Bushman's game of cat and mouse

One bloke says he was hunting on his boss's property about an hour out of Nowendoc earlier this year when he saw movement in the distance, then a figure. He brought his scope to bear and for a moment, he says, he and the fugitive Malcolm Naden stared down their gun barrels at one another. The moment ended and Naden disappeared again.

In another time or place it would be tempting to dismiss such a story, but Naden sightings, confirmed and unconfirmed, are common around the area.

The hunt for Malcolm Naden began seven years ago and 450 kilometres away in Dubbo. Back then Naden was living with his grandparents. In January that year Naden's cousin Lateesha disappeared and it soon became clear that police considered him a suspect.

Naden became a recluse. He spent his days in his spartan bedroom with the door bolted. Sometimes he would disappear into the night from the window.

''You never knew whether he was there or not,'' his aunt, Janette Lancaster, told the Herald in 2006. ''The boys would give him food through the window. Dad would leave fruit in a plastic bag on his door.''

This went on until June 20 that year, when Naden vanished. Three days later the strangled body of a family friend, 24-year-old mother of two Kristy Scholes, was found in his bedroom. He was also wanted over the indecent assault of a 15-year-old girl in Dubbo in 2004.

The hunt began. Naden had learnt bushcraft camping with his family as a child and been taught to wield a knife as a boner in the local abattoir. It seems he took his skills and went bush.

He was not seen again until December, when police closed down Western Plains Zoo in their first major attempt to capture him. They found evidence he had been living in the animal enclosures, including expertly butchered roo carcasses.

Two years later a reward of $50,000 was offered for information leading to Naden's capture. In 2008 Naden's DNA was found at a property east of Scone and over the next two years fingerprints were lifted from break-ins at Kempsey and Mt Mooney.

By then it was clear to police and locals how he was operating. Naden was moving constantly and stealing what he needed to supplement his game. He stole only what he needed - cold weather gear, camping equipment, binoculars and firearms.

So much gear has been taken in the region that sprawls over rugged terrain from the Barrington Tops in the south, north to Kempsey and west to Walcha, that it appears Naden may have a network of campsites, or caches.

Locals at Nowendoc have long talked about Naden's presence. Police investigate all local break-ins and never confirm or deny that they are on Naden's trail. But there are similarities beyond the theft of food and equipment.

The break-ins are neat. John Sutherland has had his house knocked over twice, and says on both occasions there was no mess and no damage aside from the forced window: ''It just left you with the feeling that he respected your place, not like other burglars.''

Locals say Naden broke into a home that now appears to be at the northern end of the current search area and drank all the Jones boys' beer, only to recap and replace the bottles. Another bloke tells the story of a rifle stolen only to be replaced with another.

Last February the reward for the information leading to Naden's capture was doubled to $100,000.

A fortnight ago the owners of the local motel knew an operation was afoot when police booked out most of their rooms for last weekend.

A mixture of detectives, Kempsey police and anti-terrorist officers started arriving eight days ago. Then fixed-wing aircraft swept the area last weekend, apparently using thermal imaging equipment, although police will not discuss their methods.

After dawn on Wednesday morning a team of anti-terrorist officers in camouflage closed on a camp besides a small creek just outside Nowendoc. One shot was fired and an officer hit in the shoulder. The 33-year-old was lucky, and is now recovering. But Naden was gone. It appeared the seventh major operation to capture him had failed.

After the shooting police contacted Lateesha's father, Mick Peet. ''They did seem confident. To be honest, it's like a big shock - we have been trying to get close to him for the past seven years,'' he told the Herald.

''I've never given up on trying to get Malcolm, who was Lateesha's cousin, and I feel like maybe we are closer to getting some closure.''

That afternoon locals were warned to lock down properties - which means removing keys from ignitions overnight - but they do not appear to fear Naden. Some note that Naden is careful to case his targets and enter only when owners are absent, although that is not entirely true.

In 2009 Naden is thought to have broken into about a dozen homes at Bellbrook, west of Kempsey A woman reported waking to find him standing over her in camouflage and a mask.

As the search at Nowendoc continues, the community of about 150 seems happy for the diversion. They set up a sausage sizzle to feed journalists and raise money for the tennis club, and are happy to pass on their stories, if not their names.

The children have been inconvenienced the most. Tonight's Christmas pageant has been moved from the local memorial hall as anti-terrorist officers have turned it into a command post.

Some locals believe Naden must have assistance to survive in such rugged and cold country, but one man who has taught mountaineering and bush survival all his life dismisses the theory.

Naden, he says, has simply picked his territory well. The very wild country is interspersed with pastoral lands on the valley floors. Naden can watch from the hills and flit back and forth as need be.

When the Herald travelled down the dirt track towards one of the homes Naden is believed to have robbed, the four-wheel-drive lost traction and slipped on the slope. Vines grew over the road in the canopy above. Mist closed in. Even before sunset, it was hard to see more than a few metres ahead.

He is not the first outlaw to go to ground around here. Part of the search area this week is along Thunderbolts Way, named for the bushranger who lasted 6½ years before he was shot dead by Constable Alexander Walker in 1870.

Jimmy Governor, famously re-imagined as Jimmie Blacksmith by the author Thomas Keneally, killed most members of the Mawbey family in April 1900 before moving east into Naden's territory. He was captured behind Wingham in October, having killed four more people.

On Wednesday, the Police Commissioner, Andrew Scipione, held a media conference and said he believed Naden would be captured by day's end.

Watching his dozen or so officers prepare to stalk off into the rain after a man they now know is more willing to kill than be captured, it seemed a confident position.

On Thursday, the little fleet of four-wheel-drives ferrying the police into the bush came and went from the Memorial Hall command post three or four times. Each time the armed men regrouped and returned to the hunt. At 4pm the rain closed in again and they called it quits. Hours later, after the last of the TV outside broadcast vans left for the day, loud bouts of laughter could be heard from the hall. Clearly morale had not been dampened by the long wet day, nor the shooting.

It seems a man happy to live in absolute isolation is tough to catch.

Yesterday, as the hunt resumed, Scipione held another media conference. He upped the bounty on Naden to $250,000. The commissioner denied the reward was increased because the search was failing. ''We are hot on his tail,'' he said. ''But at the end of the day you need everything going for you, not just a few things.''

In Nowendoc the hunt continued much as it did the day before, but with better weather the searchers on the ground were supported by the Polair helicopter, which came and went from a helipad over the road from the tennis club. An RFS four-wheel-drive arrived hauling a mobile cool room. Word went around that catering had been booked for another three days.

Two hours into the search, one of the four-wheel-drives returned and an officer carried a long narrow evidence bag into the hall.

It was about the length of a rifle. Then they headed back out into the bush.

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