Evil under the sun: The dark side of the Pitcairn Island
In 2004, the tiny Pacific island of Pitcairn was torn apart when seven men were put on trial for sexually abusing children. In her gripping new book, Kathy Marks, who covered the story for The Independent, describes life in a shattered, shocked – and defiant – community
Wednesday 30 July 2008
Pitcairn Island, a lump of rock situated roughly halfway between New Zealand and Chile, is probably the world's most remote inhabited spot. It has no airstrip, no safe harbour and no scheduled shipping service. Visitors must hitch a lift on a container vessel travelling through the Pacific, or – as I did – fly to a far-flung part of French Polynesia and then embark on a very rough, 30-hour boat voyage. Generally, applications to visit must be approved by the islanders; most requests are turned down.
The day after we arrived on Pitcairn, in September 2004, Olive Christian invited members of the media to Big Fence, her sprawling home overlooking the Pacific. Olive is the wife of Steve Christian, mayor of the island and one of the seven Pitcairn-based defendants accused of child sex offences.
When we got to Big Fence, 15 women – almost the entire adult female population of the island – were assembled on sofas and plastic chairs in the living room. At that time, the names of the seven defendants were still suppressed by a court order. However, we were privy to this poorly kept secret; every woman in the room was related to one or more of the men.
We had been summoned to Big Fence, it turned out, to be told that their menfolk were not "perverts" or "hardened criminals"; they were decent, hard-working family types. No islander would tolerate children being interfered with, and no one on Pitcairn had ever been raped. The "victims" were girls who had known exactly what they were doing.
The women explained that underage sex was the norm on Pitcairn. Darralyn Griffiths, the daughter of one of the defendants, told us in a matter-of-fact way that she had lost her virginity at 13, "and I felt shit hot about it too. I felt like a big lady." Others clamoured to make similar admissions. "I had it at 12, and I was shit hot too," said Jay's sister Meralda, a woman in her forties. Olive Christian described her youth, with evident nostalgia, as a time when "we all thought sex was like food on the table".
We must have looked surprised. They were surprised we were surprised. Well, they demanded, at what age did we start having sex? It was clear, in this company and at this particular juncture, that the question could not be avoided. Some of our responses met with howls of derision; the women did not apparently believe that anyone could have lost their virginity at 18.
The point of this meeting seemed to be to persuade us that the criminal case against the seven men was based on a misconception – and, furthermore, that it was all part of an elaborate plot. Britain, the colonial power, was determined to "close the island down", they said, because it had become a financial burden. What better way to achieve that than to jail the men who were the very backbone of the community?
Why, though, we wondered aloud, would the women who had spoken to police have fabricated their accounts – accounts that, in spite of the women growing up on the island in different eras and now living thousands of miles apart, were remarkably alike? At this point, the Pitcairners produced their trump cards: Darralyn Griffiths and her sister, Charlene Warren.
Charlene, 25, with long, curly hair and a diffident manner, revealed that she had made a statement in 2000, alleging sexual abuse by Pitcairn men. But, she added, as others clucked approvingly, she had only made the statement under duress. She explained: "The detectives... dragged me to the police station. I was offered good money for each person I could name." Darralyn, 27, told us she had also made a statement – but only, she said, after being browbeaten by police. These claims of coercion were denied by the police.
Both sisters were living in New Zealand at that time. Both told detectives they were prepared to go to court. But "after I really thought about it, it was half and half... I wanted it just as bad as them. It was very much a mutual thing," Charlene said, referring to the men she named as abusers. That re-evaluation took place after Charlene returned to Pitcairn. Darralyn changed her mind shortly before she, too, went home.
Their mother, Carol, now declared that no Pitcairn girl had ever been abused – and, almost in the same breath, told us she had had an unpleasant experience as a child. "It didn't affect me," she said. "I was probably luckier than some I've read about... I was 10 at the time. But even at 10, I knew it was wrong, it's a bad thing. I screamed like hell."
Carol said that, when she heard Darralyn had spoken to police, "I thought, 'What on earth is that girl thinking about?'" She went on: "I told the cops; not one of these girls went into this with their eyes shut. They knew exactly what they were doing. The women here are loose, and it's not the men's fault. What are they supposed to do?"
The women seemed feisty and opinionated, but when the conversation moved to the prospect of their male relatives being jailed, they suddenly appeared vulnerable. Olive reckoned that, without the men, "you might as well pick Pitcairn up and throw it away, because no one is going to survive". With the population having already declined to crisis point, the women claimed, if even a couple of men were locked up, there would be too few to crew the longboats, which were used to ferry people and supplies to the island.
