Anatomy of a police shooting: the final hours of Elijah Holcombe
“Mr Holcombe? We have some news for you regarding Elijah, but we’d like to tell you in person. Can we come over and see you?”
Jeremy’s ears began to ring.
“I’m not in Narrabri. I’m in Sydney, looking for Elijah. I’m outside his apartment.”
Jeremy could hear a hand cover the phone at the other end. There were muffled words, and then a deeper voice came on the line. It reached through a long, dark tunnel towards him.
“Mr Holcombe, it’s Inspector Ridley speaking from the Narrabri police station. We’ve been trying desperately to contact you. I would like to speak with you in person.”
“Well, that’s not possible; I’m in Sydney.”
“I have some bad news for you.”
“Is it about Elijah?”
“Give it to me straight.”
“Mr Holcombe, your son is in Armidale. There has been an incident. Your son has been shot by the police and he has passed away. I’m sorry, Mr Holcombe. I’m sorry to have to give you the news this way.”
Jeremy fell. His own voice echoed in the tunnel.
“How do you know it’s Elijah? Are you sure? What happened?”
The police had done an incredible job of piecing together Elijah’s movements across Armidale, which is in regional New South Wales, on the last day of his life – 2 June 2009. Their account began at 6.30am and finished at midnight in Cinders Lane.
The first person who noticed Elijah that morning was the caretaker of the Autumn Lodge retirement village. When he opened the front gates at 6.30am, the caretaker spotted an old grey Fairmont parked across the road. He knew every car that parked in Trim Street, and he’d never seen the Fairmont before. Wondering whose it was, he dropped the gate pin in its hole and walked inside out of the cold.
Around 7am, a pensioner noticed moisture on the windows of a grey sedan on Trim Street. Concerned, he cupped his hands against the glass. There was a man on the back seat, facedown, covered in a heap of towels or clothes. When he noticed the shadow of the pensioner and looked up, the young man looked as if he had been crying.
The old man walked back past the car later that morning. This time, the back door was open, and a man in his 20s was climbing out, dishevelled and unwashed. The young man ducked below the door and hid when he saw the older man. The pensioner decided to call the police when he got home, but then changed his mind once he arrived. It was none of his business; he would leave it be.
Police offered no explanation for why Elijah’s next destination was the Armidale police station, but at noon he appeared at the public counter “to make a confession”, the summary said. What he had confessed to was a mystery.
The station officer in Armidale made a phone call to police in Narrabri, and returned to tell Elijah he was not in trouble. His parents didn’t want him charged; they wanted him to get help. The officer asked where Elijah had left the car, and Elijah gave vague directions. When Elijah asked to speak to a psychiatrist, the officer arranged for a car to take him to the hospital and told the driver of the paddy wagon that turned up, “[Elijah]’s come to the station to hand himself in for stealing a car, but he told me he needs help for some psychiatric problems he’s got. He’s supposed to be on medication and told me he wants to be assessed … He’s not under arrest for anything.”
Elijah needed reassurance before he agreed to climb into the wagon’s cage.
At the hospital, the triage nurse led him to a gurney. The summary said her name was Robyn O’Brien.
In her evidence to police, O’Brien said Elijah looked well. His clothes were old but clean, and he didn’t smell. She asked Elijah what she could do for him.
“I don’t feel any emotions,” he said.
“What happened?” O’Brien asked.
“Have you lost your job or had a relationship breakdown?”
Elijah was silent for a long time, then nodded.
“What, a relationship breakdown?”
“Yep,” he said.
“Are you suicidal, Elijah?”
“I was. A few days ago.”
“So you’re not now?”
“Did you have a plan?”
“Do you have a weapon, guns, ropes, or a stash of pills somewhere?”
O’Brien knew the doctor and mental health nurse would have more questions, so she didn’t push.
“Have you been eating normally?”
“What about sleeping?”
Elijah said he hadn’t taken his medication for a few months, but had started back on it a couple of days ago. O’Brien assessed him as depressed but not psychotic. He was softly spoken, alert with good insight, and no evidence of hallucinations or delusions. She informed the doctor and called the mental health nurse, Carla Rutherford.
Rutherford read Elijah differently when she saw him 20 minutes later. Her impression was of a dishevelled young man in dirty clothes, who wouldn’t make eye contact or answer questions. She took Elijah to an assessment room and asked him why he had gone to the police. Someone called the Boongalaree were after him, Elijah told her. Who were they? Rutherford asked.
Elijah didn’t answer for a long time.
“Am I a voluntary or involuntary patient?” he finally replied.
When Rutherford said he was voluntary, Elijah announced he was leaving and walked out.
The mental health nurse was upset. She hadn’t had time to assess Elijah properly; he showed symptoms of psychosis and he should have been triaged higher, she told her colleagues.
A police officer in plain clothes walked in on this conversation about Elijah. He introduced himself as Senior Constable Andrew Rich; he was looking for Elijah.
“He’s gone,” O’Brien said. “We have concerns for his safety, so if you find him can you bring him back?”
The police summary skipped five pages at this point. Events at the hospital evaporated, and I was suddenly in Armidale’s CBD.
A council ranger writing a parking ticket saw an orange car make a U-turn and park across the road from him. He picked it as a police car, despite the lack of markings. Rich stepped out and walked towards a young man on the footpath. Rich took a set of keys out of his pocket. The council ranger heard him call out, “Hey mate, you’ve dropped your keys!”
The young man walked away, but looked back at Rich across his shoulder.
“You’ve dropped your keys. Do you want them?” Rich repeated.
The young man kept on walking.
