Stewart Murray Wilson is known as the Beast of Blenheim, but he was born and raised in Timaru, spent part of his 20s in Sydney, and now lives in Wanganui.

But at least one thing has remained constant - his tendency to be "cruel'' and "creepy'', according to an old schoolyard acquaintance who remembers the family well and saw Wilson set a cat on fire.

Wilson was the eldest child in his family, with two brothers and a sister. The family home was in Essex St, Timaru and the children attended Marchwiel Primary School. His parents divorced in the 1970s. His elderly mother and one brother are still alive, his sister now lives in California, but his youngest brother was killed in a car crash aged 14, and his father died soon after Wilson's 1996 sentencing for two decades of horrific sexual offending. Wilson was living in Sydney at the time of his brother's death.

The Herald on Sunday has spoken to close family members, but they decline to comment. One family member said he would only talk to the newspaper if we were planning to "put a bullet'' in Wilson's head. It's understood some in the family were subject to a backlash as the Corrections Department prepares to release Wilson, 65, to a house on the grounds of Whanganui Prison.

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Although Wilson's adult life has been well documented, including rapes, abuse and bestiality, little has been revealed of his early years.

In 1996, Wilson's mother told a newspaper of her "dear wee boy'' who'd gone a "bit wayward'' after hitting puberty. He'd been taken into a children's home and spent time in Cherry Farm Psychiatric Hospital. He'd had many run-ins with the law. She said Wilson suffered brain damage in his early teens which caused him to lose control occasionally.

Michael, 52, grew up on Essex St and used to play with Wilson's youngest brother. He has asked for his surname not to be revealed but recalled the "creepy'' older Wilson boy whom everybody called Murray, and the father who he tried to avoid.

Michael only recently found out the Murray Wilson of his childhood had become "The Beast of Blenheim''. He said it made the hair stand up on the back of his neck.

"My mate was a quiet fellow but you never wanted to be in the house at the same time as Murray. He was so creepy and evil. There was something wrong with him. They had a hard life.

We lived up the hill a bit further, but no way did you ever want to stay over night.'' They all knew Murray was not to be trusted.

"If the father was ever there then I wouldn't bother to go in, because he wasn't nice to anyone. I know he used to beat the mother and the kids as well.'' His friend, who missed a lot of school, would sometimes come to school with bruises.

"Murray had a reputation for tormenting animals. Cats. We all used to do some hardcase things, but he was evil. You always felt uneasy around him. There was one time at a quarry on our road, it was Guy Fawkes night and Murray set a cat on fire. He sprayed something on it. We just thought he was really sick. The thing is, I had a pet cat at that time and I was really worried about my cat.''

The Wilson children had a hard life, he said.

"They could stay in the same clothes all week.''

Michael and his family moved away from Timaru about 1970 and lost touch with the Wilsons.

Residents at the Wilson's former Essex St home were unaware of their link to the serial sex criminal.

The house is rented out to a couple. A woman there this week did not know the name Stewart Murray Wilson, but was in absolutely no doubt as to who the "Beast of Blenheim'' was.

"Wow really he lived here? I didn't even know he was from Timaru,'' she said.

"I don't think anybody knows he's from down here.''

- additional reporting by Myles Hume