When a stranger videoed Veronica Schmidt undressed in a changing room at Kmart, the store’s staff refused to call the police. Here she writes for RNZ about what it took to finally get the offender in front of a judge.
Warning: This story contains discussion of sexual offending and trauma
I spotted him before it happened, standing in the corridor outside the women’s changing rooms. For a moment, our eyes locked. Maybe he noticed the sports bras among the clothes slung over my arm. Maybe that’s why he chose me instead of another woman in another cubicle.
If there were clues in his eyes or his manner, I missed them. I was distracted; the childcare clock was ticking and I still had to find a multi-pack of kids’ socks, a birthday present and get home through rush-hour traffic. I figured that his partner must be in a changing room – and then I instantly forgot about him.
I went into a cubicle, locked the door, dumped my handbag on the seat and – I hate this – I took off my jumper, my t-shirt and my bra. I stood there like that, bare-chested, fumbling around with a clothes hanger and a turquoise sports bra until I separated the two, then I pulled on the bra and I bounced around a little on the spot to see if it did the job.
I did the same with another bra, then – and I hate this too – I unzipped my jeans and kicked them off. I grabbed the exercise pants that I’d finally found in the right size and colour after picking through a series of jumbled up racks. It was as I stuck my feet into the legs and had the pants around my ankles that I spotted the phone. Its screen was alive with movement, like ripples on a lake; it was filming me.
He must have had to lie on the cold Kmart floor to poke his phone underneath the partition separating his cubicle from mine. Did he watch me while he lay there, arm outstretched, holding his phone at that jaunty angle? I suppose he must have to have gotten the phone so perfectly positioned, right under my arse.
Why must time collapse in life’s awful moments? I was undressed, my naked flesh lit by fluorescent lights, that phone watching me, for an age. And then I was screaming, sobbing, yanking on clothes, stumbling into the corridor.
Women, startled by the noise, appeared from fitting rooms, but the door of the cubicle next to mine stayed shut.
Five minutes earlier, a Kmart staffer had counted out the clothes I’d selected as I bustled into the fitting room area. Now she sat perched on her stool staring at me. I babbled what had happened and asked her to call the police, but instead of reaching for a phone, she turned and looked the other way.
They say when you feel threatened, your response boils down to three options: fight, flight or freeze. I was all fight.
“Get out here, you f******arsehole!”
The door stayed close.
“You fucking arsehole, get the f*** out here!”
I was up against the door now.
“Open the f***** door, you arsehole!”
The door swung open. He forced a casual shrug, like some hopeless actor on a bad sitcom, and asked, “What?”
“Give me your f****** phone!”
He turned his back on me then, hunched over his phone and tapped frantically at the screen.
It’s a moment I’ve replayed over and over in my mind. I lie in bed, anxiety turning my limbs rigid, and try to slow the memory down to a speed where I can analyse it. I see the ‘women’ sign on the cubicle door, his broad back, his shoulders hunched, his forearm jerking as his index finger moves across the screen. I try to peer over his left shoulder, to see what’s happening on that phone. Is he uploading that video of me or sending it to himself or someone else before he deletes it?
When I go over that moment, I go over what happened next too.
A Kmart staffer appeared. He had a purposeful stride and his sensible shoes made squelching noises on the shiny floor.
“What’s going on?”
I told him and asked him to call the police.
“It’s a civil matter. It’s up to the two of you to sort it out between yourselves.”
He turned to walk off.
“Please don’t leave me here with him – I’m scared.”
He hesitated for a moment, then disappeared.
In a cubicle opposite mine, a woman called Saskia had been trying on clothes. She heard me scream and came out to see a man, much bigger than me, clutching his phone, tapping furiously at it, then becoming aggressive, while two Kmart employees refused to help me. She could see I was trying to block the corridor, so the man couldn’t take off.
She came and stood beside me and her kind words wrapped around me like a hug. Saskia took over blocking the corridor so I could dart back into my cubicle to get my phone and dial 111.
She was beside me when the Kmart staffer reappeared. He saw the phone at my ear and his jaw hardened with annoyance.
