March 2010


The wild frontier

By Mandy Sayer
The wild frontier
The child gangs of Tweed Heads

Dawn has just broken over the rivers of Tweed Heads as volunteer marine rescue worker Martin Grove, 62, cycles home after another eight-hour night shift. Seagulls arc and whirl above him and fishing trawlers cut through curtains of mist. As he turns into his driveway, he suddenly squeezes the brakes and stops short: his car and front yard are strewn with rotting prawn shells, smashed eggs, newspapers, empty bottles and used sanitary pads. This is not the first time he’s arrived home to see his property trashed. For the past year a gang of local youths has relentlessly taunted and threatened him – pummelling him with rocks and eggs, cutting off his power cables and accusing him publicly of paedophilia. Martin’s many calls to local police so far have proved fruitless – they either don’t turn up to take a statement or don’t take his complaints seriously.

Martin climbs off his bike and walks through the piles of rubbish towards the verandah. It’s then that he sniffs a deeper, ruder stench: his front door and its handle are smeared with shit. He lets himself into the house, grabs his shotgun and loads it.

Gun in hand, he strides up his street, around the block and past a lagoon dotted with small yachts and boats. He knows exactly where the culprits live – it’s only a short walk, about two minutes. When he arrives at a white-cladding house on Riviera Avenue, he bangs on the door. A tiny, emaciated woman in her late 40s, no taller than a ten-year-old, appears behind the flyscreen, her eyes wide and frightened.

“Where are they?” demands Martin, shaking his gun.

She begins to tremble. “They’re not here,” she says, shutting the door.

Martin turns and steps off the verandah, exasperated. He served his country in Vietnam, worked as a miner for a decade, and spent years as his dying mother’s only carer, yet nothing has tormented him as much as these local youths. He walks to the centre of the front yard, raises the gun to his head and pulls the trigger; the bullet is launched into the trees, causing the myna birds to shriek and scatter. Unperturbed, Martin knows he has one bullet left. He points the gun to his temple and squeezes the trigger hard.

From across the street the explosion sounds like a car backfiring. A neighbour opens her front door to see a man lying face-up on a lawn, as if he were sunbaking, surrounded by a confetti of blood.

I’m standing outside the now-empty suburban house of Martin Grove, who died in hospital 24 hours after he shot himself last month. It’s a 1970s white brick home with tinted windows the colour of beer, and possibly the most run-down dwelling in the street. A bullet, shot from a .22-calibre rifle some time in 2009, has shattered part of one window. Taped next to it is a sign, “NSW Police Crime Scene – Under Surveillance”, placed there by enraged neighbours after the police refused to declare the property a crime scene. To date no legal action has been taken against any gang member linked with the harassment of and/or violent behaviour towards Grove and his many neighbours. Instead, the youths were offered counselling.

The area that is home to most of these gang members is neither a public housing ghetto nor an inner-city slum. On a sunny Monday morning in Tweed Heads West, currawongs chorus and an elderly woman is paddling in an inlet, teaching her dog to swim. Backyards stretch down onto rivers and sandy beaches, and tethered kayaks bob against the tide. The only evidence of any gang activity is a nearby bus stop, graffitied with tags and pornographic images.

This ostensibly quiet suburb, a ten-minute drive from downtown, was developed in the 1970s and ’80s and now houses a hybrid community: a combination of private homeowners – mostly retirees, whose properties can fetch up to half-a-million dollars – and long-term welfare recipients, many of whom are unemployed and living in public housing. It’s an uneasy alliance.

Having spent my teenage years growing up on a Melbourne Housing Commission estate, I’m acutely aware of how boredom, poverty and society’s indifference can unite into a destructive force for working-class and welfare kids, something that’s further exacerbated by a disillusioned peer group. In my adolescence, boys sniffed petrol, smashed the windows of parked cars and burned the neighbours’ washing hanging on the communal line; girls tattooed themselves using the spike of a broken bottle and a pot of blue ink, got pregnant young then followed their single mothers into a pattern of fortnightly pension cheques and lifelong public housing. It was depressing – to be sure – but it wasn’t dangerous; there were no violent attacks on innocent neighbours, no persecution of the elderly.

Tweed Heads is a border town. Its population of about 56,000 is divided in half, with parts of the south and west side, Tweed Heads, under NSW jurisdiction, while the north-east side, Coolangatta, falls under Queensland law (and is in a different time zone).

