglas Crabbe drove a truck into a pub’

Aug 04, 2019
Douglas Crabbe drove his Mack Superliner into the bar of the Inland Motel, which at the time was located a short distance from the base of Uluru, Northern Territory. Source: Getty Images

Why would a person ejected from a hotel start up a heavy road train and ram it at speed into a crowded bar, killing and injuring a number of people? It’s a question that still bothers Mark McAdie, the investigating police officer, three decades later.

All reports from the time indicate that 36-year-old Douglas Crabbe was happy and in a good mood, dropping cargo around the construction site that was the then-developing Indigenous tourism and training complex, Yulara. That evening, August 18, 1983, his day’s work done and road train parked, he walked the half kilometre to The Inland Motel for a meal and a few drinks.

The night kicked on for him and his few beers turned into quite a few. The more he drank, the more his demeanour changed. He became belligerent and, when refused a drink, called a bar attendant a b***h, threw at least one stubbie, then stepped behind the bar to serve himself.

Refused further service, he was asked to leave, but declined. Two of the staff and a concerned patron wrestled him to the floor, one of them having to apply a headlock before he relented. He then begrudgingly agreed to leave. It was 12:30am, but patrons at the popular watering hole hadn’t seen the last of Douglas Crabbe. Walking back to his Mack Superliner, he drove it to the front of another motel, disconnected one of its two large trailers, then drove towards The Inland Motel.

Crabbe accelerated up through the gears and swung his big rig in to the motel car park. Swerving around a minibus parked in front, he slammed head on into the still crowded bar, killing five and leaving another 16 with serious injuries. The concrete block wall of the hotel exploded inward “like a bomb going off,” in the words of one witness.

Seemingly unconcerned, the driver dropped down from the cab of his truck, its engine still running, stepped over several of his victims, then fled the scene.

Mark McAdie, who would go on to be assistant commissioner of Northern Territory Police, was the officer in charge that night. He attended a scene of utter devastation, immediately recognising it as a crime and not the result of an unfortunate accident. Leaving the care of the injured to others, he made a thorough investigation of the surrounds and was able to determine the truck had not braked prior to impact, but had still been accelerating.

Crabbe ran away, hiding in the bush overnight, but was apprehended on the following morning. He was charged with five counts of murder.

Strangely, despite offering no explanation as to why he did it – he claimed a lack of memory between starting the truck and finding himself in the midst of all the carnage – he pleaded not guilty. He told the court he didn’t believe himself capable of such an act. The jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to imprisonment for life on each of five counts.

An appeal through the Federal Court, followed by a High Court order, brought a retrial a year later, but he was again sentenced to life, although now with a 30-year non-parole period. Interestingly, the High Court also made a definitive ruling on recklessness, reading in part “… that to be guilty of murder, the defendant can be reckless in that they did the act knowing it was probable … that death or grievous bodily harm would occur as a result of their actions”.

Crabbe was transferred from the Northern Territory and is incarcerated under Western Australian jurisprudence. The state’s law relating to parole periods has been changed to prevent Crabbe’s release, and that of several other nominated murderers, with the attorney general – and any who follow him – having the right to extend the period by six years at a time.

All of which would no doubt please Mark McAdie, but still not answer his question: “On what rational basis does a human being contemplate killing innocent people for being thrown out of a pub?”

Sorry, Mark, but whether it was a mixture of amphetamines and drink or something more esoteric, unless Crabbe opens up and admits his reasoning, none of us will ever know with certainty.

Written in memory of those who lost their lives or were otherwise harmed on that horrendous night, and their loved ones.

Do you remember this crime in 1983? Are you interested in true crime stories?

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