Waiting for Elijah is the riveting true crime story from award winning journalist Kate Wild.
24-year-old Elijah Holcombe was shot dead in country NSW by policeman, Andrew Rich. In an effort to better-understand what happened, Kate Wild visits the town where the shooting happened and tries to contact Andrew Rich.
Read an extract below:
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.
Armidale was bleak and prosperous. The cold had metal teeth. I drove the streets in search of the places that marked Elijah’s last day. Trim Street by the nursing home, where he slept the night in Jeremy’s car; the hospital; the police station; the camping store and Caffiends café. Then Cinders Lane, where everything had ended.
Trim Street was ugly. The trees were as bare as the day Elijah had parked here — I knew this from photos in the brief. The nature strip was nude, and the light-brick townhouses had aluminium attic windows peeping from their roofs like periscopes.
It was a poor place to hide and a bleak place to rest, whichever Elijah had meant to do. No canopy of trees or ramshackle gardens to look at. No sounds of a creek or playground nearby. Anything out of place would have screamed its presence. I pictured Elijah hiding, waiting for the street to clear before he stepped out of his father’s car. The ground wet with dew, his breath visible in the air.
I swung the car around and followed Elijah into town.
The window of the camping store was filled with one-man tents and Gore-Texed mannequins. Rich offered Elijah the car keys here. The parking inspector said Elijah refused them, and Rich chuckled to himself and called out, ‘I’m an undercover cop, mate, you’re obliged to stop.’
Willow Grieves rode his pushbike along this footpath. He almost leapt off his bike onto Elijah. He almost broke the thread, but he changed his mind.
It took two minutes, walking slowly, to cross from the camping store to the muffler shop across the road, around the corner and into Beardy Street Mall: the path Elijah and Rich had taken. Running at the speed they had, it would take less than a minute. From the camping store to Caffiends and through to Cinders Lane was three sides of the same block: no more than five hundred metres, I guessed. I timed the walk twice, unable to comprehend how things had escalated so quickly in such a short time.
Caffiends was run-of-the-mill for a large country town. The sort of place uni students ate wedges with sour cream and waited tables on the weekend. I pushed Stella’s pram past the outdoor tables and through the automatic doors.
The café was two thirds full on the day Elijah and Rich ran through, but today it was almost empty. Pine kitchen tables and chairs formed a clear corridor to the kitchen.
I asked the waitress if Sonia Stier still owned the business.
‘She’s gone to Tasmania,’ she replied, plonking a sandwich with a side of hot chips in front of me. From what she was prepared to say, a breakup was behind the sale of Caffiends, not the fact it had been a crime scene.
I couldn’t face asking her if I could walk through the kitchen, so I left and pushed Stella’s pram through the mall. I found the alley that led to Cinders Lane. It was the same passageway I had watched figures emerge from on the CCTV vision in Phil Stewart’s office.
Walking into Cinders Lane was like returning to a childhood landscape as an adult. Everything was smaller than the images in my mind. It was a pitiful patchwork of concrete and asphalt; the forgotten back-end of a collection of businesses. The place Elijah died was somewhere to park before you opened for the day, a service lane, a shortcut to other places. I walked its length in shock and fled to our hotel.
I stood in the shower until the whole room filled with steam. The staff had put out a cot for Stella, but I pulled her into my bed. The horror had seeped into my bones.
I woke in the dark. Stella rubbed a fist against her nose and her hand uncurled to rest against my face. I turned towards the force field of her warmth and tried to get back to sleep.
The next day was brilliant-cut. It had rained overnight. The sky was bright blue, and magpies chased worms in puddles.
I left the car at the hotel and set out behind the pram. Pushing hard in the direction of the police station, I had a flash of clarity. Twelve months ago, the Armidale papers had reported that Rich ‘remained on duty’. What if he was still in Armidale? I could walk into the station and ask for him.
But wouldn’t you leave in his situation? I thought, turning the corner into Faulkner Street. Imagine walking to the mall for lunch every day,
past the alleyway to Cinders Lane. The surreptitious looks in the street and pub. Reminders everywhere. On the other hand, there was nothing to stop Rich going to work — he hadn’t been suspended.
Armidale’s new police station stood beside the old one on a corner block. The sleek, tall stack and the squat brick square were connected by a cube of glass, like mismatched conjoined twins.
The door in the towering facade was tiny. Black glass slid back on a flight of steep stairs. I imagined Elijah climbing them into the lion’s mouth.
I want to make a confession.
I abandoned Stella’s pram at the bottom of the stairs and hoisted her to my hip.
A single row of plastic chairs faced a polished counter at the top. No worn timber, no glass windows, just tile and concrete surfaces.
‘Can you tell me if Andrew Rich is still working here?’ I asked the woman behind the counter.
‘Yes, but he’s not on today.’
‘Would you mind if I left a note for him?’
She pushed a pen and paper across the counter.
Asking was so simple. I might have been sitting in Rich’s living room this morning if I’d made this trip a day ago. I retreated to the bottom of the stairs and wrote the date at the top of the page beneath the watchful eye of security cameras, 12 August 2011. I was in Armidale for the day, I said. I appreciated Rich’s decision not to talk while legal matters were still in play, but I wanted to offer the chance to match a face to the person who had written once before. I left my number and encouraged him to call. I hoped he didn’t mind me writing; I would be in touch again.
I had no idea of Andrew Rich’s character. I had his words on a page from the statement he gave police, but without his voice behind them to signal meaning, we were both at a disadvantage. How could I judge him truthfully when the place in my head where his story should be was a silent, empty room?