The child gangs of Tweed Heads first caught my attention in November 2007, when I read about an 11-year-old boy who was part of a group that brutally battered an off-duty policeman, Rawson Armitage, and his girlfriend. The couple was walking along an east Coolangatta street late on a Friday night when they were surrounded by at least 20 children and youths, including a teenage girl, who then attacked them. One teenager smashed the unarmed policeman’s head so hard against a fence that its very foundations were almost uprooted. His head was then stomped on and his wallet stolen.

Since that attack Tweed Heads has experienced a wave of crime committed by children and youths. According to Martin Grove’s brother, Peter, the local gang had harassed Martin to such an extent that, at the time of his suicide, he was preparing to sell his home and move.

In early January of this year, the same youths who’d harassed Martin Grove intimidated and bashed another local resident, Philip Gadsby, a 46-year-old father of two, who lives a block away from the site of Grove’s suicide. Phil was riding his bicycle home in broad daylight when the gang of about 20 children and teenagers taunted him with accusations of being a paedophile, pushed him off his bike and hit him over the head repeatedly with a cricket bat. Later in the same week they turned up at his house, with his terrified children and ex-wife Robin inside, and tried to kick his door down. With an injured mouth, distorted by the bashing and the subsequent six stitches he received, Phil was unable to speak, let alone negotiate with the gang members. As the family waited for the police to arrive, Robin finally ran them off, threatening to report and identify them.

I meet Phil in the beer garden of the only pub left in Tweed Heads, the Dolphin. Nicknamed the “Snake Pit”, the “garden” is a fenced-off area by the car park with a fibreglass roof and two long wooden tables, mostly filled with local men wearing shorts and thongs and holding glasses corseted in stubbie-coolers. Cradling a beer, Phil rises and shakes my hand. He’s a tanned, wiry man with his top two front teeth missing. His hands tremble slightly as he re-lights his rollie, still obviously affected by the bashings and threats. “These kids are absolutely fearless,” he says. “I don’t know what they’re gonna do next.”

He explains that in the past month he’s been harassed or assaulted on five occasions by the same gang. “I know who they are and I know where they live. I’ve reported it to the coppers, but no one’s been charged.” In fact, a week after the incident with the cricket bat, he called into the police station to check on the progress of the case and discovered that “the complaint hadn’t even been logged on the computer! There was no record of the bashing.” The police brushed him off with the following statement: “We’ll charge them when Robin makes a statement and identifies the culprits.”

Since the attack Robin has requested repeatedly for the police to do just that – to take her statement and allow her to identify the offenders – but, says Phil, the police don’t seem interested in pursuing the matter. Whether the Tweed Heads police are scared, understaffed or just plain indifferent is hard to say, but judging by the atmosphere in the Snake Pit on this Saturday afternoon, the local residents are at their wits’ end.

Linda, an ex-nurse whose son developed schizophrenia due to cannabis abuse during his teenage years, drags on her cigarette and leans across the table. “I’ve seen groups of kids ambush a cop car and pelt it with beer bottles. And the cops just drive off! They’re too scared. This has been going on for years.”

Currently there are about seven recognised youth gangs in the Tweed area – the Palmy Army, South Side Soldiers, D-Lux, BHQ, Keebra Krew, Dark Neo Soldiers and Coomicub – all of whom, it seems, take great pleasure in terrorising locals. Coomicub, in particular, is responsible for a string of attacks in and around the southern Gold Coast area for the past three years. Naming themselves after a local rap band, its members have “C” tattoos emblazoned on their bodies. Local police suspect that many members of the Coomicub gang eventually grow up to join the Lone Wolf bikies, who allegedly recently cut off a man’s earlobes, then the rest of one ear, in the Currumbin Valley.

Last November a 15-year-old boy was arrested for being part of a gang that caused more than $5000 worth of damage to the Tweed Heads indoor pool. Earlier, in August, about a dozen teenagers, armed with knives and metal poles, abducted a 16-year-old boy from his Tweed Heads South home, bashed him in remote bushland and left him for dead. (Fortunately he ended up in hospital and recovered.) That same month Murwillumbah High School was broken into and all of the 18 chickens and roosters that were part of an agricultural program were slaughtered. And, in the space of three months, Kingscliff High School was the site of 13 break-ins and thefts.

