TJ Hickey: 17 years now awaiting justice

In June 2020, NSW Police asked the City of Sydney to paint over a provocative mural by satirical artist Scott Marsh, which referenced TJ Hickey.

BY ALEC SMART

On Valentine’s Day, 14 February, many couples in the Western world celebrate the traditional day of romantic love, and gift shops and flower sellers enjoy a spike in sales mid-way between Christmas and Easter.

Sadly, the Hickey family attended yet another annual rally calling for a Public Inquiry into the death of their son Thomas Junior – ‘TJ’ – who was involved in an horrific crash on 14 February, 2004 – 17 years ago.

The rally, attended by an estimated 200 people, gathered in the grounds of Waterloo Housing Commission towers in south Sydney, in the informally named TJ Hickey Park on Waterloo Green, where a solitary bench bears a plaque commemorating the boy’s passing.

The site is overlooked by Turanga Tower, alongside which young TJ endured an agonising collision with a spiked steel fence in suspicious circumstances.  

On that fateful day in 2004, the 17-year-old Kamilaroi Aboriginal, the Hickey’s only son and an older brother to six sisters, was riding his bicycle back from Redfern to Waterloo a little after 11am. At some stage during the cycle ride, two Redfern Police officers, engaged in an unrelated operation to catch a handbag thief in the vicinity of Redfern Station, made the fateful decision to pursue young TJ in their vehicle.

Although TJ was discounted as the bag-snatch suspect (described as a man in his 20s), and the search for him by the crews of four police vehicles was called off at 10.57am, at around 11.15am police vehicle ‘Redfern 16’, driven by Constable Michael Hollingsworth, 32, and his passenger, Constable Maree Reynolds, 26, followed the 17-year-old as ‘a person of interest’.

As TJ pedalled southbound along Renwick Street, Redfern, it seems likely he saw the police van and panicked. He accelerated his bicycle into an 80-metre walkway that cut alongside the rear of what was then Redfern Primary School.

Renwick St, Redfern, where, in February 2004, 17-year-old Aboriginal boy TJ Hickey was followed by police while cycling. He detoured down a path at the end, then suspiciously collided with steel fence palings at Turanga Tower (in the distance) shortly afterwards. Photo: Alec Smart.

Although it appears on Google Maps, the path no longer exists, but it follows an approximate course beside a sports field and adjacent to the buildings of what is now the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence (NCIE).

At the southern end of the alleyway (now the gated NCIE car park entrance), TJ swung left into Phillip Street, then immediately crossed the road into a driveway behind the Turanga Tower at 1 Phillip Street. It was here that he impacted with the spiked metal fence.

According to some accounts, TJ was hit by a police vehicle adjacent to Turanga tower, resulting in him catapulting onto the steel fence and landing on his back.

NSW Police fervently deny Hickey was chased, nor that he was hit by either the first vehicle following him down Renwick St, Redfern 16, or a second police vehicle, ‘Redfern 17’ that was mysteriously called to intercept him in Phillip St.

However, the fact remains TJ sustained horrific injuries as a result of landing on the fence as he rode to get away from the police, the steel spikes penetrating his neck and chest. He died 14 hours later in Sydney Children’s Hospital.

Turanga Tower, Waterloo, where TJ Hickey was impaled on steel fence spikes in February 2004 after a police pursuit. Photo: Alec Smart.

Followed or pursued?

Much would be made at the subsequent coronial inquiry, held six months later, as to whether the officers in Redfern 16 or 17 ‘pursued’ or merely ‘followed’ TJ.

TJ Hickey’s girlfriend, April Ceissman, told The Sydney Morning Herald she was convinced police initiated a high-speed pursuit, a not unusual experience for Aboriginal youths in the Redfern/Waterloo area, “because people seen police chasing him. They chase anyone, ‘cos that’s what they do.”

A significant proportion of the coronial inquest focused on whether Redfern Police officers were ‘following’ or ‘pursuing’ Hickey. NSW Police Commissioner Ken Moroney, interviewed on ABC Radio at its conclusion, was asked to explain the distinction.

“I think if you were to ask the person on the street,” he replied, “their interpretation of being followed and being pursued, I think they are two distinct and clear actions.

