anatomy of a serial sexual assault case
This article first appeared in Lip Issue 20 – you can buy a copy of the magazine here. We promise it’s packed full of other goodies! And you can help us keep our magazine alive by donating to our Pozible campaign here.
**Trigger Warning: Rape and sexual violence**
Nearly 126,000 Australian women experience sexual assault every year, with one in five women encountering sexual violence during the course of their lifetime. You’ve heard statistics like this before. You’ve seen the ads; you’ve read the slogans. But what is it really like to be one of the women behind the words? What is it like to be a woman who lives and changes while that number – 126, 000 – remains as a stark reminder in unyielding black ink? Two years ago, one of my best friends, Claudia*, became one of these women. She was 19 at the time and the attack was completely random.
‘So I had been staying at a friend’s house, we had been out the night before and she was house-sitting. I had to go to uni that day. So I walked from her house to the bus stop which is around the corner on Castle Hill Rd [in the north-west of Sydney], just near the retirement village there,’ Claudia explains.
‘I was waiting at the bus stop and I was early. A man approached the bus stop and asked what time the next bus was coming. He asked if there was a bus timetable on the other side of the bus shelter. I said that I didn’t know. So he went and checked.
‘When he came back around, he had a knife – or, like a push up blade. He grabbed my wrist and my bag from the chair beside me and pulled me down towards the retirement village, just kind of in an off-street that linked the main road and the retirement village, but you couldn’t drive through there or anything. He took my wallet and my phone – it was an old phone anyway, and I think I had about $20 in my wallet. Then he told me he wanted me to ‘be his girlfriend….’
‘He was telling me to be quiet and I was whimpering – for want of a better word – and he kind of went, ‘Well, what’s wrong?’ and I said, ‘Well, I’m scared’ and I dunno…it was like something clicked, like he realised that I wasn’t his girlfriend and he ran away.’
This happened to Claudia at 8:30 on a Friday morning in April 2008 during peak hour traffic. She was the first of six women to be assaulted by the same man over a three month period. She reported the incident to the police that day after borrowing a mobile phone from someone at the retirement village and calling her mum to pick her up. She underwent testing at Westmead hospital.
I found out the following day after talking to Claudia on MSN Messenger. She asked me how my uni exam had gone (it had prevented me from going out with the girls on Thursday night). Then I said, ‘ur sis called me yest to see where u were.’ Her typed reply was, ‘sorry about that, its not really something i should explain over the internet, I’m not hurt or anything tho.’ Claudia tried to change the subject, but I brought the conversation back to the phone call. Her response was, ‘they couldn’t get on to me, also don’t call my phone, i need a new one, so it’ll have to be at home if you wanna talk to me.’ I began to worry: ‘oook, what i meant was the mentioning that u weren’t hurt or anything puts into my mind that u could’ve been hurt?’ Claudia replied hesitantly, ‘yes, sorry I’m still trying to get it all clear what to say and you’re diana so I always intended to tell you, but how is difficult.’
That’s when I telephoned her and she explained what had occurred. But what do you say when this happens to one of your oldest and closest friends? I have known Claudia since kindergarten. We have shaken maracas together in a primary school dance group; we have coaxed each other to hike that little bit further on Year Nine camp; we have seen each other turn 18 and graduate high school. But this is not something that they teach you how to deal with in class. I was mortified and I was incredulous. I was cool-headed for Claudia because that was what I was good at – making her laugh – but inside I was so full of anger. How would she recover?
‘So at first this was going to change my entire life and I would have to withdraw from all social activities and become a hermit and never be seen in public again,’ Claudia tells me. ‘And I, of course, couldn’t be alone with a male. That was just a given, that would just never happen. I would have to rearrange my entire life so that that possibility would be avoided. But within the day, I was less ridiculous in that belief. And within probably a couple of days, I started to realise that I would be okay, and that I would deal with this and I would move on. So I think for about a week I didn’t wear any clothing that was fitted. Everything I wore was loose. And then gradually, I went back to my normal wardrobe again.’
Claudia has always been strong-willed. There is a running joke amongst our group that Claudia is never wrong…even when she is wrong, she has a hard time conceding it. I think she also refused to let The Bad Man (which she had come to call her attacker) be right about her: she was not his victim – she was a survivor. While I only wanted to make sure that she was okay, she was just worrying about what she would tell us, her friends.
‘I had to tell the girl who was house sitting, whose place I had stayed at, and that’s all I had to tell because the police might’ve needed to call her to check details and stuff … And then slowly I decided to tell my closest friends: it was basically only the ones who I felt like I was lying to if I didn’t tell them,’ says Claudia.