Last July, elderly resident Roberta Cross heard a series of explosions: all of her windows had been shattered by shots from air rifles wielded by teenagers who then ran off laughing. Another woman, in her mid-sixties and who lives alone, was left fearing for her life last year when a group of kids tied a piece of string close to the ground between two posts at the front of her driveway. She tripped over it and fell face-first onto the concrete, badly damaging her face and arms. Like many residents fearful of violent reprisals, she refrained from contacting the police.

Yet another local had faeces smeared on her car, her letterbox blown up, windows smashed, her car graffitied, her fence kicked down and eggs thrown at her house.

It would seem the local police force is overwhelmed, overworked and perhaps simply over the multiple dysfunctions of Tweed Heads.

Here in the Snake Pit it’s so hot a woman standing in the doorway pours the dregs of her Bundy and Coke down her cleavage to cool herself. The bearded father of two teenage sons, Booney, who is sitting opposite me, has just been denied another beer for the second time by the barmaid. He glumly sips iced water while Phil and I continue to chat.

Three single mothers, overhearing us, join our table and conversation; two of the three are already drunk. The woman called Wanda, an ex-heroin addict and methadone user, complains that her teenage son’s best friend has been missing for four days. She says her son refuses to tell her where his friend is staying, adding that the only way she can get her son, who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, to go to school every day is to stop at McDonald’s for breakfast along the way. “But then,” sighs Wanda, swigging on a Bacardi Breezer, “he just stays for one period then changes out of his school uniform and pisses off for the day.”

Sitting next to her is Fiona, a blue-eyed Aboriginal woman in her late thirties. She admits her teenage son, who suffers from ADHD, runs around with a gang of boys she suspects has been involved in a series of burglaries. “When he comes home in the morning he could be riding a new bicycle or carrying a new plasma screen. If I ask him where he got them he just says he found them or that someone gave ’em to him.” Fiona shrugs, as if the situation is beyond her control and confesses that she herself was a child gang member during the ’80s, after escalating problems with her own mother drove her onto the streets. “I loved it!” she enthuses. “I had fun.” But she’s quick to add that the gangs of the ’80s weren’t interested in violence, intimidation or theft. “We just used to get pissed and do speed and sleep on the beach at night.” Until recently, Fiona’s eldest daughter, Kirstie, 19, was part of local gang the South Side Soldiers, the female members of which are referred to as the South Side Sluts.

The man sitting next to Booney, Tom, a dark-skinned giant who reminds me of Chief Bromden in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, leans across the table and begins telling me about his challenges in raising a teenage boy. His wife was an alcoholic who gave birth to a son with foetal alcohol syndrome and abandoned the baby several days later. Since then, he has raised Locky alone. (His only daughter died of a brain tumour when she was 11.)

Tom, concerned about the dangers of city life, relocated from Sydney to Tweed Heads to seek a better, slower environment for his “special needs kid”, who is now 15. Once Locky began attending the local high school, however, the plan backfired. He began associating with a local gang who convinced him to stop taking his medication (lest he become “a junkie”). Disoriented, Locky would disappear for days at a time with his new friends; when he did return home, Tom would find him asleep on his bed and see the words “Tweed Breed” inked on his arm. Often in the corner of the room there would be a new television or an iPod still in its original packaging.

“Whaddya gonna do?” moans Booney. “Lock ’em up?” He gives up trying to roll a joint he’s been working on for some time and pockets his bundle of pot. Tom explains that yes, in a way, that is exactly what he has done with his son. Several months ago, he took the radical step of removing Locky from school – and Tweed Heads. He now lives permanently with professional carers on a rural property outside the NSW town of Casino, where he’s learning to be a farmer.

The publican taps Booney on the shoulder and announces, “Ya old lady’s looking for ya. Ya better go home.” Booney rolls his eyes and groans. The publican laughs and begins picking up empty glasses. “It’s better to beg for forgiveness,” he says, “than ask for permission.”

I realise the publican’s advice could well be the official saying of this unruly place, a border town that has been planned so badly the local council should prostrate itself before the local ratepayers. Until the late ’60s, downtown Tweed was flanked by a wide river, with a popular wooden pier, and adjacent parklands. According to Manny, a man in his fifties who has lived here all his life, it was around this time that the council reclaimed the public land and riverbank, filled it in and sold it on. The charming weatherboards and fibro fishing shacks from an earlier era are almost extinct, having been replaced by generic orange brick houses from the ’70s and ’80s. Now, instead of waterside parks lining one side of the main street, it is dominated by chainstores such as Liquorland, Coles, Woolworths, McDonald’s, Hungry Jack’s, and their large car parks.

