Home U.S What became of heroin boy? Photo that shocked a nation

What became of heroin boy? Photo that shocked a nation

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It was a scene from hell, a filthy drug-infested laneway strewn with heroin addicts shooting up at an insane pace on a hot January morning.

Just a few hundred metres away kids in uniform were catching the train, heading off for their first day back at school.

Blood and vomit streaked the fetid alley, an old night soil cart thoroughfare between the backs of two rows of old terrace houses.

Many of the users jacking an arm with a strap to find a vein in which to stick their syringe were only kids themselves.

The pace of the drug injecting going on around was absolutely hectic, the youth of the shooters was heart-breaking and the number of indigenous kids busily ruining their lives was tragic.

A needle van was parked helpfully at one end of the lane providing a partial barrier for the shooting gallery.

One Aboriginal man standing in the lane where he’d been a regular intravenous heroin user there for two years because ‘it was too f***ing easy’ summed up the spectacle.

‘There’s no other place on earth like this, I reckon’ Jackson said.

Andrew Johnson shoots up with help from a friend in drug-infested Caroline Lane in January 1999, in an image which would shock the nation and make headlines around the world

Andrew Johnson shoots up with help from a friend in drug-infested Caroline Lane in January 1999, in an image which would shock the nation and make headlines around the world

Caroline Lane (above, today) in 1999 was Australia's dirty secret, the biggest open air heroin shooting gallery and'like nowhere else on earth'

Caroline Lane (above, today) in 1999 was Australia’s dirty secret, the biggest open air heroin shooting gallery and ‘like nowhere else on earth’

Andrew (right) with his injecting kit from the needle van waits as his mate injects heroin while standing up, and a young Aboriginal girl shoots herself up sitting among the discarded drug kits in the filthy lane

Andrew (right) with his injecting kit from the needle van waits as his mate injects heroin while standing up, and a young Aboriginal girl shoots herself up sitting among the discarded drug kits in the filthy lane

 LIKE NO OTHER PLACE ON EARTH

The place was Caroline Lane, a 200m long strip slightly wider than a car on a squalid piece of turf known as The Block,  an indigenous social housing precinct bounded by four streets around 2.5km from Sydney’s CBD.

A Whitlam Government-funded project in the 1970s, it was meant to provide a safe community for inner city Aboriginal people dispossessed by encroaching development.   

But by the late 1990s, Sydney was in the grip of a heroin epidemic and a unique set of circumstances had linked Redfern to the drug’s epicentre at Cabramatta.

In Sydney’s prison yards, 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.

A market swamped with cheap, highly pure heroin was fuelling a surge of new heroin users.

With the NSW Government syringe exchange program paying for a never-ending supply to the needle van parked there daily just 50m from the police station, Caroline Lane was Sydney’s busiest open air drug-shooting gallery. 

On Thursday, January 28, 1999, another sordid day of frenetic heroin injecting was progressing in the lane.

The number of Aboriginal children shooting up was distressing, but there was the occasional young white man in a business shirt and women dressed for work.

Over three days in the lane, it was sometimes hard to sidestep a user standing menacingly close with a needle and a promise to shoot you up ‘for twenty bucks’. 

Just after 11am on that day, a young boy strolled in among the heroin shooters queuing up to mainline.

He seemed out of place in the drug-infested alley,  looking only about 12, and neatly dressed, in a clean, striped shirt, baggy shorts with socks and sandals.

Andrew Johnson (above, as a boy) was dyslexic and falling through the cracks by 8th grade, leading him into a lifelong addiction to the drug heroin

Andrew Johnson (above, as a boy) was dyslexic and falling through the cracks by 8th grade, leading him into a lifelong addiction to the drug heroin

Andrew Johnson's front page photo in a filthy Redfern shooting gallery injecting heroin shocked the state premier into addressing the rampant drug problem during Sydney's heroin epidemic

Andrew Johnson’s front page photo in a filthy Redfern shooting gallery injecting heroin shocked the state premier into addressing the rampant drug problem during Sydney’s heroin epidemic

HEROIN BOY 

He was around 1.5m tall, a pale and skinny, blond-haired boy who looked like he should be buying an ice cream from Mr Whippy, not collecting an injection kit from the Newtown Needle Exchange van parked across the filthy alley.

We were yet to know his name, but it would later prove that Andrew Johnson was no new kid on The Block, and had already survived his first heroin overdose.

He was blissfully unaware that he was about to make history.

The scandal about to unfold in Redfern that day belied the truth that the suburb has been awash with heroin for months.

 By the end of 1999, the steep increase in heroin overdose deaths in Australia peaked at 1116 for people aged between 15 and 54.

Neighbours were anxious and afraid and had complained to police and politicians, and nothing had happened apart from the occasional arrest at The Block. 

The Aboriginal men, who just a few years earlier had drunk cans of VB and yarned on corners of The Block in the summer sunshine, were now strung out on smack. 

