¡¡¡¡More than 20 years ago, I lay in a drug-infested laneway among heroin shooters queuing up to mainline, when a young boy strolled into view.
¡¡¡¡It was just after 11am on back-to-school day and kids in uniforms had already vanished from the streets through the gates to start their classes for the year.
¡¡¡¡But this boy, who looked about 12, was dressed in a casual shirt, baggy shorts with socks and sandals.
¡¡¡¡And he was collecting an injection kit from the needle exchange van parked across the filthy alley.
¡¡¡¡Caroline Lane in Redfern, just 50m from the local police station, was Sydney¡¯s busiest open air drug-shooting gallery.
¡¡¡¡At around 1.5m tall, the pale, skinny, blond-haired boy was a clean-cut kid who looked out of place in this squalid spot.
¡¡¡¡We were yet to know his name, but the truth was Andrew Johnson was no new kid on The Block, and had already suffered his first heroin overdose.
¡¡¡¡And as Andrew exclusively told news.com.au this week, he was functionally illiterate and had started falling through the cracks even before starting high school.
¡¡¡¡Now aged 38, Andrew Johnson¡¯s memory of that day is clouded by a torturous life on drugs, but the photograph of him would change the course of social and political history in NSW.
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¡¡¡¡Andrew Johnson, now aged 38, has a clouded memory of the day he was photographed shooting up in a Redfern lane and changed state history. Picture: Candy Sutton/news.com.auSource:Supplied
¡¡¡¡Drug injecting in Caroline Lane in the late 1990s at the height of the heroin epidemic was absolutely hectic. Picture: Gerard Johnson/News Corp AustraliaSource:Supplied
¡¡¡¡Within hours of Andrew walking into the frame of a news camera lens, the phones were running hot between aghast politicians and horrified government bureaucrats, scrambling for answers.
¡¡¡¡Back in that last week of January 1999, as I lay pretending to be one of them as a reporter while a photographer shot pictures, the drug injecting going on around us was absolutely hectic.
¡¡¡¡Just being in the narrow, 200m lane wedged behind the back fence of a row of terrace houses, was at times scary.
¡¡¡¡Dazed users would stand menacingly close, brandishing a needle and promising to shoot you up ¡°for twenty bucks¡± while you mumbled a ¡°no thanks, sis¡± and feigned narcotic stupor.
¡¡¡¡By our third day there, January 28, the sheer number of young, mostly Aboriginal children who were coming into that lane to expertly shoot up was distressing.
¡¡¡¡But there were also young men in business shirts, and the occasional smartly dressed woman.
¡¡¡¡Sydney was in the grip of a heroin epidemic with a surge of new heroin users fuelled by a market swamped with cheap, highly pure heroin.
¡¡¡¡In prison, Vietnamese drug offenders had met Aboriginal inmates and on release from jail they had set up a heroin highway via the train line from Cabramatta to Redfern.
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¡¡¡¡The front page photo of Andrew Johnson (seated) being shot up with heroin in Caroline Lane, Redfern, which changed state history. Picture: Sun Herald, 31/1/99Source:Supplied
¡¡¡¡Andrew Johnson waits behind his mate who shoots up before helping Andrew find a vein. Picture: Sun-Herald, 31/1/99Source:Supplied
¡¡¡¡Andrew Johnson and partner Coral-Lee Jones at the house in Whalan, where he returned to after the day he was captured shooting heroin in Redfern. Picture: Candy Sutton/news.com.auSource:Supplied
¡¡¡¡I¡¯d returned home from a New York posting to find my suburb awash with drugs, neighbours anxious and afraid, and no one doing anything about it.
¡¡¡¡The people at The Block who ¨C just a few years earlier ¨C had drunk cans of VB and yarned on corners in the summer sunshine, were now strung out on smack.
¡¡¡¡By the end of that year, heroin overdose deaths would have peaked at 1116.
¡¡¡¡Up close, the action on The Block in the heart of Indigenous territory, looked like a fire well underway.
¡¡¡¡And then the white kid turned up, and walked in front of the lens of Julian Andrews, behind me, shooting over my shoulder.
¡¡¡¡The boy waited with his syringe behind a young, but bigger, Indigenous teen who seemed to be his friend.
¡¡¡¡Without bothering to sit down, the teen stuck a needle into the crook of his arm.