‘So other than that, I didn’t tell anyone for a long time. … It definitely took me longer to tell people who I thought would react badly, so certain friends who I knew were less emotionally capable of dealing, and who had other stuff going on in their lives at the time – that definitely took longer. … I think for me, personally, I didn’t particularly want to talk about it … I just wanted them to know … To be there, but not be asking so many questions all the time.’
Jordan* is one person close to Claudia who didn’t find out until many months after the incident. He and Claudia had dated seriously in high school and still play in a community band together.
‘It just made me sick,’ says Jordan. ‘Like I know there may be disorders involved or other factors involved other than the usual. But I’m just really pissed off basically…kind of lost faith in guys in a way. The gender I belong to is capable of such hurt and violence and such a disgusting act. Are we all capable of that?
‘I understand the feeling that you can get when physical affection is withheld from you, but in terms of going and forcing something physical on someone else, I don’t understand how you could not have the control, and to see what hurt you can do to someone. … I would try and live my life in juxtaposition to that: try to be gentler around women and not be overly assertive or dominant.’
Even though Jordan didn’t know about the incident for awhile, he did notice some changes in Claudia. ‘The first thing I noticed was that she changed her hair colour. She’d dyed it blonde towards the end of the year before, and then dyed it back which may seem normal, but it was just a bit strange why she did it. When I asked, “Oh, why did you change your hair back? You looked really hot like that,” she was like, “Nah, I didn’t…I felt like a trashy whore.”’
The blondeness turned out to be something that Claudia had thought about a lot. ‘Well, it was that, I’d kind of had in the back of my head, maybe if I hadn’t been blonde maybe he wouldn’t have been attracted to me. I thought I’d looked pretty that day, so maybe if I hadn’t been wearing make-up, maybe if I’d been wearing baggy, ugly clothing nothing would’ve happened.’
The attack on Claudia was unusual because she didn’t know the identity of the perpetrator and so he couldn’t immediately be charged. In 2008, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in a high proportion of sexual assault cases the survivor knew their offender. For example, in New South Wales it was 77% of cases and in Victoria 44%. Furthermore, Claudia had to deal with being the first of many survivors.
‘I mean, this is the Hills District, this stuff doesn’t happen here. So when it was just me, it was just a one-off isolated incident that was so rare and so random that it just – of course it would never happen again because that’s a one in a million. But then there were repeat attacks … and then it kind of became real again: that it wasn’t over, that it could happen again and not just to me, but to other people that I knew and loved. So it was kind of a fear for me, a fear for all women that I knew.’
The attacks all happened during broad daylight in public places. The other girls were only 16 or 17 years old. The incidents were widely reported in the news, and I would hear about them with an eerie and unwanted sense of connection. But Claudia did not particularly want to know about the others, although she had to give more evidence to the police. On 3 August 2008, a Minchinbury man was arrested and charged for the attacks.
‘…so one of the girls saw a man who looked like The Bad Man at a train station and she freaked out and called the police and he was arrested and they actually had footage of him and so I went in and viewed the security camera footage. And they asked if I had seen that guy, and I said, ‘Well, I can’t be sure. There’s a guy who looks like him. I can’t be sure that it’s the same man, but he looks similar.’ They eventually figured out that it wasn’t him.’
It was not until almost a month later that the real perpetrator was caught. He was charged with four counts of aggravated robbery, three counts of aggravated sexual assault, two counts of armed with intent to commit serious indictable offence, indecent assault, common assault, stalking and intimidation and armed robbery. Claudia was ecstatic.
‘I mean, I know that there are other bad people in the world but this particular Bad Man – the one who hurt me – knowing that he wasn’t a danger to me anymore was significant.
‘They thought he was going to plead guilty, but if he didn’t I would’ve had to testify. I would’ve worked with a counselor in order to do that. And then a couple of months later, he pled guilty and I didn’t have to testify. And they said I might have to do a victim impact statement, but it turns out that they sent all of us to see a psychologist and she’s going to assess us and do the victim impact statements on our behalf. So I had to see her and do some life impact tests and a bit of an interview.’
It has now been more than two years since Claudia was attacked, and the perpetrator is currently serving out a 23-year sentence with 17 years non-parole.
‘It’s such a long time ago and I am a different person now,’ says Claudia. ‘I feel like I’ve done so much since then. I’ve changed. It’s like it happened to somebody different, it’s like it happened to another person and it’s much easier to look at this way. You know, ‘This happened to that girl that I used to be.’’
It seems like that heavy black number – 126, 000 – is something Claudia has managed to leave far behind on the page. Perhaps in time, the print will also fade for many other survivors.
*Names have been changed at the request of the interviewees
By Diana Tjoeng
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