Andrew couldn't find a vein in either of his skinny arms so his friend helped him shoot up in his wrist after which the boy staggered down the dirty lane and made his way home to western Sydney

Andrew couldn’t find a vein in either of his skinny arms so his friend helped him shoot up in his wrist after which the boy staggered down the dirty lane and made his way home to western Sydney

Andrew Johnson and his partner Coral-Lee Jones have both suffered decades of heroin addiction and lost their children because they are on methadone

Andrew Johnson and his partner Coral-Lee Jones have both suffered decades of heroin addiction and lost their children because they are on methadone

The Block at Redfern (above, today) is an oasis of calm compared with the hectic heroin shooting gallery it was in 1999 at the peak of a glut of cheap smack

The Block at Redfern (above, today) is an oasis of calm compared with the hectic heroin shooting gallery it was in 1999 at the peak of a glut of cheap smack

By the end of 1999, the steep increase in heroin overdose deaths in Australia peaked at 1116 for people aged between 15 and 54. 

In the heart of Indigenous territory, at that time The Block was like a catastrophic bushfire well underway.

Andrew Johnson walked back up Caroline Lane from the needle van and waited politely with his syringe behind a young, but older, Indigenous teen who seemed to be his friend.

Without bothering to sit down, the older teen deftly stuck a needle into the crook of his arm and injected.

Sitting below on the slender kerb, a young Aboriginal girl was also shooting up among the rubble of used syringes, bloodied swabs and water vials.

Andrew sat down beside her and 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 his 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, as Andrew clenched the orange syringe cap between his teeth.

Around them, others were arriving at the needle van or leaving, throwing their used syringes into the lane.

There was a safe needle disposal box in an alcove by the van, but no one seemed to use it. 

Now just a back alley between terrace houses in Redfern, Caroline Lane (above) was a squalid haven for intravenous drug users with plentiful supplies of fresh needles from a syringe exchange service

Now just a back alley between terrace houses in Redfern, Caroline Lane (above) was a squalid haven for intravenous drug users with plentiful supplies of fresh needles from a syringe exchange service

Finally, the teen found a vein in the boy’s wrist and as Andrew grimaced, biting  down on the syringe cap, the older boy plunged the in the syringe down to the stopper.

Andrew Johnson’s head slumped back onto the rusty corrugated iron lining the laneway. 

The older youth chucked the needle away and himself sagged onto the ground, his eyes rolling back in his head.

After a few seconds, Andrew tried to stand but half fell out of his sandals and reeled around.

He began staggering up the lane, shouting at imaginary police, ‘f***in’ pigs, I done nuthin’!’

Three teenage Aboriginal girls took Andrew’s spot in the lane 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. 

SYDNEY’S DIRTY SECRET IS OUT 

Later that day, a phone call was made to the NSW Premier Bob Carr and a meeting arranged to show him and his health minister Andrew Refshauge the photographs from Caroline Lane.

 Sydney’s dirty little secret was about to be blown apart, putting Redfern on the world map.

Phones were soon running hot between aghast politicians who were eight weeks out from an election, and government bureaucrats scrambling for answers. 

By late Friday, January 29, 1999, the Caroline Lane shooting gallery was deserted — although in reality, drug use would continue there for years to come. 

Caroline Street (above) backs on to the once fetid lane which was packed with drug users shooting up heroin in the late 1990s before it took the photo of Andrew to move politicians into action

Caroline Street (above) backs on to the once fetid lane which was packed with drug users shooting up heroin in the late 1990s before it took the photo of Andrew to move politicians into action

The lane (above, today) is now overshadowed by development of the Aboriginal Housing Corporation which has angered some indigenous locals who believe it's about money not their community

The lane (above, today) is now overshadowed by development of the Aboriginal Housing Corporation which has angered some indigenous locals who believe it’s about money not their community

Police swarmed into houses down The Block and arrested suppliers, the needle van was driven off as the government axed  its syringe exchange program.

Policy was made on the run and by Saturday evening, just when the front page image of Andrew was hitting the streets in a first edition of The Sun-Herald newspaper, NSW had a forthcoming drug summit. 

And Bob Carr was forced to admit Sydney was in the throes of a drug crisis and the image of the boy in the lane summed it up. 

Andrew Johnson was identified by NSW Children’s Services and within a week had been publicly named.

He was in fact 16 years old and he lived with his brother and their parents, a Scottish immigrant and his wife in the family home at Whalan, in western Sydney.

LIFELONG BATTLE 

Andrew’s drug use had already blighted their blameless life, having overdosed on heroin in the bathroom of his parents’ Whalan home the previous year.

In June 1998, days after Andrew’s 16th birthday, his younger brother was forced to take an axe to the bathroom door and, not for the last time, paramedics brought him back to life. 