Olive stood to lose most. Among the seven defendants she counted her husband (Steve), son (Randy), father (Len) and younger brother (Dave). Another six Pitcairn men facing court in Auckland – they had all moved to Australia or New Zealand – included her other brother, Kay, and her two other sons, Trent (who was later cleared) and Shawn. Olive lamented: "We live as one big family on this island, and nothing will ever be the same... Right now, with all this going on, maybe they should have hanged Fletcher Christian."
It was Tuesday morning, which meant that Pitcairn's one shop, situated on the main road, a couple of banana groves down from the square, was open for business. But you had to be quick, for it would be closed by 9am – and if you missed it, you had to wait until Thursday, when it opened for another solitary hour of trading.
The shop was crowded, although probably no more than a dozen people were browsing the dusty shelves, stacked with tins of lambs' tongues and condensed milk. Olive Christian's son, Randy, and several other men who were about to go on trial stood around, laughing loudly at some private joke. They were mostly barefoot, and carried fishing knives in their belts. As I roamed the aisles, a figure in a baggy grey T-shirt leant over a freezer of meat. "We don't like reporters here," said Dave Brown, with a half-smile. Short and stocky, with a bushy moustache, Dave was charged with 16 offences, including indecent assault and gross indecency with a child. But, like the other defendants, he was free on bail, and for now he was just gassing with his mates.
Also open that morning, again for the blink of an eye, was the minuscule post office, presided over by Dennis Christian. Dennis was charged with three sexual assaults. He explained to us politely that Pitcairn's once booming stamp business was in decline.
Within a few days of landing on Pitcairn, we knew who was who among the 40 or so residents. Every time we stepped out, we bumped into the locals; often they would overtake us on the quad bikes that they hopped on even for short trips. I was never sure whether to wave: it seemed rude not to, but sometimes the only response was an icy stare.
Not everyone was unfriendly. Outside the medical centre, I met a chatty Englishman: Mike Lupton-Christian, who is married to Brenda Christian, Steve's sister. Mike appeared well suited to Pitcairn life. But his attempts to muck in had so far been frustrated.
Mike was keen to use Pitcairn's big red tractor. He needed a licence, but when he applied to the council's internal committee, chaired by Randy Christian, nothing happened. "They kept saying things like, 'After the next ship's been,'" said Mike.
Vaine Peu, an amiable Cook Islander and the partner of Charlene Warren, told a similar story; Turi Griffiths, Darralyn's husband, also from the Cooks, which lie west of Pitcairn, could not get a licence either. As for Simon Young, another Englishman, he had secured a licence – but only for an old blue tractor. Mike, Vaine, Turi and Simon were outsiders. Meanwhile, two local teenagers were being trained to drive the big red tractor.
Those who could not drive the tractor – mainly used to plough the islanders' gardens, which yielded produce to trade on passing ships – were dependent on those who could. And those who could were men who had been born on Pitcairn and spent their lives there: the "Big Fence gang", as they were called.
On the morning of 29 September 2004, a curious sight greeted the people of Pitcairn. Groups of strangers strode purposefully along the rutted "main road", dressed in dark suits, polished shoes and long black gowns.
Among them was the Pitcairn Chief Justice, Charles Blackie, climbing the winding back lane up to the square. Graham Ford, the registrar, escorted him into the dilapidated wooden courthouse. Minutes later, Blackie appeared, bowed briefly and sat down. And so began one of the most unusual trials in British criminal history.
Looking around, the judge would have seen that the paintwork in the courtroom was peeling. The defendant stood in the front row of the public gallery, wearing shorts, flip-flops and a blue T-shirt with a Bounty logo. Stevens Raymond Christian, the island's 53-year-old mayor, was scowling, perhaps because the suppression order had just been lifted. He, and the other accused, could be named for the first time in media reports.
Steve's sister Brenda, the police officer, stood guard at the door. Simon Moore, the Public Prosecutor, looked uncomfortable in his buttoned-up bar jacket and stiff wing collar. The lawyers were in full English court regalia, apart from horsehair wigs – the sole concession to the tropical heat. Fans pushed hot air from one corner of the low-ceilinged room to another; thin green curtains fluttered at the windows. Through a chink, palm trees could be glimpsed. Brenda closed the door and took a seat beside her brother.
