A convicted paedophile and former cheerleading coach who worked on children's TV show What Now has today been jailed for possessing, making and distributing graphic child abuse material.
Auckland man Nikola Michael Marinovich appeared for sentencing in Auckland District Court after earlier pleading guilty to a raft of representative charges brought by Customs relating to serious child sexual exploitation material.
He was jailed for three and half years.
Judge Eddie Paul said he had viewed a small sample of the thousands of objectionable publications found stored on five electronic devices belonging to Marinovich in order to inform the sentencing.
Eight of the files involved Marinovich recording videos of child abuse he had been watching on a screen.
The court heard 4658 objectionable images or video files were found on his devices. He had downloaded the material in his bedroom, often while high on controlled drugs, including methamphetamine.
"As a result of your deviancy Mr Marinovich, that fuels demand for this material each time these images are viewed."
Judge Paul described the graphic nature of the abuse files, some involving infants.
"If those descriptions don't enforce the seriousness of what you are viewing, I really don't know what would."
The judge said he received 16 personal references from Marinovich's friends and family.
"They describe a caring and kind man. That is not the man who has offended here. The man who has offended here has committed criminal offending for his own sexual gratification."
This was not a victimless crime, the judge said.
"Each image is a real child and harm is done each time an offender like you views that image."
Crown prosecutor John Kang had called for a starting point of seven years' imprisonment given the magnitude of the offending, and the fact Marinovich had been jailed in 2013 for sexual offending against children.
But Marinovich's lawyer Ron Mansfield said his client was a "suitable candidate" for home detention.
Marinovich had been "miserable" at the time of his latest offending, suffering from depression and anxiety after his release from prison.
His reintegration into the community was badly impacted by the significant media attention his offending had attracted.
He used drugs to "self-medicate" and had downloaded the objectionable files while under the influence of those substances, Mansfield said.
But he stressed this was not an excuse for the offending, and said it was to his client's credit that he'd sought professional help for his addictions before Customs raided his property last year.
In July, the Herald revealed the identify of Marinovich, 34, after he admitted seven charges relating to possessing, making and distributing objectionable images.
The Herald revealed that, while awaiting trial on the Customs charges, the sexual predator was hired to work at a national cheerleading competition - despite bail conditions prohibiting contact with minors.
Marinovich is the former executive director of the now defunct Total Cheerleading. He was jailed in 2013 for repeatedly abusing several of his students after plying them with spirits and then assaulting them in his car and home.
One of the girls was molested as she lay exhausted on a gym mat after a one-on-one training session. The abuse only ended when the 15-year-old's father arrived to pick her up.
And despite having served prison time for his sexual pursuit of young cheerleaders, Marinovich was later hired as a freelance cameraman to film two national cheerleading competitions after his release from prison - sparking a high-level investigation by the New Zealand Cheer Union.
"As an organisation we're looking into how that happened," union chairwoman Selena Duncan told the Herald.
"It's making me feel quite nauseous."
Case reveals gaps in police vetting
The sexual predator was freed from prison several years ago and thanks to lax police vetting was allowed further access to children after landing numerous freelance cameraman jobs through his company SkyVision Ltd.
A Herald investigation revealed he had access to at least 10 schools while working on the What Now TV show. The kids' TV show is made by production company Whitebait Media, which is co-owned by former children's presenter Jason Gunn and his wife Janine Morrell-Gunn.
Marinovich had contact with countless other children while filming two Sanitarium Weet-Bix kids TRYathlons events, a promotional video for NZ Football and several "family events" at Auckland's Motat museum. He also worked as a contractor covering a small number of events for Herald owner NZME.
To put potential employers off the scent of his criminal convictions, Marinovich changed his name slightly, calling himself Nik Marinovic when applying for work.
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The case exposed a serious gap in police vetting procedures for contractors. A raft of agencies, including NZME, reviewed internal policies to protect vulnerable children in light of the Herald's coverage.
The Children's Commissioner has also lobbied the Government to make vetting mandatory for everyone who works with children.
When Customs investigators raided Marinovich's Pukekohe home in May last year they discovered thousands of image and video files on at least six electronic devices depicting graphic sexual abuse of young children.
They also found a large collection of cheerleading outfits in his bedroom, alongside girls' underwear and school uniforms.
Among the depraved child abuse files – some involving infants - investigators also discovered a series of concerning photos depicting girls posing in cheerleading outfits on an overseas trip.
"Some appear to be taken while on a cheerleading competition in Australia with the photos being taken in a hotel corridor."
"Mr Marinovich appears in some of the images with the young girls with his arms around them."
The Herald was granted exclusive access to the court file for both the child exploitation Customs charges, and the historic sexual offending case.
The latter revealed a chilling pattern of manipulative, predatory behaviour towards young girls.
Marinovich would meet his victims through the cheerleading club then groom them for his own sexual pleasure.
He arranged to meet them away from their homes or at a local mall, after the girls told their parents they were visiting friends.
In one case he purchased a new phone and Sim card to communicate with one of the victims, and pressured her to meet him outside a gym.
Court documents show he'd touched her inappropriately during training, including on her bottom and holding her for longer than necessary during gym drills.