“Aw, you’re not calling the police are you? Aw, c’mon, do you really want to do that?
“Just hang up. I’ll get security.”
I finished the phone call and turned to Saskia. “They’re a few minutes away.”
The Kmart staffer looked incredulous. “They’re coming?”
He disappeared again and when he returned, he was accompanied by a riot of high viz. One of the security guards approached the man, while the other three loitered a few feet away, their backs to me.
“What the hell is wrong with the people who work here?” I asked Saskia.
“It’s that old thing, isn’t it? If you don’t make enough of a fuss, they say ‘why didn’t you scream? Why didn’t you shout for help?’ And if you scream and cry, it’s, ‘you’re a hysterical woman’. And I’m afraid you’re a hysterical woman.”
The police arrived. One of the officers headed for the man, the other came to me. She looked directly at me and said, “I’m sorry this has happened to you”.
If this was a TV show, it would end here, the bad guy in handcuffs, being marched off to a cop car. But he denied doing anything wrong, so that day became the background of my life for the next year.
Well, not at first. At first it was the foreground, it was everything. I was shocked, disgusted, angry and paranoid. I didn’t want to catch so much as a glimpse of my own body, I didn’t want to breastfeed my daughter, I didn’t want to ever take off my clothes again.
Before I showered, I swept my own bathroom for cameras. Before I undressed, I looked around my own bedroom, suspiciously. Before I went to the loo at work, I peered up into the air conditioning vents to check they were still full of thick, grey dust, that it hadn’t been disturbed by someone installing a camera.
I Googled secret filmings and read court reports about women – always women – who had been videoed in Marlborough and Hamilton and Auckland. Women who were filmed peeing in public toilets, in the shower at Airbnbs, and through their bedroom windows at night. I read about where those types of videos turn up on the internet and I felt enraged and helpless. I considered Googling “woman + changing room + video” to see if my body would appear on the screen, but even the thought made me nauseous.
The way the Kmart staff had reacted made me feel worse. The police told me that when they’d returned to the store to check security footage, they had tried to trespass the man, but a Kmart staff member – a different one – asked them not to, saying, “We don’t even know that anything happened.”
Their attitudes – the disbelief, the minimising, the reluctance to help – seeped into me and turned me against myself. I treated myself like they had, asked myself callous questions. “Why am I wasting police time on this?” “Why did I scream and swear like such a lunatic?” “Why can’t I just let this go?”
Friends and family attempted to counter the Kmart voices. They told me it was normal to feel violated, that I was brave, that I’d stood up to The Kmart Pervert (this was his name by now), that by calling the police I might have stopped him doing it again, that the Kmart staff’s attitudes were baffling, enraging, wrong. My husband condensed his verdict on their behaviour into one snappy slogan: “It’s not OKmart.”
For a while “It’s not OKmart” became both my favourite one-liner and my mantra, but who was I kidding? I was hating on Kmart and its staff but they weren’t the real problem – they were simply products of a victim-blaming culture. None of this was new; I was just seeing it from the inside.
And I was as much of a product of that culture as the Kmart staff. I’d absorbed the victim-blaming messages by osmosis, even while, intellectually, I’d railed against them. I found myself embarrassed to admit what had happened to me. Who would believe anyone would want to see the body of a middle-aged, overweight mum? Victims were young and pretty and wore short skirts, right?
I called HELP, an organisation that supports sexual assault survivors and cried down the phone to a counsellor. Then, I made another call – this time to Kmart.
The store manager got to face the upset of a disgruntled customer and the grilling skills of an off-duty journalist – a gnarly combination, but he rose to the occasion. He believed me, offered empathy, apologised, promised change and agreed to my request to put what he’d said in writing. Then he changed the shop’s protocols, gave his staff training and had the man trespassed from not just the St Lukes store, where it happened, but all Kmart branches.
A layer of distress melted away.
