A former cheerleading coach who sexually abused children can now be revealed as the convicted paedophile who worked on children's TV show What Now.

Auckland man Nikola Michael Marinovich can be identified after he pleaded guilty today in Auckland District Court to charges brought by Customs relating to serious child sexual exploitation material.

Marinovich, 34, admitted seven charges relating to possessing, making and distributing objectionable images. He was remanded in custody for sentencing in September, with the judge warning a sentence of imprisonment was "inevitable".

Convicted paedophile Nikola Michael Marinovich tries to evade cameras outside Auckland District Court. Photo / Michael Craig
Convicted paedophile Nikola Michael Marinovich tries to evade cameras outside Auckland District Court. Photo / Michael Craig

The Herald can also reveal 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.

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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.

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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 this month 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.

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Jason Gunn and his wife Janine Morrell-Gunn co-own Whitebait Media, which employed a convicted paedophile to work on What Now. Photo / File
Jason Gunn and his wife Janine Morrell-Gunn co-own Whitebait Media, which employed a convicted paedophile to work on What Now. Photo / File

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.

The case has exposed a serious gap in police vetting procedures for contractors. A raft of agencies, including NZME, are now reviewing internal policies to protect vulnerable children in light of the Herald's coverage.

The Children's Commissioner is also lobbying 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.

They also found a large collection of cheerleading outfits in his bedroom, alongside girls' underwear and school uniforms.

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Among the depraved child abuse files – some involving infants - investigators also discovered a series of concerning photos depicting girls posing in cheerleading outfits on a trip to Australia.

"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."

Chilling pattern

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 reveals 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.

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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.

The former cheerleading coach was jailed for abusing underage girl in his care. Photo / File
The former cheerleading coach was jailed for abusing underage girl in his care. Photo / File

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."

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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".

Nikola Michael Marinovich in the dock at Auckland District Court facing serious Customs charges. Photo / Michael Craig
Nikola Michael Marinovich in the dock at Auckland District Court facing serious Customs charges. Photo / Michael Craig

The court file shows Marinovich sometimes plied his victims with spirits and drugs.

During his 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.

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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.

Customs probe

The latest child exploitation charges 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.

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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.

Sex predator Nikola Michael Marinovich (right) is helped into a car by his lawyer outside Auckland District Court. Photo / Michael Craig
Sex predator Nikola Michael Marinovich (right) is helped into a car by his lawyer outside Auckland District Court. Photo / Michael Craig

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.

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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.

'Incredibly distressed'

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.

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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."

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Convicted paedophile Nikola Marinovich worked on children's TV show What Now and other kids' events after his release from prison. Photo / File
Convicted paedophile Nikola Marinovich worked on children's TV show What Now and other kids' events after his release from prison. Photo / File

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 review is expected to be complete by mid August 2020."

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.