David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

The Big Read: Inside story of Kaitaia backpacker lodge predator Michael Harris

Michael Harris practised his predatory abuse on the road - and then bought a backpackers' lodge so the road would bring victims to him.

The extraordinary story of the serial predator can now be told as the court process towards its conclusion.

Aged 58, Harris sobbed in the dock as he apologised to the one victim who travelled back to New Zealand to confront the man who had drugged and indecently assaulted him.

Harris sat in the dock, pale and portly with a rough goatee, as the victim spoke of betrayal. The man had come to New Zealand as a backpacker and left as a victim of abuse. Harris raised his arm and attempted to rise to his feet, blocked by the security guard at his side.

I just want to say how sorry I am for any hurt I have caused you.
Michael Harris

Then, having sought and been granted the court and his victim's permission to speak, he barely choked out through tears: "I just want to say how sorry I am for any hurt I have caused you."

But it wasn't just one person. In fact, Detective Senior Sergeant Rhys Johnston said police were not entirely sure how many backpackers Harris took advantage of.

Harris was to have been sentenced in the High Court at Whangarei on a range of charges relating to drugging, indecently assaulting and taking photographs of his victims. Most of the 42 charges to which he pleaded guilty related to 14 men who stayed at his Kaitaia hostel between 2011 and 2014.

Michael Harris is led to the Kaitaia police station by detectives and police in September 2014. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Michael Harris is led to the Kaitaia police station by detectives and police in September 2014. Photo / Peter de Graaf

The court was forced to postpone sentencing to hear legal arguments over a police application to seize the Kaitaia backpacker hostel for which Harris paid $1.2 million. Not only was the hostel the place where Harris carried out his indecencies, it was the drawcard which supplied his victims.

The summary of facts, released to the Herald by the High Court, shows Harris was methodical - practised - in perpetrating the same technique and the same abuse on victim after victim.

Generally, he would wrap his arms around his victims as they lay unable to move because of the sedative he had administered.
From the High Court summary of facts

Harris would drug his victims with a prescription sleeping medication, get into bed with them when they were unconscious and take photographs of them - usually in states of undress and sometimes specifically of genitals.

Generally, he would wrap his arms around his victims as they lay unable to move because of the sedative he had administered.

Harris had moved to New Zealand from the United Kingdom, living in West Auckland's leafy Titirangi and working for a carpet company. He had passed through Australia on the way here, and the job he secured in New Zealand was owned by family members of the people he had worked for there.

His role with the company was to travel throughout the country. For an itinerant immigrant, the company he worked for was more than just a job.

As the police summary of facts describes, Harris "became a family friend". It was a younger member of the family who would become Harris' first identified victim.

On two occasions - 2005 and 2007 - the boy (15 at the earliest time) travelled with Harris to help moving carpets around New Zealand.

One night, the boy awoke to find Harris "spooning" him from behind. When asked what he was doing, Harris replied: "I was cold. You were like a hot water bottle."

Harris went back to his own bed and later told the boy to tell no one what had happened. The boy, dismissing the behaviour as an oddity, maintained contact.

By 2010, Harris was developing new methods to execute his intent. He would occasionally stay the night in the apartment of the boy he had once travelled the road with - the boy now a university student.

Harris had secured a prescription sedative from doctors after complaining of insomnia, and used this on occasions when visiting the student and staying the night.

Before bed, he would prepare orange juice or chocolate milk and offer it to the young man. The police case was that the drink contained the sedative which left the student unable to stay awake.

Michael Harris liked Kaitaia so much he bought the backpacker lodge at which he had stayed when working as a travelling salesman. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Michael Harris liked Kaitaia so much he bought the backpacker lodge at which he had stayed when working as a travelling salesman. Photo / Peter de Graaf

The drug can also have amnesiac effects, so when the young man questioned why he was wearing boxers instead of his usual pyjamas, Harris was able to develop a fiction which masked anything else which had taken place.

