New Zealander of the Year: Louise Nicholas

By Carroll du Chateau

Today, we select 40 outstanding New Zealand achievers. And our overall winner is an ordinary woman, whose extraordinary story challenges and inspires still. Meet our New Zealander of the Year ...

If ever there was a Kiwi battler, it is surely Louise Nicholas.

She grew up in a tough town and faced the toughest of times. She has been reviled, but has shown a rare resilience, turning a life that could have been a shattered ruin into a beacon of hope.

As the Herald considered candidates for New Zealander of the Year, her contribution stood out. It was distinguished by the willingness to suffer deeply personal exposure for the sake of exposing an ugly element in one of our most important public institutions. And it forced all of us to question what indeed is justice.

***

Despite the enthusiastic welcome, Louise Nicholas is tense. She sits in the small sunroom of her Rotorua home, fingers twisting in her lap, face tightening between smiles. I didn't notice her quietly lock the outside door.

Plainly her fight is not over. Earlier this morning, former Assistant Police Commissioner Clint Rickards gave an interview on Radio Waatea. And after all of it - the publication of her best-selling book, the work of Operation Austin to investigate the dozens of other rape allegations in the Bay of Plenty during the 1980s, the thousands of letters and cards in support of her position, all culminating in Rickards' resignation from the police force - he still publicly insulted her.

"Louise Nicholas is a liar," he said. "She needs help."

Certainly not psychological help. She smiles often, speaks openly about her private life, the years of abuse, her marriage and the successful book tour she finished last week. She could use a little extra childcare for six-month-old son, Luke, but no counselling. Indeed, she about to go to Tauranga to support another rape complainant whose case didn't make it to court.

Nicholas and her husband, Ross, are convinced that Rickards' resignation came only after he saw the evidence the inquiry had amassed against him.

"By doing what he has done, it very much confirmed, to me his guilt," she says. "I do honestly believe that he knew he was going to go down."

She was also disappointed that the police paid him out - and hurt by Rickards' personal insinuations. First, that she bought this house with profits from selling her story to women's magazines: "If only! We moved here before the trial. We got $2000 from Woman's Day and I tried to give that back."

Second, that she brought the charges because she didn't want to see a Maori Police Commissioner.

"That disgusted me," she says. "I was brought up in a small town that was predominantly Maori. I have the utmost respect for Maoridom."

For Nicholas the struggle goes back to when she was a pony-mad kid working in the Murupara dairy after school.

When the local policeman called her into the police station she was not alarmed.

He was a good friend of her Dad's. Which meant that when he pulled down her jeans and raped her, 13-year-old Nicholas felt she had no-one to turn to.

Twenty years later, after being approached by investigative journalist Phil Kitchin, she went public with her allegations of sexual abuse by police that flowed from that first incident until 1987.

Over the decade, Nicholas stood in the witness box seven times, enduring 10 days of cross-examination that probed the most painful details of her life including an allegation of pack rape and use of a baton by three policemen, one of them Rickards.

And although she lost all but one of those cases, and despite the accusations thrown at her by Rickards and others, Nicholas has won in the most important court of all - the court of public opinion. The piles of supportive cards and letters bulge into thousands.

Many of the writers have had brushes with the same police culture that ruined Nicholas' young life. Some claim rape or sexual abuse themselves, others write of the fear of being approached, others talk about just watching it happen and not knowing what to do, still others simply believe her story and want to help, to thank her. Many come from Maori, "We know 'cos they say things like 'Kia Kaha."' Only two - one from Tauranga and one from the Far North - were negative.

Then there are the offers of holiday homes and baches so the family can take a break ("If only we had the time"), the presents, the teddy bears and toys for Luke and the couple's three well-mannered, sweet-faced girls, Jess, 18 and now milking cows as her mother did before her, Kerriann (16) and McKaela (12).

Ross, who has just arrived home from the chiropractor, brings out a wooden six-wheeler tip truck that arrived for Luke a few days ago. Handmade, painted green and white, signed "No 2 for Luke". "It's amazing the people out there, the support and generosity of it all."

Ross Nicholas met Louise when she was 18 and a telephonist at a Rotorua bank. It was during the brief lull after the Murupara molesting stopped and before the Rotorua policemen found her. She had never had a steady boyfriend, and she liked what she saw.

"My auntie worked there and I think they tried to set me up," grins Ross. He is a decent, hard-working New Zealander, and you can see immediately why Louise begged him to marry her. Today they run a relaxed but well-ordered home. He calls her "Missus" as a term of endearment, "gives her a tune-up" if she gets down.

