"I was fearful for my life:" Pro Surfer Jodie Cooper Wins Criminal Case

Photo: Daily Telegraph Australia

Photo: Daily Telegraph Australia

Jodie Cooper was surfing at Lennox Head, a seaside village in northern New South Wales, when she was attacked and held under water by Mark Andrew Thomson on August 22, 2018. “My lungs were burning,” she testified in Ballina Local Court. “I thought I was going to drown. I was fearful for my life.” The Court found Thomson guilty earlier this month.

Cooper, 54, is a surfing champion who acted as a professional stunt double in the 1991 cult film Point Break. No stranger to defending herself against aggressive conduct in the lineup, Cooper was slapped by professional surfer Johnny Boy Gomes in 1993 and again made headlines after surviving a shark attack in 2007. “I’m not a wilting flower,” she told the Australian Daily Mail in 2018. “I was brought up to be a strong person, and I will stand up for myself...I always will.” Of Thomson, she said: “This character, he didn’t follow the rules. He dropped in on me. If you don’t follow rules it’s like driving up the right side of the freeway and saying ‘eff you.’”

 “I’m not a wilting flower. I was brought up to be a strong person, and I will stand up for myself.”

Thomson, father of renowned surfboard shaper Daniel “Tomo” Thomson, is an infamous North Coast local who manufactures “surf mats” – his craft of choice on the day of the incident. He vehemently denied the assault charges but admitted to having been involved in an altercation with Cooper, conceding that he had dropped in on her. Such conduct, he argued, is acceptable on a crowded day like the one in question. The details of what happened next were hashed out before the Court. According to Cooper, Thomson was aggressively cutting back and “trying to provoke me off the wave.” In a flawed attempt to supplement his own legal defense, Thomson claimed Cooper’s story didn’t add up because he can’t do cutbacks on his mat. Video evidence to the contrary was presented showing Thomson doing successful, albeit lame, cutbacks on his surf mat. 

Thomson entering the Ballina Local Court with his signature “surf mat.” Credit: ABC North Coast: Leah White

Thomson entering the Ballina Local Court with his signature “surf mat.” Credit: ABC North Coast: Leah White

The struggle over the wave sent the two surfers tumbling after they collided. That’s when Thomson attacked. “He just grabbed me with two hands and just forced me under the water," Cooper alleged. A statement taken by police shortly after the incident described Cooper resurfacing three times as Thomson repeatedly pushed her head underwater, pulling her hair. The statement also said that Cooper escaped by feigning unconsciousness. “When I went limp, thinking I was dead or drowned or something, that's when he released,” she told the Court. The two exchanged words at some point during the altercation, Thomson sputtering “Don’t you know who I am?” to which Cooper replied “I’ll see you at the cop shop,” warning of the legal battle that would follow. Footage capturing the last few seconds of the altercation was presented to the Court, but has not been made public.

Thomson presented an alternative version of the events. When Cooper confronted him about the attack, he claims, he believed her to be a man. He alleged that Cooper’s board struck him in the back, causing them both to fall and get caught up in each other’s equipment. “I was entangled in a leg rope, [and] once I removed myself from the entanglement I was free from the situation. I was too injured to continue surfing,” Thomson said.

Cooper reported the incident two weeks after the attack, prompted by a whiplash-like pain in her hand. “I was fearful, I was in shock. I really just wanted to crawl up into a ball and not deal with it,” she said when asked why she did not go to the police on the day she was assaulted. “I was ashamed. I've been bitten by a shark ... I just thought, I'll be strong enough to deal with this and forget about it.” When police went to interview Thomson about the allegations, he was defiant. “Seems like a load of gossip, really,” he said in police body camera footage tendered in court. 

Thomson pleaded not guilty to one count of assault and one count of assault occasioning actual bodily harm, but the magistrate rejected his version of the events. His desperate legal defense involved challenging the Court’s jurisdiction by contending that the incident was a “maritime collision” to be governed by specialized maritime courts. Maritime law is primarily concerned with commercial matters like allocation of resources and navigation on the open seas; it does not generally deal with disputes arising on or near the shore.

The magistrate declared that Thomson “showed arrogance cutting back on [Cooper's] perfect wave.” (The magistrate might also have said that Thomson showed arrogance in presuming he knew anything about the law, notwithstanding that he knew nothing about pretty much anything except surf mats.) Finding Thomson to be an unreliable witness, the magistrate stated in her opinion that Thomson deliberately and intentionally assaulted Cooper, and that he was the aggressor “at all times.” 

In front of the the court house, Cooper spoke to the press: “I’ve seen a lot of horrible occurrences in the water. There are still a few shifty characters out there who are still doing this. People have to realise you can’t get away with doing these things…”

This article will be updated when the magistrate renders a sentence. Under Australian law, basic assault carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison for a first offense. If convicted of aggravated assault, which is a possibility given that Cooper “feared for [her] life,” Thomson could spend upwards of four years in the slammer.

Teddy KahnComment