A man who raised more than $600,000 to bring his newborn Down syndrome baby to New Zealand has a conviction for assaulting his father-in-law and a first wife who claims he walked out on her and their children.

The Kiwi father of Down syndrome baby Leo, born last month in Armenia, has a conviction for assaulting his father-in-law from a previous marriage.

Samuel Forrest hit headlines across the world last week after he started a fundraising campaign to bring himself and son Leo to his native New Zealand. It has received more than $663,000 from nearly 17,900 donors.

He claimed his Armenian wife, Ruzan Badalyan, left him a week after their baby was born on January 21 because he refused to give him up to an orphanage. Her family were ashamed of his Down syndrome, he said.

Spokeswoman Trina McLachlan told the Weekend Herald that Forrest planned to settle in Auckland as soon as his son received a New Zealand passport. Forrest and his son had stayed with friends but this week moved into an apartment in Yerevan, Armenia's capital.

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The former Exclusive Brethren member went to Armenia after his marriage to another member of the church broke up, about four years ago. He has not seen his four children from that marriage since.

Forrest has claimed that he was excommunicated as a result of the marriage break-up and kept away from his children, saying in internet posts attacking the church that he "lost four innocent children" in a "deliberate break-up of a family".

But speaking for the first time, his former wife, Kylie Forrest, this week told the Herald that it was her husband's choice. "He still has legal access arrangements," she said. "It was his choice not to see them.

"He seemed to accept the [access] arrangements but he then seemed to want to move on with his life. He chose to leave the marriage and the church."

Kylie Forrest said it hurt that he wasn't there for her when their fourth child, a girl, was born very prematurely. Her birth weight was 2lb 3oz and she has battled significant medical complications, including hearing problems.

But she said her daughter, who is 5 and attends a Brethren school at Hawera, is catching up and had scored above average in a recent cognitive test. It has been incorrectly reported that she, too, has Down syndrome.

Forrest said her former husband left her before he left the church "and he has put it around the other way".

"This is a family matter and has nothing to do with the church."

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A former neighbour of the Forrests told the Herald it was clear the marriage faced difficulties, and Child, Youth and Family Service was involved. Forrest was convicted of assaulting his father-in-law in March 2010 and ordered to pay $400 emotional reparation and $130 court costs.

Forrest has claimed he pleaded guilty under pressure from the Brethren at a time when he wanted to stay with the church.

However, Kelvin Patterson, who shared a flat with Forrest in 2011 after the marriage split, said of the assault: "He told me why he did it. [His father-in-law] was making some physical changes, meddling in his house, and yet Sam was not allowed to go there.

The Wanganui house in which Samuel Forrest lived with his first wife, Kylie.
The Wanganui house in which Samuel Forrest lived with his first wife, Kylie.

"He shouldn't have done it ... but I understand his frustrations," said Patterson, who volunteered that he had also been in the Exclusive Brethren. He had left in 1989 and not seen his children since 1991.

Patterson said he witnessed Forrest's anguish at being excommunicated and cut off from his children.

"I just know that his heart was ripped out. He was phoning people he knew high up in [the Exclusive Brethren] to try to get answers. I went to bed one night and got up next morning and he was still on the phone " and the bill reflected that. He was ringing [church hierarchy in Australia] but he never got a straight answer.

"Once they kick you out, you have to answer their questions but they don't answer yours," Patterson said.

Five minutes after the Herald arrived at Kylie Forrest's Wanganui address, a member of the Plymouth Brethren, who introduced himself as Dean, turned up to shut down the interview.

"If you are going to write something," Dean asked, "we'd appreciate it if you kept it simple."

Who is Samuel Forrest?

Samuel Forrest was the fourth generation of his family to belong to the Brethren, McLachlan said.

Records show he was born nine months after his parents married. His father was 21, his mother 17.

A year later, his sister was born, and a brother arrived three years after that. They were all born in Auckland and Samuel went to Mt Albert Grammar before the family moved to Wanganui.

Forrest, who has been in Armenia for three years, is understood to have no contact with his parents, siblings and children, who are all members of the Brethren. His mother told the Herald this week that she had no comment.

McLachlan, who met Forrest when he approached her to do advocacy work around his departure from the church, said he was told that if he divorced his Brethren wife he would be excommunicated.

"He misses his children like crazy but realises his hands are tied currently in regards to the Brethren way of life and how they are raised. He's just hoping that one day, when they are old enough to make their own decision, he can re-establish a relationship with them."

She acknowledges that Forrest did have legal visiting rights.

He had contacted her soon after Leo was born. "He was a mess. Medical staff intervened and wouldn't let anyone look at him or touch him. It's a real taboo over there."

Forrest had hoped to receive US$60,000, enough to bring Leo home and to care full-time for him for a year, and was overwhelmed to receive nearly 10 times that much.

He planned to use some of the money to improve the situation for children in Armenia with disabilities and planned to enlist the help of "Armenia's first lady", McLachlan said. Armenia is a presidential representative democratic republic of three million people.

McLachlan said the first lady had offered to put Forrest and Leo up in her compound as a safety precaution because he had not followed local norms by giving up his baby to an orphanage.

Baby Leo's mother has given a different account of the aftermath of their son's birth, denying she gave a me-or-the-baby ultimatum to Forrest and claiming he did not ask her to go to New Zealand with him and their son.

Forrest with baby Leo.
Forrest with baby Leo.

In a statement on her Facebook account, she said: "I faced two options: to take care of the child on my own in Armenia, or to abandon my maternal instincts and extend the baby an opportunity to enjoy a decent life with his father in New Zealand. I went for the second option."

She has confirmed to media that she filed for divorce, and wrote on Facebook that she realised that a move to a country like New Zealand would "entitle my son to a decent life".

It is unclear why she could not also move to New Zealand with her husband and son. On her Facebook page, she said: "Sam has never suggested joining him and bringing up the child together in his country."

Of events after the birth, she said: "In the hardest moment of my life when my husband should be next to me and support and help to take the right decision, I could not find any support from his side.

"He left the hospital, notifying me hours later that he was taking the kid with him, that he is going to leave the country for New Zealand and I do not have anything to do with the situation ... he started to circulate the story ... accusing that I put him an ultimatum marriage or the baby, which is absolutely not true."

Badalyan was heavily criticised on social media after her husband's claim of an ultimatum.

McLachlan claims that Badalyan turned down Forrest's offer to come to New Zealand.

In a statement to the Mirror newspaper in Britain, Forrest said: "I adore her and I want to carry through those memories for Leo. I want him to know how good his mum was. I'll hold out the possibility [of a connection] in the future ... For that to happen she will need to fully accept Leo and take on her responsibilities as a mother."

Money donated via the Gofundme "Bring Leo Home (Down Syndrome)" account is paid directly to Forrest.

- Additional reporting: Jared Savage and Patrice Dougan