The Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse, which has commenced private hearings in Brisbane this month, is expected to shed light on one of Tweed Shire's darkest secrets — horrifying abuse, systematic cover-ups and institutional failure and corruption in NSW schools and the police service. Parent and whistleblower Fiona Barnett fronts the Commission tomorrow — here she tells part of this story (with managing editor David Donovan).
[Read Part 2]
ON 14 MARCH 2006, Jill Carlon, Chief Investigator for Employee Performance & Conduct of the Department of Education and Training, sent concerned Tweed Shire parents a letter:
'I am writing to advise you of the finalisation of the investigation and follow up action taken in respect to allegations that a teacher at Centaur Primary School, acted in a manner that could amount to improper conduct against students... In reviewing the investigation, all the available information has been carefully considered and, as a result, steps have been taken to ensure that the person will no longer be employed or involved in school, TAFE or student-related activities.'
The letter brought to an end, at least for the parents involved, an 18 year nightmare and an alleged reign of terror by that teacher — of physical, emotional and sexual assault and abuse.
However, many questions still remain, including how this man was allowed to be exposed to vulnerable children over such a long period? How has this matter been covered up for so long? How was he able to continue teaching in NSW independent schools, and in public schools just a few miles away across the border in Queensland? Why have NSW police consistently refused to properly investigate his activities? And why has he never faced criminal prosecution?
East Murwillumbah Primary School
The teacher in question was Gary Willis, a middle-aged man who transferred to Northern NSW in the late 1980s. Despite allegedly having no prior experience in special needs, Willis received a 3-year position at East Murwillumbah Primary School’s Special Education Unit.
Almost immediately Willis began working at the School, allegations of inappropriate behaviour emerged — even directly in front of parents.
For instance, one outraged mother related, in a written statement, that Gary Willis had allegedly exposed his penis and urinated directly in front of children, parents, and teachers during a school excursion:
'Gary Willis made no attempt to be discrete [sic] or hide his penis from any of us and grinned the whole time he was urinating. I was horrified that a teacher would conduct himself in this manner in front of young children, so I reported the incident to the principal, Al Gudgeon.'
Principal Gudgeon asked the parent to tell him specific times and dates of the incidents, apparently so that he could report them. The mother provided the requested information, but said the principal never followed through with the complaint:
'I became very frustrated and angry with Al Gudgeon because I believed he was not taking any of these matters seriously and trying to cover up all complaints. I felt so strongly about the lack of protection and moral obligation to all children attending East Murwillumbah Primary School because of Al Gudgeon and Gary Willis, I transferred my children to another school.'
In the classroom, Gary Willis was responsible for the most vulnerable children imaginable — children who were intellectually disabled, autistic, unable to walk and unable to speak. Former students, parents, and teachers allege that Gary Willis sexually and physically assaulted these disabled children. Witnesses, including other teachers, also say they witnessed Gary Willis being violent toward students, including allegedly ramming a wheelchair bound child into a wall and thrusting another disabled boy’s head into a sink.
Two teachers stated that Gary Willis constantly refused to allow female aids to toilet the female students and that he insisted on doing this delicate task himself.
Arguably even more shocking, witnesses allege that Gary Willis taught mainstream schoolboys to sexually assault the disabled girls. Medical evidence, police interviews and local DOCS intervention appear to support this claim. Police, DOCS, and a paediatrician concluded that two girls had been sexually assaulted at East Murwillumbah Primary School; Gary Willis was named in both cases. Parents subsequently watched him being seized by police from the school for questioning.
How was he allowed to allegedly perform these heinous acts almost entirely unchecked?
To begin with, it seems his line manager, East Murwillumbah’s Special Needs Unit head Steve Tyler (now deceased), at best turned a blind eye to his alleged activities and, at worst, according to some reports, may have even been an active participant in the abuse.
Numerous witnesses complained to East Murwillumbah Principal Al Gudgeon about these and other abuse allegations. But Al Gudgeon apparently delayed notifying the Education Department and DOCS of the allegations and instead tried to cover the matter up — including by making late night phone calls to parents, where he allegedly threatened them with legal and departmental action if they continued their complaints, amongst other repercussions. To keep the staff quiet, Gudgeon allegedly threatened teachers with dismissal if they spoke to parents about what they had witnessed at the school.
What is more, teachers also complained about Al Gudgeon’s own inappropriate behaviour. One described an incident when the principal allegedly used a child to deliver a picture of a penis to a 22-year-old female teachers’ aide, and then complained when his gift was returned.
