On an ordinary street corner in Campbelltown, an extraordinary-looking man caught Constable Brett Wright’s eye.
The skin on his face had melted into warped, painful-looking patterns. Comparisons to Freddy Krueger were unavoidable. He would turn heads wherever he went, but for Wright, the fascination went more than skin deep.
Wright was there the day of the man’s horror transformation. The man was wet when police visited his Airds home in the aftermath of a domestic dispute – strange, given the winter, 2005, cold. He came to the front door, held a lighter to his body and struck it once, twice, three times before the flame caught his kerosene-coated skin. Fully alight but high on ‘go-ey’, he showed incredible strength as he pushed the door closed against the weight of Wright and his supervisor. The flames bent around the door opening, fanning the side of Wright’s face. As he tried to bring the man to the ground, hoping to snuff out the flames, Wright’s own arm caught alight. He hastily slapped it out with a gloved hand before the grappling continued into the front yard, in front of an audience of horrified onlookers. After about 40 seconds alight, the man’s superhuman strength was fading. He stumbled, then fell. Wright knelt at his side and slapped at his body so that burnt matter flew up into the sky, and the flames scorched his hands through his gloves. The kerosene kept the fire alive. Wright realised he was looking through vanished flesh now, at a living man’s bones.
Wright and his fellow officers – with a hose and sheet – extinguished the fire and the man stayed down, somehow still conscious. Wright was certain he would die, but stayed at his side, looked into his sagging face. “Mate, it's all good,” he told him. “You're going to be alright.”
He deliberately didn't seek out details of the man’s prognosis afterwards. He had learned early in his career to avoid getting personal. He had a good work ethic and was known for putting his hand up for the more difficult jobs, but he kept his questions within the scope of his investigations. “If it's not something you need to know - don’t find out,” said Wright, who was later awarded a bravery commendation for his handling of the Airds incident. “I found out early that things can weigh on you a little bit - they can stay with you a little bit.”
But the man did stay with him – on the street corner during that chance encounter, and for years afterwards, in his dreams. And he wasn’t the only one. After more than 15 years of frontline policing, Wright’s sleep became filled with dead people whose eyes would unexpectedly open, or whose arms would reach out to him. He was medically discharged from the force in October last year, diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder after he noticed himself growing increasingly impatient with the violence he encountered, often daily, on the job.
Now 46, he has since published a book which details the deaths of 260 Australian police officers killed in the line of duty. He began writing while still working, partly in the hope it would help people to empathise with police and understand some of the unthinkable realities they are exposed to. There were suicides, people who could defecate on command, into their hand, then throw it at police. Domestic violence, violence aimed at police directly. And for Wright, it wasn’t the only trauma he was dealing with.
He was stationed at Wollongong Local Area Command when he met the woman who was to become the stepmother to his three children, Constable Elise Krejci. She died beside him at the wheel of a car that aquaplaned on Picton Road as the couple and the children were returning to their Shellharbour home on April 20, 2008, five days after he had proposed at a small church on a beach at Port Douglas. She was 31.
The car came to rest on its side but Wright somehow climbed up and out the passenger side door with a fractured lower spine, fractured pelvis, two broken ribs, a deflated lung and nerve damage to his left elbow and right knee. He remembers little of the aftermath, but knows he lay on a tarpaulin on the side of the road, before confronting a highway patrol officer.
“I said to him, ‘tell me the truth’, and he said, ‘mate she's gone’.”
Newspaper articles from months afterwards align with the narrative he wanted the outside world to believe – that he was slowly recovering from his loss. That the efforts of friends, family and the force – including a charity fundraiser to build a garden for Elise – were helping him along an upward trajectory. But really he lost years of his life to a darkness that seemed like it would never get even a little bit lighter.
“You've got to try and pretend that you're the old person that you used to be. But it's very much a mask that you put on for other people's benefit,” he said.
“I didn't want to be here. The reason I stayed was because of my kids and my parents. But I wanted to be where Elise was. It's very hard because inside, that's what you're feeling. Every moment of every day of every month for years, that's all that was in there. That pain.”
He was wheeled into Elise’s funeral service on a hospital gurney and delivered her eulogy from this position, telling mourners she was his “perfect love”. He wrote down his memories of her – often short accounts of something they had done together – so, he reasoned, he could stop holding onto them in his head. He dated other women, too soon, to distract himself. He returned to office work and agitated to get back on the front line.
Years later, when the insurance companies would query his PTSD, he would try to explain that there hadn’t been any single “trigger” that had set off the condition, but rather a progression of day-to-day experiences that had built up and eventually overwhelmed him.
Early in his career he had attended the home of a man who had died more than a week earlier, inside his apartment with the heater left on nearby. In the warmth, he turned black and had effectively melted into his lounge by the time police arrived. The smell was so bad that Wright’s partner wouldn’t enter. With a crime scene officer, he helped to lift the remains. He remembers how helpless the two of them were, with their gloves already covered in the stuff, when bodily fluid splashed onto the officer’s face.
“When we got back to the station … everyone could smell it on me. Not long after that ... a car fire came over the radio. I went and stood in the smoke just to try and get the stink off me. Not smart - burning, toxic smoke - but that’s the sort of thing you’d do to get rid of that smell.
“Years later, I can be out driving on a beautiful, sunny day, not thinking about work. But all of a sudden you'll taste the smell. It's hard to explain that but you'll taste the smell, and it still happens today.”
He credits his wife, Lee Wright (nee Rout) with helping him out of his deep grief. He met her through friends. She was gentle and generous. Everyone who met her “seemed to fall in love with her”. “There was just a sense of goodness about her,” he said. “When I met Lee it was refreshing. There wasn't baggage there, there was normality there, there was niceness and goodness.”
They were married in September 2014 and it was Lee, said Wright, who saw to it that he finished his book.
Asked if PTSD is an inevitable consequence of policing, he agrees. In place of the “poster on a wall and lip service” approach, he believes every police officer should be regularly rotated into other roles, such as detective or crime scene work, after five years of general duties.
“There should be more of a rotational system,” he said. “For me, I never wanted to do anything else. But it should be a forced thing, just to reset yourself a bit.
“People won’t like hearing that, because people in sections that are not front line don’t want to be sent back to the front line … and people in the front line go, ‘no, I'm proud of what I do’, but it would give frontline cops a break.”
His book includes some details of the police officers who have killed themselves as a consequence of the job. The problem was “endemic” but hidden, he says.
The violence would always be there, and the unthinkable sights and smells. But he is hopeful that tomorrow’s police will have a better lot.
“People say police are our servants. They're not. They're there to enforce the law and keep the peace. That doesn't mean they're aggressive or arrogant or anything like that. They’ve got a job to do and people have to to understand where police are coming from.”
Ultimate Price is one of two books published by Brett Wright, available at http://brettwright.com.au. The other, Paradise, is a work of fiction set in Papua New Guinea, touching on some of the political issues relating to the conflict between Indonesia and West Papua.
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