“Being followed, I think, in the ordinary layman’s mind, creates a particular picture. Being pursued by police creates a completely different picture and clearly there was no evidence that Mr Hickey was being pursued in the normal definition of that word.”

The crew of police vehicle Redfern 17 – Constable Allan Rimell, driver, and Constable Ruth Rocha, passenger – was the first to attend to the mortally wounded youth. However, TJ’s family assert the boy was lifted off the fence prior to administering emergency aid. This is counter to all medical recommendations, because removing impaled bodies usually causes catastrophic bleeding.

The coronial inquiry found Redfern 16, which initiated the pursuit, arrived several minutes later than Redfern 17 at the crash scene. They detoured around Cope Street because their vehicle was impeded by a gate at the Renwick Street end of the path TJ pedalled along, linking Renwick Street to Phillip Street.

This raises the question: if a police vehicle was involved, as some allege, did Redfern 17 attempt to ambush the fleeing youth on Phillip Street and perhaps accidentally impact with TJ, or worse, use their vehicle to nudge or ram him from behind?

Several witnesses, whose submissions were discounted at the coronial inquiry, claim they saw TJ’s red bicycle come into contact with the police wagon that was pursuing him. This, they claim, propelled him onto the pointed metal uprights of the driveway fence behind the Turanga Tower.

Redfern Police countered that Hickey hit a kerb whilst pedalling at high speed and this impact caused him to be flung off his bicycle.

Only one eyewitness to the tragedy, Danny Allen, reported to the coronial inquiry. At approximately 11.20am, Allen was walking behind Turanga Tower northward along the driveway at the centre of the tragedy, the opposite direction to TJ when he turned his bicycle southward into it.

Allen told the inquiry TJ lost control of his bicycle and flipped over onto the fence.

Coincidentally, Roy Hickey, a cousin of TJ’s mother, drove past the horrific scene shortly afterwards in a community health bus. Roy told lawyers from the Aboriginal Legal Team that when he stopped after recognising it was young TJ who was injured, the four police officers in attendance, plus an additional two summoned to the scene, all refused to let him near.

A ‘poor witness’ and another who refused to testify

Curiously, the primary officer who initiated the pursuit of TJ from police vehicle Redfern 16, Constable Michael Hollingsworth – since promoted to Senior Constable and awarded the National Police Medal and the Diligent and Ethical Service Medal – refused to give evidence at the NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into TJ’s death, on the grounds he might incriminate himself.

Under the Coroners Act 2009: “A police officer who has information that may be relevant to an investigation by a coroner into a death or a fire must give that information to the coroner to assist the coroner in his or her investigation of the death or the fire.”

And yet the NSW State Coroner, John Abernethy, excused Hollingsworth from testifying. If it was to protect Hollingsworth’s fear of incriminating himself, Abernethy could have issued a certificate under the Coroner’s Act exempting Hollingsworth from prosecution or a police disciplinary hearing as a result of his testimony.

Under the Evidence Act 1995, concerning privilege in respect of self-incrimination in legal proceedings: “A witness may give, or be compelled to give, self-incriminating evidence in certain circumstances and the court will grant a certificate excluding the admission of that evidence against the witness in any other legal proceeding … Section 128 protects against self-exposure, by way of evidence, to criminal charges and civil penalties only.”

Or was Hollingsworth keeping quiet because he didn’t wish to incriminate his fellow police officers, the two constables in vehicle Redfern 17, Allan Rimell and Ruth Rocha? Are they not the most likely candidates for either ramming or accidentally colliding with TJ, if he was, as some allege, knocked off his bicycle?

Although Coroner Abernethy declared it was “regrettable that Reynolds and Hollingsworth were not completely candid from the very start” – and further criticised Reynolds as “quite a poor witness with an extraordinary lack of memory of what I would have thought were significant events” – in August 2004, he ruled that Hickey’s death a “freak accident”.

Aftermath

TJ Hickey’s horrific death was the catalyst for what is now known as the 2004 Redfern Riots, when furious members of Redfern and Waterloo’s Indigenous community erupted in rage and confronted Redfern Police. Most of the disturbances took place in and around The Block, the now-gentrified housing estate adjacent to Redfern Station.

Rioters were eventually doused and dispersed with water jetted from fire brigade hoses, with 42 police officers injured, including one knocked unconscious by a flying brick.