Parents and staff complained about the child abuse allegations at East Murwillumbah School ‒ verbally, personally, and in writing ‒ to the Education Department’s Head Office in Sydney, to the Lismore Regional Office and to the Cluster Director at the Murwillumbah District Office.
A special needs teacher aide, Debra Edwards, submitted a hand-written complaint (dated 25 July 1991) to Cluster Director John Quill. Mrs Edwards reported catching Gary Willis with a naked, disabled, female student ("AA") on an excursion. In her complaint, Mrs Edwards alleged that she witnessed Gary Willis take the child AA to the men’s toilet during another excursion and doing something to her that made her laugh uncharacteristically while toileting. On another excursion, she said she witnessed Gary Willis take AA for a lone motorbike ride into the bush and then admit to having toileted her.
Mrs Edwards also says she witnessed Willis physically assault children.
Debra Edwards never heard from the Education Department regarding her written complaint to the Cluster Director. To her knowledge, neither Principal Al Gudgeon nor the Department ever informed the girl's parents that formal complaints had been made concerning the alleged abuse of their daughter whilst in the care of the East Murwillumbah Primary School. The Department did, however, subsequently ban Gary Willis from approaching the child.
When parents further complained to Cluster Director John Quill that Gary Willis was allegedly sexually abusing their children, Quill concluded that the best outcome parents could hope for was to have the perpetrator transferred to another school.
In response to multiple child abuse complaints, witnesses say the NSW Education Department sent three investigators to East Murwillumbah Primary School to monitor the behaviour of Gary Willis for three weeks. Unfortunately, Gary Willis was allegedy warned that these investigators were coming and so behaved impeccably during the observation period. After concluding their watching brief, the investigators reported that they perceived no problem with Gary Willis. They reached these conclusions despite not having interviewed any parents or staff witnesses.
Parent "DM" stated that she received a phone call from a Sydney solicitor acting on behalf of Gary Willis. The solicitor stated that she was representing Willis in some matter involving “AA”. The solicitor sent a document for DM to sign, which asked her to attest that Gary Willis never hurt her intellectually disabled daughter.
But Gary Willis did, allegedly, hurt her daughter — as the former student’s statement reveals:
“Mr Tyler was watching when Mr Willis put the stick between my legs… Mr Willis put stick in other girls – L… Mr Willis pulls pants down all the time, and Mr Tyler, before he died, he watched him. Mr Willis showed everyone what he’s got. He played with it…”
Teacher Jeff Fallon stated that around 1994 (the same time DM received the phone call from a Sydney solicitor), he received a visit from a frantic Al Gudgeon, who stated that a complaint concerning DM's daughter had ‘gone up a notch’ and was now with the Minister for Education. The principal allegedly asked Fallon whether he possessed a copy of the minutes from meetings he and Gudgeon attended concerning the abuse allegations at the school.
Jeff Fallon said the Education Department suspended Gary Willis from teaching in the early 1990s, and placed him at Murwillumbah District Office for 12 months while he was being investigated for misconduct.
South Tweed Primary School
In 1991, the NSW Education Department transferred Gary Willis to South Tweed Primary School, where he was assigned to teach infants.
Parents and teachers soon complained to the principal about how Gary Willis presented himself and acted around students.
For example, one teacher described in a statement his work attire:
'He wore short ‘ruggers’ with no underpants, and often you could see the cheeks of his bum, his testicles, and his penis hanging out the bottom. He wore thongs and old, faded stretched round-neck t-shirts. I can’t remember ever seeing him dressed differently.'
Parents at the new school soon began complaining about Gary Willis’ mistreatment of their children.
For instance, a Grade One boy (“E”), told his mother that Gary Willis constantly locked himself with little girls in the class storeroom. Other former students recalled similar incidents:
“I remember Mr Willis took one or two girls into the classroom storeroom alone and shut the door. He would stay in there for a while. The girls would go into the storeroom with neat hair, but would come out with messed up hair. Sometimes the girls would look upset and as though they were about to cry. Mr Willis chose the pretty girls to take into the storeroom.”
E also complained that he was being constantly harassed and physically assaulted by Gary Willis. E’s mother appealed for help to a friend of hers, Dawn Mitchell. Mrs Mitchell happened to know about Gary Willis from East Murwillumbah Primary School, where she had accompanied DM to meetings with Al Gudgeon. Mrs Mitchell also happened to know the family of an Indigenous boy in Gary Willis’s class ("T").
In a signed statement, T recalled being physically and emotionally abused by Gary Willis, who – he alleged – regularly called him "coon", "nigger" and "the black snake". Two former classmates and one former teacher corroborated T's testimony in writing.