¡¡¡¡Sitting below on the slender kerb, a young Aboriginal girl was also shooting up.
¡¡¡¡The young white boy sat down beside her, among the rubble of used syringes, bloodied swabs, half empty water vials and piles of vomit.
¡¡¡¡He mixed heroin powder with the sterile water in the spoon from his kit, loaded the syringe and held it up to look for air bubbles.
¡¡¡¡He tried each of the thin arms poking from his shirt, but couldn¡¯t seem to find a usable vein.
¡¡¡¡The other teen crouched down to make a close perusal of the boy¡¯s arms.
¡¡¡¡While the rest of Sydney sat down to roast turkey, drug users gathered in Caroline Lane on Christmas Day 1997. Picture: Grant Turner/News Corp AustraliaSource:Supplied
¡¡¡¡Child rides his scooter at the top of Caroline Lane, Redfern as a drug user shoots up. Picture: Grant Turner/News Corp AustraliaSource:News Corp Australia
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¡¡¡¡Around them, others were arriving, each stopping at the Newtown Needle Exchange van, parked there each morning operating a daily syringe and equipment supply service.
¡¡¡¡Finally, the teen found a vein in the boy¡¯s wrist, plunged in the stopper and Andrew Johnson¡¯s head slumped back onto the lane¡¯s brick wall.
¡¡¡¡The older youth chucked the needle away and himself sagged onto the ground, his eyes rolling back in his head.
¡¡¡¡Andrew tried to stand but half fell out of his sandals and reeled around before staggering up the lane, shouting at imaginary police, ¡°f***in¡¯ pigs, I done nuthin¡¯!¡±
¡¡¡¡Next, three teenage Aboriginal girls piled into an alcove next to the needle van and hastily prepared their fits.
¡¡¡¡Blood spurted from one girl¡¯s arm as the needle went in, and the van worker looked the other way.
¡¡¡¡The girls threw their needles into the lane; there was a safe needle disposal box in the alcove, but no one seemed to use it.
¡¡¡¡I talked with an Indigenous man, Jackson, 25, who had been injecting heroin for two years and was a regular at Caroline Lane, because it was ¡°too f***ing easy¡±.
¡¡¡¡Jackson confided there was ¡°no other place on earth like this, I reckon¡± but added ¡°don¡¯t ever do it though will ya, it¡¯s sh*t.¡±
¡¡¡¡A crowd of heroin users gathered in Caroline Lane, Redfern, around the needle exchange car. Picture: Grant Turner/News Corp AustraliaSource:Supplied
¡¡¡¡A young man shoots up while sitting in Caroline Lane, his mate looking on. Picture: Gerard Johnson/News Corp AustraliaSource:News Corp Australia
¡¡¡¡By late Friday, January 29, 1999, the Caroline Lane shooting gallery was cleared out ¡ª although in reality, drug use would continue there for years to come.
¡¡¡¡Politicians down at Parliament House in Macquarie Street were being shown the confronting photographs of the young white boy in the lane, turning visibly white themselves.
¡¡¡¡The government ordered the needle exchange van be removed from the lane and police swarmed into the houses down on The Block from which heroin was sold.
¡¡¡¡NSW Premier Bob Carr admitted that the image of the boy in the lane ¡°summed up¡± Sydney¡¯s drug crisis.
¡¡¡¡It was eight weeks out from a state election and ¡ª making policy on the run ¡ª Mr Carr announced an unprecedented drug summit.
¡¡¡¡It was during the summit, held just weeks after the Carr government was returned to power, that plans were made for what would become the Kings Cross Medically Supervised Injecting Centre.
¡¡¡¡The needle exchange car provides a handy barrier between the frenzied heroin injecting and the community area, with police only 50m away. Picture: Gerard Johnson/News Corp AustraliaSource:Supplied
¡¡¡¡Meanwhile, NSW Children¡¯s Services had put out a search for the as yet unidentified boy, and tracked him down to a suburban house at Whalan in western Sydney.
¡¡¡¡Andrew was 16 years old and although he looked much younger, he had already overdosed on heroin in the bathroom of that house, his parents¡¯ Whalan home.
¡¡¡¡That was in June 1998, days after Andrew¡¯s 16th birthday, when his younger brother took an axe to the bathroom door and, not for the last time, paramedics brought Andrew back to life.