In a 7 June, 2004 ruling by the NSW Industrial Relations Commission, NSW Police Force were fined $100,000 for the injuries sustained by their officers during the riot, after pleading guilty to failing to ensure their welfare under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

Another issue that stirs controversy in the vicinity of TJ’s horrific ordeal is August 2008-installed Bower sculpture, by artists Susan Milne and Greg Stonehouse, on the corner of Redfern and Regent Streets, Redfern. The unpopular artwork, consisting of a series of closely-placed pointed steel poles, resembles spiked fence palings, which detractors say is tactless and reminds them of the fencing upon which poor TJ was impaled.

Commissioned by the City of Sydney Council, it appears the sculpture’s backers knew that Bower would ignite resentment. Temporary Services, a Chicago-based research group that conducted a public survey after the sculpture’s installation, circulated flyers that asked: “What is your opinion of this sculpture? Why do you think it was placed in this neighbourhood?”

Later, a representative told The Sydney Morning Herald that Bower was designed to create discussion about a place with a contested history.

Bower sculpture, Redfern, which TJ Hickey’s mother and Indigenous rights campaigners have ask be relocated, as it reminds them of the horrific injury that befell TJ Hickey just a few streets away. Photo: Alec Smart.

TJ’s mother Gail, along with Indigenous Social Justice Association (ISJA), City of Sydney councillor Linda Scott, and the South Sydney Business Chamber continue to support a campaign to have it removed from the area.

In February 2017, NSW Minister for Housing, Prue Goward, announced that an official memorial to TJ Hickey will be installed near the site where TJ collided with the fence. This will take place when the planned (and also controversial) redevelopment of the Waterloo housing estate is completed, under the NSW Government’s $22 billion Communities Plus program, expected to occur over the next 15-20 years.

Meanwhile, a memorial plaque featuring TJ’s portrait, which the Hickey family hope to install, donated in 2005 by University of Technology Sydney’s Aboriginal Students’ Association, remains in storage.

The NSW Government will not accept the Hickey family’s alternative plaque unless the words ‘police pursuit’ in the inscription are substituted with ‘tragic accident.’

TJ’s mother Gail refuses to yield to the government’s demand, and she also requests that the fence itself where the tragedy occurred is preserved in-situ for the proposed memorial.

A poster promoting the 17th anniversary rally calling for a Public Inquiry into TJ Hickey’s death. Photo Alec Smart.

Petition demanding Public Inquiry ignored by the NSW Parliament

On Thursday 20 June, 2019, a petition of 12,000 signatures, organised by the Hickey family and supported by the ISJA, was presented to NSW Parliament demanding a Public Inquiry into TJ Hickey’s death.

Gail, TJ Hickey’s mother, told me at the time, “15 years is too long to wait. We hope Parliament will bring what my son, my family and myself finally deserve: justice.”

One of the principle incentives of a Public Inquiry is to compel all NSW Police officers involved with the 14 February, 2004 tragedy to give full and frank accounts of their actions on the day.

Almost two years has elapsed since the petition was presented to parliament, but that Public Inquiry is no nearer for the Hickey family.

Meantime, search for ‘TJ Hickey’ on the internet and you’re likely to be directed to webpages featuring articles headlined ‘TJ Hickey, 10 years, no justice’, ‘TJ Hickey, 13 years, no justice’, and so on. Now, 17 years have elapsed and there’s no sign of a Public Inquiry on the horizon to reopen the investigation.

In June 2020, NSW Police took offence to satirical artist Scott Marsh’s controversial mural of a burning police van on a wall in Glover Lane, Redfern, which referenced TJ Hickey.

NSW Police requested it painted over by the City of Sydney, which covered it just 19 hours after it had been completed.

Marsh responded on social media: “It’s a confronting image, it is supposed to be. It was also painted with permission from the property owner and intentionally tucked away in a laneway where you wouldn’t see it unless it found you.

“In a time when anti police sentiment is high, I don’t see what’s to be gained by censoring public artwork that you don’t agree with … #blacklivesmatter.”

Afterwards, Marsh told me: “Police should stick to policing. They are not our cultural curators, no matter how inconvenient the message of that culture may be for them.”

Small commemorative plaque to TJ Hickey on a bench in Waterloo Green, informally renamed TJ Hickey Park. Photo: Alec Smart.