Illustration by Toby Morris
Illustration by Toby Morris

SocietyJanuary 25, 2019

‘I’m still living it’: a Roast Busters survivor’s story

Illustration by Toby Morris
Illustration by Toby Morris

On Monday night, Joseph Parker, one of a group of young men investigated relating to alleged sexual offences, broke his silence, talking to Newshub five years after The Roast Busters scandal exploded. Many of his survivors were watching. Alex Casey sat down with one of them this week in her Auckland home. Appalled by Parker’s decision to return the traumatic episode to the public stage, she decided to tell her story for the first time.

Content warning: This feature contains distressing descriptions of sexual assault, along with its mental health implications, which may be triggering to survivors.

Laura hasn’t been able to eat all week. “The closer that I am to Roast Busters stuff, the less I can take in of anything around me.” With tears in her eyes, she limply gestures from below her chin to the rest of her body. “It’s like everything from here down just doesn’t exist.” She’s felt this way since Monday morning, after she was notified in a text message from police that Roast Busters ringleader Joseph Parker was going to be interviewed on Newshub that evening. As she read his name, she was instantly transported back to the most terrifying night of her life.

First broken by 3 News in November 2013, the Roast Busters scandal centred around allegations a group of young Auckland men had been setting out to intoxicate underage girls at parties to engage them in unlawful sexual acts. The group would then boast about their conquests online, sometimes identifying the women involved. The revelations dominated local news cycles for weeks and were covered around the world, in stories like this BBC article headlined “New Zealand police probe ordered over ‘teen rape club’.”

A fortnight after the controversy erupted, a petition signed by 111,000 New Zealanders was presented to parliament, urging then prime minister John Key to ensure justice for the many young women who were victimised by Roast Busters. “It’s entirely unacceptable that our society would let gang rapists go free for years,” the petition read, “while multiple young women have approached the police seeking justice for their rapes.” In cities across New Zealand, thousands marched against rape and victim-blaming culture.

The police opened an investigation, called Operation Clover, that ran for over a year, identifying 35 young men as persons of interest and more than 100 young women as possible victims.

One of those women was Laura.

At the age of 16, Laura – whose name has been changed to protect her identity – was a self-described “teacher’s pet” who excelled in all her subjects, and embraced an ambitious number of extra-curricular activities. “I was an overachiever all the way, really athletic and really hard-working.” Always cast in the main roles in the school productions, top of her dance class and a leader of the community clean-up group, she was a textbook all-rounder. Beginning to experiment with flirting and boys, she felt like the world of adulthood was starting to open up for her.

One night in February 2013, she was having a sleepover with her best friend in West Auckland who was texting a boy she was interested in. He invited the two of them to have drinks in his garage, even offering to pick them up. “I remember she was so excited to get invited to a party, I guess we weren’t super popular. We were just giggling schoolgirls for sure.” Not long after, he pulled up on the street corner with two of his friends – Joseph Parker and Beraiah Hales.

“The boys didn’t talk much which was pretty weird, but they told us they were taking us to the lair,” she would later tell police. “I had no idea what that meant.”

They arrived at the house in Te Atatu, where “The Lair” turned out to be a double garage with a small lounge area and a large bucket bong. There was a sofa bed in the back, a chest freezer, and some camping gear. “It was just like drinks and a sesh in a garage,” she remembers. “I didn’t even drink or smoke that evening because I was very good as a teenager. I wasn’t sure if I’d be driving later, I wasn’t staying over or anything.” With her friend partnering off with the boy who invited them, Laura was left with the other two.

“It was pretty awkward because I didn’t really know the guys,” she told police in 2013, “we’d been expecting to go to like a big party with lots of her friends from high school.”

On first impression, she thought that Parker in particular “was very charming” in conversation. She remembers the pair employing a “team approach” – sitting on either side of her in what felt like an attempt to isolate her from her friend. Parker asked her to watch his music videos on the laptop by the sofa bed, which is when the men began to touch her, she says. Laura pushed their hands off and repeatedly told them to stop. “It felt like octopus arms all over me – you’d get up and move, and they would come over and start it all over again.”

“I’d push Joseph off and walk away angrily and then Beraiah would be there to say ‘he’s not that bad, we’re just having fun.’”

