The Big Read: Predator in our midst

By Jimmy Ellingham, Alecia Rousseau

Brendan Henson snatched a happy 5-year-old girl off the streets of Palmerston North as she skipped to school with her big sisters five months ago. Parents around the country felt her panicked mother's pain as she waited an excruciating two hours for news during a massive manhunt across the Manawatu. Today, Henson was jailed for the crime. Jimmy Ellingham and Alecia Rousseau detail his criminal past in Australia and speak to a town trying to move on.

A PREDATOR'S PAST

Brendan Henson criminal record in New Zealand is almost non-existent - he has only one conviction and that was for the minor offence of cultivating cannabis in 1987. He was fined.

But in Australia, he served about a year in a Western Australian prison in the 1991 for aggravated sexual assault and indecent dealing with a child under 14.

The girl was about the same age was the one he snatched in Palmerston North.

Since moving home, he's kept to himself, and the High Court at Palmerston North today heard he'd been involved with three women.

His last partner had a daughter who was aged four to eight when Henson and her mum were together.

After they split, Henson plunged into a dark, depressive place.

He lived in the tiny settlement of Cheltenham - about 30km north of Palmerston North - and worked as a floor sander.

His family is also based in Manawatu and although they didn't want to speak ahead of sentencing, it's understood Henson's history was relatively common knowledge in the area.

Canterbury University criminologist Greg Newbold said there were two possibilities for the gap between offences: he either kept offending and wasn't caught or re-lapsed after a traumatic event in his life.

Given Henson's battle with depression, the latter was more likely.

"You can't get away with things for 25 years normally. He probably led a stable life and something in his circumstances has changed and he's relapsed. That would be my guess," Newbold said.

Henson had never met the 5-year-old girl he would be accused of taking off a Palmerston North street. Nor had he met her family.

It is not known why he chose her or why he chose Palmerston North.

Brendan Paul Henson leaving the dock at the Palmerston North District Court after he pleaded guilty to abduction of a child in March. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Brendan Paul Henson leaving the dock at the Palmerston North District Court after he pleaded guilty to abduction of a child in March. Photo / Mark Mitchell

SNATCHED OFF SHAMROCK

On February 10, about 3pm, the girl and an older sister were playing in Takaro Park, Palmerston North, as Henson sat on a nearby park bench, watching them.

He called the 5-year-old over and touched her leg.

The older sister intervened and the two girls ran home.

CCTV footage caught Henson's 1990s model white sedan car driving down Shamrock St following the incident, the court summary says.

"The victim and her sister can be seen running towards their home and the defendant's vehicle following behind then, passing the camera about three minutes later."

Henson was again seen on the CCTV footage driving along the street about 8.20am on February 11.

The girl and her two slightly older sisters would often skip down the street, a wide and straight suburban thermos.

Residents would say hello to the girls and return an infectious smile.

Henson was back at the same time on February 12.

"He pulled up next to them and opened the front passenger door before getting out and walking around to the victim," the summary says.

"He picked her up and put her in the car while her sisters hit and kicked him and his vehicle in an attempt to save her."

Shamrock St resident Yvonne Moore was inside her house when she heard screams ring out from behind the manicured vegetation separating her from the street.

She raced outside in time to see the flash of Henson's white car drive away, leaving two distraught little girls.

Neighbours were already phoning police.

"The girls were crying and panicking so I took them home," Moore said.

"They were upset but they calmed down as we were walking along.

"They did all the right things - the screaming brought everyone out to help them."

The girl's mother told the NZ Herald her other two daughters ran back to her nearby house, along with Moore, yelling: "A man's taken her".

The mother, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was "absolutely hysterical" when she heard the news.

"I didn't want to talk to anyone except the police," she said on the day of the abduction.

Police launched a massive manhunt and released a photo and the name of the girl to all media outlets in the hope someone would spot her.

Initially police told her mother not to get her hopes up and she was consumed with worry as, unknown to her, Henson drove her daughter to popular camping site Vinegar Hill, about an hour north of Palmerston North. There Henson performed an indecent act on the girl.

A KIND HEART

About two hours later, as retired dairy farmer Bill Gilliland returned home from taking his wife to a hair appointment, he came across the distraught girl standing in the corner of Hind Place, crying.

It was about 6km away from where she was snatched.

"On the way back I saw her on the corner wandering around," the 91-year-old said.

"I could see she was in trouble and it all started from there.

"I thought she was just lost.

"I had just turned into Hind Place and I could see she was really upset and didn't know a thing where she was and I sort of took over from there."

He drove the girl around to see if she recognised her house, but she was nowhere near her home.

"She couldn't tell me where she came from. I said, 'We'll go around Waterloo Cres and you can pick out a place if you know'. We did that but we couldn't do any more."

