In 2004, concerned parent and whistleblower Fiona Barnett became determined to end teacher Gary Willis’ (then) 15 year alleged child abuse spree — but the NSW Education Department and police had decidedly different ideas. Here, Fiona tells the second part of this story (with managing editor David Donovan).
[Read Part One]
In 2004, when I was six months pregnant, my lawn mowing lady raised the alarm. She began complaining about a male teacher at her children’s primary school who was reportedly abusing students. When the woman described the man’s extremely tight and brief shorts, I instantly recognised him as Gary Willis.
I first heard about Gary Willis when I was attending a local high school in the late 1980s. I grew up hearing horrifying stories of this teacher allegedly abusing young disabled children at three local primary schools. Indeed, Gary Willis allegedly sexually, physically and psychologically abused children from the homes of four different family friends.
I reasoned that the previous campaign against Gary Willis failed because parents complained from the bottom up. This approach allowed the perpetrators and their allies to intercept and quash any action.
So, I lodged a complaint against Gary Willis, who was then teaching at Centaur Primary School. I alleged that Gary Willis had exhibited inappropriate behaviour toward students at three schools, raising concerns about the protection of Centaur children. I also named other teachers whom parents and staff had also alleged were paedophiles.
I requested an investigation into the NSW Education Department’s mishandling of abuse allegations concerning Gary Willis over a 14-year period. I was aware that each time abuse allegations began pouring in at a school Gary Willis worked at, the Education Department simply transferred the man to another local school.
The complaint letters were signed by a large group of concerned parents, and they were accompanied by copies of numerous witness statements. A former teacher aide and I collected signed letters from witnesses, including letters of complaint written up to 14 years prior. Former child victims, now in their 20s, themselves wrote some of these letters. Other victims, including disabled and illiterate witnesses, dictated and signed letters.
Approximately 30 concerned parents signed various letters of complaint that were posted to Prime Minister John Howard, Bob Carr (NSW premier), Brendan Nelson (Federal education minister), Jenny Macklin (Federal Opposition education spokesperson), Andrew Refshauge (NSW minister for education), Jillian Skinner (NSW Opposition education spokesperson), and the NSW Ombudsman.
I approached Tweed Heads Police detectives Josh Burton and Murray Baker, who told me that Gary Willis was known by the justice system with regards to child abuse allegations, and that DOCS involvement was mentioned onscreen. Detective Baker said that he put an Intel report into crime manager regarding the information I had gathered and he expressed concern over possible corruption within the Education Department. He stated that Willis had never been charged with anything. He told me that one complaint had been in the system from about 8 to 9 years ago, that it had not been substantiated. He told me that certain complaints I knew had been made to police did not appear on the screen under Gary Willis’ name.
An EPAC Child Protection Investigator, Sandra Cameron, informed me that the NSW Education Department held a considerable number of files containing abuse allegations against teacher Gary Willis, including numerous written complaints by teachers. Ms Cameron said that much of the information was horrendous and allegedly of a criminal nature and that it had subsequently been turned over to the police.
Our complaint was assigned to Chief Inspector Bob Sullivan of the NSW Child Protection and Sex Crimes Squad. On 27 October, 2004, Bob Sullivan phoned witness DM (refer to Part 1), whose daughter ("Y") had recently alleged that teachers Gary Willis and Steve Tyler (now deceased) had sexually assaulted her while she was a student at the East Murwillumbah Primary School. Y told her mother (DM) that she would like to pursue charging Gary Willis for his alleged crime.
As a result of Bob Sullivan’s phone call, DM complained to the NSW Ombudsman.
DM complained that Bob Sullivan had said our efforts were a waste of time and we wouldn’t get anywhere. He allegedly also said DM should think hard about pursuing a complaint against Gary Willis because it would go nowhere, since Y was disabled. Bob Sullivan also allegedly insisted that Y be interviewed at the Tweed Heads police station instead of at her local Brisbane sex crimes unit. Bob Sullivan did not, according to DM, ask for further information or clarification of existing information. DM also complained that Bob Sullivan left her with an overall feeling that there was no point to pursuing Y’s complaint against Gary Willis and that the policeman had been trying to talk her out of pursuing the matter.
On 3 November, 2004, I received a phone call from Inspector Bob Sullivan.
During this call, Inspector Sullivan made what I allege are some startling and disturbing statements:
- He criticised victims, parents and witnesses for expecting me to help them.
- He described alleged serial paedophile Gary Willis as a “poor bloke” and the victim of a “witch hunt”.