¡¡¡¡This week, more than two decades later but at the same Whalan house, Andrew Johnson spoke exclusively with news.com.au about what happened when he was captured shooting heroin in Caroline Lane, and his troubled life since.
¡¡¡¡¡°I¡¯ve overdosed and died 11 times,¡± Andrew said, standing in the yard of the house with his partner, Coral-Lee Jones.
¡¡¡¡Karen, 37, shooting up heroin in Caroline Lane surrounded by used needles, just eight weeks after Andrew Johnson was photographed there. Picture: Chris Pavlich/News Corp AustraliaSource:News Corp Australia
¡¡¡¡Karen shooting up heroin while sitting in the gutter in Caroline Lane. Picture: Chris Pavlich/News Corp AustraliaSource:News Corp Australia
¡¡¡¡¡°After that photo, they were supposed to put me in rehab but they just came and got me and put me in Cobham (juvenile justice centre).
¡¡¡¡¡°They opened that injecting room on my behalf supposedly. Nah, never been there.¡±
¡¡¡¡Andrew spent time in Bathurst prison, and ¡°as soon as I came out of jail, I was back into heroin¡±.
¡¡¡¡¡°Mum and Dad didn¡¯t speak to me for years,¡± he said.
¡¡¡¡Andrew Johnson has now been on heroin or methadone for more than half his life.
¡¡¡¡He remembers the Caroline Lane day as his first taste of heroin, although the records tell things differently and Andrew admits the events in his life mean he doesn¡¯t always remember.
¡¡¡¡Straight after his first overdose in his parents¡¯ Whalan bathroom, he resisted counselling, vowing the shock of his near fatal encounter would keep him clean.
¡¡¡¡But at 16 he was already through with school, having dropped out of Mt Druitt High School before the end of year 8.
¡¡¡¡¡°I can¡¯t read or write,¡± Andrew told news.com.au, ¡°That¡¯s why I couldn¡¯t do school.¡±
¡¡¡¡Andrew is dyslexic and suffers from Irlen syndrome, where a person cannot read text on a white paper background, though he seems to manage with basic texting.
¡¡¡¡Coral-Lee handles all the paperwork in Andrew¡¯s life.
¡¡¡¡Inspector Paul Wells removes needles and used sharps box from a window sill a day after Andrew Johnson¡¯s photo went global and Caroline Lane was cleared. Picture: Grant Turner.Source:News Corp Australia
¡¡¡¡Justice James Wood (third right) among delegates at the NSW Drug Summit in Parliament House, May 1999. Picture: Jeff Darmanin/News Corp AustraliaSource:News Corp Australia
¡¡¡¡Supplied video obtained Friday, May 18, 2018 of police arresting a man who they believe attempted to import $8 million worth of heroin into Sydney. In a joint operation by NSW Police and Australian Border Force 16kg of heroin, disguised as copy paper in a shipment of children’s clothing from Asia, has been uncovered. (AAP VIDEO/Supplied/NSW Police)
¡¡¡¡He says he was living with older Indigenous boys at The Block around the time of the photograph, but neighbours remembered him still being at home when it was published.
¡¡¡¡Andrew Johnson and Coral-Lee Jones met when they were aged 10 and nine, respectively, and are still together today.
¡¡¡¡All seven of their children have been taken from them, ¡°because we¡¯re on methadone,¡± Andrew said.
¡¡¡¡One son died aged 18 months while in care and another three relatives were allegedly sexually molested while with a foster family.
¡¡¡¡Coral-Lee said she had started taking heroin when she was a young teenager, but that the two of them had been on methadone and clean from heroin for a decade.
¡¡¡¡¡°When our son died in 2010 we started taking (heroin) again,¡± Coral-Lee said.
¡¡¡¡¡°They said it was accidental asphyxiation.
¡¡¡¡¡°We had him dug back up again a year later and they found his lungs were full of feathers.¡±
¡¡¡¡Records say Andrew¡¯s troubles with drugs continued until at least seven years ago, when he appeared in Mt Druitt Local Court in 2014 after a heroin-fuelled episode at the Whalan house.