Unaware of the manhunt, Gilliland went to his neighbour's house with the girl and called police.

In court today, Henson's lawyer said his client had a moment of realisation at Vinegar Hill when the wrongfulness of what he was doing hit him.

So he dropped the girl off in an area of town where he thought someone responsible could help her.

A medical examination of the girl found traces of Henson's DNA, unravelling his identity. He had taken her to a "secluded location" in the countryside and indecently assaulted her.

At the time the girl's mother said she'd heard Henson had been hanging around Takaro Park a lot.

Her daughters would no longer be walking to school, she decided.

"I was so relieved when we found her.

"You hear a lot of stories where kids don't come back."

THE HUNT WAS ON

For six days, Henson was on the run and Palmerston North parents watched their children closely.

Clues weren't hard to find. Police had a description and the CCTV footage, collected by the Carlin family who lived near where the girl was snatched, provided grainy yet crucial images of Henson's car.

Sandy Carlin said she was happy the cameras helped out, something she says police acknowledged.

"They did admit later on if it wasn't for the footage, they wouldn't have been able to get him."

Revealed in the Herald and later issued by police, images of the vehicle led to people coming forward, she said.

With such a whirlwind of publicity, Henson would likely have laid low and shaken in his boots, Newbold said.

"It's really difficult to say what the guy will be doing now. It's so odd and unusual and we don't know why on earth he would do something so dumb," Newbold said while police hunted Henson, who he thought would be scared, given the public attention on the case.

"It's puzzling. I wonder if he knew what he was doing. I wonder if he had any idea or any plans. Those kinds of crimes often end up in the death of a child."

Six days after the abduction Henson was arrested in the Waikato town of Putaruru, hundreds of kilometres away from Palmerston North.

But he wasn't hiding out away from the glare of home-town publicity: Henson was up north for work.

He has since pleaded guilty to two charges of indecently assaulting a girl under 12 and one of abducting a girl for the purposes of having a sexual connection.

Henson was to be sentenced in May, but district court Judge Gerard Lynch ruled him a candidate for preventive detention and ordered the matter head to the High Court.

Justice David Collins ruled he couldn't impose an open-ended jail sentence, a rare punishment given to only 40 to 50 people a years, or about 0.4 per cent of those sentences.

The judge instead sent Henson to prison for eight years, with a minimum term of five.

Family and friends of the girl had mixed views about the sentence.

"That's weak," one shouted. "Good job," said another woman. "I'm glad it's all over," said the girl's mum.

Detective Dave Wishnowski, the officer in charge of the case, was more philosophical: "He's off the streets now."

"It's the start of recovery for them," he said of the girl's family, "and I'm pleased they don't have to go through the trauma of a trial."

AN ISOLATED FUTURE

Henson's past won't help him in prison, where he'll likely head to isolation.

"There's so many sex offenders in prison," Newbold said.

"They all need to be isolated. They have so many people in isolation now I think it's a quarter of the prison population.

"They have so many people now in isolation and in protection of various kinds, they have to have protection within protection."

Sex offenders were at risk from other prisoners, who wanted to put themselves above them in the prison pecking order.

They tended to be older, isolated men with no allies inside as they weren't part of the criminal networks, Prof Newbold said.

"They tend to be fairly pathetic sorts of people and they are easy marks for anyone who wants to make a name for themselves is going and show he's big and tough."

A TOWN MOVES ON

Only afterwards did what happened begin to hit Bill Gilliland, although he said he'd since settled down.

"For the first three weeks I couldn't sleep.

"Every time I woke up it was on my mind. I'm not used to that sort of thing. I haven't been mixed up with the police."

But the anxiety left him.

"I got up one morning and I said to my wife - it's gone."

Gilliland was pleased he didn't have to give evidence.

The day after the abduction, children still played at Takaro Park, but they did so under the watchful gaze of adults.

Antonio Urlich, 2-1/2, was under close supervision from mum Dana Healey.

"I'm not letting my little boy out of my sight," she said as Antonio nimbly zipped around a jungle gym.

"Especially if there's a predator out there. It's got quite game to take a child with two other children present, so how long before it escalates?"

The incident brought back memories of when a man tried to snatch or harm Miss Healy's 15-year-old daughter four years ago as she walked home from McDonald's on Featherston St.

Her daughter screamed and the man ran off after pushing her over a concrete wall.

He was never caught.

"She never went out much after that."

Speaking before Henson's original sentencing date in May, Yvonne Moore hadn't seen the girl or her family since the abduction.

In the immediate aftermath, she saw fewer children walking to school and a noticeable police presence.

Quiet suburbia was rattled.

- NZ Herald

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