2 March 2024

Riverina Rewind: The chase to catch the killer from the Wagga Common

| Chris Roe
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From the original illustration ‘A Chase After Morgan’ by N. Chevalier. Photo: Chris Roe.

Like a scene from a Hollywood Western, a murderer was chased down by the law with guns blazing outside Wagga in September of 1889.

The hunt began after a drover named Christian Eppell was found murdered in his tent on Wagga Common early on a Sunday morning.

The 40-year-old Eppell was in charge of 950 bullocks, which he was driving down to Albury from Queensland on behalf of the iconic transport company, Cobb and Co.

He had six drovers and a cook along for the journey and, after delivering the herd, camped outside Wagga.

At around 7 in the morning on Sunday 15 September the caretaker of the Common, a man named Matthews, heard a gunshot.

His young son Alexander was milking nearby and saw a young man run to a horse and gallop away as fast as he could.

READ ALSO Riverina Rewind: Wagga killer ‘urged on by the devil’ and a woman

The other members of the droving party were not awakened by the gunshot, but went to wake Eppell for breakfast an hour later and found him lying dead with a bullet wound in his head.

They immediately rode into town to inform the police and three constables mounted up and set off in pursuit of the suspect, believed to be 21-year-old drover Thomas Riley.

For his part, Riley had ridden to town, stopping at hotels in North and South Wagga before heading southeast towards Tarcutta.

Senior-Constable Dixon and Constables Davidson and Giltrap headed in pursuit along the Tarcutta Road towards Alfredtown and caught sight of the fugitive near Book Book.

Riley was three-quarters of a mile ahead and when he saw the police, he spurred his horse on and the chase began in earnest.

READ ALSO The hidden staircase beneath the Prince of Wales in Wagga

The police steadily closed the gap over the next several miles, losing Dixon when he was thrown from his saddle in a bog.

The two remaining constables drew to within a few yards of Riley’s horse and Davidson drew his revolver and fired a shot into the air.

When the fugitive failed to heed the warning, he fired a second shot at Riley’s horse. While the suspect threw his left arm up into the air, he did not ease off the pace until the police closed in on either side and took hold of the horse’s bridle.

Riley was handcuffed and taken to town where a large crowd gathered to await the prisoner’s arrival.

Two silver pocket watches and £9 in gold and silver were found on his person.

For his part, Eppel appeared to have been shot with a large and antiquated Snider rifle while lying asleep on his right side. The bullet entered his left eye, pierced his head, and exited above the right ear, making an ugly gash.

At the subsequent inquest and trial, Riley, a cousin of the infamous Ned Kelly, was found guilty of the murder and condemned to death.

In his confession, Riley said he was ‘urged on by the devil’ and a mystery woman.

He was executed in the Wagga Gaol yard on 6 November 1889.

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