This was the pattern for at least 23 other young men - and police suspect many more.
And the reason police can be so sure? Photographs don't forget.

The images of the backpackers were taken between 2011 and 2014. Harris had stayed at the lodge during his carpet days and had - according to a friend - wanted to buy a backpacker-style hostel.

When police searched Harris' home and lodge, they found a number of memory cards containing hundreds of images. From those, they were able to identify 24 people - including photographs of the student he knew from his carpet days - and also many other deleted images suggesting a far greater number of victims.

The defendant would select young males that he was attracted to and offer them free accommodation and food in exchange for taking on a cleaning and caretaking role on the premises.
The police summary of the case against Harris

Through a public appeal, working through the guest book and interviews with staff police were able to identify 22 of the young men. In interviews with those victims, the stories are remarkably similar.

There was a drink - either during a social situation or just before bed. Orange juice was a common offering, apparently because the sedative produces an orange tinge when dissolved into liquid.

"The defendant would select young males that he was attracted to and offer them free accommodation and food in exchange for taking on a cleaning and caretaking role on the premises," said the police summary of the case against Harris.

"This would involve the intended victims being offered a room within the upstairs where the defendant lived.

"They would lose concentration, ability to perform simple movements and occasionally would suffer from amnesia."

Often around midnight, Harris would visit the room in which his victims slept. He would get into bed with them, spoon them, undress them and pose them for photographs.

"Some of the victims recall the defendant being in bed with them but being unable to resist or get away because of the effect of the drug."

Other recall him wrapping his arms around them from behind, saying: "I love you so much", "you're so warm", or "I love you to bits matey".

One victim - a US backpacker - told the Herald how he woke during the night, befuddled by the spiked drink to find Harris in his bed.

The victim told the Herald the indecent assault had happened three weeks before he was due to end a six-month backpacking trip to New Zealand.

He had stayed at the lodge earlier in his trip and had called Harris to see if there was any work.

"He said if I could get to Kaitaia then he would find me work."

It turned out to be renovation work on the lodge - initially on Harris' private residence and then on one of the shared accommodation buildings.

"He kind of took me under his wing," said the man of Harris. "He would find work for me, a free place to stay, if I needed to go to the store he would offer to drive me."

By then, the man had moved into a spare room in Harris' home while continuing renovation work on the shared accommodation with another traveller.

'I woke up and he was in my bed and he had his arms around me. I was pretty hazy. I woke up and just didn't know what was going on.
One victim, a US backpacker

The evening of the assault, Harris had asked what spirits he liked to drink. "We were sitting around watching TV. Most of the time I would drink beer in the evenings. He had gone and bought liquor for us. He asked what we liked to drink."

The victim opted for tequila and, having had one drink, found himself experiencing an unusual effect.

"I felt like I was going to pass out. I was so tired. I remember going upstairs and that's the last I really remember.

"I woke up and he was in my bed and he had his arms around me. I was pretty hazy. I woke up and just didn't know what was going on.

"He told me I was sick and he was taking care of me."

Things were just weird then after. I just didn't know what had happened. I was confused.
The US backpacker

Harris got out of bed and immediately left the room. The next morning, Harris asked the man "if I was feeling better".

"Things were just weird then after. I just didn't know what had happened. I was confused."

He left the lodge a few days later, having shelved plans to stay in Kaitaia until his flight to the US a few weeks later.

Back in the US, he was troubled by the way his trip had ended. "I knew something had happened I just couldn't name it. You don't really know if you don't remember. It's sometimes worse not knowing."

Then when a complaint was made about Harris, police - believing there were other victims - called for others to come forward.

Those he had travelled with had forward on Facebook media articles written about the police call for victims. "I instantly knew. It kind of made everything clear."

The man emailed police, provided a statement by email and was interviewed over Skype.

By then, he realised there were a number of victims. "It was pretty shocking. It's scary how easy it was for him to drug me. The fact he did it over and over to many people shows he had a plan."

- NZ Herald

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