- He said there was no such thing as justice, and that achieving justice in this matter was not the aim of the police;
- He accused me of fabricating witness letters, including a hand-written complaint personally submitted to the Education Department by a teacher aide some 14 years previous.
- He said that NSW police have no record of any complaints against Gary Willis made by victims. When I challenged this by saying that two Tweed Heads detectives had told me the opposite, Inspector Sullivan contradicted himself by saying that police had investigated a number of complaints against Gary Willis, but that none of these had been substantiated. Then, he contradicted himself again, saying: “action was taken in 1993”.
- He said there was no evidence of child abuse — just “innuendo and rumour”.
- He said he was not prepared to launch a proactive investigation into Gary Willis, as the victims probably would prefer to forget the past and get on with their lives. When I suggested he was pre-empting their reaction and added that many witnesses had been threatened and bribed into silence, and maybe they would feel safe and relieved talking to the police in such a way, Bob Sullivan asked: "Mrs Barnett, have you ever been the victim of a sexual assault?"
- He said police were certainly not interested in the "minor assaults" listed.
- He said that if Y's case went to court, witnesses certainly could not be subpoenaed to testify and that only a Royal Commission had the power to interview reluctant witnesses.
- He stated that Y had the best chance of charging Gary Willis, but that if her letter was the extent of her language ability, she would get nowhere and therefore there’s no point in her pursuing the matter.
- He concentrated on just one of the alleged paedophiles, Gary Willis, and refused to acknowledge allegations against other named teachers and DOCS workers.
- He stated that it was not a crime for Gary Willis to constantly call an Aboriginal child "coon", "nigger" and "the black snake".
- He stated that he was immediately returning the file to the Education Department and closing the investigation, without contacting any other people or witnesses named in the file.
I complained about Bob Sullivan in writing to the Prime Minister, the Police Integrity Commission, and the NSW Ombudsman. On 7 February 2005, I received a phone call from Kim McKay, Commander of the Child Protection and Sex Crimes Squad. Commander McKay stated that Bob Sullivan was currently on sick leave and that stress accounted for his inappropriate behaviour toward me and DM.
Commander McKay stated that the Sex Crimes Squad would not be conducting an investigation into the Education Department’s allegations of criminal misconduct on the part of Gary Willis and other teaching staff. She stated that this was because Bob Sullivan had assessed the file and determined the case did not meet their criteria for investigation. Commander McKay added that the Sex Crimes Squad was already investigating 600 other cases. Commander McKay stated that Bob Sullivan alone made this decision and that she had not read the file herself.
I suggested that if Bob Sullivan’s functioning was impaired at the time he assessed the Gary Willis case, then perhaps the case should be reassessed by a medically fit, stress-free, police officer. Commander McKay denied this request. She neglected to explain why the Gary Willis case did not meet the Sex Crime Squad’s criteria for investigation.
Commander McKay told me that I must report everything else I knew about the alleged Tweed Heads paedophile ring, or else I could be charged with an offence called ‘Concealing a Crime’. This seemed an odd statement, given Bob Sullivan had refused to accept any further information about the case and she had just told me that NSW police were not prepared to investigate the information they had already received.
- I reported a female teacher who allegedly regularly took two female high school students for the weekend. (One of these students later died from complications following an operation which she underwent soon after her breasts suddenly became engorged.)
- I reported that one set of parents had tried to have a female special needs teacher charged for allegedly sexually assaulting their son.
- I reported that a male Murwillumbah High School special needs teacher's aide allegedly regularly took a male student home for lunchtime sex. The teacher's aide also allegedly provided the student with pornography, that he would bring home.
- I reported a male Murwillumbah High School careers teacher who allegedly drugged a 17 year-old male at an adult party. The student allegedly awoke in his teacher’s bed, naked, with no memory of how he got there. He allegedly saw the teacher standing naked in his bedroom doorway, saying: “It’s okay, sweetie.”
- I reported a Murwillumbah high School English teacher who allegedly had an affair with his Grade 11 student.
- I reported a female Murwillumbah High School English teacher who allegedly had an orgy with a group of her surfing students.
- I reported my own Murwillumbah High School teacher, who continually photographed female students, including naked arty shots of my friend.
And, while I was at it, I also reported my Grade 3 teacher from Budgewoi Primary School on the NSW Central Coast, who allegedly sexually abused a classmate during a sleepover at his Wyong farmhouse.
In a letter dated 9 February, 2005, Commander Kim McKay wrote to me:
'As a result of my inquiries I have established that there is a disparity between yourself and Detective Bob Sullivan on a number of the issues you have raised and are unable to determine where the truth lies. However I acknowledge that if Detective Bob Sullivan did ask you if you were a victim of sexual assault, then this was inappropriate and should not have been said. In relation to the manner in which he addressed you I have found that this also was not always appropriate in the circumstances. On behalf of the New South Wales Police Force I apologise for this occurrence.'
