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The BulletinApril 28, 2023

A drug-rape case of stunning brutality and scale


For the women who testified in the trial of two Christchurch rapists, the immediate ordeal is over. The trauma may take a lifetime to address, writes Catherine McGregor in this excerpt from The Bulletin, The Spinoff’s morning news round-up. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.

For survivors, a five-year journey to justice

Sexual offending is such a part of our daily reality that it can be easy to become inured to news stories about rape, abuse and sexual assault. But then a case lands that is so huge, the scale of the offending so horrific, that it’s impossible to look away. The trial and conviction of two Christchurch men for a slew of offences – including rape, sexual violation, stupefying and making intimate visual recordings without consent – is such a case. The men, who for three years stalked the now-closed inner city bar Mama Hooch looking for young women to drug and rape, have been convicted on 69 separate charges involving 17 victims. The case dates back to 2018, when two young women went to police the day after being assaulted by one of the men. “Their complaint led the police to start looking further,” reports Newshub’s Christchurch correspondent, Juliet Speedy. “A search of the police intelligence database between 2016 and 2019 disclosed 38 incidents across Canterbury, 24 of them coming from Mama Hooch.” The investigation, dubbed Operation Sinatra, would eventually see 127 charges laid; a total of 30 women made allegations.

‘You have to learn to live with that thread’

For the women who testified, the immediate ordeal is over. But Jo Bader, an Aviva sexual violence manager who has assisted survivors in the case, tells RNZ Checkpoint their experience of sexual assault will remain a “thread that’s woven into their lives. You have to learn to live with that thread.” During the case, the “men’s lawyers repeatedly questioned the women about their alcohol and drug use,” writes 1News’ Thomas Mead, in an excellent account of the long running investigation. “The questions would follow a familiar formula, all variations of the same thought: ‘How much did you have to drink that night?’” Bader says such questioning is a “very pointed way of making people feel like it’s their fault for having drunk so much”, noting also that “legally, you can’t actually consent if you’re intoxicated, anyway”. On The Spinoff, criminology professor Jan Jordan says the case “reminds us of how deep women’s blame and shame remains when it comes to rape, and how men continue to feel entitled to women’s bodies”. The convicted men may be vilified as “monsters”, “but we need to recognise their behaviour has come from somewhere, as an extension of patriarchal beliefs and attitudes.”

Why drink spiking is so hard to prove

The crime of stupefying – specifically, drink spiking – played a large role in the Christchurch case. Writes Speedy, the victims reported experiencing “memory loss, blackouts, vomiting, a weak and floppy body… feeling like being on anesthetic and displaying out-of-character behaviour such as rage.” The stupefying charges were hardest to make stick, as it was difficult to prove which of the men specifically spiked the drinks. On The Conversation, forensic scientist Lata Gautem says there are other reasons the crime can be hard to prove. “The substances associated with drink spiking cases are not always easy to notice – they dissolve quickly in drinks and do not have any smell or colour. By the time a victim reports a case, some drugs may have been cleared from the body, making drug detection difficult from blood or urine samples.”

10 years on, an echo of the Roast Busters scandal

The Christchurch men were part of a WhatsApp group where they planned attacks and shared sexually explicit material including a 14-minute rape video. There are similarities to the 2013 Roast Busters scandal, which centred on allegations a group of young Auckland men had intoxicated underage girls at parties to engage them in unlawful sexual acts, then boasted about their conquests online. No charges were laid at the time, but in 2022 two men admitted to historical sexual offences committed while they were in high school. In 2019, The Spinoff’s Alex Casey spoke to one of the survivors. “It wasn’t just a night I can forget,” ‘Laura’ told Casey. “I can’t take away my memory, I can’t take away the most terrifying thing that’s ever happened to me… I’m still living it.”

Keep going!