Mrs Mitchell consulted South Tweed Primary School’s Aboriginal Liaison Officer / School Counsellor, Joan Sheriff, and relayed the child abuse allegations against Gary Willis that had arisen at Murwillumbah East Primary School.
Ms Sheriff apparently reprimanded Mrs Mitchell for making the accusations, but then allegedly said:
"I never did like his short shorts."
The Principal then contacted Mrs Mitchell and arranged a meeting with her, during which Mrs Mitchell reported Gary Willis’ extensive history of child abuse allegations.
But just days following the two meetings, Gary Willis supervised a school sleepover attended by infant children. During the sleepover, Gary Willis allegedly sexually assaulted six young girls. The following day, parents, teachers, and students witnessed the girls in a distressed state at school assembly.
Three Tweed South parents complained to the school principal, counsellor and teachers regarding Gary Willis’ abuse of children. According to them, their complaints were mishandled and denied.
One of the parent's daughter's wrote a statement when she was 20:
'I recall that Gary Willis came to my house out of the blue one night and insisted on getting some takeaway and having dinner with my mother and I. My mother looked shocked at this, and she couldn’t get rid of him. In an effort to get him away from our house, my mother suggested we go somewhere else for dinner. We went to Club Banora and had the buffet. All night during this meal, Mr Willis sat me on his lap, played with my hair, and told me how beautiful I was.'
Despite parents’ ongoing protest, Gary Willis was allowed to supervise a second school camp at Hastings Point. Again, teachers, parents and students allegedly witnessed Gary Willis visit young girls’ tents late into the night.
Parents and teachers complained that Gary Willis allegedly made young female school children change into their sports uniforms in the back of his panel van while he watched. Witnesses also recall Gary Willis taught girls dancing at Tweed Heads South Public School and an occasion in which he supervised these dancers at a combined schools concert at a local club. During the concert, Gary Willis was allegedly seen refusing to allow parents to change his young dancers backstage, so that he alone changed them.
A Tweed Heads South Public School teacher witnessed complaints about Gary Willis allegedly flood into the school, particularly from Grade Five and Six students. When she consulted the principal about these complaints, she was told that “photographic evidence” was needed before the allegations could be acted on. The teacher stated that Gary Willis was subsequently banned from associating with the older students at the school, but was still placed in charge of infants.
In 1992-93, the parents of an 8-year-old child girl in Gary Willis’ class phoned their friend, South Tweed teacher “Ms X” and reported that Willis had just sexually assaulted their daughter "BB". Ms X immediately attended the family home and spoke with the victim. Gary Willis had allegedly asked BB and another little girl to stay behind after school that afternoon. He then allegedly took the girls into his classroom storeroom, fondled them, and digitally penetrated them. Consequently, BB suffered bed-wetting and screaming in her sleep. Despite Ms X’s pleading, the parents declined to have Gary Willis charged because they did not want to put their daughter through the police and legal system.
Ms X reported the assault to the Principal Genevieve (Geni) Coughlin. The principal allegedly told Ms X to remain silent about the assaults. She also allegedly bullied her, yelled abuse at Ms X through her classroom window. She also subsequently allegedly criticised Ms X’s teaching to parents, though many of the same parents responded by supporting Ms X — at least one calling her "the best teacher ever". Ms X was pregnant during the worst of this abuse and says she began to experience stress and high blood pressure after these highly stressful experiences.
Ms X complained to the District Inspector at Murwillumbah about Gary Willis and the principal’s bullying.
The Director allegedly advised Ms X to:
“Tell the people at South Tweed to have enough intestinal fortitude to stand up to her and come to me with their grievances, so I can do something about it.”
Ms X’s work colleagues shied from following the Inspector’s second-hand advice, allegedly out of fear of reprisal.
The NSW Department of Education sent a counsellor to speak with South Tweed teaching staff. Without interviewing either the victim or her parents, the counsellor dismissed Ms X’s allegations of child sexual abuse against Gary Willis as being unfounded. The counsellor allegedly told Ms X that she was being irrational, to think of her unborn baby, and she advised the whistle-blower to "punch a pillow" to relieve her frustration and anger regarding Gary Willis and the principal.
Ms X subsequently suffered a nervous breakdown and resigned from the NSW Department of Education altogether.
She could not cope with entering a school again for 20 years.
The once-passionate teacher concluded:
'I was the one who the Department said needed counselling, and I was the one who ultimately resigned in frustration, and yet a suspected child sex abuser was left alone in his classroom, teaching.'
Following multiple complaints against Gary Willis at South Tweed Primary School, the NSW Education Department eventually transferred him to the neighbouring Centaur Primary School.
