On a strange dark night in April 2012, at a peaceful gathering at a remote property in New South Wales, Evan Johnson was shot by police while threatening people with a crossbow. While this is the story we hear in the news, Alecia Simmonds was willing to search further into the truth of the story: how Evan came to be there, what happened that night and—most importantly—what we can learn from the tale of a desperately ill man meeting a premature end at the hands of the state.
For readers at the story, and so many at the scene of the tragedy and afterwards, they meet Evan only at his worst. And so the book begins with the story of his death and, in the coronial inquiry, details the witness statements from those at the scene; these have such a raw intensity that you fear, ridiculously, that he might kill everyone as he threatened and escape, even after knowing the facts outlined at the start. We follow her train of thought as she has it: who is to blame and why? Is it his environment, upbringing, drugs, mental health, the police? All of the above? It’s a search deep into the heart of cases that frustrate us and then leave us for the next news item, but are something telling and relevant in these times of unmitigated police violence here and overseas, deaths in custody, and the lack of proper care for those suffering from mental illnesses.
The inquiry and Alecia’s research take us into a world we ignore: how a case comes together, how information is accessed, how to create a real person out of their ghost, and how necessary all that is. And, of course, how much your average person hearing news stories does not have the opportunity—or the knowledge—to discover it. Wild Man is a smart, emotionally devastating and compelling piece of journalism that holds your hand as it leads you into the story of Evan’s death and lets it go just as you need to think hard about how Australia, as a country, is so desperate to love and romanticise a larrikin that when one steps beyond the bounds, we are helpless in the face of it.