“Fifty years ago there were three times as many people around on the streets,” says Manny. “Today, it’s a fucking ghost town.” Indeed, this is a city built around the motor vehicle rather than the pedestrian. Scores of car dealerships line the main street yet there are only two restaurants.

“The council doesn’t like young people around here,” adds Mark, also a lifelong local, gesturing at the sprawl of cars outside the local bowling club. Inside, pensioners shuffle around playing pokies; Keno results are announced over a PA; and a man on crutches sells raffle tickets for a meat tray.

It comes as no surprise when I learn that the Tweed Shire has the second-highest population of over-65s in NSW, just behind the retirement haven of beachside Port Macquarie. And, as I walk around, it’s obvious that the council has prioritised the needs and predilections of the retirees and tourists moving here from other regions over the local families and children. It feels like a place where people come to die.

To make matters worse, most of the youth gang members live in the southern and western suburbs of Tweed, 8 kilometres from the city centre, yet most public transport stops at 6 pm. The only recreational amenity in the area for children and teenagers is a concrete skate park that was built recently next to the local high school. It has since become a common meeting place for the gangs at night.

“When I grew up here it was beautiful, a little village,” recalls Manny, who lives with his elderly mother and his brother. “When we were their age we went surfing, hunting and fishing. [But] this is a new generation of shit.” Two years ago Manny was attacked by a group of six kids aged around 14 and 15. He had to rip a branch off a tree to defend himself and scare them off. Now he doesn’t go out at night and, like most locals, keeps a cricket bat inside his front door. Along the route he takes from the pub to his home, he’s even sequestered weapons in particular places as a precaution.

“They sit on their arses all day, watching TV and playing computer games,” he continues. “Then at sunset, they start texting one another and meeting up to cause trouble. Now they’re doing this shit in daylight. Why should anyone have to lock themselves in their own house?”

According to local MP Geoff Provest, the area is beset with intense drug and alcohol abuse. “The Tweed Shire has the third-highest percentage of arrests for the production and/or distribution of illegal substances in the state, behind only Cabramatta and Kings Cross. It’s the major manufacturing port supplying drugs for south-west Queensland.” Provest explains that 53 kilograms of illicit drugs were confiscated in the Tweed–Byron Local Area Command in 2009, including over 3500 cannabis plants, “yet the Tweed–Byron Local Area Command does not even have a dedicated drug squad. And, on top of all that, the Tweed Shire also has the highest incidence of drink driving per capita in the country.”

Provest adds that Tweed Heads is the fastest growing regional area in the state – it’s actually becoming an outer suburb of Brisbane – yet there’s very little reliable public transport. All juvenile parole officers are based in Lismore and it takes an hour by bus to get there. Also, the new P-plate laws have caused problems. Novice drivers are only allowed one passenger after 11 pm. “Usually, these kids would be getting a lift home,” he says, “but now they’re back on the streets.”

In the past 12 months in the Tweed Shire there were 2200 reports of child neglect and/or abuse, with about 80 kids removed from their homes by DoCS. “The parents know that if their kids are going to be removed they’ll lose most of their welfare benefits,” says Provest. “So what they do is move the family over the border into Queensland for six months – look, it could be only a few blocks away from their residence in NSW – but because it’s a different state, their files don’t follow them and they start all over again with Queensland welfare.” And apparently, if Queensland’s Department of Communities does begin a separate investigation, the same family simply disappears over the border, back into NSW.

Provest tells me he often goes out on police patrols at night so he stays in touch with the multiple problems facing the community. The police, he says, “often pick up kids as young as 10 and 11 wandering around the streets in the early hours of the morning with nowhere to go. When the police drop them off at their houses, most of the time, the parents aren’t even home.” He adds: “These gangs are committing some terrible crimes, but at least a gang will care about these kids and look after them.”

It’s clear to me that the dysfunction in the town extends way beyond uncontrollable kids and an uncomprehending, ageing population. It seems as if there’s an entire generation that has gone missing – the one that should be between the children and retirees. Most of the mothers and fathers I’ve met thus far are single parents who live on welfare. All but three of the 30-odd I have spoken to admit to regularly imbibing alcohol and drugs. Hardly any work full-time and most have no plans to do so. No wonder Provest is currently raising funds for a youth refuge in Tweed Heads; I find myself thinking that, while he’s at it, he should consider opening a second refuge for many of the parents.