Centaur Primary School
In 1998, when Ms X’s youngest child started school at Centaur Primary School she was appalled to see Gary Willis at the school, still teaching.
She immediately consulted the principal Mary-Anne Judge. Ms X told Ms Judge about Gary Willis’ history of abusing children, and warned that he was not to approach her child.
The principal allegedly responded:
“I absolutely understand. I wouldn’t have him here if I had any other option. I’m stuck with him.”
Dawn Mitchell’s own daughter attended Centaur Primary School.
In 1998, upon discovering that her child had been placed in Gary Willis’ English class, Mrs Mitchell (accompanied by parents Eric and Jeanette Ackerman) met with principal Mary-Anne Judge. Mrs Mitchell raised concerns about Gary Willis teaching her children and his history of alleged abuse at his two previous schools. Principal Judge allegedly told the three parents that she was unaware of any abuse allegations and she challenged Mrs Mitchell to either prove them or stay silent.
That evening, Principal Judge phoned Mrs Mitchell and allegedly stated that what the mother had said regarding Gary Willis’s abuse allegations was true, but that she would not confirm it in front of other parents. Mary-Anne Judge said that she had been trying unsuccessfully to get rid of Gary Willis for quite a while but that the Education Department had resisted her efforts. Mary-Anne Judge indicated that, with this mother’s help, she might successfully "get rid of" Gary Willis.
During their next encounter, Principal Judge allegedly told Mrs Mitchell that she had contacted the Education Department’s Regional Director, and that she was waiting to hear back from him. Mrs Mitchell next saw Principal Judge at a Grade Six break-up dinner. Principal Judge is said to have asked this mother:
"Have you noticed someone’s been conspicuous by their absence?"
She was apparently referring to Gary Willis, who had been absent from the school for some time.
Mrs Mitchell said Principal Judge then stated:
"Expect a visit by the NSW Education Department over the holidays."
The mother was never contacted by the NSW Education Department. Feeling threatened, Mrs Mitchell pulled her daughter out of Centaur Primary School.
Following a stint in administration at the Murwillumbah District Office, Gary Willis was reinstated at Centaur Primary School. Upon his return, multiple allegations of inappropriate behaviour and sexual abuse were subsequently reported to Principal Mary-Anne Judge.
A former Centaur teacher, Sandy McGrady, alleged that every single Centaur teacher was aware of Gary Willis’ history of paedophilia allegations. She added that a Centaur parent confided in her that Willis sexually abused her daughter. Another teacher, Alison Howells, alleged that a cleaner caught Gary Willis sexually assaulting a girl in a Centaur Primary School storeroom. Another parent stated that Gary Willis sexually assaulted a Grade 5 student, "CC", in 2003.
In 2004, Centaur parent Sharon O’Grady allegedly confronted Principal Mary-Anne Judge about Gary Willis and she asked whether her daughter was at risk in the teacher’s care. Sharon O'Grady says Principal Judge replied "no" and she denied any knowledge of Gary Willis’ history.
At a Centaur Primary School disco to celebrate Harmony Day in 2004, parents Steven and Victoria Boyce reportedly saw Gary Willis dancing with young girls in an inappropriate fashion. They said he was dressed in a toga and ‘dirty dancing’ with the girls, including pelvic thrusting towards them from behind.
When Mrs Boyce complained to a teacher supervising the disco, the teacher apparently responded:
"It’s all part of the fun."
Teachers were seen taking photos of Gary Willis dancing at the disco.
During the disco, Gary Willis allegedly entered the girls’ toilet and peered underneath a locked door at Mrs Boyce’s daughter. Mrs Boyce said she witnessed the deputy principal chastise Gary Willis for being in the girls’ toilet.
Mrs Boyce alleged that Gary Willis made the girls in his class sit immodestly on the classroom floor. Instead of sitting with their legs crossed, he made them sit with their legs apart and knees bent up.
Mrs Boyce said that she complained to the school about Gary Willis’ behaviour at the disco. When she mentioned other abuse allegations regarding Gary Willis, the deputy principal, Mr Burgess, allegedly stated:
"I’ve heard that before, but it’s a load of bullshit."
In 2006, the NSW Department of Education finally determined that the rumours were not bullshit — and they banned Gary Willis from teaching in the NSW public education system.
However, because he had never been charged with a crime, Gary Willis was free to seek child-related employment in the NSW private education sector and interstate. After leaving the NSW Education Department, Gary Willis found two years of employment as a bus driver at a private Tweed Shire school, Lakeside Christian College (renamed Pacific Coast Christian School).
Gary Willis was last seen living and working in Queensland.
