Veronica Nelson’s death in custody outraged a nation. Here’s what her family want to share about her life
On a small grassy knoll in Yorta Yorta country, Veronica Nelson’s grave lies next to that of her father, Rusty Walker.
The Gunditjmara, Dja Dja Wurrung, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta woman’s resting place is carefully decorated with tiny turtle figurines – representing her father’s family totem, the long-necked turtle.
Veronica’s family is strongly connected to its Aboriginal culture. (ABC News: Joseph Dunstan) The long-necked turtle is Veronica’s father’s family totem. (ABC News: Joseph Dunstan) May Walker jokes that the statues are a little short-necked to pretend set the long-necked turtle totem. (ABC News: Joseph Dunstan)
Family meant everything to Veronica.
And at Cummeragunja, on the Victorian-NSW border, she enjoyed some of her happiest times as a girl along the Murray River, known to Yorta Yorta people as the Dhungala.
“When she was little, she would come down with her mom and dad and swim here with my kids and their cousins,” said Uncle Colin Walker, a Yorta Yorta elder and Veronica’s uncle.
Veronica spent part of her childhood on the banks of the Dhungala. (ABC News: Joseph Dunstan)
“So that connection was there all along.
“She knew who she was and where she came from on both sides, her father’s side and her mother’s side.”
Her family and friends remember her as a woman with a quick mind and a big heart, who kept her cards – and personal traumas – close to her chest.
Uncle Colin said his “beautiful” niece was a gentle young woman who always showed respect to her elders.
“She came out and said ‘aunty and uncle, would you like a cup of tea?’ And go get it for you… because she was raised to show respect to her elders,” he said.
Veronica Nelson is remembered as gentle, smart and passionate about her culture.(Supplied)
But Veronica spent her last hours far from her loving family, crying out in pain for her late father.
Veronica, who was held in a cell at a maximum-security prison on shoplifting charges, repeatedly called for help as a combination of malnutrition, severe withdrawal symptoms and a rare medical condition claimed her life.
Uncle Colin said he and his wife Faye were devastated by the evidence aired at the inquest into Veronica’s death in 2020.
“This is what broke our hearts,” he said.
“I come home a very sad old man, to tell my wife what happened.
“We shed tears together, because she also lived with us, she was our cousin, but she was also like our daughter.”
To Uncle Colin’s daughter May Walker, Veronica was like a sister.
Uncle Colin Walker says the systems that failed Veronica must change. (ABC News: Joseph Dunstan) May Walker says the treatment Veronica endured was “inhumane”. (ABC News: Joseph Dunstan)
She believes racism played a role in Veronica’s treatment by the system.
The inquest heard that Veronica made 49 calls for help to prison staff in the space of 36 hours.
“I’m a healthcare professional. The moment you get a sick client or temperature or you’re vomiting too much, common sense [tells you] something is not normal,” May said.
“And to be so polite to them and be treated like that, it’s inhumane.”
May said she wants to see the prison system that has failed Veronica dismantled.
“I would rather not see any prisons … give us our centers and we will heal our own people,” she said.
‘She never harmed a soul’
On Monday, a coroner found Veronica endured “cruel and degrading” treatment before suffering a preventable death in her cell.
Some of the closing words in the inquest were from Veronica herself, in a letter she wrote about her bond with her mother, Aunty Donna Nelson.
“Inside my mother is my best friend,” wrote Veronica.
“My mom has always been like my dad – someone who knows the song by heart, and they’ve always been the one to sing it back to me when I’ve forgotten the words.”
After Monday’s hearing, Aunty Donna mourned the “kind, caring compassionate” daughter she nicknamed “Poccum,” after Veronica’s childhood pronunciation of “possum.”
Aunty Donna Nelson wants to see Poccum’s law introduced to overhaul Victoria’s bail institutions. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)
“She never harmed another soul but her own,” she said.
Aunt Donna wants to see the state’s bail laws – described by the coroner as a “complete and unmitigated disaster” – reformed in her daughter’s name.
“I will not let Poccum’s death be forgotten,” she said.
“I call on all of you to remember her as well and support our family in our continued fight for change and for justice for my daughter.”
‘She taught me about life’
Veronica should have turned 41 in March.
Instead, her partner of more than two decades, Percy Lovett, comes to terms with a life without his soul mate.
