Deep in the Australian outback lies a small town with no police presence, where horrific violence is a daily occurrence and where sexual assault goes unchecked.
The ‘completely lawless’ community of Fregon is hidden away in the red dust of the South Australian desert, about 1,300km north of Adelaide, and is home to one of Australia’s most shocking crimes.
Outback nurse Gayle Woodford, 56, took up a role at the Nganampa Health Council and often travelled to Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands for work.
In 2016, she was lured into a trap and then abducted, raped and murdered before being buried in a shallow grave near the town by a man with a violent history.
Gayle Woodford’s (pictured) body was found buried in a crude grave three days after she went missing from her Fregon home in SA’s north
The ‘completely lawless’ community of Fregon (pictured) is home to one of Australia’s most shocking crimes after a regional nurse was raped and murdered
The mother-of-two’s death sparked a number of inquiries into the dangers facing health workers in remote areas and cast a spotlight on the realities in Fregon.
On Thursday SA Deputy Coroner Anthony Schapel handed down a damning report into Ms Woodford’s tragic end at the hands of local resident Dudley Davey, who is now serving a 32-year sentence for the crime.
His findings paint a concerning picture and recommend a permanent police presence be established given the level of violence.
While Mr Schapel said it was difficult to determine if a police presence in the town would have prevented Gayle’s death, it was a matter of common sense and human experience that it would have a deterrent effect on criminality and other misbehaviour.
‘The evidence of those witnesses who were called and who expressed a view about police presence in the Fregon community having regard to the level of lawlessness within it, would suggest that a permanent police presence would be essential,’ the coroner said.
‘The proposition that a community in which certain of its members need to be protected by cages does not require an immediate police presence within that community would, I think, strike the ordinary man or woman in the street as perverse.’
The town is home to anywhere between 200 and 300 people at any given time.
‘The violence in Fregon was described by a medical practitioner of several years’ standing in remote communities such as these as ‘ongoing’ and ‘continual,’ the report says.
‘If there was no violence in the Fregon community on a given day, it was a good day’.
Fregon is hidden away in the red dust of the South Australian desert, about 1,300km north of Adelaide
The mother-of-two’s death sparked a number of inquiries into the dangers facing health workers in remote areas and cast a spotlight on the realities in Fregon (pictured)
Deep into the Australian outback lies the small town of Fregon with no police presence, where horrific violence is a daily occurrence and where sexual assault goes unchecked
Gillian Steel, the manager of Fregon’s Kaltjiti Arts, told The Australian the area ‘definitely’ needs a manned police station.
She recounted how she was forced to barricade herself inside the art centre after a group attacked her demanding money with a steel bar.
‘There are constant problems. It has only got worse. Gambling is a real problem, which creates a whole range of other issues, and the little kids are doing it as well, so a police presence will help,’ she said.
Davey, the ‘cold blooded’ killer convicted of Ms Woodford’s gruesome death had a litany of sexual assault offences to his name prior to the attack.
Part of Mr Schapel’s report asked how a depraved offender with such a long list of convictions was able to be released into a remote community with no supervision.
Dudley Davey (pictured, centre) subsequently pleaded guilty to her rape and murder and is serving a minimum 32-year jail term
The four-wheel-drive ambulance Ms Woodford used for work, which was found being driven by the 34-year-old man charged with theft and her alleged murder
At his trial the court heard the then 34-year-old had launched a number of attacks on women over 20 years, including an ‘eerily similar’ assault of another nurse in Fregon during 1998.
‘The practitioner described Fregon as “completely lawless” and the most violent place in which she had resided and worked while employed by the NHC in the APY Lands.
‘To the point where she believed serious consideration needed to be given to the withdrawal of services from this community so as to bring it to its closure,’ the report says.
‘Mrs Woodford’s murder is in keeping with the general lawlessness within the Fregon community and the fact that this atmosphere of dysfunction and violence largely remained unchecked.’
The husband of Gayle Woodford, Keith Woodford (pictured, centre), outside the Adelaide Coroners Court in 2020 with family
A colleague of Gayle Woodford, Belinda Schultz (right) arriving at the Adelaide Coroners Court in January 2020