(The names of alleged victims in this piece have been redacted for their privacy and protection, as have some of the parents and teachers. The statements and allegations made, however, are supported by interview notes, witness statements, documentary evidence and statutory declarations. All this evidence, and much more, will be passed to the NSW police and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Abuse.)
*****In Part Two, Fiona Barnett details her part in bringing Gary Willis to justice and her incredible treatment by NSW Police. Here is an excerpt:
I felt so threatened by Tweed Heads police that I took my 10-month-old baby and my six year old child into hiding for the next six weeks.
My suspicions were justified days later when Superintendent Tarlinton dispatched five squad cars to ambush my home and two relatives’ homes nearby at Banora Point.
My accountant husband, due to fly interstate for a work conference, pre-booked a taxi to the Gold Coast airport. Three squad cars followed the taxi which pulled up on the highway just south of the Queensland / NSW border. The taxi driver told my husband to exit his vehicle. Police, dressed in SWAT gear, thrust three loaded semi-automatic weapons at my husband’s head, ordered him face down on the side of the highway and handcuffed him.
Five months later, I received the letter from the NSW Education Department informing me that they had banned Gary Willis from teaching in the NSW public system.
The Gary Willis timeline
1988 to 1990: Multiple parents and teachers lodged complaints against Steve Tyler and Gary Willis, concerning the alleged sexual and physical assault of numerous children at East Murwillumbah Primary school to Principal Al Gudgeon, the NSW Education Department, NSW DOCS and the NSW police. Nineteen families removed their children from the school in protest and attended a rally in the local park.
1991 (July): An East Murwillumbah Primary School teacher aide made a formal written complaint against Gary Willis’ sexual and physical assault of special needs children to the NSW Education Department.
1991: NSW Education Department transfer Gary Willis to South Tweed Primary School.
1991 to 1992: Multiple parents complained to South Tweed Primary School’s principal about Gary Willis’ alleged sexual and physical assault of students.
1993: South Tweed Primary School teacher lodged a formal complaint to the NSW Education Department regarding Gary Willis’ sexual assault of a Grade 3 student.
1993: Unspecified “action was taken” against Gary Willis in relation to allegations of child sexual abuse, according to the NSW Child Protection and Sex Crimes Squad.
1994: A teacher and a parent were informed that Gary Willis was currently defending himself in a Sydney court against accusations that he sexually assaulted a disabled East Murwillumbah Primary School student.
1998 (February): a parent who formerly taught with Gary Willis complained to Centaur Primary School principal about Gary Willis’s history of sexually assaulting students. Principal Judge allegedly admitted knowledge of Gary Willis’ history of child sexual abuse allegations.
1998 (Mid-year): three parents complained to principal Judge about Gary Willis’ history of child sexual abuse allegations. Principal Judge denied knowledge of these allegations.
1998 (December): NSW Education Department temporarily suspended Gary Willis’ teaching position at Centaur Primary School.
2003: Gary Willis was again teaching at Centaur Primary School where he allegedly assaulted a Grade 5 female student.
2004: A parent was reportedly threatened after attempting to have Gary Willis charged for the alleged sexual assault of a female student.
2004 (March): Centaur Primary School parents complained to Centaur Primary School principal Judge about Gary Willis’ recent sexually inappropriate behaviour toward children. Deputy principal denied any knowledge of Gary Willis’ history of child sexual abuse allegations.
2004 (June): Parents complained to Centaur Primary School principal about Gary Willis’ history of child sexual abuse allegations. Principal Judge allegedly denied any knowledge of Gary Willis’ history of child sexual abuse allegations.
2004: Concerned parents commenced a campaign against Gary Willis. Written complaints were lodged with the Prime Minister plus multiple ministers and institutions.
2004: NSW Education Department informed concerned parents that their file on Gary Willis contained multiple complaints of child sexual abuse, that many incidents were of a criminal nature, and that the complaints were being referred to the NSW police.
2004 (October 9): A senior police officer from the NSW Child Protection and Sex Crime Squad was suspended for allegedly possessing child pornography on his home computer.
2004 (October 27: The NSW Child Protection and Sex Crimes Squad refused to investigate multiple allegations of child sexual abuse against Gary Willis plus other named alleged perpetrators, including multiple teachers and DOCS workers.
2005 (October): NSW police ambushed the home of the lead campaigner against the Gary Willis, plus two relatives’ homes, and thrust three, loaded semi-automatic weapons to her husband’s head.
2006: The NSW Education Department finalised their investigation into multiple allegations of child sexual and physical abuse against Gary Willis. They concluded that Gary Willis engaged in “improper conduct against students” and subsequently permanently banned him from teaching in the NSW public education system.
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