As the pattern repeated itself and she continued to resist, Laura became scared. I hadn’t even been in any situation where I’d been pursued like that before… I was terrified.” She escaped once more and sat next to her friend, asking her if she could text her dad to pick them up. Her friend, tipsy from the vodka the boys provided, told her to “just tell them to stop.” The boys continued to “corner” her, she says, each time a little more forcefully and intimately, putting their hands up her skirt and down the front of her long-sleeve shirt.

Again, she attempted to get help from her friend, sending her a text message that she wanted someone to pick them up. Laura didn’t have any of her contacts – her own phone had recently been stolen and she was borrowing the family phone that night. Eventually, Parker lifted her off the couch to move her back onto to the sofa bed. He began kissing her and unzipping his pants, as Hales lay down next to them. “I just remember being overwhelmed,” she says. “I got really freaked out.” She told police that she remembered Parker saying “all the girls say ‘no’ to start with, but they always give in.”

From that same police testimony in 2013, Laura recounted feeling trapped in that moment, the boys on either side of her. “I couldn’t really move anything. They are a lot bigger than me. The way they were positioned, they were lying on their sides with part of their body weight on my body, It was very difficult to move at all. Whenever I tried to get up they would always put their arms over my waist so that I couldn’t.” At that point in the interview, she asked the constable if she could take a break, because she was feeling sick.

Pulling her underwear aside, Parker and Hales had unprotected sex with Laura, one after the other, on that sofa bed. “I just went into survival mode. I turned into a rag doll and my brain shut off,” she remembers. It wasn’t until she felt them trying to reposition her body onto all fours, and the third boy touched her lips with his penis, that she “snapped out” of her daze. “It was this jolt of terror. I suddenly thought they were about to fuck my throat as well.” With the adrenaline flooding through her body, she shoved all three of them away from her and ran outside. She was still wearing her shoes.

“It was then that I then realised I didn’t even know where I was, because they had driven us there.” While she was trying to process what had just happened to her, Parker came outside and tried to convince her to “finish off” his friend. Laura returned to the garage, stood between the couch and the door, and told her friend, who was very intoxicated at this stage, they needed to walk home immediately. Her friend protested, assuring Laura that their pick up was only a few minutes away.

The friend who had been contacted didn’t live far from the address but had been drinking, so he set out to rescue the girls on foot. He had picked up other girls from there before and knew of the boys’ reputation, so he took a baseball bat for protection.

While they waited, Laura felt the mood change, particularly in the way Parker and Hales were talking to her. “They flipped the script from being these smooth-talking guys who were touching me all over to saying things like ‘well, you let us do that, you’ve been roasted now’ and ‘now everyone will know we roasted you’,” she recalls. “I didn’t even think they had raped me at first because I just felt so guilty.” It had been her first real experience of sex.

Five minutes later, the friend who had been texted showed up with the police. They had stopped him as he was walking and, after realising where he was headed, escorted him to the location – one known to them as a Roast Busters address. Laura remembers being handed the constable’s card and told to call if she had any more information. Consumed with shame, she ripped the card up into tiny pieces in the back seat of the police car. She drove herself to Family Planning the next day.

When the Spinoff put Laura’s account to Joseph Parker, he said he did not recognise the events detailed. “The description you gave me does not match anything I’ve read or ever recall,” he said. “Have a blessed day.”

The Spinoff has attempted to contact Beraiah Hales, but he is yet to respond. In January 2014, he told the NZ Herald that he and Parker were “the most hated people in New Zealand” and that he did not want to defend himself against “something that isn’t true.”

“It’s not what the girls say that I care about, it’s what [the media] have said,” said Hales. “As I said before, as long as I know the truth I’ll be fine.”

Laura didn’t tell anybody what had happened for nearly a year. “I basically sealed it off in my mind as something that I was to blame for.” For the rest of 2013, she describes living in a “massive depressive slump”. It was her final year of high school. “I didn’t understand what had happened to me,” she says. “I felt like something was wrong with me.” She gave up dancing, despite being top of her grade. “I watched her give away that final year,” says her mother. “It was heartbreaking to see her passion go out the door.”

Two days before her high school graduation, as the Roast Busters story filled news headlines, she received a call from a police officer who wanted her to help them with their inquiry. This was Operation Clover, which had just been launched by the police with Child Youth and Family (CYFs), and HELP (Support for Sexual Abuse Survivors). Laura was one of 110 girls and young women canvassed.

She went in and told them everything. “It wasn’t until I started talking about it with the police that I realised what had really happened to me,” she says. “I realised the mind games they were playing… It was so manipulative and disgusting, they knew exactly what they were doing.”

