Cop’s offbeat hunch over ‘mango tree murder’
When one detective was sharp enough to suggest stray fruit found at a murder scene should be fingerprinted, he was laughed out of the station.
Cigarette butts? Sure. A bloodied murder weapon - absolutely. But pulling fingerprints from a dozen unripe mangoes found scattered across a suburban street?
Detective Senior Constable Troy Platten's colleagues weren't convinced the fruit held any evidentiary value.
David Laxale, 29, had been stabbed to death outside his mother's Berala home in February 1997 and the pressure was on to find his attacker.
Despite the scepticism, the now-retired officer followed his gut instinct. Within a few hours of subjecting the discarded fruits to cyanoacrylate fuming - a novel forensic technique for the day - police had a group of suspects in their sights.
Dubbed the "mango tree murder", Mr Laxale was attacked when he confronted a group of teenage boys stealing mangoes from his mother's beloved tree.
Mr Laxale, who had been living at his family home on McDonald St, chased one of the teens onto the street where he was bashed and stabbed seven times.
The father-of-two stumbled back home and into the arms of his mother.
He managed to tell paramedics that he had been stabbed by five people before he died in hospital the following morning.
Mr Platten was on the graveyard shift reacting to "anything and everything" in southwest Sydney when the urgent call for assistance came over the radio.
When he got out of his car just before midnight on McDonald St, one of the first things he noticed was a trail of mangoes leading away from the murder scene.
"I led the task of getting one person to guard the mangoes with their life," Mr Platten, who retired from the police force in 2009, said.
"I immediately thought of the texture of a mango and was very confident we could get a fingerprint of it.
"I was going around telling everyone these mangoes were going to get printed - I was the laughing stock of the local area command.
"(My colleagues) were 100 per cent doubtful."
Mr Platen ended up in an argument with his superiors about the urgent need to get fingerprint officers to the scene before the weather turned bad.
"I said: "We've got murderers on the run, bad weather coming and limited resources. Make it happen and I'll take the blame for it if it doesn't work out'," he recalled.
Mr Platten said he considered the non-porous texture of the mango and the likelihood the culprits would have handled the fruit with sweaty hands. Curiously, one of the mangoes found on the street had been sliced with a knife.
The crime scene remained untouched for several hours before the mangoes were carefully plucked off the street, placed in evidence bags and taken to the forensic services hub in Parramatta.
Forensic officers used the cyanoacrylate - or superglue - method to identify fingerprints on the mangoes.
By that stage, police had also received witness accounts about a group of five local boys seen roaming the streets around Berala and Regents Park that night.
Investigators pulled the fingerprint records of the suspects - accumulated due to previous criminal records - and compared them against the prints on the mangoes. Bingo.
Five teenagers, a 17-year-old and four 16-year-olds, were eventually arrested and charged in relation to Mr Laxale's death.
The older boy was charged with murder and there were witness accounts that he was seen washing blood off a knife moments after the attack. He was convicted of murder following a NSW Supreme Court trial.
But, in a rare but significant mix-up, the conviction was quashed and he was found not guilty at retrial after it emerged police believed he was 18 when they arrested him and treated him as such during a police interview. In fact, he was aged 17 and six months and should not have been interviewed without a support person.
Originally published as Cop's offbeat hunch over 'mango tree murder'