Andrew Johnson and Coral-Lee in the yard of the Whalan home where he shot up on his 16th birthday and had to be rescued by paramedics after his brother cut the door down with an axe

Andrew Johnson and Coral-Lee in the yard of the Whalan home where he shot up on his 16th birthday and had to be rescued by paramedics after his brother cut the door down with an axe

Early this year, Andrew revealed that he had started falling through the cracks even before starting high school because he was functionally illiterate due to a type of dyslexia.

Now aged 40, Andrew Johnson’s memory of that day is clouded by a torturous life on drugs. 

The photograph of him that would change the course of social and political history in NSW was also meant to change the course of his life and help him get off drugs, but it did not work out that way.    

 ‘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).’

The NSW Drug Summit, held just weeks after Bob Carr’s government was returned to power in 1999, made plans for the Kings Cross Medically Supervised Injecting Centre.       

More than two decades later but at the same Whalan house, Andrew Johnson spoke to Daily Mail Australia  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.

‘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).’  

Once considered slum dwellings, the houses along the streets of Redfern which formed The Block are now selling for more than $1m and are considered desirable residences

Once considered slum dwellings, the houses along the streets of Redfern which formed The Block are now selling for more than $1m and are considered desirable residences

This iconic old burnt out terrace on The Block has been kept as a cultural reference to the tenement housing established in the 1970s and funded by the Whitlam government

This iconic old burnt out terrace on The Block has been kept as a cultural reference to the tenement housing established in the 1970s and funded by the Whitlam government

‘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 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.

Five years after Andrew's photo brought world attention, Redfern was again in the news with the 2004 riots in which locals threw fireworks, bricks and bottles at police injuring 40 officers

Five years after Andrew’s photo brought world attention, Redfern was again in the news with the 2004 riots in which locals threw fireworks, bricks and bottles at police injuring 40 officers

The Redfern riot was sparked by the death of indigenous teen TJ Hickey who was chased on his bike by two police paddy wagons before becoming impaled on a fence

The Redfern riot was sparked by the death of indigenous teen TJ Hickey who was chased on his bike by two police paddy wagons before becoming impaled on a fence

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.

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.

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.  

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.

This Caroline Lane terrace sold in November for $1.352m, described by real estate agents as'bespoke' and having an'effortlessly chic vibe'

This Caroline Lane terrace sold in November for $1.352m, described by real estate agents as ‘bespoke’ and having an ‘effortlessly chic vibe’

CCTV video cameras were in 24 hour operation after police cleared Caroline Lane of drug taking, but the practice lingered on there for years

CCTV video cameras were in 24 hour operation after police cleared Caroline Lane of drug taking, but the practice lingered on there for years

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.

THE INFAMOUS BLOCK 

In 2004, five years after Andrew Johnson’s iconic photo made headlines, The Block was back in the news when it came to a flash point.

Aboriginal teenager TJ Hickey was thrown from his bicycle and impaled on a fence while fleeing two police paddy wagons, the 17-year-old dying in hospital the next day.

His death provoked the Redfern riot in which locals hurled bricks, bottles and fireworks at police, injuring 40 officers, and resulting in 25 arrests.

A coroner ruled TJ’s death was ‘a freak accident’, causing more unrest and another stand-off in nearby Waterloo during which indigenous youths threw rocks at police armed with riot shields. 

Caroline Lane was the perfect heroin alley, with a dog leg at one end obscuring sight and the Newtown Needle Exchange van at the other protecting drug shooters from view

Caroline Lane was the perfect heroin alley, with a dog leg at one end obscuring sight and the Newtown Needle Exchange van at the other protecting drug shooters from view

Today the lane has no sign of drug use, just rubbish bins for the houses which back onto the alley  that was a hectic drug shooting gallery 26 years ago

Today the lane has no sign of drug use, just rubbish bins for the houses which back onto the alley  that was a hectic drug shooting gallery 26 years ago

The Block itself is now partly demolished and half-developed.

The Aboriginal Housing Corporation is building affordable accommodation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, although the inclusion of a 24-storey student accommodation tower has divided locals.

Some were angered because it was ‘social engineering’ and ‘erased the community footprint’ of indigenous locals, or said the development was ‘not for Aboriginal people, it’s to make money’.

The small terrace houses that still line Caroline, Vine, Louis, Hugo and Eveleigh streets in the precinct now sell for up to $1.8m.

One Caroline Street house, that once backed onto the old heroin shooting alley and which sold last month for $1.352m, was described as ‘bespoke’ and having an ‘effortlessly chic vibe’.

Andrew Johnson has never been back to Redfern.

He and Coral-Lee have now moved from the Johnson family home at Whalan into housing in a neighbouring suburb. 

In May last year, Andrew was due to appear in court on a charge of common assault against his younger brother, Adam.  

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 home after a long hospital stay.

Adam knocked on Andrew’s bedroom door to yell ‘come help clean the house’, and 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. 

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.

Andrew told Daily Mail Australia 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.

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