A homecoming for high-risk crim

A man jailed for the sadistic sexual abuse of his daughter is about to return to live in the family home in Te Atatu. Steve Braunias reports.
Ron Van Der Plaat turned 82 on Christmas Eve. He's due for release from prison on Wednesday. Photo / Supplied
Ron Van Der Plaat turned 82 on Christmas Eve. He's due for release from prison on Wednesday. Photo / Supplied

You know you've found the place you're looking for when the householder slams the door in your face. This was on Wednesday, at a home on the Te Atatu peninsula, when a rather ferocious-looking matron with her hair in a bun said one word to the visitor on her doorstep - "Goodbye" - before closing the door, locking it and drawing the curtains.

Another set of curtains were open in the lounge, allowing a view of an uncommon sight in Te Atatu - a bookcase. In fact the homeowner, who returns to his house next week after a long absence, is a published author. His 1984 book This is Vanuatu: People, customs and art is a kind of souvenir of his 20 years on the Pacific island, where he curated a museum, was a founding member of the Kiwanis, and was introduced to the Queen and Prince Philip.

He raised his daughter Tanjas on Vanuatu after his marriage broke up. "I was father and mother to a little girl," he once wrote from prison, with delicate, even quite beautiful penmanship, "who I cared about a great deal and totally spoiled".

Ron Van Der Plaat turned 82 on Christmas Eve. He's due for release from prison on Wednesday. He was found guilty in 2000 of appalling sex crimes - rape, unlawful connection - against his daughter. She said the abuse started when she was 9 years old. It continued for over 20 years. After they moved to Auckland in 1982, his sadism escalated, becoming manic and routine; there was bondage, role play (she was a prostitute, he was the client who paid her money but took it back afterwards), and that old favourite, urophilia, the joy of being urinated on.

Tanjas waived her automatic name suppression and went on to write an autobiography, Flight of the Dancing Bird.

There was more and worse but Justice Tony Randerson covered it off quite nicely in his sentencing remarks, when he said, "It was not ordinary sexual abuse but was bizarre in the extreme and can only be described as depraved."

Van Der Plaat has always maintained his innocence. (So has his first wife, and Tanjas' mother, Charlotte Stravers, who paid for his legal defence, and is listed in a property search as having a third-party caveat on the house in Te Atatu. The woman at the address on Wednesday matches her description.) Prison letter: "All allegations against me are a conspiracy for revenge and to obtain my possessions and money."

Tanjas Darke. Photo / Supplied
Tanjas Darke. Photo / Supplied

Police found hundreds of photographs he'd taken of his daughter nude and deshabille from the age of 9 until about 30. "It had become a habit," he said with bland indifference. The hobbies of sex: when a journalist visited the Te Atatu house not long after he was sentenced, Van Der Plaat's Chinese wife cheerfully pointed out the hooks above the door frame, used to secure pulleys and harnesses for the happy couple to act out sex games. "It's very normal."

A parole board hearing in February noted that a woman "will move in with Mr Van Der Plaat to ensure that he has sufficient care for as long as is required." The report refers to his "declining health" and "increasing physical fragility". But the board refused to give Van Der Plaat early release on parole. The Community Probation Service said he "remains an undue risk to community safety."

In essence, the entire report describes Van Der Plaat as a hopeless case. It records that his most recent psychological assessment, in 2014, concluded that the risk of his reoffending was "medium high". It continues, "Part of the reason for that is that Mr Van Der Plaat scores above average on the psychopathy checklist ... [His] lack of remorse, deceitfulness etc contributes to his elevated score. These factors are considered stable and pervasive personality characteristics which are resistant to change and likely to become more fixed over time.

"It is the view of the psychologist that Mr Van Der Plaat's progressive ageing, possible cognitive decline, consistent denial of sexual deviancy and lack of insight regarding his risk, combined with collusive social supports, hinders relapse prevention planning." In English: hopeless.

Motorway signs to Te Atatu Peninsula. Photo / Michael Craig
Motorway signs to Te Atatu Peninsula. Photo / Michael Craig

But Van Der Plaat has served his time, and his release is statutory. He's just an old Dutch jailbird. He returns to a quiet street and the comforts of home. There's a lemon tree out back, and a spectacular avocado tree. "We had more avocados than we knew what to do with," said a local woman who rented the house after Van Der Plaat was jailed. She met her husband there, they now have three children.