Another victim received a text message from Marinovich asking her to meet him at the mall before he drove her back to his West Auckland house.
He asked to massage her and then to perform a sex act.
"The complainant protested for some time but the accused would not relent. She felt trapped and eventually complied."
In December 2007 Marinovich bought the girl a sex toy and red G-string and bra lingerie set as a gift. He encouraged her to send him photos of herself wearing the lingerie, which she did.
He violated her at his home after picking her up from a friend's house and continued abusing her for several years.
The victim was aged 14 and 15 for the first two years of that "relationship".
The court file shows Marinovich sometimes plied his victims with spirits and drugs.
During his sex offences sentencing in 2013, the court heard he drove two underage girls to Mission Bay. He took a bottle of 42 Below feijoa vodka and also gave them cannabis before sexually assaulting the 14-year-old who was "grossly intoxicated" to the point of vomiting in his car.
He took photos of the two girls before molesting the victim.
In sentencing Marinovich at the time to more than two years in jail, Judge Russell Collins gave him discounts for his previous good character and efforts at rehabilitation since the offending.
The child exploitation charges on which Marinovich was sentenced to today stemmed from a Customs investigation codenamed Operation Washington.
It was sparked by a tip off from Canadian instant messaging company Kik, which alerted New Zealand authorities after three objectionable child abuse images were uploaded to the messaging platform by a New Zealand user in January 2019.
A formal witness statement by a Customs investigator sets out how Customs staff meticulously worked behind the scenes to identify Marinovich as the Kik user and build their case against the paedophile.
Kik supplied IP addresses for the three images as well as Marinovich's user name and email address, and details of three social media accounts he'd used to distribute the sexual abuse images.
A Google search revealed Marinovich had been jailed for child sex offences so the investigator made a formal request to police for details of his criminal history in April last year.
Police confirmed the former cheerleading coach was a child sex offender.
A Customs database search showed Marinovich had arrived on a recent flight to New Zealand.
Investigators sourced Marinovich's arrival card details and matched his stated home address with information obtained from the Ministry of Health, and his email address with that used on the Kik app.
On May 8, 2019, investigators again used Customs data to establish that a package addressed to Marinovich had been sent to the same residential address in Pukekohe.
Five days later Customs applied to Auckland District Court for a search warrant, which was granted that day. Three days after that, on May 16, a team of Customs investigators swooped on Marinovich's property armed with the search warrant.
He was not there but the search uncovered a cache of electronic devices, some heavily encrypted, holding a massive library of child abuse files.
Investigators also discovered a locked safe in Marinovich's bedroom containing a small quantity of methamphetamine and LSD, along with his stockpile of girls' underwear, school uniforms and cheerleading outfits.
After several hours investigators left Marinovich's house and drove to a small central Auckland studio in Nikau St, where Marinovich was arrested on the set of breakfast television show The Café, which screens on TV3.
Toe Rag Productions, which makes the show and contracted Marinovich, said he only worked two shifts, covering for sick staff, and had not worked for the company since.
Executive producer Alex Breingan said no police vet was carried out but Marinovich had no access to children.
Cheer Union boss Selena Duncan confirmed Marinovich was contracted to work at last year's national competition in Wellington, as well as the previous year's event.
She said she felt physically sick after being alerted to Marinovich's background by the Herald.
His company had also been hired on previous cheerleading events, she said.
"I'm quite upset by this. I have a little girl who is in cheerleading. Any thought like that is really numbing."
Duncan said the organisation had stringent child protection policies and was an approved police vetting agency. However Marinovich did not appear to have been vetted.
The union had commissioned an independent review to investigate what had occurred.
It had also alerted competitors and parents, and sought PR and legal advice.
"We want to reiterate that we are doing everything we possibly can."
In a letter to parents, the Union said it was "incredibly distressed" by the revelations.
"Although we were not personally involved in the employment of this person, we wholeheartedly apologise to you all on behalf of NZCU, for what has happened. The person should not have been working with us.
"We have commissioned an independent review into how this person came to be employed as a videographer for our 2018 and 2019 Cheerleading Nationals and other events sanctioned by NZCU.
"We will use the findings from the review to help us further strengthen our processes for the employment of NZCU staff and contractors."
The organisation said it had not received any complaints about Marinovich from parents or athletes, but asked anyone with information or concerns to get in contact.
Herald investigations also revealed that another cheerleading gym owner knowingly hired Marinovich to work on events, saying he believed in second chances and did not want to discriminate against his old friend because of previous convictions.
Cheer Dynamix owner Andrei Coman worked with Marinovich at the West Auckland gym and had known him for years.
He apologised for hiring Marinovich as a contractor at six cheerleading events between 2016 and 2018.
"As an employer I like to provide equal employment opportunities and work with people based on their skill and merits, without discrimination," he said in a statement.
Coman said he had "no reason to believe that Nikola had the propensity to reoffend on the basis of his previous conviction", but had put strict measures in place to ensure children's safety, particularly around supervision.
"I see now that I was wrong to engage him given his previous history and I apologise unreservedly for doing so.
"I recognise that our athletes and their safety is what is most important in all of this."