Steve faced six counts of rape and four of indecent assault. He leant back, arms folded, as the court heard that the offences dated from 1964 to 1975. Like the other defendants, with the exception of Dennis Christian, he'd pleaded not guilty to all charges.
I glanced over at Steve, sitting a few feet away. He gave off an impression of compact strength. A secretive half-smile curled around his lips. He seemed a man at ease with himself. But I also detected a coiled tension. This was not someone accustomed to being crossed.
After a short interval for a satellite link with New Zealand to be set up, a female figure appeared on a television monitor. She was middle-aged, with red hair, and wore a black jacket. She looked terrified. Steve shifted in his chair. Jennifer had flown from England to tell her story, and was in a studio in Auckland. None of the victims, understandably, wished to return to Pitcairn to give evidence. Simon Moore began to question her gently.
As the adult Steve gazed at the screen, Jennifer described an incident that occurred when she was 11 or 12, and she was with a crowd of youngsters walking out for a picnic. Falling behind, she noticed Steve and two other boys waiting for her under some banyan trees. Steve grabbed hold of her and pushed her to the ground; then, as the other two pinned her down, he raped her. Jennifer, who was a virgin, struggled to break free. Afterwards, Steve told his friends: "Your turn if you want." They declined, and the three of them ran off laughing.
Jennifer claimed that Steve raped her three more times. Paul Dacre, the Public Defender, pressed her on why she did not inform her parents. "They couldn't do anything about it," she said. "There's nobody on the island that you could turn to for anything like this... That's the way of life on Pitcairn. You get abused, you get raped. It's the normal way of life on Pitcairn when I was growing up."
Simon Moore asked why she did not tell her husband about the abuse, either. Jennifer said she did not wish to disillusion him. "Everybody in the outside world thinks Pitcairn Island is a paradise," she cried. "But it was sheer hell back home when I was growing up."
Steve was followed into court by his brother-in-law, Dave Brown, 49, who was charged with assaulting five victims, including a five-year-old girl whom he allegedly forced to give him oral sex. He was also accused of molesting a 15-year-old girl during a spearfishing trip, and a 14-year-old while she was driving his quad bike.
Next came Dave's father, 78-year-old Len Brown, who was accused of twice raping Jennifer, one of Steve's victims, in her father's watermelon patch. Dennis Christian, 49, admitted to three charges of sexual assault, while Jay Warren, 47, a former Pitcairn magistrate, was accused and cleared of molesting a 12-year-old girl while swimming in Bounty Bay. Terry Young, 45, the island's electrician, allegedly raped a 12-year-old weekly, when they went out to collect firewood together, after indecently assaulting her from the age of six.
Last to face court was Steve Christian's 30-year-old son, Randy, who was accused of gagging and raping 10-year-old Belinda in a banana grove in tandem with his younger brother, Shawn; the two men allegedly took turns to hold her down. Shawn later went on trial in New Zealand, as did Terry Young's older brother, Brian. Brian was charged with repeatedly raping two sisters under the age of 10.
It had been raining for days, and the roads were rivers of mud when the sleek white shape of the Clipper Odyssey, an American cruise ship, hove into view. I had been on Pitcairn for nearly two weeks; now the island was preparing to welcome some new visitors: tourists.
Weather aside, I felt bemused by this prospect. I knew that, for many outsiders, the prospect of meeting Fletcher Christian's descendants was beguiling; however, seven of those men with romantic antecedents were on trial for raping and sexual assaulting children. Did the Clipper Odyssey's passengers really want to come here and mingle with the accused and their families? Wasn't the whole child abuse business just a little, you know, off-putting?
That morning I stepped outside to discover that Adamstown – where the pace of life is usually languid, to say the least – was a hubbub of activity. Stalls had been set up along the main road, with souvenirs laid out under waterproof tarpaulins. There were Pitcairn stamps, postcards, T-shirts, cookbooks, woven baskets, local honey and wooden carvings.
From the crest of the Hill of Difficulty, I could see the Clipper Odyssey pitching quite briskly offshore. The longboats were ferrying people to and fro, with the swell lifting their prows right out of the water and dashing them down again. Visitors with backpacks and sunhats and cameras were squelching their way along Pitcairn's muddy trails, while others were being shown around on quad bikes. A stout-hearted group was hiking up to Christian's Cave.
I browsed the stalls and bought a T-shirt from Carol Warren, Jay's wife, who was all smiles as she hunted out the right size and colour for me. Terry Young, whose trial was about to begin, sold me a wooden shark with teeth fashioned from real shark's teeth. I had a fascinating discussion with Terry about wood carving. I was pleased that the locals were being so friendly today. Perhaps they had just needed time to thaw.
