DARK­EST HOUR

JT breaks 14-year si­lence over Coffs Har­bour sex scan­dal

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - FRONT PAGE -

A year af­ter Johnathan Thurston was ac­cused and then cleared of sex­ual as­sault charges the then 20-year-old rookie be­came em­broiled in one of rugby league’s dark­est episodes when a young woman claimed she was gang- raped by six Bull­dogs play­ers. Thurston, in this ex­tract from his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, has be­come the first player to go pub­lic on what hap­pened in Coffs Har­bour.

“HEY, there’s that sheila from the other night,” said a team­mate, point­ing at a young woman on the dance floor. It was 1.30 in the morn­ing, Sun­day, 22 Fe­bru­ary 2004.

I was stand­ing next to three of my Bull­dogs team­mates in the Plan­ta­tion Ho­tel in Coffs Har­bour, sip­ping a can of bour­bon and cola.

We had de­mol­ished the Raiders 30-12 in a pre-sea­son trial match that day, and I was ex­cited about the prospect of the sea­son start.

Bull­dogs coach Steve Folkes had given us a leave pass.

Folkesy was an old school coach. He was happy for us to have a drink as long as we turned up at the pool at 7am for re­cov­ery.

I looked to­wards where my team­mate was point­ing, through the crowd — heav­ing and rowdy — and saw a young woman wear­ing black.

I had never seen her be­fore. “Who?” I said. “From when?”

The boys filled me in. Ap­par­ently a few of my team­mates had met her at the pub on Wed­nes­day night, when we were given a leave pass and told we could hit the town.

Some of the boys went to the movies, oth­ers stayed at the team ho­tel and a group went to the pub.

I went to the pub but left early, hop­ing to get a good night’s sleep with our game against the Raiders just a cou­ple of nights away.

“She came back with the boys on Wed­nes­day night,” the team­mate con­tin­ued. “She slept with six of them.” I nod­ded and sipped on my drink.

I wish I could tell you that I was shocked by the group sex — but I wasn’t. Con­sen­sual group sex, a girl sleep­ing with more than one NRL player at the same time, was not un­usual.

Look­ing back now, I can see how dis­taste­ful and dis­re­spect­ful it was.

Now, 14 years later, as a dad of three daugh­ters, I don’t con­done that type of thing.

But back then I was just a 20year-old do­ing my best to fit in.

I can’t tell you my story and omit the most con­tro­ver­sial chap­ter of my ca­reer.

I can’t leave out an event that then threat­ened to end my ca­reer be­fore it even got started.

I’d rather for­get these events but I owe you the truth.

Again, this is my story. I can only tell you what I did and what I saw.

With this I will be­come the first mem­ber of the 2004 Bull­dogs squad to pub­licly speak about the in­ci­dent that be­came known as the “Bull­dogs Rape Scan­dal”.

And there are no win­ners here: it is all pain, hurt and ugly.

Back to the Plan­ta­tion Ho­tel, where my team­mate had just pointed out a woman in the crowd. “She wants to meet up with some of the boys again,” he said. “But I don"t think they want to see her again.”

I con­tin­ued drink­ing, not giv­ing the young woman in black an­other thought.

I was on a high af­ter our trial win. I spent the rest of the night play­ing the pok­ies and drink­ing with my team­mates, as well as a few of the Can­berra boys, who were also at the pub. At about 5am, I jumped into a taxi with a cou­ple of team­mates.

That 7am start at the pool was on our minds.

Then one of my team­mates was shout­ing. “F..k off,” he yelled.

“Get out of here. You’re not com­ing with us.”

I turned to see the young woman in black. She was try­ing to get into our taxi. One of the boys pushed her out and gave her a gob-full. She wasn’t im­pressed.

“You are just a no­body,” she screamed. “A f…head.”

She was still shout­ing as the taxi pulled away. I fig­ured that was the last we’d see of her.

But about an hour later, when I was in my room at the Novo­tel try­ing to sleep, my room­mate said, “Shit, that girl is com­ing. Have a look.” I looked out the win­dow.

She was walk­ing to­wards our rooms. Knock. Knock. She banged on the door of the room next to us, where some of my team­mates were stay­ing. Knock. Knock. At first the boys tried to ig­nore her. Knock. Knock. “Let me in,” she screamed. They didn’t re­spond but she kept at it. Even­tu­ally one of the boys opened the door and gave her a spray.

I don’t know ex­actly y what was said but the mes­sage was for her to go away and leave them alone.

We could still see her through the glass. One of the boys in my room opened the win­dow. “Get lost,” he yelled. “Just go home. We don’t want you here. F… off.”

The woman started to scream and swear, but even­tu­ally she left and I went to sleep.

My alarm went off at 6.45am. I jumped out of bed, still half drunk.

“Let’s go,” I said to my room­mate. “We can’t be late.”

Our re­cov­ery ses­sion was to be held at an Olympic-sized pool lo­cated in a train­ing fa­cil­ity that was part of the ho­tel.

I grabbed my towel and gog­gles be­fore brav­ing the day­light.

“Hey, there’s that bird from last night,” a team­mate said as we made our way to the pool. “What the hell is she still do­ing here?”

I looked over and saw the young woman in black sit­ting on the side of the road, not far from the ho­tel of­fice.

She ap­peared to be wet and looked like she was cry­ing.

I shrugged. “Who cares?” I said. And I didn’t, not un­til Mon­day when all hell broke loose.

We were ush­ered straight into a room when we ar­rived at Bel­more for train­ing on Mon­day morn­ing.

Ap­par­ently y a story had bro­ken on ra­dio that morn­ing, but most of us were obliv­i­ous.

