The first time Shane Cuthbert met Pat O’Shane, she was a prominent Sydney magistrate and he was a 19-year-old man charged with a serious crime and facing jail time.
Almost 15 years later, the pair crossed paths again – not in a courtroom this time, but at a meeting to discuss the growing issue of youth crime in Far North Queensland.
It marked a stark turnaround for Mr Cuthbert, who was imprisoned four times between 2014 and 2018, spending a total of 12 months behind bars for a long list of offences.
His rap sheet makes for sobering reading, with countless offences ranging from drink driving and evading police, to wilful damage and affray.
The seriousness of Mr Cuthbert’s brushes with the law were often lost on him, as the media chronicled throughout the years.
He once wore a clown suit and a multi-coloured wig to court, earning the ire of a judge who stopped just short of locking him up for contempt.
Another time, he sparked a security scare and copped charges when he tried to travel on a plane ticket he booked using the name Kermit the Frog.
“I take life more seriously now but I was a bit of a smart-arse back then,” he told news.com.au.
At 19, he found himself in front of Ms O’Shane at Blacktown Local Court after a brawl with his brother at home turned ugly, seeing him face the serious charge of affray.
While waiting for his case to be heard, he watched the famed magistrate tear into a police prosecutor over a case she thought was flimsy.
“It was my first brush with the law as an adult and she terrified me,” Mr Cuthbert recalled. “She was tough and I was sure I was going to land in prison. In the end, I got a $1000 fine.”
He was one of countless defendants she sentenced during her long career.
Ms O’Shane, a proud Kuku Yalanji woman who grew up in Mossman near Cairns, studied law at the University of New South Wales and was admitted to the bar in 1976.
She was a barrister who worked for Aboriginal Legal Aid in Sydney before moving to Central Australia.
In the early 1980s, NSW Premier Neville Wran enlisted her to lead the state’s Aboriginal Affairs Ministry, a prominent position she held for five years before being appointed a magistrate.
For a decade, she was Chancellor of the University of New England and was also elected to the Australian Constitutional Convention.
Although, her legal career was not without controversy. A number of Ms O’Shane’s rulings were criticised, including by the Supreme Court, and there were calls for her resignation in 2012.
She retired a year later and eventually moved back to Cairns.
Nonetheless, she remains a passionate advocate for Indigenous issues and youth justice reform, the latter of which saw her meet Mr Cuthbert a few years ago.
“When we were introduced, I said, ‘Actually, we’ve met before.’ Pat looked a bit puzzled. I explained she sentenced me when I was 19 and we had a bit of a giggle.
“She asked what I was up to now and I think she was shocked when I told her I was president of my uni’s Law Society.”
He was part way through a double degree in law and psychology. The pair began catching up and Ms O’Shane would text him links to stories in the local media about crimes involving young people.
“She would say: ‘What are we going to do about this?’ So, we started working together to lobby for services for young people to try to prevent the problems facing Cairns.
“You look at us and we really shouldn’t be allies, you know. The judge and the criminal. And the fact we both wound up in Cairns together after crossing paths in Sydney all those years ago is pretty incredible.”
Years of crime
Mr Cuthbert has been embroiled in his fair share of controversy too.
In 2016, he made global headlines after an A Current Affair segment labelled him Australia’s “most evil husband” and made a number of serious domestic violence allegations, which he denies.
“The police thoroughly investigated those claims and decided not to charge me,” he said.
“I believe that story was defamatory, and I’d point out that it was later removed after concerns notices were sent to the media, which I think speaks for itself.”
At the time the story aired, Mr Cuthbert was in custody on separate charges. He spent six months behind bars, during which time he said he was repeatedly attacked by other prisoners.
“I ended up in a cell with a convicted rapist who was on remand at the time for the alleged manslaughter of a baby. He’s a bad guy. He sexually assaulted me with a toothbrush that had razor blades on it.
“The actual offences that landed me there, they had stacked up – there were 11 – but they weren’t violent. There was drunk driving, my third time, and evade police and resist arrest. There was a breach of bail charge and a wilful damage charge.
“I guess I felt like the treatment I was subjected to in prison, which was very traumatic, didn’t really suit the offences.
“I got out after six months and I was a mess. I was homeless for a period. I couldn’t get a job. I felt suicidal at times. I was not in a good way.”
To pass the time, he said he spent most days hanging out in the local library, which was airconditioned and had computers.
While surfing the internet, he came across short courses offered by major universities and completed a few.
He eventually got back on his feet and enrolled in a law and psychology double degree at CQ University.
“I’m a subject away from completing it, which is great.”
Not long ago, he couldn’t have imagined being on the other side of the law, having spent so much of his life in trouble.
Mr Cuthbert believes a troubled and traumatic childhood defined by an unstable household and sexual abuse from the age of five, set him off on the wrong path.
Behavioural issues at school made him the target of bullies, one of whom bashed him and left him with a severe compound arm fracture when he was eight-years-old.
“It was quite serious and I was in hospital for two weeks, and needed surgery.”
When he returned to school, he did so with a pocket knife and confronted his bully. He was expelled and sent to a mental health facility for children for almost a year.
‘Regretful and reformed’
In June, A Current Affair revisited Mr Cuthbert’s story in a new 11-minute segment casting doubt on his claims of being reformed.
“You’re obviously making yourself out to be a bit of a hero online, I just wanted to know are you actually a fake?” the journalist asked.
It alluded to the 2016 story but was less explicit. It did feature an interview with his ex-wife, who maintains she was subjected to abuse – claims Mr Cuthbert continues to deny.
The segment also questioned his community work and studies.
The fresh media attention came on the back of the launch of his campaign seeking election to Cairns Regional Council.
Mr Cuthbert is running as part of a group of independents alongside Ms O’Shane and former state MP Rob Pyne, who is now a local councillor.
“I obviously went into this election campaign with a lot of a lot of fear and anxiety because of my past and my background.
“But people are resonating with it. And I think it’s because up here in Cairns, we’ve got such a huge issues with youth crime and a number of break-and-enters and car thefts. It’s an issue I’ve jumped headfirst into.
“I’ve done a lot of doorknocking so far, and people are saying, well, if anyone knows what it’s like, it’s you.
“The council has washed their hands of the issue, saying it’s up to the state and federal governments. That’s true to an extent, but I think there are things council could be doing to help.
“We could have social supports, intervention programs, and a focus on prevention initiatives.”
He met Mr Pyne four years ago and said the politician and disability advocate “took me under his wing”, sparking an interest in community service.
“I have a lived experience as a young offender, as someone who’s been incarcerated, and someone who’s struggled with mental health issues. I have an opportunity now to share those experiences.
“I know I’ve got a past. I made a lot of mistakes. I don’t make any excuses for the bad things I’ve done. I am sorry for it all.
“But I’m not the person I was when I was younger. I guess that I’m hoping people see I’m just someone trying to make a difference. I care about people.
“I just want to help. I just want to get involved.”