As she had been sober and had a lucid recollection of the events, Laura felt she received a more exhaustive questioning by the police. Were they holding her down? Where they pinning her arms? Did they hit her? Did she bleed? Did they force her legs open? Was the touch playful or aggressive? “The police grilled me a lot and talked to me so much more because I was one of the girls who wasn’t intoxicated – their main prey was intoxicated girls.”

“It was so hard to rehash everything over and over – to someone typing on a computer, to a recorder, to a video camera. It was so much.” The questioning continued as she embarked on her first year of university. She had received a $45,000 scholarship for high achievers to attend.

Although Laura was offered a support person from counselling service HELP, having to recount the experience impacted her mental health. She developed anxiety, depression and started having nightmares. “I would see their faces on the news, or have to recount the story in a police interview, and then I would vividly dream of the event.” The first time it happened, she woke up soaking in sweat and crying. “After that happened several times, I began to have panic attacks after police interviews or seeing them in the media, knowing I may have to relive the event in the following nights.”

Even now, six years later, she is still scared of falling asleep. “I want to rest now, I want to recover from seeing him on the news, but I won’t go to sleep this week because I’m so afraid.”

Her sleep problems quickly began to interfere with her physical health and wellbeing, something she continues to battle with today. “If I get stressed, I can’t sleep, so my immunity drops massively, which becomes another stress.” Her fragile health still affects her ability to work – she had to take several days leave from her job this week following the interview with Parker on Newshub. “It makes everything so much more stressful,” she says through tears, “because you have to carry all of that around with you as well.”

When she wasn’t in police questioning – which went on at least monthly for an entire year, for hours at a time – Laura couldn’t escape the constant mainstream media coverage. “There was no reprieve,” she says. “It’s like there was just Roast Busters static over my whole memory.” One of the media moments she recalls clearly is when Willie Jackson and John Tamihere, hosts of the afternoon show on RadioLIVE, grilled the 18 year friend of a Roast Busters victim about what she was wearing, how much she had to drink and what age she lost her virginity.

Immediately after hearing that interview, Laura vomited. “I was so angry and stressed that it literally made me sick to my stomach. How could you have these people blatantly victim-blaming and siding with these guys?” Her mother calls the interview “absolutely disgusting”. Companies including ANZ, Yellow and Freeview pulled their advertising from RadioLIVE in the aftermath, and both Tamihere and Jackson apologised and were suspended for the remainder of 2013. Jackson is now a member of parliament.

Avoiding conversation about the Roast Busters on social media was also impossible – everywhere was “ablaze” with the topic, she says. If it wasn’t the public debating in the comments section of news articles, it was coming from the Roast Busters themselves. As reported by Stuff at the time, Hales answered thousands of questions on website Ask FM, including “how would u get a girl into bed?” His answer? “Chloroform.” The names of women who had been “roasted” remained on various other social media platforms, leaving Laura “terrified” that she would be identified.

“I felt so much shame, and I was terrified that my parents and friends would see me as a failure and as a tramp. They used slut-shaming as a tool to silence us.”

The police interview process dragged on through Laura’s first year at university. As her exams drew closer, the combination of debilitating anxiety, interviews, part-time work and full-time study came to a head. “The only exam that I ever failed was right after a six hour video interview with the police,” she says. “I realised I couldn’t continue with uni because it was too difficult.” Although she was offered discounted counselling services, it wasn’t sustainable. “I showed up to about half and it felt like a waste of time. I knew I couldn’t afford to keep going.”

In spite of the trauma it triggered, Laura continued to provide testimony because she was confident it was the process by which charges would be laid. “I genuinely believed, talking to the officers, that they believed me and they wanted action.” She had sought independent legal advice, even ran through a mock cross-examination, and felt assured by both the lawyers and the police that her story would stand up in court. One day she was called into the Police station, where she was introduced to a man she had never spoken to before.

She immediately knew something was wrong.

“He walked in and told me there was no court trial, all cases were being treated separately and my case doesn’t have enough evidence.”

The impact of the police decision didn’t hit her until a few days later. “I was initially really shaken and in disbelief, which turned into panic attacks,” she says. “They at least gave me assurance that he [Parker] had left the country – lucky for him – to avoid it all. But I couldn’t avoid it.” She felt as if she wasn’t given a proper explanation as to why there wasn’t going to be a trial, or why the multiple complaints put forward by were being treated individually.

