TJ's life played out in the 'dead zone'
By Jamie Walker

SLEEP comes late to the children of Walgett. At 1.10am yesterday, groups of them were wandering the streets of this troubled northwestern NSW town, waifs in the hot airless night, just like TJ used to be.

Di Tuhura says they inhabit a "dead zone". She stops herself mid-sentence, because it's such a raw thing to speak of after what happened to Thomas "Junior" Hickey - the 17-year-old whose death in Sydney last Saturday lit the fuse of the Redfern riot, bringing long-simmering anger and bitterness in the Aboriginal community boiling to the surface.

While the circumstances of his death remain in sharp dispute, the road he took from Walgett to Redfern - from the happy-go-lucky boy who played football with quicksilver bare feet, to the socially marginalised youth who left school early and drifted into petty crime and impulsive violence -- is a wake-up call to Australia, as ominous as the clang of bricks and bottles on police shields during Sunday's melee in Sydney.

Tuhura, TJ's former junior rugby league coach, says his story could be that of just about any Aboriginal kid growing up in Walgett.

The TJ she likes to remember is the boy she met in the under8s, stick-skinny but a real natural, with a neat right step and speed to burn.

At the time, he was living with his grandparents, Elizabeth and Thomas Hickey. His mother, Gail, divided her time between Walgett and Sydney; his father, Ian West, was in and out of jail.

"He was a lovely kid," Tuhura says. "Loved his footy, loved going cotton-chipping with his grand-dad ... a good kid at heart, like all the other kids around here." Then he entered his teens - and things began to change. The football cut out because there was no intermediate junior competition between the under-12 and under-18 age groups.

TJ would hang out on the streets with his friends, often until the early hours of the morning. His family says he left school three years ago when in Year 9, aged 14.

So did his classmate, Edward Fernando, now 17, who remembers how they would "just walk around for fun ... you know, something to do".

The combination of boredom, family dysfunction and social alienation is a potent one in Walgett, just as it is elsewhere in Aboriginal Australia, from remotest Wiluna, in Western Australia, to Doomadgee in northwest Queensland.

Talk to the non-indigenous locals, the 40per cent minority in Walgett's 2300-strong population, and you will hear story after story about the Aboriginal kids being out of control, how the youngest of children thieve and smash-and-grab at will. The youngsters in question, and many of their parents, reply with accusations of police harassment or racial victimisation. The sense of menace is given physical expression by the grilles on shopfronts lining the main street.

Although police won't release crime figures for the town, the break-in rate for the surrounding Moree Plains local government area is 2 1/2 times the state average. General and sexual assault are three times higher, although homicide and serious hard drug offences are virtually non-existent.

Last year, attendance at the local high school was revealed to be as low as 10per cent -- a figure disputed by the Education Department. Overall turnout was more like 70per cent, a spokesman said yesterday. Yet one local teacher said she often taught her mainly Aboriginal class with two-thirds of the desks empty.

This is what Tuhura is getting at with her talk of the "dead zone". Her frustration is palpable. TJ was not just a star turn on her football team, he was kin. Having emigrated from New Zealand, she married into the Hickey family, becoming mother-in-law to TJ's cousin, Vanessa. "The truth is they are all great kids," she says.

"But when they get to 12 or 13, to being teenagers, the town is just dead for them. I mean, why go on at school when there's no jobs? Why try and play sport when there's no organised competition? The local pool closes at 7 o'clock at night in summer, when it's still 35 or 40 degrees. The community centre doesn't open when it's supposed to be open every day after 3. There's just nothing for the kids to do except get into trouble."

If that's a bleak view of growing up in Walgett, TJ's life was made immeasurably sadder by the death of his grandmother, Elizabeth, in April 2001. She and husband Thomas had brought him up from the age of 4. Her death took from him the most important moderating influence he'd known.

He was soon smoking marijuana and drinking beer with the other boys. Still slight, weighing barely 55kg, he was "little brother" to Jason Kennedy, now 19. "We'd hang around all the time ... drinking a bit, smokin' a bit," he says.

Two cousins, to whom TJ was very close, were in trouble with the police. The Hickeys had a reputation around town, and Cynthia, one of TJ's three maternal aunts, believes the local police had all the boys in their sights. Her three brothers, William, Thomas and Joseph, were doing time in prison, along with TJ's dad, Ian.

TJ, though, kept himself out of serious trouble until moving to Sydney to join his mother. His six sisters, all younger, remained at school in Walgett, sharing Cynthia's overcrowded three-bedroom house with her seven children and partner, Greg.

Grandfather Thomas says he was aware TJ was getting up to "a bit of mischief" with purse snatching. Cynthia admits he was "no angel", but that was understandable, because kids in Walgett had to grow up tough.

TJ was living a hand-to-mouth existence in Sydney, alternating between Gail's place in Redfern and that of Vanessa's mother, Virginia, in Waterloo. Court records show he appeared in Bidura Children's Court at Glebe last September 10 to admit to offences of stealing from a person, resisting police and possession of a small quantity of marijuana. The case was adjourned to March 22 pending the outcome of juvenile conferencing.

By most reckonings, his criminal history was relatively light, at least by Walgett standards.

In November last year, TJ made what would be his final visit home with Gail. Cynthia says he had always been intensely protective of his sisters and female cousins. On the evening of November 22, Gail asked him to find his sister, Rebecca, 14, who had gone visiting on the other side of town with one of her cousins, also 14. Their destination was the home of a non-indigenous man with whom the Hickeys had had a series of disputes.

With his partner, an Aboriginal woman, the man was looking after a girl distantly related to the Hickeys. TJ lost his temper when he turned up at the house. He stormed in and struck the man's partner with a stick, which he also used to assault his cousin, who had been playing on the computer with Rebecca. Another aunt, Linda, insists he was only looking out for his own - "He protected all his little cousins ... he was brother to them all," she says.

The police were called and this time TJ found himself facing serious criminal charges: assault causing actual bodily harm in regard to the woman, who was left with a 6cm welt on her face, and assault of his cousin. He was convicted in absentia after failing to attend the Children's Court in Walgett on December 11. Magistrate Sue Seagrave issued warrants for his arrest, which were in force at the time of his death last Saturday. He was also made subject to a 12-month apprehended violence order concerning his cousin.

TJ would have been fully aware he was wanted. The police turned up at grandfather Thomas's place the week before his death, trying to serve documents. The teenager kept low in Sydney, enmeshed in the netherworld of The Block in Redfern, marking time with his girlfriend, April.

It seems he must have decided to return to Walgett. Cynthia saw him about three weeks ago and he was talking about going cotton-chipping and stick-picking to earn some money.

The streets of Walgett were quiet at 1.10am yesterday, just the kids out and about, rollerskating and riding their bikes through the heat of the night. Dwayne Doolan, 13, said he was too bored to go home, because what was the point, he wouldn't sleep anyway. As is the way of things in Walgett he was distantly related to TJ. He'll be there for the funeral next week, when the young man will be laid to rest by his family and an honour guard from the Walgett Dragons rugby league club. "Nothin' else to do," he shrugged