“Boys, we have a very se­ri­ous mat­ter to ad­dress,” said Garry Hughes (Gaz), the Bull­dogs Foot­ball Man­ager in 2004.

“I was ap­proached by two de­tec­tives in Coffs Har­bour yes­ter­day. They in­formed me that a girl has made some very se­ri­ous al­le­ga­tions.

“She al­leged that she was sex­u­ally as­saulted by be­tween three and six play­ers in the early hours of yes­ter­day morn­ing.”

Sex­ual as­sault. Po­lice. I was stunned.

Gaz told us that the woman had been found by ho­tel staff on the grounds of the ho­tel and was taken away in an am­bu­lance.

Two Coffs Har­bour de­tec­tives had come to the ho­tel dur­ing our re­cov­ery ses­sion and spo­ken to Hughes.

“I spoke pri­vately to a num­ber of play­ers af­ter re­cov­ery yes­ter­day,” Gaz said. “And four play­ers gave state­ments to po­lice at Coffs Har­bour be­fore we came home.

“I thought that would have set­tled the mat­ter but there are to be fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tions by both po­lice and the club.”

The press got hold of the story and the al­le­ga­tions went pub­lic on Mon­day morn­ing.

“I need to know ex­actly what hap­pened,” Gaz said. “I need the

truth and I ex­pect any­one that was in­volved to put up their hand. This is a very se­ri­ous mat­ter and you need to come and see me if you were in­volved in any way with this girl.”

I later found out the six play­ers went to Gaz’s of­fice af­ter the meet­ing.

They told Hughes that they took the woman back to the Novo­tel and had con­sen­sual sex with her on the Wed­nes­day night.

They also told Gaz that they had re­jected her on the Sun­day morn­ing, first at the Plan­ta­tion Ho­tel and then at the Novo­tel.

An­other player ad­mit­ted hav­ing con­sen­sual sex with the girl on the Sun­day morn­ing.

He brought her back to the Novo­tel at the end of the night and had sex with her in the pool area.

When Hughes took state­ments from the play­ers, he told us he would back us to the hilt.

He was filthy on us for break­ing team rules — we weren’t al­lowed to bring peo­ple back to our team ho­tel — but he was adamant we had not bro­ken the law.

I was not in­volved in any ca­pac­ity with the woman who made the ac­cu­sa­tions. I was not in­volved with her on the Wed­nes­day night and I did not see what hap­pened in the pool area on the Sun­day morn­ing.

How­ever, I was shocked and scared to be in­ter­viewed by po­lice for the sec­ond time in a year. The press ab­so­lutely ham­mered us and it felt like the pub­lic thought we were all guilty even though a charge had not been laid. E very player in the squad was un­der sus­pi­cion. And we couldn’t even de­fend our­selves. We were told that we were not al­lowed to speak to any­one ex­cept a lawyer. We all wanted to clear our names, but we couldn’t even tell the po­lice.

On 3 March the play­ers were in­ter­viewed at the Syd­ney Po­lice Cen­tre, but our lawyers ad­vised us to say only, “I am not pre­pared to an­swer at this time un­der le­gal ad­vice”.

And we copped a ham­mer­ing for turn­ing up to the Syd­ney Po­lice Cen­tre in ca­sual clothes, some of the boys in shorts, oth­ers wear­ing thongs.

The press said that what we wore showed that we were not tak­ing the al­le­ga­tions se­ri­ously. We were be­ing ac­cused of rape — of course we were tak­ing the al­le­ga­tions se­ri­ously. That is why we all vol­un­teered to give DNA.

The truth is we were at train­ing when we were told we had to go and give our state­ments. We had just fin­ished a ses­sion and were told to go straight to Surry Hills. We went in the clothes we had on.

The sea­son be­gan, and I was soon be­ing called a rapist by fans at foot­ball games.

I scored two tries in our sea­son opener against Par­ra­matta — and we won 48-14 — but it was hard. J ust two weeks af­ter my in­jury, on 28 April, the rape case was thrown out. The Direc­tor of Pub­lic Pros­e­cu­tions ruled there was in­suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence to launch a pros­e­cu­tion. No charges were ever laid and we were all cleared of any wrong­do­ing. Some po­lice in­volved in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion have since come for­ward and said there should never have been an in­ves­ti­ga­tion at all.

Sev­eral wit­nesses backed up the ac­count of the player who slept with the woman on Sun­day morn­ing, in­clud­ing a ho­tel grounds man and a cou­ple who were play­ing golf.

Both par­ties gave state­ments to po­lice say­ing they saw the player and the woman in the pool area hav­ing con­sen­sual sex. I am adamant no one broke the law. I think the woman who made the al­le­ga­tions did so out of anger af­ter the boys re­duced her to tears. I gen­uinely feel sorry for her. I was an­gry for a long time but now, look­ing back, I can un­der­stand that she went through a lot too. We could have han­dled the sit­u­a­tion bet­ter. We didn’t treat her with re­spect. She should never have been treated that way.

I don’t think Bull­dogs man­age­ment han­dled the sit­u­a­tion well. They never came out and backed the play­ers and they also de­nied us the op­por­tu­nity to give our ver­sion of events that night. The way Garry Hughes was treated was also a sore point with play­ers.

He should never have been sacked.

Left: A sign slung over a Coffs Har­bour pedes­trian bridge, and the pool at the Novo­tel re­sort.

Thurston leaves the Syd­ney Po­lice Cen­tre af­ter the Bull­dogs team was ques­tioned by po­lice.Pic­ture: Nathan Ed­wards A young Thurstonplay­ing for the Bull­dogs two monthsaf­ter the events in Coffs Har­bour and justbe­fore po­lice an­nounced the sex­ual as­sault in­ves­ti­ga­tion was be­ing dropped.

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