“Just being with her,” he said as he reflected on happier times.
“When I was with her, I was always happy.”
His Collingwood flat is awash with tributes to Veronica.
A sketch of Veronica by Percy, a self-taught artist, sits on one wall.
On another, a pair of socks in the colors of the Aboriginal flag nod to Veronica’s love of rock band AC/DC.
Percy’s portrait of Veronica overlooks his room in Collingwood.(ABC News: Joseph Dunstan) Percy Lovett says Veronica taught him what it means to be a family.(Supplied) Percy’s home is filled with tributes to Veronica, his partner of more than two decades .(ABC News: Joseph Dunstan)
Percy endured five weeks of inquests to find out in excruciating detail why Veronica’s life was cut short in such traumatic circumstances.
“I had to feel what she was feeling, so I knew what was going on,” he said.
“Because I know Veronica inside out and I could feel the pain she was going through.”
He still struggles to understand how people in the prison system missed so many opportunities to save Veronica’s life.
“It was hard to listen to everything … just like they let her die, you know, I can’t get over how people can be like that,” he said.
“Everybody knows when somebody’s in pain and when they’re lying and that, and the way they just sat there and let her go … all they had to do was their job, nothing else.”
Percy plans to donate one of his artworks to the lawyer who supported him through the inquest. (ABC News: Joseph Dunstan) Percy often asks himself what Veronica would have suggested as he tries to move forward with life. .(ABC News: Joseph Dunstan)
But through the pain, Percy clings to precious memories.
Like Veronica’s passion for sharing cultural stories and knowledge.
“She knew a lot about culture, which freaked me out,” he said.
“She taught me about life.”
Percy, a Stolen Generations survivor, said Veronica and her father Rusty were close “as a father and daughter should be”.
“Showed me what a family should be like,” he said.
He draws on lessons Veronica taught him as he tries to move on with his life.
“I just think about what she would have done, how she would have handled things,” he said.
Percy tries to live the way Veronica would have wanted. (ABC News)
“She taught me how to be calm and think about things before I act and that’s what I do.
“I’m just thinking about what she would have said to me.”
Percy takes some comfort from his dog, who came into his life as he grappled with raw grief over Veronica’s passing.
That’s why he named the dog after her.
Percy says Ron Ron came into his life at just the right time. (ABC News: Joseph Dunstan)
“I just needed someone to keep me company, so I thought I’d call her Ron Ron, it would suit her,” he said.
“She has done me good since I had her.”
Percy, who launched a lawsuit against those who owed a duty of care to Veronica, wants to see accountability.
“Because when we get into trouble, we are all held responsible, we have to pay the price,” he said.
“They just need to be held accountable for what they did and what they didn’t do.”
Percy wants to see those who owed a duty of care to Veronica held accountable. (ABC News: Joseph Dunstan)
The voices of Veronica’s family were joined by many, who put pressure on the Victorian government to act immediately to ensure that Veronica’s appalling treatment was never repeated.
The government has already moved to overhaul the delivery of health care in women’s prisons and has signaled a willingness to reform the bail laws that put Veronica in a cell for the minor charge of shoplifting.
‘She is at home with our ancestors’
For Uncle Colin, the end of the inquest cannot mend a shattered family.
“It will never bring her back,” he said.
“No matter what the recommendations are, it will never bring Veronica back and Donna will never, ever have a daughter again.
“Whatever happens, it’s still a disaster and the mother and the family will never forget what happened to her, all through neglect.”
Veronica’s family say the findings of the inquest will not be able to heal the pain of Veronica’s death. (ABC News: Joseph Dunstan)
Veronica’s last hours were filled with pain.
But here at Cummeragunja her spirit is at peace.
“She is at home with her father, she is at home with our ancestors,” said May.
“She’s in the spirit world…she’s not in pain or suffering or dealing with justice.”
Small turtle figurines stand at Veronica’s grave, a symbol of her family’s totem. (ABC News: Joseph Dunstan) Rusty Walker’s grave lies next to Yorta Yorta ancestors at Cummeragunja Cemetery. (ABC News: Joseph Dunstan) Veronica’s family laid her to rest at Cummeragunja. in New South Wales. (ABC News) Credit:
Reporting: Joseph Dunstan and Lauren Day
Photography: Joseph Dunstan, Andrew Altree-Williams and Danielle Bonica