News

Time fails to heal emotional scars 50 years on

By Ashlea Witoslawski

In June this year, a historic rape case from Katunga appeared in Shepparton County Court.

Taking place on a family farm throughout the 1960s and 70s, the victim, Dee McKenzie-Lee, was the stepdaughter of Ken Richardson, who was sentenced to six years behind bars at the age of 84.

Facing family scrutiny and emotional hardships after deciding to press charges in 2017, Ms McKenzie-Lee believes harsher criticism is needed of those who perpetrate such crimes against children and more support is essential for their victims.

It was late 2017 and the #MeToo Movement was inspiring women across the globe, encouraging the masses to share their experiences of sexual violence and assault.

Seeing big names such as George Pell, Rolf Harris and Bill Cosby appearing in the news for their heinous acts, Wodonga woman Dee McKenzie-Lee began having nightmares, recalling traumatic memories from her childhood.

Living alone, Dee said she began sleeping with the TV on in her bedroom, comforted by the glow of the screen when she awoke to find her room still empty.

“I’d wake up and I was terrified he was in that room again.”

From about the age of four to 16, Dee was repeatedly assaulted by her stepfather.

“I can remember when I was 15, having my bed pushed up against the door at night with him trying to get inside.

“I would sit on the end of the bed so that he couldn’t force his way into the bedroom.”

At 63 years old, Dee decided it was time to confront her attacker and began preparing a statement for police with the help of the Centre Against Violence.

Attending Wodonga Police Station with her statement, she was disappointed by six weeks of inaction by police as the case was shuffled between Shepparton and Wangaratta police.

On February 26, 2018, she was given a digital recorder and asked to ring Mr Richardson to gain evidence of at least one incident of assault.

“I hadn’t spoken to him in 10 to 12 years,” Dee said.

“I rang him and his new wife answered the phone.”

Unable to talk at that moment, Dee took the recorder home and receive a call from Mr Richardson the next day.

“I had a recorder and we spoke for about 14 to 15 minutes but the batteries in the recorder went flat after eight, so half the conversation wasn’t recorded,” she said.

“In that time, he admitted to me he had abused me and said that he had apologised but he never, ever had. I think I’d remember.

“When I asked, `why did you do this to me?' he said, 'because I loved you', which I thought was pretty sick.”

When Dee was told by police the first phone call was not enough, she was apprehensive about making another.

“They said if you can get one admission of guilt to just one of the incidences (from Dee’s statement) you won’t have to get him in the witness box,” she said.

“Now that’s pretty tempting, so I agreed to make a second phone call.”

Mr Richardson admitted to one incident and as the conversation continued, he insisted the pair keep the details “our little secret”.

“I just crumbled at that and I went and had a shower with my clothes on,” Dee said.

“It really destroyed me, it took me back to being a child.”

On March 16, 2018, Wangaratta police came to Dee’s house and picked up the recorder.

Police then interviewed Mr Richardson, who admitted guilt.

Dee said the lead-up to court felt like an eternity; then, on January 22, 2019, she received a call from the Office of Public Prosecutions Victoria stating Mr Richardson would plead guilty to one of the 13 original charges.

By the end of the day, the charges had been increased to three charges of indecent assault and one charge of incest.

“I wasn’t particularly happy about it,” Dee said.

“Once they got that guilty plea, they didn’t care about me. It felt like they had ticked the box and then moved on.”

Dee said one of her main frustrations was there was just one charge of incest, down from about five or six originally.

“I was told if he was charged under the law now, he would have over 50 charges against him, that’s how different the law was back in the 60s,” she said.

“I just feel that the law is letting the victims down on so many levels.”

Dee said the six-year sentence handed down to Mr Richardson in June left her feeling numb.

“I really didn’t feel like it was enough,” she said.

“It’s actually been very costly to me mentally, emotionally and financially.

“I would have been better off shutting up and saying nothing, but I needed to do this for me because I had suppressed these horrid memories for so many years.

“I didn’t want anyone to suffer and I didn’t want revenge.”

Dee hopes to continue moving forward, with plans to join some of her children and grandchildren in Queensland.

She hopes future historical cases are treated by the justice system with more sensitivity and in a timelier manner, helping people find peace after decades of emotional trauma.

“It took me a lot of courage to come forward and report the abuse at the hands of a person I thought I could trust as a child.”

• GVCASA provides free and confidential counselling, information, advocacy and support to all people who have been affected by sexual assault.

The services are provided throughout Greater Shepparton, Moira, Mitchell, Murrindindi and Strathbogie shire councils.

People can phone 1800 112 343 for more information.

If people want to report sexual abuse anonymously, they can visit sara.org.au

• The News has published Dee McKenzie-Lee's name with her consent.