They both came from families that did not have connections. There were no lawyers or doctors in their circle. The most important people - and the ones they deferred to in times of crisis- were the police. Ross's parents were sharemilkers who shifted every year, meaning their son, who was dyslexic, changed schools every year too. Now 43, he still has trouble reading. "But he's very, very clever," says his wife. "And I'm good at maths," adds Ross. He sits there with his can of Coke and his neat greying mullet, playing with his son, adding details to a story that is becoming legend.

Back then, he says, "Louise was a cheerful little thing. And she was modest, held out on me for weeks." Then she changed. "She was sick all the time, wanted to come with me in the truck on weekends, both days!" Uniformed policemen - guys he knew - banged on the door of her flat. Their sex life dwindled. "Later it all fell into place."

"Why didn't you tell me what was going on?" asks Ross, hazel eyes gazing at her over the last of their chicken dinner. Then, answering his own question, " It was because you were so scared they'd hurt me, beat me up, I'd be a marked man. If I did something silly I wouldn't be here today."

When Ross did find out, after Louise confided in his father who had decided to "give her a tune-up" and find out what was wrong, he was horrified. The men who had been molesting her were his mates. "I couldn't look them in the eye any more. I don't know how her Dad did it."

As Ross points out, it was also fear that drove Nicholas to go public: "She had to go out and face the music, face the media, write the book, because she had to protect us," he says. "Now it's all out in the open, if anything happened questions would be asked."

And, he says, she is telling the truth: "She has never changed her story. Never. She wouldn't put us all through this for nothing."

Journalist Philip Kitchin met Nicholas in November 2003 after he recovered police records that proved her original rape complaints had been mishandled and buried by the police. Two trials had been aborted because the police witness, John Dewar, had introduced inadmissible evidence.

Kitchin wanted to set the record straight. He suggested that Nicholas begin writing down her experiences, "almost like keeping a diary". Within a few years that diary, interlaced with Kitchin's own compelling account of investigating one of the country's biggest police cover-ups, culminated in the formation of Operation Austin, the trial of Dewar for perverting the course of justice, the publication of My Story, and national fame for Louise.

Because of the name suppressions and inadmissible evidence, the book is crucial to understanding Nicholas' story. She may be untrained but her descriptions of, for example, the "baton incident" and telling her girls that she had been raped and abused, are triumphs. The book took her more than a year to write, working at home.

"In the end I put in all the real names and left it to the editors at Random House to black out the ones we couldn't use. Phil wrote the fact stuff. I wrote the story."

Louise and Ross moved to their comfortable home with its flat TV, black cat and bichon frise puppy , tidy garden and even tidier house, before last year's highly-publicised Shipton/Schollum/Rickards trial.

Although they loved the country, they were scared to leave their girls at home alone. There had been strange phone calls, "some from nutters", the odd nasty letter.

Although the police offered a protection programme they preferred to move to Rotorua. Ross works weeks now, driving diggers and bulldozers, putting in roads for logging gangs - and leaving weekends free for trailbiking, often with Kerriann and McKaela. They have an unlisted phone number, both sets of parents are five minutes away, but still Louise keeps a close eye on her daughters, locks the door during the day.

Although Louise and Ross Nicholas are now determined to move on, it is almost impossible to do so. Their address may be confidential, but the letters and requests for help keep coming. How do people get her address? They don't. "They write to her at 'Louise Nicholas, Rotorua'; 'Louise Nicholas, New Zealand', just plain 'Louise' and the letters and cards arrive," says Ross.

Some writers, including the woman Nicholas supported in Tauranga last week, need her help - and she wants to give it. She knows how it feels to be branded a liar.

On the personal front, Luke is teething. Her mother, Barbara, is ill with cancer that has already invaded her gall bladder and liver. Nicholas is still trying to come to terms with the suicide of her younger brother, Kevin, this year.

And still she retains her essential balance, remembers others. Nick Perry, the head of Operation Austin, recalls how, "the morning after the jury came back with the not guilty verdict for the Shipton/Schollum/Rickards trial, she rang to ask if I was all right and to say that she knew we had done our very best for her".

Has the process Louise Nicholas started all those years ago been worthwhile? Has her sacrifice made New Zealand a safer place for the next generation of young women? Will her ordeal , which highlighted how badly rape victims are treated , change the way they are treated ?

Maybe. Phil Kitchin points out that for Louise Nicholas's great fight to have real impact we need political follow-through. Our laws of libel, name suppression and inadmissible evidence need a shake-up.

For Louise, it will take time to leave the door unlocked in the daytime and stop checking on her girls every couple of hours. There are still enemies, hate mail still trickles in. At a book signing a few weeks ago, a student stood up and called her a liar. He turned out to be the son of John Dewar, the cop who betrayed her most of all.

That's what they all call her, "Liar". Because in this dirty, secretive game, it is necessarily one person's word against the other. Once nobody would have believed a small, determined woman against a pack of decorated policemen.

Until now.

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