The victims of serial sex abuser Bryan Gray have been waiting to see justice for almost 30 years. Andrew Laxon traces their story

Childhood ended abruptly for Maria Krechko and Melissa Koti at a large turn-of-the-century villa in a quiet North Shore suburb.

Now privately owned and valued at $860,000, the Northcote house looks peaceful today, with its wide front verandah, mature trees and full section.

But back in the early 1980s it was a busy Department of Social Welfare "family home" housing 10 or more children at a time.

Koti describes it as a transit station for hundreds of older children and young teenagers in welfare care, who were getting too old for real foster homes.

She remembers arriving there at the age of 9, after a series of placements with good families, and realising her luck had run out.

"The kids there knew they weren't going to be adopted. Very rarely did they think they were going home. I knew when I arrived that it was going to be one of those homes."

The foster father in charge was Bryan Gray, a British ex-Army man in his mid-30s, described by one of the girls as "short, stocky and tubby with beady eyes". He and his wife Dianne had three children of their own.

Koti says the abuse started subtly but quickly got worse. At first Gray would press up against her when she got out of the shower. Then he began to get into bed with her when she was sick - supposedly to look after her.

Over about a year and a half, the abuse escalated from touching to oral sex and three cases of rape.

Koti did not directly tell anyone about this at the time. But when she spent weekends away with another family, she mentioned some of Gray's suspicious behaviour to the woman who later became her foster mother, Jill Worrall.

Worrall, a trained social worker, suspected Gray was molesting Koti. First she told Koti's social worker, June Orr, who confronted Gray with the allegations. He angrily denied them.

Worrall then took her complaints to acting assistant director Joan Hoffman, who noted in a report to her superiors in March 1982 that Orr had arranged a doctor's visit for Koti - but unfortunately did not insist on a physical examination, which could have determined abuse.

Hoffman concluded; "It is highly likely that, at some stage in the past, Melissa has been sexually abused and she now is pathologically afraid of any emotional closeness to men.

"Although there is nothing specific to go on here, these 'straws in the wind' could indicate some areas of personal difficulty that Mr Gray experiences in coping with Melissa."

Another social worker followed up by interviewing Gray and his wife. She reported; "I am convinced that Mr Gray had no underlying intent in his actions."

Koti, now 38, says she was never abused before meeting Gray. She recalls telling four social workers about the abuse at various times but thinks some were reluctant to speak out because Gray was so intimidating when challenged.

Worrall, who later headed the national foster parents federation, says she blames the department, not the individual social workers.

"The signals were there. They were noted but nothing happened because of the way it was handled.

"In today's world, it would never be treated like that. He would be taken out of the home and there would be a formal investigation of all the young people who were there."

At about the same time, 10-year-old Krechko was indecently touched by Gray at least three times as she shared a room with another girl who continued sleeping.

She did not complain - "I was 10 ... I didn't know any different" - but says she was abused again at the next foster home she went to by a man she regarded as an authority figure. (Police later followed up this allegation but let the matter drop when the man had a major stroke and was considered unlikely to be well enough to face a prosecution.)

Another girl, Sarah (not her real name), told police that Gray also indecently touched her under her nightgown when she was about 15.

One day when they were alone in the house in the afternoon, he gave her a pill that made her feel drowsy and locked up the house so no one could get in. She remembered him sexually assaulting her and attempting to rape her - but having to stop when two other girls came home and banged loudly on the doors and windows.

Gray's wife Dianne later told police that she was interviewed about a complaint from Sarah, which could not be found on the department's files.

The Grays ran the Northcote home from 1980 to 1987. They ran a similar home in Christchurch for a year but left suddenly in 1988, amid complaints about untidiness but no mention of abuse. They were turned down when they applied to run another home in Auckland two years later.

It took another 16 years for Krechko to come forward to police, after promising her dying husband to sort out the trauma which had badly affected their marriage. She told her story to Detective Sergeant Adam Lough, who trawled through social welfare records to interview other girls at the home.

He found Sarah, then Koti, who confirmed the assaults on the other two girls but did not admit at this stage what had happened to her.

Lough interviewed Gray, whose life was already falling apart. His wife had left him and he had moved to his son's bach at Otatou Bay near Rotorua "to die" after an angioplasty operation, which left him an invalid on a benefit.

In a video interview, he vigorously denied all the allegations, saying; "I never touched any of my girls." He claimed several young girls at the home had propositioned him, including a 12-year-old. "I backed off at 600 miles an hour."