Phil Gadsby has invited me to Riviera Avenue to meet a few other people who have been terrorised by the local kids. Frustrated by the lack of police protection, his neighbours have heard I’m in town and are both anxious to talk to me about their problems and relieved that someone is finally paying attention. All except Phil insist on anonymity; they refuse to be photographed and are too scared to walk down the street with me, past the houses where the gang members live. Even the local journalist who has reported on child gang activities in the Tweed Daily News for the past two years confesses that he publishes those articles without a by-line because his kids go to the same school as the gang members and he fears for their safety.

Phil’s neighbour – we’ll call him Steve – tells his story rapidly, as if he’s being timed and is trying to beat the clock. A few weeks ago, Steve’s six-year-old son was riding his scooter out the front of their house and made a passing remark to one of the gang members, who took offence and began swearing at and threatening the boy. Steve confronted the teenager and tried to get rid of him and his mates. When they wouldn’t move on, Steve kicked the troublemaker in the knee, which resulted in him being attacked by six gang members in his front yard. Steve rang the police to report the incident; they turned up to take his statement two hours later.

In an echo of Phil’s dealings with the police, when Steve went to check on the progress of the complaint there was no record of it. “They hadn’t even logged it in the computer … They only took down notes at my place and that was the end of it.” Steve sighs heavily and shrugs his shoulders. “Almost everyone around here has been attacked. They’ve all had their houses pummelled with rocks, windows smashed. These kids just think the cops and the law are a joke.”

Between them, in the past two months, Phil and Steve have contacted the police more than eight times over separate incidents of gang harassment and violence, with little attention or co-operation in return. Off the record, one policeman advised Steve to defend himself, a suggestion he has taken seriously. “Now I keep an axe, a cricket bat and a fishing rod beside the front door.”

The son of a Mormon bishop, Steve now sits up all night, every night, waiting for the next attack, only allowing himself to fall asleep when the sun comes up. Like Phil, he has a contingency plan for his kids if the gang strikes again: they will either hop over the back fence and run to a neighbour’s house, or run to the bathroom and lock the door. Steve has installed a removable doorknob on the same door for further protection. “I’ve had about a dozen people willing to back me up,” adds Phil, glancing at his damaged front door. “I’ve got a list of names. I’ve even had people offer me guns.”

Phil tells me that after he reported his fourth assault to the police, he made an off-the-cuff remark to the attending officer: “We should get together our own gang and deal with this ourselves. Bash the shit out of them.”

The officer allegedly replied, “That wouldn’t be a bad idea.”

Incredulous, Phil asked if he was joking.

The policeman shook his head. “No, we can’t do anything ’til we catch them in the act. But if you can deal with it yourselves we’ll turn a blind eye.”

Steve folds his arms and nods. “I’ve already warned the cops that I’ll be looking after myself now. I said, ‘Next time, I won’t be calling you. I’ll be calling an ambulance – not for me, but for them.’”

He pauses, folding his leg to rest one foot on his other knee. “I know I could go to jail,” he confesses, “but I’ve got to protect my family.”

The rate of absenteeism in the Tweed–Byron police force is unusually high. Late last year, Tweed Head’s NSW Police Association representative Troy Hamilton admitted about 26% of their officers were unavailable for full-time work. “The command as at the end of November 2009 had 13 officers on long-term sick leave, 13 officers on restricted duties and 16 officers classified as part-time,” Mr Hamilton said. Even the area’s head-of-command, Tweed Byron Superintendent Michael Kenny, went on sudden and indefinite sick leave on 30 December 2009. Three months later he is yet to return.

A number of the police stations in the area are manned only during office hours rather than 24 hours a day, a situation that led to the near-fatal bashing of the Indian student Sachin Surendran last June, on the steps of the Coolangatta Police Station, which is only open between 8 am and 5 pm. “There is no point in having a police station if it’s not always open,” Surendran said late last year, before fleeing the country and returning to India permanently.