There are large posts freshly dug into the front lawn. It appears that a very high fence is about to be built. Neighbours also report new lace curtains, a lick of fresh paint here and there, and the guttering was recently cleared and cleaned. Welcome home.

The house of ill-repute is nothing to look at, and is in a tidy little cul-de-sac close to the water's edge. There are only 21 houses. One of the homeowners, a parent of three daughters, Rachel Felton, head of the board of trustees at nearby Peninsula Primary School, recently hosted a neighbourhood meeting where a Corrections officer discussed the terms of Van Der Plaat's release.

Felton wouldn't comment, but Corrections confirmed the meeting took place. "Other residents were visited at their homes. Community notification processes are undertaken to help manage and mitigate potential risk to the safety of the community."

"It was in case any of us parents had any questions," said Petra Rangi, 25. There was a basketball hoop in the front yard; she has a 5-year-old son. "It's a bit scary, him coming back. But as long as he sticks to himself. I'm not going to harass him. I don't reckon anyone would want to go near him. We'll all be staying clear."

"I really can't say anything," said a woman who didn't wish to be named. She had her hands full with a bunch of lively preschoolers. "Go get your helmet on if you want to ride your bike," she said to a little boy. She operates a daycare centre on the street.

Early morning general views of Te Atatu Peninsula. Photo / Michael Craig
Early morning general views of Te Atatu Peninsula. Photo / Michael Craig

Tuakeu Grover, 19, was sitting around at home with his shirt off, and answered questions while leaning out of his window. "My mate told me about him," he said. "He said, 'It's pretty bad, bro.' I said, 'I bet I've seen worse.' I've lived in Avondale and Ranui. What sort of things? Just, you know, people being killed. But this guyMy mate said he tied her up like they do in America.

"I mean, WTF. That's sick. I better not see him with any little kid."

A woman came to the door of another house with her hair in a towel. She didn't wish to be named. She's a long-time resident, and remembers Van Der Plaat and Tanjas before the police made their arrest. "They never talked to anyone," she said. "He always dressed quite smart, although sometimes he went to the letterbox just wearing a little pair of underwear. I saw her sometimes weeding the garden, when she'd wear a nightie. She had beautiful long hair.

"I can't believe he was living there so many years and doing so many crimes and no one knew. That poor girl." The woman began to cry. "What he did to her... it's... you know...it's just... He never should get out of the prison for what he did."

She said the neighbour who held the meeting with a Corrections officer hosted a similar meeting when Van Der Plaat was first released, in 2010. Locals were outraged, but there was nothing they could do. The woman said, "I saw him at Countdown. He looked very good; he was a lot older, but he hadn't changed much."

There are no references to Te Atatu or the plain house (613sq m, CV $665,000) where they lived. Photo / Michael Craig
There are no references to Te Atatu or the plain house (613sq m, CV $665,000) where they lived. Photo / Michael Craig

But he was sent back to prison in 2012 for parole violations. A neighbour (had they followed him?) saw Van Der Plaat holding a 4-year-old girl's hand at Auckland Museum. He'd become friends with the girl's mother. It doesn't sound much; but as the parole board noted, there was also the issue of Van Der Plaat "making an intimate visual recording".

Tanjas wrote a book about her ordeal. There are a few scattered references to Auckland life " visiting someone in an office in Windsor House on Fort Lane, working for a while at Royal Road School in Massey, and wanting nothing more than to die alone in the bush out west. "I'd ring a taxi," she wrote of her daydreams, "and go out to Huia. I'd walk into the bush and find a place where I'd never be found. I didn't want my father taking photos of my dead body."

There are no references to Te Atatu or the plain house (613sq m, CV $665,000) where they lived. It's not incredible to look at, except with the knowledge that Van Der Plaat is returning to the house where the crimes were committed. Otherwise the single striking thing about it is in the back yard, where there's a giant wooden carving of a Pacific bird god - Van Der Plaat collected Polynesian artefacts, and was a well-known buyer at Webb's auction house.

Van Der Plaat's daughter left New Zealand a long time ago. Returning for the trial was traumatic; her marriage has since ended. A friend said, "I don't know where she is right now. She moves around a lot."

Asked to describe Tanjas, she said, "Intelligent. Damaged - there's a surprise. Fun. A very unusual woman. She's extraordinarilyshe's so admirable. She triumphed."

"If you meet him," Tanjas said about her father in an interview in 2000, "he's the nicest man imaginable. He's the perfect gentleman."

She also said, "He will hunt me until the end of his days."

- NZ Herald

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