One of New Zealand's most prolific thieves details in an exclusive interview from prison the abuse he experienced in state care, the pain he caused others and why he never wants to offend again. Katie Harris reports.
Most people only know Brian Te Huia from the headlines of the hundreds of offences he's been convicted of.
But prior to becoming a charismatic thief, he was a child reeling from serious abuse he bore at the hands of the state.
Long before Te Huia, 54, was known as the "rest home creeper" for stealing from the elderly, he was just a kid in Hamilton who was forced to grow up before he should.
At only 13, while facing the same growing pains as every other young teenager, Te Huia says he was also coming to terms with the death of his father.
By his own admission, he was out of control.
During his childhood in the 1970s, the country was battling worsening unemployment, inflation and economic recession.
At the same time, the number of children in residential institutions across Aotearoa was increasing, with Māori children being admitted at an outsize rate.
Not long after his father's passing Te Huia was sent to live in state care at a Christian boys' home.
What should have been a place for education and nurturing, he describes as one of hurt and abuse that shattered the once healthy childhood he'd had until his father's death.
During his time at the Hodeville Boys Home, run by the Salvation Army and Social Welfare, Te Huia says he was sexually abused two to three times per week.
This went on for two years, during which he says the priest tasked with looking after him groomed then abused him, together with other young boys.
"His wife would work in town and his daughter would go to school. So he would get me down to paint the house and stuff like that. Then he would push me in the shower and that's how it started."
Te Huia says he was given lollies as a "reward".
"I know that abuse, that hatred, that hurt, that losing my father, that boys' home, really truly affected my life," he told the Herald in an exclusive prison interview.
His legal adviser, former Māori Party candidate Donna Pokere-Phillips, says he should never have been put into state care because he "just a grieving boy".
Pokere-Phillips told the Herald that as a society we are quick to point the finger at people like Te Huia for their wrongdoings, but rarely do we take a deep look at what brought them there.
Rather than help, he got jail time later in life.
Had there been an investigation at the time and Te Huia was believed, Pokere-Phillips says his issues now could have been prevented.
What motivates her to help people like Te Huia, she says, is the ability to give a voice to that young boy, and a sense of justice to him as an adult.
"Te Huia's story showed as a boy how he suffered at the hands of a state agent who had a higher duty of care to protect him, advocate for him and ensure he was not being retraumatised while in their care."
Sharing Pokere-Phillips' concerns is the University of Auckland's Tracey McIntosh, who says we cannot overestimate the devastation that abuse in state care has on its victims.
When abuse occurs in places where we expect children to be safe, it can have lasting impacts, she said.
"We should not be surprised that the damage of this type of abuse continues to reverberate, you know, across the decades."
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Salvation Army said they were extremely sorry for the abuse committed by those entrusted to look after children in their care.
The spokesperson acknowledged the Salvation Army left a legacy of damage in some lives where there should only have been help and hope.
A cultural impact report filed at one of Te Huia's court appearances says when Te Huia did manage to escape the home, he called his mother to tell her what was going on, but she didn't believe him and told him to go back.
Te Huia says he later discovered the man had been doing similar things to other young people, but back then he felt isolated by the abuse, alone.
"It all got to me and before long, bang I'm a criminal."
By age 17 Te Huia says he was in "corrective care", which he sees as a "turning point" in his life when he began to hate all authority.
In 1987 he formally entered the justice system, after being arrested for burglary, and hasn't spent much time out of jail since.
Right now he's serving a sentence in Kohuora Auckland South Corrections Facility. The prison confirmed he has 396 convictions.
Life on the inside
When Te Huia was in a paddy wagon on his way to serving his first prison sentence, a fellow inmate warned that he would be sexually assaulted in prison.
"He goes, 'they're going to love you in there' ... I swear I nearly burst out crying at that very moment, I was s*** scared."
Prison for him back then was awful and he recalls his first four months in jail as "terrible", except for the drugs that he claims were readily available.
"You have no life. Everything's put on a platter for you, you're told when to shower and you're told when to eat."
Victoria University of Wellington criminology lecturer Liam Martin says there are systemic connections between state care and imprisonment, which he says we can now think of as a key driver of prison populations.
These state youth facilities had a profound impact on Māori - who, he told the Herald, were increasingly being pulled into the system following urbanisation and World War II.
"[They were] Really being exposed to systemic patterns of state violence, in the state care system and those trajectories lead to prison so often."
Martin says prisoners are spending "enormous" amounts of time in their cells and are living under the threat of violence.
"These are not places that are rehabilitative, they're really quite damaging."
He believes locking people away to keep us safe is an attractive myth - it does not work.
"He's been abused his whole life. He's been failed in so many different ways, and what's happened in prison is kind of one element of a broader social failure when it comes to the welfare system."
When Te Huia got out, he felt he had "nothing left" except for hatred and a "f*** society" mentality.
"What I found is that you don't get rehabilitated in jail – you get educated on how to do crimes better."
The cycle continues
After he left prison the first time he continued offending. At his peak, Te Huia claims to have been committing up to 10 burglaries a day.
"I did it because I could and I was good at it. I mean, I took this to a level that was unheard of."
But there was a little birdie egging him on, a creature he knew not to trust, but says he followed anyway.
"It was the biggest mistake of my life, I actually wish I would have killed that bird now and maybe I wouldn't have done this."
Te Huia says he became brazen with his crimes, strolling into offices with crisp white shirts, wearing a smile and speaking to workers while carrying goods he had stolen.
On another occasion, he claims to have taken items from a woman's house while she was gardening – and says he even took a shower there.
Stealing, he says, felt like he was just "going to work".
A judge once called him one of the worst property offenders he'd encountered in the courts and rebuked Te Huia for preying on the elderly and vulnerable.
Age Concern, too, had previously castigated him for targeting older Kiwis.
The Herald contacted a retirement village where multiple residents had been affected by his offending, but no one was prepared to comment.
"Looking back now I'm devastated," Te Huia said of his offending.
"I didn't think about what it was doing to people or how it was hurting people. All I did was think about me and what I wanted and what I needed - It's not right at all what I've done."
Leaving crime behind
Now is the end of an era, and when he completes his latest sentence in a few years he wants to be gone from prison for good.
"I'm over jail, I'm sick of jail, I'm sick of not being there for my son. I'm sick of hurting people, I'm sick of taking from people. I'm sick of everything you know? I've had enough."
He has also penned a book in which he apologises for the wrong he's done and promises the "nightmare" is over.
"I'm extremely remorseful to all those people I hurt."
Even if Te Huia doesn't return to offending, McIntosh believes it will be difficult to integrate.
"I've had people tell me that it doesn't matter whether it's 10 or 15 years out of the prison, they still negotiate the outside world through a prison mind. You know, it's such a dominant way of living in the world."
When people are "churned" through the system she says they miss out on nurturing connections and places, which people need.
"The place that he has the most knowledge of and connection to is behind the wire. So even just how you negotiate the world outside of that, it certainly doesn't mean it's not possible, but no one should underestimate just how difficult it is."
Te Huia, for his part, is most looking forward to a cooked steak on his release.
"I don't know how much life I've got left but I want to ask God if I can have another chance."
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