In September last year Tweed Heads police, overwhelmed by juvenile crime, took the extraordinary step of urging parents to dob in their kids to the law. But of course it’s difficult for parents to report their children if they don’t know where they are, or, even worse, don’t care. Last October, the NSW government approved legislation to fine parents up to $2500 for a first offence of failing to ensure their children attend school. But, as Clarence Nationals MP Steven Cansdell notes, “Magistrates can fine parents all they want but they are not going to pay the fine because they have not got the money to start with.”

Curious to speak with the local constabulary, I ring Tweed Heads’ area crime manager, Sergeant Greg Carey, requesting an interview. “Have you spoken to the police media yet?” he demands. When I answer no, he tells me that I have to request permission from a liaison office in Sydney first. I remind him that in the past few months he’s been quoted frequently in the local newspaper. “That’s local media,” he replies. “Not national.”

“So you’re telling me that I’m not allowed to speak to any policeman or policewoman in Tweed Heads while I’m here?”

“No,” he replies firmly. “Not without permission.”

He gives me a Sydney number to call and when I do the answering officer gives me an email address, telling me to send through an outline of my subject matter and a request to interview Sergeant Carey. I do this immediately and also include my full contact details and the direct number of Sergeant Carey.

One, two, then three days pass and I still haven’t received a reply from the Sydney liaison officer, the media supervisor, or indeed any representative of the Tweed Heads police. I can’t seem to shake a niggling suspicion that they are collectively indifferent, have something to hide, or both.

“The cops aren’t interested in catching these kids,” says Les, the owner of a burger bar on Kennedy Drive in Tweed Heads West. The police, he adds, “just sit on their arses all day in their cars down at the intersection, either fining people for making an illegal right-hand turn or breathalysing them.”

On his mobile phone he shows me photos of two male friends: their eyes are black and swollen shut, their lips are split, and their faces are ravaged with cuts and bruises, as if they’re victims of a serious car accident. Six months ago, explains Les, they were walking home after a night shift at the resort Twin Towns when they were attacked by a group of youths who beat them badly, “Just for something to do.” Even though the men can identify the kids, this particular gang still remains at large.

“It’s like a teenager trying to get out of the washing-up every night,” complains Phil Gadsby’s twin sister Kerry, referring to the inaction of the local police. We’re sitting outside the burger bar, sipping coffee. Like her brother, Kerry is short and wiry, and as she speaks her hands dart around in the air. “And parents need to stop playing the victim,” she adds. “A lot of single mothers and fathers up here spend their money on drugs, alcohol and gambling – not their kids. I gave up alcohol years ago and I still go to AA. It can be done.”

“Phil’s rung me up a couple of times in the past week,” says Kerry, gazing down at her upturned hands. “He’s told me he’s suicidal. I’m so worried about him. He’s ready to jump off a bridge.” She tells me that Phil had already been juggling problems before the bashings began last month: finances, work and his girlfriend, who desperately needs a kidney transplant. “He was barely coping as it was, but to be attacked and harassed on top of it …” her voice trails off and she glances at the passing traffic. “Now his kids are too scared to leave the house.”

Since the most recent attack on Phil, Kerry has rallied the local community to reject vigilante action and instead lobby for tough new curfew laws. “Any kids out on the street after sunset, their parents should be fined.” It sounds reasonable in theory, but I wonder how effective the proposed curfews will be, considering that the parents themselves are often not at home.

“My concern is for the next generation,” Kerry explains. “I don’t want to see any more people get hurt.” A few minutes later, she introduces me to someone from this “next generation”, an Aboriginal teenager who has been friends with local gang members since primary school. Sienna sports bleached blonde hair and nose rings, though she’s nervy and tense and slumps in her plastic chair, as if trying to make herself seem smaller. Sienna tells me she has made a list of names of the lead members of the gang that intimidated Martin Grove and attacked Phil Gadsby (and many others in the area), but says the police weren’t interested in pursuing the matter.

Sienna insists that once a kid becomes a member of a particular gang it can be difficult, if not impossible, to leave. As a consequence of the 2007 bashing of Rawson Armitage and his girlfriend, one of Sienna’s closest friends, gang member Roland, was sent to juvenile detention for three weeks. After his release he tried to reform himself but was soon drawn back into the group through persistent peer pressure. Not long after, the same gang members, including Roland, were arrested for attempted robbery – this time Roland almost went to jail. With the help and encouragement of his girlfriend, Roland again tried to “go straight” and leave. The other members responded by threatening to kill his grandmother, who is in her late sixties. When Roland refused to return to the gang, they did indeed attack his grandmother, leaving her bruised and battered. The poor woman was too scared of the gang to report the assault to the police or even attend the local hospital. According to Sienna, when the bashing of the grandmother failed to return Roland to the fold, the gang turned up at his door with a gun and threatened to shoot him. “The girlfriend was the one who changed Roland and got him out. Now he’s working full-time. But now the gang wants to kill them both.”