¡¡¡¡Redfern’s Caroline Lane lay deserted in the wake of the media exposure, although drug use returned spasmodically. Picture: Grant Turner/News Corp AustraliaSource:News Corp Australia
¡¡¡¡TV footage of drug addicts at an illegal safe injecting room in Kings Cross in May 1999. Picture: Nine/A Current AffairSource:News Limited
¡¡¡¡Client injecting heroin in the ¡®Tolerance Room¡¯, or T-Room, operating illegally in Sydney in April 1999. Picture: Alan Pryke/News Corp AustraliaSource:News Limited
¡¡¡¡Homeless and hooked on heroin, Andrew was, his mother Roseanna Johnson told media, ¡°beyond help now¡±, although she and her husband John had never given up hope that their son might turn his life around.
¡¡¡¡¡°The police say we would be better off trying to forget we had a son,¡± she said back then.
¡¡¡¡At the time, Coral-Lee had given birth to four of the couple¡¯s seven children.
¡¡¡¡In April 2013, court documents said, John Johnson had returned home from seeing Roseanna in hospital to find Coral-Lee ¡°with a needle in her arm¡± and Andrew ¡°passed out¡± on a sofa in the living room.
¡¡¡¡The court heard Andrew threatened to poison his father, ripped the landline from the wall and tampered with the fuse box, leaving John Johnson in darkness.
¡¡¡¡When police found Andrew and Coral-Lee, they were so drug affected they were ¡°unable to understand basic questions¡±.
¡¡¡¡They arrested Andrew and charged him with destroying or damaging property and stalking with intent to cause fear or physical harm.
¡¡¡¡His record showed at least 10 charges of larceny, shoplifting, assault, attempted self administration of a prohibited drug and having goods in custody suspected of being stolen.
¡¡¡¡He was eventually convicted after failing to appear in early 2014.
¡¡¡¡In November 2013, Andrew also suffered another overdose but survived.
¡¡¡¡Last Monday, May 31, Andrew was due to appear in court on a charge of common assault against his younger brother, Adam.
¡¡¡¡Drug summit delegates including Normie Rowe watch as police attend to an overdosing heroin addict during Cabramatta station tour. Picture: Matthew Vasilescu.Source:News Limited
¡¡¡¡Andrew Johnson and partner Coral-Lee Jones have lost all their seven children to foster care. Picture: Candy Sutton/news.com.auSource:Supplied
¡¡¡¡Police have seized $400 million dollars worth of heroin, smuggled into Sydney in a shipping container. From 1 Nov 2010.
¡¡¡¡Court documents reveal Andrew and Coral-Lee were in bed around 8am at the Whalan house when Adam Johnson visited to help his father John clean up for Roseanna Johnson¡¯s return after 14 weeks in hospital.
¡¡¡¡Adam knocked on Andrew¡¯s bedroom door and yelled ¡°come help clean the house¡±, to which Andrew yelled back ¡°get f***ed¡±, police facts tendered to the court said.
¡¡¡¡When Adam went to call police on the home phone, Andrew ¡°came out of the bedroom and ripped the phone from the wall causing no damage¡±.
¡¡¡¡He then ¡°used his closed fist to punch (Adam) in the mouth¡±.
¡¡¡¡Police charged Andrew with common assault and took out an AVO on behalf of Adam Johnson.
¡¡¡¡Andrew Johnson and partner Coral-Lee Jones have lost their seven children to care because they take methadone. Picture: SuppliedSource:Supplied
¡¡¡¡Magistrate Stephen Corry said Andrew twice sought an adjournment on medical grounds, for urgent dental work, and then said he was waiting for a hip replacement.
¡¡¡¡He convicted Andrew in his absence, fined him $1000 and installed the AVO for two years.
¡¡¡¡At the Whalan house, Andrew told news.com.au he had lost teeth over the years and he had ¡°bugs inside my hip¡± and cellulitis from stepping on a dog bone.
¡¡¡¡¡°We have our methadone every day and that has kept me off drugs,¡± he said
¡¡¡¡He said he had mended the relationship with his parents, but that both were suffering from ill health.
¡¡¡¡Of his life since Caroline Lane, Andrew said he had been ¡°in and out ¡° of every juvenile institution, then adult jail, but had no major convictions since the armed robbery.
¡¡¡¡¡°Because of that photo, I lost my family,¡± he said.