At the peak of the controversy in November 2013, the police were forced to admit that the insistence their inquiry pre-dating Operation Clover had received no complaints was wrong. In fact, at least four teenagers had laid complaints. Three of them were 13 years old. Then Police Commissioner Peter Marshall acknowledged that mistakes had been made in communication, but defended the overall operation and insisted there was no “cultural malaise” in its investigation of sexual assault complaints.

“We can’t afford to fail victims of sexual assault, and if we do the public will not forgive us,” he wrote.

Two years later in 2015, a inquiry conducted by the Independent Police Conduct Authority found that the original police investigation had indeed failed victims. The report concluded that “‘Roastbusters’ victims were let down by Police”, and enumerated “a number of significant deficiencies in the original Police investigations into the alleged offending”. The IPCA also found that “the officers investigating these matters tended to approach each case on an individual, case-by-case, basis simply to consider whether there was sufficient evidence to prosecute the offenders.”

It added that “the officers should have identified the connections between the various cases and worked with other agencies to develop strategies to reduce the recurrence of what was clearly unacceptable and, in some cases, criminal behaviour.”

In response to questions from the Spinoff, the police stressed that in Operation Clover, “All incidents were investigated and reviewed individually and each assessed on a case-by-case basis, as well as considering the merits of a group prosecution.”

Superintendent Karyn Malthus said: “Police are satisfied that every investigative avenue available to the investigation team was fully explored in the Operation Clover reinvestigation. Any relevant new information relating to the matter would be assessed on a case-by-case basis to determine what, if any, further steps might be required from a police perspective.

“Should any victim wish to meet with police to discuss the investigation into their complaint, we are more than happy to talk with them further.”

Laura says she completely lost faith in the criminal justice system after processing the decision. “Trusting anyone is really difficult when someone has wronged you like that. Why would I trust the police when the officers who interviewed me told me that they believe me, that they want to see a conviction, and then there was nothing? I don’t trust the systems that are supposed to protect me.” She says that she didn’t feel safe then, and she doesn’t feel safe now. “I don’t trust that, if this happens to me again, that the perpetrator would be convicted.”

In New Zealand, it is notoriously difficult to secure convictions for sexual violence. Such crimes are far less likely to be reported to police than similarly serious offences, and when they are, they are much less likely to be prosecuted, with rape cases four times less likely to go to court than other physical assault cases. According to recent reporting by the NZ Herald, 2400 reported violent sex crimes were “unresolved” in 2016. “Unresolved” denotes that police believe an assault occurred, but there was no charge ultimately laid.

The data suggests around 80 per cent of reported aggravated sexual assaults go unresolved.

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Joseph Parker is smiling. “This moment right here is what I was running from,” he tells journalist Karen Rutherford, his broad grin breaking into a laugh. It’s the first of his two extended on-camera interviews with Newshub, and he’s describing why speaking out now “feels right” after five years of silence. He’s been in Los Angeles since 2014, when he fled the country at the peak of Roast Busters publicity. There, he claims to have rediscovered his faith in God and has been pursuing a career in music.

The Roast Busters began “as a joke”, Parker explains to Rutherford. “It was pretty much a show-off, boasting, sort of a brag thing that we thought would last for a day or a week or something.” When asked about his behaviour towards women like Laura on a typical night out, Parker says they would “try to convince them to be interested.” Part of that convincing meant “talking to them nicely, things like ‘this Roast Buster reputation, I don’t really like it’,” he admits. “Saying things to make them trust us, you know?”

“At what point did you realise,” Rutherford asks Parker, “that group sex with an underage female – a non-consenting, often drunk female – was not OK? That’s a crime. At what point did you realise that?” Parker looks stern. “The police have all the details on every single complaint. They decided not to press charges for a reason.” He maintains he isn’t there to defend the Roast Busters or their actions. “We made a lot of mistakes, did a lot of things wrong.” He pauses. “But at the same time, we weren’t the monsters that everybody thought we were.”

After his first interview aired on Monday night, survivors were left in a state of shock, calling his comments “gross” and “wrong.” Speaking to RNZ, Fiona McNamara of the Sexual Abuse Prevention Network said the interview was “about himself and his experiences, rather than really focusing on the harm that was caused.” Laura’s mother condemns both Parker’s decision to speak out, and Newshub’s decision to facilitate him. “What he has done is the most selfish thing a person can do,” she says.

“He knows he’s done wrong and he got away with it, and now he gets to go on TV and retraumatise everyone again.”