Parents complained to the NSW Ombudsman concerning the NSW police's refusal to investigate the alleged Tweed Shire paedophile ring. Consequently, in a letter dated 18 November 2004, a Detective Sergeant M.N. Robinson of Byron Bay informed us that Detective Sergeant Brett Greentree of Tweed Heads Police station had been assigned to investigate Gary Willis and that witnesses were to contact him and make formal statements at the Tweed Heads police station.
Five of Gary Willis’ former students were prepared to make statements to the Tweed Heads police. Three of these witnesses were intellectually disabled (ID). I had already contacted the Intellectual Disability Rights Service (IDRS) for legal advice and asked them to supply a support person to attend the Tweed Heads police interviews with three ID witnesses, including Y. The IDRS lawyer, named Tamara, informed me that their service had trained Joint Investigation Response Teams (JIRT) police officers to interview ID witnesses, including adults. The lawyer also said that the current police policy and procedures stated that Tweed Heads police must initiate contact with JIRT regarding the three ID witnesses.
However, when we contacted Ballina JIRT, an officer called Melissa Williams told me that no JIRT police officer was trained to interview intellectually disabled people. She also stated that JIRT refused to interview the three disabled witnesses because they were now adults.
One of my initial contacts, Detective Murray Baker at Tweed Heads, said he could not understand why Ballina JIRT would not touch the historical material, because they do “all the time.”
When I complained to Commander Kim McKay about JIRT refusing to interview ID adults, she stated to me that not one police officer in the whole of NSW had been specifically trained to interview intellectually disabled victims of sexual assault. This, of course, flew right in the face of the statements by IDRS lawyer Tamara. Commander McKay, however, attempted to placate me by saying that Brett Greentree could be trusted to interview the three disabled victims because he was ex-JIRT (with two years experience) and because he was “a nice bloke with good intentions”.
NSW Education Department employee Sandra Cameron arranged with Brett Greentree to be present at the witnesses’ formal police interviews. Ms Cameron allegedly told a parent that she must attend her daughter’s interview with police because she represented the Department and so had to be sure the police questioning was fair to the Department. Ms Cameron subsequently insisted on attending the police interview, even after the parent told her not to. Ms Cameron told another parent that she planned to attend the police interviews so that she did not have to conduct independent interviews.
The IDRS lawyer responded that it was ludicrous for a NSW Education Department representative to attend a police interview where a victim was making a statement and an allegation against the NSW Education Department. Tamara explained that if Sandra Cameron spoke during the interview, it could render the interview inadmissible in court.
I arranged for an IDRS support person to attend the police interviews with the three disabled witnesses, but Detective Sergeant Greentree refused to allow this. I also specifically requested that Brett Greentree video the interviews, but he refused to do this.
To the knowledge of victims and concerned parents, NSW police never investigated our complaints, Gary Willis was never charged with any of the reported crimes and victims were never given the chance to claim compensation for their child abuse experiences.
A gun to the head
Following my whistle blowing efforts against what I allege was a paedophile ring in the Tweed Shire, I came under increasing threat from parents, the local police force and various government authorities.
The threat began subtly with offers of free ‘counselling’ from the NSW Department of Education. Owing to the increasing number of telephone threats, my mother answered my phone. “This must be very stressful for Fiona,” the Education Department counsellor spoke consolingly. But after my mother politely declined the woman’s invitation, her manner changed. The counsellor called repeatedly, each time sounding increasingly frustrated and angry at my refusing her services.
At the same time, my telephone provider informed me that my phone was tapped. Two other whistleblowing parents complained that their phones had been bugged also.
Certain parents who had previously been helpful and collaborative with the whistle-blowing process suddenly began threatening other whistleblowing parents and me. “ZZ”, the mother of East Murwillumbah victim L, phoned me in a hysterical state. She demanded that I give her the numbers and addresses of all the witnesses to Gary Willis’ abuse of children, particularly her daughter. She swore at me and told me she’d sue my "f*ing arse" if I did not stop pursuing the Gary Willis matter. She said she would hire a private detective and track everyone down.
When I said it was too late and that the evidence had been forwarded on to the Education Department, she accused me of not having given her the opportunity to view the evidence and discuss her views on the whole matter.
"I phoned you weeks ago and gave you that chance," I reminded her.
ZZ screamed at me:
"I don’t want to be dragged through no f*ing kangaroo court again! My daughter was examined under a general anaesthetic and they found she was still a virgin!"
