In the news footage, taken at the scene of the crime, the perpetrator Shaun McNeil seems stunned but lucid. His shirt is open; not ripped, but purposefully unbuttoned to show off his pectoral muscles and a tattoo that reads, “Trust is Everything.” Blood drips from his nose.
“It was one punch,” he says over and over again. “It was one hit, that’s it.”
The police and media here sometimes refer to acts like this one, which occurred on New Year’s Eve, 2013, as a “coward punch,” with the goal of dissuading drunken young men prone to violently jumping unsuspecting passers-by. Before that they were called “one-punch attacks.” Even earlier they were known as “king hits.”
Whatever your preferred nomenclature, the place to go in Sydney for an unannounced fist to the face is Kings Cross. Just up the road from the naval base and host to innumerable tacky bars, dingy strip clubs, and a healthy drug trade, the Cross has long been associated with both organized crime and the tourist industry.
Striparama nightclub, in the 1960s. Photo: State Library of New South Wales
Recently, however, it’s these random punches that have attracted the most attention. A friend of mine, stopping to light someone’s cigarette outside a pub, was rewarded with a split lip. A similar incident in 2012 resulted in the death of Thomas Kelly, who was attacked while talking on the phone. Doctors at the local hospital have come to expect a serious head injury of this kind about once a fortnight. The problem of unprovoked attacks isn’t confined to the Cross: nationwide between 2000 and 2013, a shocking 91 Australians were killed in one-punch attacks of this variety.
The man McNeil assaulted that evening, Christie, suffered brain damage while falling and was taken off life support later that month. He had interrupted McNeil attacking three minors who had offered to sell him drugs.
On June 11 of this year, McNeil was cleared of murder but found guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter and various assault charges. He’ll serve a mandatory seven-and-a-half years before being eligible for parole. Christie, who was 18 when he died, has become a symbol of the grisly outcome of drinking and violence in Kings Cross.