The Kmart Pervert had a name: Walid Soliman. When he had turned his back on me and tapped at his phone, he had, of course, deleted the video – though he strenuously denied he had made it at all. But the police forensics team had his mobile and he must have been panicking – did I permanently delete it? Can they retrieve it? – because he offered police a caveat: if they found videos of me on his phone, it was because yes, he had filmed me but he had forgotten he’d done it, as he was taking the painkiller Tramadol.
This was different to what he had told Saskia, which was that he had been in the women’s changing cubicle to film himself trying on shoes, for cultural reasons.
There was a third story too: that he’d put his phone down on the floor of his cubicle and I must have spotted it there and mistakenly believed it was in my cubicle.
It was harder to give my version of events. I joined a six-week-long queue of victims waiting to give video statements to the specialist police sexual assault team. Three weeks in, the constable on Soliman’s case gave up, came and sat in my lounge and we wrote out my statement on paper.
But it was just the beginning of the waiting. The justice system crawls. It inches forward then stops for weeks or months, then inches forward again. I waited to see what forensics would find on Soliman’s phone (nothing, but they said as it was an iPhone there was no way to recover what he had deleted). I waited to see if police would charge him (they did, with making an intimate visual recording). I waited to hear how he would plead (not guilty) and what sort of trial would occur (judge, no jury). Then I waited for a trial date (it was finally scheduled for exactly 10 months to the day after Soliman filmed me).
The initial tidal wave of feelings had washed away within weeks, but every time the court victim adviser contacted me during those 10 months – and she did so many times (“Mr Soliman appeared in court again today”, “Mr Soliman has not entered a plea”, “Mr Soliman has pleaded not guilty”, “Mr Soliman has opted for a judge-only trial”, “Mr Soliman is requesting an interpreter”), or the police called or turned up at my door – and they did many times (“Can you mark this picture to show exactly where the phone was? “Can you sign this?” “Here is your summons”), it sent me straight back to lying awake at night wondering if that footage still existed somewhere.
Each time the scab was picked off, I thought about people who had been raped or assaulted, who were wrestling with PTSD, and wondered how they survived all the waiting and wondering, the starting and stopping of the justice process.
I also wondered how the hell they navigated it. I was educated, with English as a first language and had both a capable, communicative cop and kind, informed court victim adviser on my case, and I was frequently lost.
The Monday before the trial I woke up with a ball of anxiety squatting in my stomach. It grew each day until I felt my whole body was made from stone and my brain was clogged by questions – How would I cope with seeing him? What if I bawled uncontrollably under cross examination? What if he was found not guilty?
I counted down the hours until the Friday court date; until the whole thing was over.
On Wednesday afternoon, I was about to head out the door for the school run, when RNZ’s court reporter texted me. The trial had been axed. The police and victim support adviser phoned later and apologised. It happens all the time, they said. They couldn’t offer a reason.
I walked up to school. It was so sunny that day, the light seemed white. I stood away from the other parents, closed my eyes against the brightness, and took slow deep breaths.
“Mumma, why are you crying?”
“Remember that man in Kmart, who I caught taking something that wasn’t his? Well, he was supposed to go to court this week, but now he’s not, and I’m disappointed.”
“But why? He did the stealing agggeees ago when I was still seven.”
By the time the new trial date rolled around almost 11 months had passed since that day at Kmart. In the morning, my friend texted me: “Remember that time you went to court to stand up to that revolting pervert to protect all his future victims from going through what you went through? Well, that’s today and I’m so proud of you for doing this.”
The message reminded me of how I had felt back when it first happened. I had known then why I wanted him prosecuted, but after all the legal twists and turns, I no longer felt it was worth it. The thing that finished me off was an NZ Herald story I’d read the week before. It was about a man who had planted a secret camera in an Auckland gym’s changing room, capturing six victims in various states of undress. He pleaded guilty to a representative charge of making an intimate visual recording and was discharged without conviction. He got permanent name suppression because publicity might affect his job and workplace. His workplace – a government agency – had promoted him to a senior position, after it found out about his offending.
At least I no longer have any expectations, I thought, as I got an Uber to court.
“Freezing this morning, eh?” said the driver.