I explained that someone can be sexually assaulted without damaging the hymen, but ZZ concluded with a tirade of abuse.
I was advised to phone a parent “FF” for information about the alleged abuse of her daughter “GG”. FF had worked at South Tweed Primary School for 18 years.
She told me:
"I’ve been waiting for your call … It would be best if you handed all those statements back to the parents and don’t implicate yourself further, as this could get bad for your stress levels."
One whistleblowing parent ("AF") began receiving phone calls from ZZ who would phone and say, "F*ing bitch!” and then hang up. ZZ told AF to retract her statement. She referred to AF’s poor state of health and to the fact that I was pregnant. When AF said she was not going to retract her statement, ZZ became aggressive, illogical, and spewed profanity at AF.
“You’re disturbing Al Gudgeon’s retirement. How could you do this, as he has done so much for the community and for children? What happened all those years ago has nothing to do with what is happening today.”
My own daughter attended Banora Point Public School. I attended a P&C meeting at the school and raised the alarm about Gary Willis. I warned parents and teachers not to employ Gary Willis at our school — the only place he had not worked at in our area.
Attendees, including the treasurer David DeClosey and his police officer friend, became visibly angry at me and verbally attacked me in the meeting. Following that, DeClosey and the police officer attended the P&C Federation’s Annual Conference. Upon their return, DeClosey passed on a threat to me. A NSW Education Department representative at the conference, he said, had told him to warn me to stop talking about Gary Willis — or else the NSW Education Department would sue me for defamation.
After this, the threats became more tangible.
To begin with, the P&C police officer issued me a hefty parking fine for something which, as my daughter’s teacher testified in writing, I simply did not do.
The threats became physical. The RSPCA turned up at my house following a false report of pet neglect. When my fat, happy dog greeted him, the inspector remarked: “He’s fine.”
Next, a health and safety officer turned up at my house following a false report that my builder was using a ramset gun while unlicensed.
Then police turned up at my house following a false report that there was a stolen vehicle parked in my garage. On several occasions, Tweed Heads police drove slowly by my house, glaring menacingly at me.
Heartbreakingly, my ‘neglected’ dog was dragged beneath our fence and killed, and my pet chickens and ducks were also found slaughtered.
On one occasion, I reported to police that the 13-year-old child of my neighbour had been driving his father’s car at excessive speeds on the highway and had near backed into my car. The petite blonde officer who responded to my complaint failed to identify herself. She verbally abused me for making the complaint, called me a “shit-stirrer”, and slapped me with an AVO from the juvenile’s father. In the end, I paid $14,000 to successfully challenge the spurious AVO.
My husband and mother subsequently attended a meeting with Superintendant Tim J. Tarlinton to discuss our concerns regarding the increasing threats against our family. Tarlinton treated my family with hostility and contempt.
My suspicions were justified days later when Tweed Heads police dispatched five squad cars to ambush my home at 5 Anthony Avenue and two relatives’ homes in Laura Street, 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. I then discovered that Superintendent Tarlinton had retired from his position as Local Area Commander and Brett Greentree had been transferred to Bourke on a promotion to Detective Inspector.
Yet my victimisation at the hands of Tweed Heads police did not end there.
The petite blonde female officer returned in 2012, unidentified and armed with handcuffs and a weapon, to arrest me. Some stranger had illegally parked a trailer on my front lawn and reported that it was damaged while left there unattended. Instead of issuing a $180 fine for the illegal park, the police officer sought to arrest me. Hand clasped on her gun, the officer rang my front door bell. My mother answered. “Where is she?!” the officer hissed. But I had already fled with my family for the third time since blowing the whistle on the alleged Tweed Shire paedophile ring.
It then struck me: the NSW police force displayed more concern for an illegally parked trailer, rather than an unfathomed number of young, disabled children who were assaulted and mentally scarred by a violent sexual predator.
So many questions remain.
Where is Gary Willis today? Does he have contact with children? Why were the whistleblowers, including me, being ostracised and victimised, while the alleged perpetrators were seemingly being protected by the NSW Police. Why did the NSW Police seem so disinterested in investigating an alleged paedophile network, in which there was numerous witnesses and a wealth of documentary evidence? Does this suggest that network extends beyond the Education Department and into the police? And does it extend even further than that?
(Editor's note: Fiona Barnett has submitted a properly signed and witnessed statutory declaration to IA to support all allegations and statements she has made in this piece. Anyone wishing to come forward with any further information, or who would like to tell their side of the story on IA is strongly encouraged to contact managing editor David Donovan via email at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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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