At The Landing, yet more stalls had been put up and tourists were milling around, chatting excitedly with the locals. "What generation Pitcairner are you?" a middle-aged woman enquired as I stood on the jetty, surveying the scene.
"I'm not a Pitcairner," I replied.
"But you work on the boats?"
"No," I said. 'I'm a journalist."
"Oh... so what are you doing on Pitcairn, then?"
"I'm covering the trials – you know, the child sexual abuse trials."
"I see... [backing off] That must be interesting."
At midday, the visitors converged on Big Fence for fish and chips, provided (for a fee) by Steve and Olive Christian. No one found the choice of lunch venue untoward, it seemed, including the American tour company chartering the Clipper Odyssey. It was as if reality had been suspended, and everyone was engaged in a game of make-believe. Let's make believe that everything is rosy on the legendary island of Bounty fame. Let's make believe that the Pitcairn Islanders are all fine, upstanding citizens. Let's make believe that half of the mutineers' male heirs, including our lunch host, aren't accused of sex crimes.
More chips, anyone?
Some of the ship's passengers quizzed us in hushed tones about the case; they appeared to be enjoying the extra frisson. One Belgian woman said: "We have exactly the same trials in our country not so long ago, so you can understand that happens everywhere."
True, but it's not everywhere that crowds of tourists happily rub shoulders with alleged paedophiles, visit them in their homes, buy their souvenirs, pose for photographs with them, and generally treat them like nobility.
An American in his early sixties told me that he had been longing to visit Pitcairn since he was a boy. So how did it feel to be here at last? "Awesome," he replied.
At the conclusion of the court case in October 2004, six men were found guilty of a total of 35 offences, and four received prison sentences. However, they all remained free, as their lawyers were preparing appeals that would eventually be heard by the Privy Council in London. The journalists spent one final week on Pitcairn, waiting for a boat to arrive.
One morning, I found myself out fishing with Len Brown, 78, who had been convicted of twice raping Jennifer. I watched Len skip barefoot across the jagged rocks, spear in one hand, fishing tackle in the other.
As I stood on the rocks, I saw a small boat motor past. Belinda's father was out fishing with Randy Christian, who had just been given a prison sentence for raping Belinda.
Belinda's father was not apparently angry with Randy. Actually, most Pitcairners thought Randy was the one with reason to be cross. They seemed to be scornful of Belinda's father, who had failed to prevent his recalcitrant daughter from giving evidence.
Mindful of one significant loose end in our reporting, another journalist and I decided to drop by Steve Christian's house and ask him for an interview.
As we approached Big Fence, I glanced in through a window. Steve and his mates were assembled in the living room. We walked up the driveway towards the front door, which was open. Steve was sprawled on a sofa, holding court. When he saw us, he almost foamed at the mouth.
"We just want to request an interview," I called out.
"GET THE FUCK OFF MY LAND!" shouted Steve, gesticulating with violent sweeps of his arm.
The boat was on its way, I was relieved to learn. I felt like I was suffocating – confined for six weeks in this tiny, out of the way place, and crushed by the weight of the women's testimony.
Reminders were all around. Close to our house was the sugar-cane processing shed. Nearby, at the hands of Randy Christian, and, allegedly, Shawn, Belinda had suffered atrocities no 10-year-old should even know of. In fact, there was barely a location on the island that was not associated with some harrowing tale of sexual violence.
I wandered the length of Garnets Ridge, nearly 1,000ft above sea level, a spot as ravishing as it was lonely. I could see Adamstown way below, a few dozen houses sprinkled across a green hillside. As I looked down at this unremarkable rural settlement, framed by the savage beauty of the Pacific, I shivered.
I walked past the crumbling gravestones in the little cemetery, located on a grassy clifftop. Beneath the ground lay generations of men whose crimes had gone unpunished, and generations of women whose stories remained untold. Some of their sons and grandsons had been brought to account now. But would the cycle of abuse on Pitcairn ever end?
In 2006, the Privy Council threw out the Pitcairners' appeal, and four men went to jail. Another two joined them after being convicted at trials in New Zealand later that year.
The names of the rape victims have been changed.
This is an edited extract from 'Trouble in Paradise' by Kathy Marks (£8.99), published by Harper Perennial on 4 August. To order a copy for £8.54 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 0870 079 8897 or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk.
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