Heather Walsh's tale of survival is told
After sharing painful details of the months of sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of The Monster of Mangatiti, Heather Walsh's parting words are succinct. "I just want people to stop raping people. It's really that simple."
"Just stop it. The world will be a better place," she says.
Heather is sitting in an inner city hotel, discussing her past with three strangers. One of them is a man, a Fairfax photographer. The situation is a huge turnaround for Walsh. "I'm working full time and hopping on planes now. I mean, sitting here with a strange man in my room, all those things I could never, ever do before".
She quickly offers a "no offence" to the photographer, who is sitting on the floor due to a lack of chairs. "And I'm not happy about you having to kneel either!"
Walsh is kind. She frequently apologises for how tired she feels, and gracefully declines to speak about her family and what she does in her spare time - de rigueur for Sunday profiles. "I don't really want to be personal, there's enough personal stuff...if that's okay."
To say there's enough personal stuff is an understatement. Her life, 23 weeks of it in particular, has already been picked apart. In the initial police questioning and the ensuing 27 court hearings. In interviews with the media and even interviews she didn't do with the media. Google her name and the first search result is the headline Woman 'kept as sex slave'.
Heather understands the attention, saying her story is "unusual" in some ways. "In other ways it's very common." Next week it will be immortalised yet again on the small screen in the docudrama The Monster of Mangatiti. It's a glimpse at what happened during her months in captivity. Rapes, beatings, cruelty. It's difficult to watch. ("Jeez, yeah, um, it's not for children. Make sure you have support," she says.)
In 1985 a teenaged Heather answered an ad for a live-in tutor. She thought she was embarking on an adventure. It was back country New Zealand. Nothing but beautiful bush and birdsong. Wild animals were the only habitants in the Mangatiti Valley, near the central North Island town of Raetihi, and one William Paul Cornelius.
Cornelius and his son lived in a shack a 30 mile trek from nearby town, Raetihi, south west of the Tongariro National Park. The drive to the ramshackle hut was pockmarked by locked gates, dense bush and precarious gorges. The 'driveway' was a private track, set an hour away from the main road. So remote was the location it was literally impossible to walk away from.
Her stay went fine, at first. Cornelius was nice, the kid was sweet and Heather could mail her parents regularly, or so she thought. Although there were some chores involved and no electricity, the country was beautiful, she thought.
The abuse started after a one-off consensual sexual encounter with Cornelius. After that he insisted the pair be together and he moved her into his room. She was repetitively raped, and fell pregnant, later miscarrying after a violent sexual assault.
Daily chores turned into slavery. Food had to be on the table when Cornelius returned from hunting. He claimed she was overweight and made her run laps around the farm. He slaughtered healthy animals in front of her as a warning, and destroyed letters from her family, isolating her further.
Eventually she summoned the courage to leave, stealing the opportunity to drive away in his ute while he was hunting. For years she hid, fearful he would make good on promises to kill her. She married and had six children but after the sudden death of her husband in 1998 she no longer felt protected. She went to police with her story in 2008.
There were other victims. Cornelius was charged with rape, abduction and unlawful sexual connection in 2009, the charges later increasing to span hundreds of rapes alleged by four victims. Three others were known to police but they declined to lay formal complaints. Four years and 27 hearings later the case against Cornelius was dismissed after he was deemed unfit to stand trial because of mild dementia. The mild part is something Heather is keen to emphasise. "I feel it's important, as the general public understands dementia to be a very debilitating condition to be in, which he was not."
Judge David Cameron said "on the balance of probabilities" Cornelius was likely guilty. Cornelius died months later, aged 79 and in the same hut where he had terrorised his victims.
Not long after, a production company contacted Heather with an idea. Although survivors of sexual abuse typically aren't named in court cases to protect their anonymity, Heather had applied to have her suppression lifted, so she could talk openly about her case. When Screentime came calling she wasn't surprised.
"It's an unusual story," she says. "I thought it would be something that people would think was interesting."
It's one thing to tell your own story, and another to have others tell it for you, no? Yes, it was a huge gamble, she says. "They're creating a story that has only lived in your head because you were the only one there. You, and the other person."
"I suppose I went into it with an open mind and thought well, I'll see how I feel and if they're going to portray it with the messages that I would want to be told - with that integrity - and that they weren't going to use it as something to shock people."
Now working as an advocate for survivors of sexual abuse, Heather says it was important to make a film not about rape, but survival. In sharing her story, she hopes others will see that recovery is possible, and it's okay to speak out. "It's about adversity, it's about those challenges and how you best manage those as an individual."
She's "good" now, she says, unable to offer too much more but the basics. She struggled with complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder but therapy has given her the tools to move forward. She works full time and is often in court with survivors. She doesn't want to reveal where she's living but her spare time is filled with her friends and family. She still loves the outdoors.
Later, she emails more thoughts. "There seems to be a general public belief that survivors of sexual abuse are able to put it all behind them and move on. I don't find this to be true at all. Survivors don't move on, leaving the abuse in the past. It stays with you as you move forward, but with specialised help and support you learn to live with it in a healthy way where it doesn't sabotage your future."
Others have noticed a difference in Heather since the case was closed. "The person she is now is incredibly different," says The Monster of Mangatiti's executive producer Philly de Lacey, who met Heather immediately following the trial's dismissal. "By then she was absolutely exhausted. (Now) she's smiling. She's in control of her life."
Through Screentime, de Lacey says she's accustomed to dealing with difficult subject matters. The company has produced Beyond the Darklands where psychologist Nigel Latta profiled the country's most notorious killers, and in recent weeks it has aired Sunday Theatre dramas How to Murder your Wife, and Venus and Mars - both true New Zealand crime stories.
Hearing of Walsh's story as it went through court, de Lacey said it struck her as "bizarre...that something like that could happen in New Zealand and that somebody had been able to carry on this behaviour over so many years."
Heather narrates the drama, devised from interviews with producers. She was generous with her time, de Lacey says, offering them full access to her court files and detailed "frank" admissions. Heather's story gave de Lacey nightmares, she says.
"Mentally, she was absolutely trapped. I think when people hear stories of domestic violence people can be quite glib and say 'why couldn't she just leave?' (but) I think you can tell in this story, when you're psychologically beaten down, you can't just leave."
De Lacey flew over Mangatiti during filming and describes its remoteness as "phenomenal". Actual filming took place at West Auckland's Bethell's Beach, at Clevedon in east Auckland, and Raetihi. Heather was invited on set for two days where she met the actors. A counsellor was on hand and de Lacey says she felt so nervous she asked a crew member to tie his long silver hair back- fearful his likeness to Cornelius would be too much.
Heather has only seen the final version once, accompanied by de Lacey and a counsellor. It was "surreal" and nerve wracking for her, but she's pleased with the result having helped ensure the script's accuracy. Although Walsh never saw justice in the true sense of the word, in the country's courtrooms, she says that's not what it's about for her.
"I don't really feel that this is a story about justice. I think it's about telling my truth. It's one individual telling their own survival story, I don't see that has anything to do with justice. You're sharing something that happened to you in the hope that it may help others along the way."
The Monster of Mangatiti airs on September 6, on TV One.
- Sunday Star Times