“Yeah,” I mumbled but I was already clammy with sweat. I wished I hadn’t worn a polyester top.
Roadworks had closed the streets around the Auckland District Court and the Uber driver let me out a block away. My legs felt weak as I navigated potholes and cones, my eyes swivelling left and right, on the lookout for Soliman.
I think that’s what the victims’ rooms at court are for: hiding. That’s how I used them anyway. I didn’t want to see Soliman until I had to.
There were brave people in those rooms, nursing serious traumas, hiding from terrifying people.
On the way to the loo, I overheard two women talking.
“Of everyone, he gave you the worst hiding, eh?”
“Remember that time he made you hide him from the cops?”
The next time I went past their room, the door was ajar and I could see the navy blue of a police uniform. The officer was talking.
“You need to decide whether you still want the AVL or whether you would rather get this done with today.”
It sounded like she’d been promised she could give evidence via audio visual link and now she had gotten to court and it wasn’t available.
Did she take the lift upstairs and face that man who had given her a hiding? I didn’t see her again because a moment later I was called to courtroom nine.
To be cross-examined is to be publicly gas-lit.
I was on the witness stand for an hour-and-a-half, Soliman at the corner of my peripheral vision, watching me.
His lawyer ducked down strange alleyways that sometimes saw her stumble into cul-de-sacs and other times emerge onto new, fertile ground, where she tried to sow various seeds of doubt. But the direction she was heading was always the same: I hadn’t seen what I had seen and what I knew was the truth wasn’t the truth.
I left the witness stand shaking, that damn polyester top damp with sweat. I stank.
There were still hours of evidence to go. This witness, that officer, another officer, a videotaped interview, another videotaped interview. I sat in the public gallery behind Soliman and heard how he had called me a “crazy bitch”, how he’d framed me as a mystery – some mad woman making insane allegations. I watched a video of a police officer asking him to look at images of the changing cubicles. Could he read that sign? Yes, he could. He knew it said “women”. I watched him try to explain why then he was in a women’s changing cubicle.
I looked at the institutional surrounds – the grey carpet, the wood panelling, the clock – and I listened to strangers talk about my bum and where the phone had been in relation to it and about my manner on that day 11 months ago when I was shocked and frightened and alone.
Soliman didn’t take the stand. He just sat behind his lawyers silently. The light bounced off the bald spot in the middle of his scalp. I imagined swinging a baseball bat at that naked patch, cracking his head open like a walnut.
Almost eight hours after I’d arrived at court, the judge was ready to give his verdict. I squeezed my friend’s hand hard, like a labouring mother, and waited: guilty.
That verdict helped, but two other things about that day in court did more so. Watching the tapes of Soliman bumbling through his police interviews made me decide he would not have been quick-thinking or bold enough to upload the video before he deleted it.
And Saskia was there. She told me that the day Soliman filmed me a number of women, who had emerged from changing cubicles like she had, had muttered their disgust, had told her it was an awful thing to have happened. I had thought she was the only person that day who had believed me or cared.
But I left court with a heaviness that I can’t shake. I keep wondering how differently everything would have turned out if I hadn’t been surrounded by supportive people who challenged the Kmart voices. And would I have been able to go the distance if I was traumatised by a more severe crime? If I didn’t have childcare or paid leave could I even, practically, have gone to court?
The people most likely to be victims of crime include Māori, the disabled, the unemployed, those experiencing high levels of psychological distress and those in sole-parent families. I am a privileged person and was the victim of a relatively minor crime and it took a lot out of me to get justice. So, how much does the system cost the less privileged? How much does it cost the victims of serious crimes?
Today it has been a year since Soliman filmed me. He was supposed to be sentenced two days ago. I hoped he’d be instructed to seek treatment. I was so pleased I could finally leave the whole saga behind. I waited, on edge, all afternoon to hear the outcome, but when the email arrived, it said his sentencing had been postponed until October.
Where to get help
Lifeline Call 0800 LIFELINE (0800 543 354) or text HELP (4357) for free, 24/7, confidential support – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.