The case went to trial in June 2007 at the Auckland District Court, based on Krechko and Sarah's allegations. After five hours the jury could not reach a verdict and a retrial was ordered.

Krechko found the result devastating. "You feel not believed. You feel 'what's the point in saying anything?"'

After the first trial Koti - buoyed by a year of counselling - made a formal complaint about her ordeal. But about two weeks before the retrial started in October 2008, Krechko suffered a miscarriage and had to pull out.

The case went ahead with just Sarah and Koti, who found giving evidence even harder than she had expected. "As soon as I opened my mouth I felt I couldn't engage the jury."

Her fears were confirmed when the jury returned after about seven hours with not guilty verdicts.

Normally the case would have ended there. But Krechko's allegations were still unresolved and a recent law change allowed the prosecution to call Sarah and Koti as "propensity witnesses" in support of her case.

Usually the courts frown on any evidence which brings up past convictions, or in this case, allegations which were rejected by a previous jury. But the 2006 Evidence Act widened the definition of what used to be called "similar fact" evidence, if the Crown could show that its relevance outweighed any prejudice to the defence.

The main obstacle was persuading Krechko - still suffering from depression, the death of her first husband and the knockback of the first trial - not to walk away from the whole ordeal.

"I nearly did," she admits. "I came so close to not going." Eventually she decided to try again, for the sake of her late husband, Sarah and Koti and her own family.

"I wanted to show my children too that you don't just sit back and take it. I wanted to show them my strength."

Then in August last year, two weeks out from the trial, Gray failed to show up for a routine court appearance. It turned out he had fled the country in April but continued to answer legal letters about the trial, which had apparently been forwarded to him in Britain.

Gray's lawyer Roger Chambers said the first he knew of Gray's disappearance was through a phone call earlier that month, when he commented on the terrible weather.

Gray replied that he was basking in brilliant sunshine - in England. Chambers has not heard from his client since.

"I have not heard a dicky bird. I don't know where he is and I don't even know if he's alive."

Lough said there was no border alert for Gray because his bail conditions had been gradually scaled back over the three trials to the point where he was allowed overseas travel. Police and the court were also aware that he had turned up for the two previous trials, so there was nothing to suggest he would skip the country this time.

Gray's disappearance prompted a legal debate over whether the trial could still go ahead without him. After hearing arguments from both sides, Judge Christopher Field ruled that it could. As a compromise, he ordered that the police video containing his denials should be played to the jury.

Prosecutor Anna Longdill told jurors that they were the first to hear from all three women. She emphasised that Sarah and Koti had come back to give evidence again, even though their case had been dismissed.

This time the jury took only two hours to find Gray guilty.

But for the three women, the struggle continues. Nine months after the verdict, police have still not decided whether to extradite Gray from Britain to face justice.

Following Weekend Herald inquiries this week, Waitemata district crime manager Detective Inspector Bruce Scott said he was sending Gray's file to the police's national criminal investigations manager in Wellington next week.

Asked why it had taken so long, he replied; "We've got to get all our ducks in a row, obviously. There's lots of paperwork that's got to be prepared to a standard for a foreign police jurisdiction or government, so there's a lot of work involved."

The long delay angers Krechko and Koti, who waived their right to name suppression in order to speak out publicly about Gray's crimes and what they see as a series of failures in our care and protection of young people and the criminal justice system.

"I'd be very disheartened if he wasn't brought to justice," says Krechko. "I've been through a husband with a terminal illness and I've seen my husband die and I wouldn't wish ill on anybody - but I think if you commit a crime you should be punished for that crime."

Koti is convinced there will be other victims, based on the hundreds of vulnerable young girls who stayed at the home while Gray was in charge.

"I know, just thinking about the numbers, that there's many more out there. So many more."

THE THREE TRIALS

Bryan Gray faced the courts three times over the child sex charges against him. This is how the case unfolded.

1. First trial, June 2007
Complainants: Maria Krechko, Sarah*

(Melissa Koti appeared as a witness but had not yet disclosed to police the abuse against her)

VERDICT: Hung jury

2. Second trial, October 2008
Complainants: Melissa Koti, Sarah

(Maria Krechko had a miscarriage and had to pull out at the last moment)

VERDICT: Acquittal

3. Third trial, September 2009
Complainant: Maria Krechko

Supporting witnesses: Melissa Koti, Sarah

(Gray left the country in April but was tried in absentia)

VERDICT: Guilty of indecent assault and doing an indecent act

* Not her real name