Listening to her stories, delivered with an odd mixture of resignation and bravado, I’m shocked by how hopeless life seems for these kids, even for the ones who attempt to forge a more prosperous future. When I ask her what it’s like to grow up here, she squirms in her seat and frowns. “Tweed’s scumville,” she says. “It’s full of wankers. Everywhere you walk there’s someone trying to bash you.”

She admits that when she was in primary school, she was expelled for throwing a chair at another Indigenous student, who called her “a wigger” (“white nigger”). It was only two years ago, at the age of 17, and after more than 800 reports of bad behaviour on her high school record that Sienna made a concerted effort to change. “I realised that if I didn’t get my shit together I was gonna end up just like them. I’m just trying not to hang out with wankers.”

Last year, Sienna completed her High School Certificate and is now studying children’s services at TAFE. In her final year of school she studied Aboriginal painting and found that she has a talent for it. She’s planning to teach painting to local kids, “for free at first, and then we’ll see what happens.”

I say goodbye to Sienna, Kerry and Les and hail a taxi to take me down Riviera Avenue. We approach the home of members of the gang that locals believe is responsible for the bashings of Phil Gadsby and others. I see a manicured front lawn lined with saplings, the same lawn on which Martin Grove shot himself dead only a few weeks earlier. Lying on the grass are two bicycles and an upturned skateboard.

The house is single-storeyed and white, with a carport to one side. It all looks so impossibly suburban and innocuous it’s hard to imagine the home is also the unofficial headquarters of a violent gang. The taxi pulls up and, as I climb out onto the street, I ask the driver to wait.

I walk onto the shaded, concrete verandah. Peering through the locked screen door, I am quietly amazed to see a perfectly neat living room with a polished coffee table, and rows of figurines; in the background a television murmurs an ad for KFC. For a moment I think I’ve arrived at the wrong house. I knock on the door and a short thin woman in her late forties appears on the other side of the screen, her face so drawn and haunted she looks more like an apparition than a human being. When I explain why I’m here, her hand flies to her throat and she begins to tremble. I feel a rush of empathy for her – for this frightened twig of a woman whose husband works all night and who is clearly struggling to raise three wild teenage boys.

Voice shaking, she tells me her two older sons are not at home, but she’d be prepared to speak with me “under the right circumstances”. I ask her what the right circumstances might be. She hesitates before replying. “Once I get permission from my husband.” When I hear her say this, my heart sinks, knowing I’ll never hear from her again. As she unlocks the screen door to take my card and phone number, her youngest son, aged about 12, appears by her side and peers at me with a mixture of curiosity and interest. His eyes are bright; he has a shock of blond hair and his tanned face is beginning to peel, just like thousands of other average Australian kids. The neatness of the house combined with the boy’s ordinariness and good health unsettle me further, as if all the information and accounts I’ve gathered so far might not be true after all.

But my confusion quickly dissipates when I climb back into the cab and we begin to drive down the block. A boy is standing in the middle of the road, his back turned away from me, wearing only a pair of board shorts, his arms and legs stretched out, as if deliberately trying to block our way. He’s probably only 15 or so, but his sun-tanned back is tattooed with a galaxy of blue stars that glint in the sunlight.

The driver slows down and, as the boy moves to one side, I glimpse his wide blue eyes, high cheekbones, the sweat pearling down his neck – a blond-haired Adonis who wouldn’t look out of place on a New York catwalk or in an Armani catalogue.

I catch my breath, smile, and lean out the window, trying to draw him into a conversation. “Hi,” I announce. “How’re you going?”

Suddenly his chiselled features retract into a scowl and he spits on the hood of the taxi. “Piss off, ya stupid bitch,” he barks. “You don’t belong around here.”

Mandy Sayer
Mandy Sayer is a columnist and author. Her books include Mood Indigo, Dreamtime Alice and The Night Has a Thousand Eyes. Her most recent novel, Love in the Years of Lunacy, was published in 2011.

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