Laura also expresses frustration with how Newshub chose to centralise the narrative of the accused. “The story isn’t about how can we get justice, or how can we prevent this happening again, it’s still about them. Just like the last round of stories and the stories before that.” She sees it as a missed opportunity to start a valuable dialogue. “There was a huge chance to talk about the culture that they have fallen prey to, but there was no conversation about any of the things that are the actual problems.

“What he literally says in the first interview about people thinking he was cool for doing this, so he wanted to emulate it even more… That is rape culture, that is toxic masculinity, that is a disastrous melting pot of miseducation and selfishness.”

Newshub’s chief news officer Hal Crawford defended the decision to run the interview in an opinion piece for the network’s website. Responding to questions from The Spinoff, he said, “Karen [Rutherford’s] conversations with Parker began some months ago and we were aware from the outset that he was releasing a song. She had also stayed in contact with several victims and relevant police in the years since she broke the story in 2013. We contacted victims and police before the story ran as we were aware there would be great sensitivity around the interview.”

They had not known, however, about the Patreon crowdfunding page set up by Parker. “Motivation can be relevant in situations like this, particularly if it impacts on the accuracy of information provided, but in this case it was important to hear from a central figure breaking silence on a story of national concern. Our intention in broadcasting this interview was not to wound victims. In reporting on Joseph Parker we do not condone him,” he said.

“I think he just wants attention,” says Laura. “He wanted to go viral then, and he wants the same for himself now.” She was furious to discover that he appeared to be marketing himself and his music career off the back of her trauma. “I can’t even afford to go to therapy to fix what he did to me, and he’s out there asking for money for his Patreon?”

Under the artist name HOHEPA, Parker details the moment that he was delivered the police verdict in the song ‘Trophies’ on his Youtube channel. “I was finally liberated when I moved to the US,” he sings, “and I got a call on the phone with no charges.” Laura has listened to it, once. “That song is all about his struggle, moving to LA and then being relieved to get the call that he was off scot-free,” she says. “That was up there as one of the worst days of my life, feeling so failed by everyone after turning my life upside down for a year.”

Laura has never received an apology from Parker. “If he wants to apologise to me, I want him to read my police testimony and see what he did to me. I don’t even really want him to go to jail, I just want him to face what he’s done. See how you look in my story, see who you are in my life, see what I have gone through.” In his second interview on Tuesday night, Parker says he is not seeking forgiveness from the women. “I have to be honest, my forgiveness has already been found in God… I would definitely be happy if they would do that, but that’s not what I’m here for.”

“If he truly was repentant,” says Laura’s mother, “he’d actually be speaking out against rape culture and showing support for the victims.”

Although she never returned to university after dropping out at the end of 2014, Laura remains just as ambitious as that 16 year old who loved to sing, dance and play sports. “I’m still hard-working, but it really put me on the back foot.” Currently working in project management full-time and juggling side projects including her own small business, she describes her life as “running full steam ahead.” Yet she still carries the anger and the hurt with her every day, and is now demanding change in New Zealand.

“We can have all the #MeToo movement and all of that, but I still have to look at him on the six o’clock news without any mention of prevention or protection, any promise of harm reduction at all,” she says. “He gets to go on the news to promote his new song, I get a 20% off voucher for counselling sessions.”

If she could ask for anything, it would be for better education about consent in New Zealand. “Rape culture has taught people that women are always in the wrong,” agrees her mother. “Laura was manipulated by that to feel guilt, that she did something to bring this upon herself. She didn’t, she was just being a normal teenager and she was preyed upon. Now her life has changed and she will never be the same – she’s scarred for life. The public haven’t really been made aware of the long term consequences of these traumas.”

That is what is missing from the story, agrees Laura, the fact that she has to live with what Parker and Hales did to her for the rest of her life. “It wasn’t just a night I can forget. I can’t take away my memory, I can’t take away the most terrifying thing that’s ever happened to me.” She describes it as like a horror film that constantly replays in her memories and her dreams, one that she fears she will never be able to turn off. “That’s what I want people to know – it’s not just a thing you tell the police and then it’s finished. It’s a part of my life now.”

“When the story is all done, when the comments section has dried up, I’m still living it.”

Additional reporting by Duncan Greive, Toby Manhire, Leonie Hayden, Don Rowe and Alex Braae. Feature illustration by Toby Morris.

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If the events depicted in this story have been triggering in any way, please consider contacting any of the following organisations:

Safe to Talk

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Women’s Refuge

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