“He doesn’t want them. He’s not stopping,” Rich said to someone in the car and chuckled, the ranger told police.
Rich reached towards his hip, where the ranger could see a revolver in a holster, and the young man bolted. Rich chased. The parking inspector watched them cross the road and turn the corner at full pelt. A second officer in plain clothes got out of the car and jogged behind them. The ranger heard the second man sigh.
Various people in the summary recounted the two men running through Beardy Street Mall. Elijah pushed past outdoor tables and slipped through the front door of Caffiends café. Staff and customers told police Elijah walked straight through the café towards the kitchen. The owner of Caffiends, Sonia Stier, was in the kitchen when he walked in. She asked him who he was, but he ignored her. Elijah swiped something off the kitchen bench and left through the back door. The apprentice chef saw what it was – a bread knife. Elijah seemed dazed, the apprentice chef told police, as though he might be on drugs.
Rich was only seconds behind. The first thing the apprentice noticed about Rich was the pistol on his hip, and then his white baseball cap. Rich headed for the back door, following Elijah. Events moved quickly from there.
The summary listed evidence from 16 people present in Cinders Lane. It was impossible to fathom how witnesses could see and hear such different things; from Elijah shouting and running at Rich, to Elijah remaining silent and stationary.
I searched the document for a statement from Rich. There wasn’t one. But other officers who were interviewed revealed what police had understood as events unfolded in Cinders Lane.
Rich had called the police station switchboard from the back door of Caffiends with a short, sharp message:
“I’m chasing a bloke in Cinders Lane, he’s got a knife,” Rich said. Backup calls went over the radio, but before there was time to respond, Rich called again. His message sent a flood of police pouring out the front door and running to their cars.
Detective Senior Constable Windred was one of them. He drove the 300 metres to Cinders Lane and found Rich standing on the footpath ashen-faced, his right hand bright with blood. Rich was taken to Windred’s car.
“Are you injured?” Windred asked.
Rich shook his head.
“I had no choice, I had no choice.”
“Did you shoot him?”
“Yeah, I had no choice, mate. I had no choice,” Rich said.
Windred took his colleague’s gun and drove Rich to the station. He photographed the blood on Rich’s hand and clothes, and sent him to the bathroom to clean up. Rich returned sobbing. Within half an hour of leaving Cinders Lane, Rich was told Elijah had died. He broke down completely. Someone called a counsellor, and Rich was taken for breath and drug tests.
I realised, reading these fresh details, that the story had changed narrators. The police owned the narrative of Elijah’s death now. This was the work they did every day.
Twenty minutes after the fatal shot was fired, Detective Inspector Greig Stier watched paramedics pull a blanket over Elijah’s face. A blackhandled knife lay on the ground not far away. Stier walked the length of Cinders Lane giving directions: CCTV vision from the lane needed to be collected, and tell Rich and his work partner Dufty not to talk to each other, he said. Stier returned to the station and was immediately asked by Narrabri police to call Jeremy Holcombe to explain how his son had died, then checked on Rich, who was a mess.
As the rain moved in over Cinders Lane that night, the SES raised a bright-blue tarp to cover Elijah’s body. At midnight, Stier handed the investigation over to homicide detectives who had driven straight from Sydney. The critical incident investigation team (CIIT) would run the case from here.
The brief took a different direction when it reached Inspector Peter Davis from weapons and tactics, policy and review – the unit of the NSW police force in charge of training.
Davis had been given a brief “to review the circumstances and provide opinion regarding the actions of police at approximately 1.55pm on the 02/06/2009 at Armidale NSW, involving Mr Elijah Holcombe”.
Elijah, Davis wrote, “was considered unstable in a public place with innocent bystanders nearby, armed with a large bladed knife. He was not under police control when he had the knife, and ‘at no time did he comply with directions from police’.”
Davis described bystanders as “innocent” twice in the space of five sentences. “Large bladed knife” appeared three times in four lines. I fumed. What was a knife unless it was bladed? Did a serrated bread knife even qualify as a “blade”? Davis failed to quote any innocent bystanders who’d felt threatened by Elijah and his bladed knife.
According to police forensics, the knife they received in an evidence bag was a black-handled Victorinox–Fibrox. Its overall length was 34.5cm, with a 20cm blade and a serrated cutting edge. Foodstuff stained the left face of the blade.
Davis “asserted”, “outlined”, and “indicated” his way through Elijah’s shooting. “The discharging of Senior Constable Rich’s firearm was considered a last resort predicated by the actions of Mr Holcombe,” he said.
Davis was of the view that Rich unholstered his gun because “he feared for his own safety and the safety of other innocent bystanders”.
Elijah refused multiple commands from Rich to drop the knife, he wrote.
“Further, Mr Holcombe armed with the knife – charged towards Senior Constable Rich, at which the Senior Constable feared for his own safety, indicating ‘I thought he was gonna stab me’ … I am of the opinion that Senior Constables Rich and Dufty acted professionally in what can only be considered as a most profound life-threatening situation.”
The head of the critical incident investigation team, Detective Inspector Chris Olen from homicide, agreed.
In Olen’s opinion: “Senior Constable Rich was justified in discharging his firearm as there was an immediate risk of serious injury to him or to his life and there was no other way of preventing that risk.”
Plenty of people quoted in the brief saw the bread knife in Elijah’s hand. Not one said they felt threatened by him. Davis’s claim it was “a most profound life-threatening situation”, and Olen’s that “there was no other way” to contain Elijah, didn’t stack up for me.
- This is an edited extract from Waiting for Elijah by Kate Wild (Scribe, $35)
• In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. In the UK the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.