Sat, Sep 03, 2005 - Page 4 News List

Drowning confirmed as cause of death for missing prime minister

AP , SYDNEY

Nearly four decades after Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt disappeared in churning surf off the country's south coast, a coroner yesterday officially confirmed what most people already suspected: He drowned.

Holt was 59 years old when he vanished while body surfing in a wild swell off a beach near his home in Victoria state on a summer afternoon on Dec. 17, 1967.

His body was never found and until yesterday he was officially listed only as missing and presumed drowned.

The absence of a body spawned a slew of colorful theories about his disappearance -- the most famous being that Holt, leader of the conservative Liberal Party, was a spy for Beijing who was collected by a Chinese submarine.

"It is sad that, over the years, all of these fanciful and unusual theories about Mr. Holt's disappearance should receive public ventilation, overshadow his life and require an explanation," Coroner Graeme Johnstone said in his findings yesterday.

The law in Victoria in 1967 did not allow a coroner's inquiry into apparent deaths where no body had been found. The law has since changed and state police recently asked the coroner to investigate Holt's disappearance as part of a clean-up of their missing persons files.

In the course of the investigation, the coroner's office asked the nation's top spy agency, the Security Intelligence Organization, whether it had investigated the Chinese submarine theory or had files relating to Holt's disappearance.

"ASIO responded indicating it had no information," Johnstone said.

Holt's youngest son, Sam Holt, a 66-year-old Melbourne lawyer, said the family had expected the coroner's finding of death by drowning.

"From when it happened in 1967 to now, we have always said it was a matter of accidental drowning," Sam Holt told reporters. "We never gave any credence to these more fanciful theories that have been floating around."

The son described the Holt theories as an Australian version of the conspiracy theories that surround the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy in 1963.

"No one could accept that there wasn't some enormous and sinister plot behind Kennedy's assassination," he said.

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