Waiting for Elijah
Before his death from a policeman’s bullet at the age of 24, Elijah Holcombe had been an intelligent, personable and well-loved young man at university in Sydney as well as in his rural New South Wales community. Like his father, Jeremy, however, he suffered from depression. A heavy drinking session with mates, not typical for him, tipped Elijah into increasingly severe mental illness. This involved, among other things, paranoid delusions about persecution by the police. When a series of chaotic events led him to a tense encounter with a policeman in an Armidale laneway on the afternoon of June 2, 2009, it could not end well. Or could it have?
There were dozens of witnesses but no consensus on exactly what happened in the final, fateful moments of Elijah’s life. Did Elijah really threaten Senior Constable Andrew Rich with the knife he’d snatched from a cafe kitchen on his way into the laneway? Given that it was a bread knife, was it a serious enough threat to warrant Rich shooting him in self-defence? Did Elijah rush the policeman or was he standing still? Rich, who suffered post-traumatic stress disorder following the incident, appears to have lost pieces of his memory as a result. Elijah’s parents, siblings and friends lost a piece of themselves.
Elijah was not the first mentally ill person to die at the hands of police in Australia or elsewhere, nor would he be the last. At the time of his death, Kate Wild was an investigative reporter working for Four Corners. Reporter Quentin McDermott proposed doing a story that would ask, “Were mentally ill people demonstrably more dangerous or were police making that assumption, and using fatal force without good reason?”
Police must make urgent, split-second assessments of the risk posed to themselves and the community by someone who is holding a weapon and appears to be in the grip of psychosis. Wild wanted to talk to frontline officers who’d dealt with people in “psychiatric crisis”. None agreed to be on the program. Yet after it was broadcast, police responded, many furiously. One commented: “Do not blame the police for the failure of the mental health system.” Wild never intended to make them the villains in this story. Even Elijah’s father, Jeremy, told her: “What happened to Elijah was a catastrophe and catastrophes don’t happen from any one thing, they happen from a chain of events.”
The police, of course, were an important part of that chain – and some of the links were undeniably broken. After Elijah had absconded in his father’s car in a highly agitated state the previous day, Jeremy had gone searching for him. He called the Armidale police station, saying that if they found Elijah, to call his ex-wife, Tracey, Elijah’s mother, as his own phone might be out of range. When Elijah turned up at the station and asked the police to take him to the hospital, they did, but failed to call Tracey. Then, before the hospital staff could finish their assessment, Elijah ran away. Rich, incompletely briefed, went to bring him back; Tracey only received a phone call when it was too late.
The Four Corners program could not answer all the questions raised by Elijah’s death. Wild left the ABC, but the Holcombes and the tragic conundrum of Elijah’s fate stayed with her. She became close to the family – to Jeremy, Tracey, their other children and Jeremy’s current partner, Fiona, who had all tried to keep Elijah safe and were shattered by his death. She interviewed forensic psychiatrists, pored over mountains of legal and other papers and attended inquests. Over the years, she began to realise that only Rich could unlock some of the thorniest mysteries surrounding Elijah’s death. But Rich’s legal team strictly limited his testimony to the coroner and refused Wild’s requests for an interview. At the same time, Rich himself appeared to signal a personal willingness to talk. Wild doggedly pursued every lead and clue. Her ultimate goal was to discover how such incidents can be defused and such deaths prevented in future.
While the case was unfolding in the courts, NSW Police announced that all frontline officers would get training in dealing with mental health issues. Sitting in on one of the courses, Wild learnt that at its core was compassion: it “asked officers to connect as humans first”.
Wild’s prose is evocative and personal: “The Commodore growled up the Nandewar Range under the grey clouds of a cold snap. Lichen-spattered boulders turned their backs against the rain. I burrowed with them, hunkering deeper as I drove.” When she first heard Rich’s lawyers claim that PTSD had erased his memory of events beginning shortly before the shooting through to the end of the day, she reacted emotionally, scrawling “THIS IS BULLSHIT” across a page of her notebook. Her face was flushed and, she tells us, she had to force herself to breathe. She too, she tells us, has long struggled with anxiety and depression. It’s a brave admission. Where she grew up, not far from Elijah’s home town, no one “would admit that their family carried the blemish of mental illness”. Even in the cities, mental illness carries a stigma.
Wild tells us about herself because she wants us to understand what underpins her obsession with the case, as well as to convey the emotional impact that such intensive reporting can have on the reporter. The style of personal journalism in Waiting for Elijah has areas of overlap with the confessional memoir. She describes an emotional scene at a writing workshop where, tears welling, she reveals that she doesn’t know if she should describe her own situation in the book: “My experience doesn’t compare to Elijah’s; it’s never been as serious as his. But I feel like it’s dishonest to leave it out.” She conducts an equally frank tussle with the moral issues of writing a story that belongs to so many people. “Whoever spoke controlled the narrative,” she writes of the family’s openness and Rich’s avoidance; her words also speak to the whole complicated business of journalism as well. CG
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 2, 2018 as "Kate Wild, Waiting for Elijah". Subscribe here.