Unbelievers: coach, some family say ‘sadistic father’ is innocent

They were jailed for monstrous crimes against their daughter. Yet this elite coach and his wife say they are innocent.

On a muggy February morning five years ago in regional NSW, nine police officers from Strike Force Willbe converged on a bushland property that had been the home of a married couple and their ­children for nearly 20 years. The parents, both in their 50s, were well known in their small ­community, for their adult daughters were gifted at sports and the ­husband was a respected coach and educator. Yet over the previous four months their youngest daughter had told police her father was in reality a sadistic monster who had been raping and torturing her since early childhood, assisted by her mother. The young woman, dressed in jeans and a pink polo shirt, accompanied police that morning, pointing out locations in the bushy surrounds where they would later begin digging.

Today her father is confined to a maximum security cell and faces the prospect of dying in jail. Strike Force Willbe led to a criminal trial in which “Australia’s most sadistic father”, as the tabloids dubbed him, was last year sentenced to the longest jail term for child sexual abuse on record in NSW and possibly Australia. The man’s wife occupies her own maximum security cell elsewhere in the state. For several wrenching weeks in the NSW ­District Court their daughter, aged in her 20s, recounted a history of abuse so ghastly it made national headlines: from age five to adulthood, she recalled, she was repeatedly raped, beaten, nearly drowned, ­violated with tools and imprisoned naked in a shed by a father whose relentless cruelty was aided and abetted by his wife. Her oldest sister also testified, describing a household in which ­terrifying ­violence and molestation were the norm.

In the community where they once lived, and in the elite sporting circles in which they once moved, the couple’s close friends have looked back and asked themselves how they failed to notice this monstrous depravity over so many years. How did this warped couple appear so normal? How did their youngest daughter survive, let alone flourish as a sports prodigy? Many of them have reached a deeply discomfiting answer to those questions.

“I don’t believe any of it,” says one mother who has known the family for 15 years. “Honestly, I cannot see it.” Says another woman who was close to the family for more than a decade: “I’ve thought long and hard about it; I’ve looked back and asked myself: ‘Could this really be true?’ And in the end I’ve decided that there is just no way it is possible.”

Their disbelief is shared by one person who knew the convicted parents intimately: their ­middle daughter, who spent her childhood in the home where most of these dreadful crimes are said to have occurred. Like her brother, she insists none of it ever happened and her parents are the innocent victims of a terrible miscarriage of ­justice. In her account, it’s a nightmare that began in the psychiatric hospital where her youngest ­sister was diagnosed with the controversial condition Dissociative Identity Disorder, and began remembering things that no one else remembers.

“This family has been torn apart by the authorities,” she says, “and my sister is as much a victim as anyone. All I know is that she was admitted into the mental health system and we lost her.”

This is a story about a sporting family, but their names and achievements cannot be revealed because a court order prohibits us from identifying them. The father was a champion athlete in his younger years, then a teacher and lecturer; he met his wife in the mid‑1980s. We will call them Martin and Susan ­Johnson. By 1997 they lived with their children on a bush block close to a town of more than 20,000 people.

Sport dominated the family’s life, for the daughters were gifted and fierce competitors, raised in a household where fitness and a natural lifestyle were embraced. In 2002 Martin quit his job to coach his daughters and other local young people, and the family became a fixture in the tight-knit world of high-level interstate competition. Their home became a training camp used by hundreds of fledgling sports stars, and local newspapers tracked the Johnson girls’ achievements, particularly the freakish talents of the youngest, Emily*.

By age 14, she had already broken a major sporting record and was scorching the competition in under-16 events. Interviewed on television, she cockily predicted she would compete at the ­Olympics. “She absolutely thrived on sport,” recalls her former close friend, Cassie*. Some thought Martin pushed his daughters too hard, recalling how he once berated Emily at a public event. Others looked askance at the family’s quirks — Susan and her teenage daughters once posed naked in the bush for “nature shots” taken by a professional photographer. “It was very hippie and innocent, but to out­siders maybe a bit weird,” says a schoolteacher who lived with the family for six months when he and the girls were teenagers. “They definitely weren’t a ­normal family — all three girls were driven and wanted to be Olympians; their whole life was structured around competitions. [Martin] was intense; he could be abrupt and authoritarian with the girls, but at other times very loving and reassuring.”

As Emily turned 15, the pressures of competition appeared to take a toll. In early 2007 she was hospitalised with acute anxiety after an interstate event and two months later she deliberately banged her head into a sink during a training camp. A coach’s report of that incident described her making ­rambling claims about “being ‘nearly’ raped [and] having a knife pulled to her neck”. A year later she reported crippling abdominal pains, but appendix surgery revealed nothing. The ­Johnsons took their youngest daughter to a psychologist, but at the end of Year 12 her mental state unravelled dramatically after she flew to the Middle East without her father for her first international competition. On that trip she shared a hotel room with two girls, aged 15 and 17, who told her a male coach was molesting them during ­massages. In the weeks that followed, Emily would accuse the same coach of drugging her and raping her in her hotel bed.

What actually happened remains a mystery even to those who were on the trip. The youngest of ­Emily’s room-mates was her close friend Ruby*, who told this magazine Emily became ­distressed after they discussed the coach’s massages but would not explain why. The other room-mate, Chrissie*, has signed an affidavit saying that Emily initially made no claim about the coach raping her, instead saying she had woken up in bed and felt a “deep pressure” on her arms. Only later, Jones states, did Emily confide that her memory of the rape had “come back to her” a week later while having sex with her boyfriend after returning to Australia.

Within days of her return, Emily revealed the rape allegation to her mother, who took her to police and then to a counsellor at the local sexual assault centre. Police interviewed Emily but never took a formal statement and never laid charges.

Far more drastic events would occur two weeks later, when Emily and her father travelled interstate for a sports competition. During that event Emily swallowed nine paracetamol tablets, cut her arms and suffered a panic attack that caused her to fall to the ground clutching her stomach. ­Martin reacted harshly, accusing his daughter of attention-seeking. A female coach later found Emily in her room, ­distressed and in a foetal position, and called the teenager’s sexual assault counsellor, who spoke to Emily for an hour. “Following this conversation,” the coach later reported, “[Emily] told me that her father had touched her inappropriately when massaging her on a number of occasions.” The next day, Martin Johnson and his daughter travelled home separately.

Prison: the shed where abuse was said to have occurred. Picture: Jason O'Brien
Prison: the shed where abuse was said to have occurred. Picture: Jason O’Brien

Martin had massaged his daughters often ­during his years coaching them, a practice that had already caused dissension in the family. The ­Johnsons’ older daughter Carly* had been molested by a coach during massages when she was 13, an incident her mother reported to police. That incident, recalls middle daughter Brittany*, prompted Carly to tell her father that his sports massages brought up distressing memories of the earlier assaults, so he stopped them. “It was discussed openly, and we supported her,” Brittany says.

Emily’s allegation against her father thus ­echoed both her older sister’s experience and the events in the Middle East. After returning from the interstate sports competition she began voicing suicidal thoughts, and in January 2010 her parents admitted her to the psychiatric ward of the local public ­hospital. The intention was to stabilise her; instead she would remain there for four months, descending into a spiral of suicidal self-abuse while being administered antidepressants, sleeping tablets and the antipsychotic drug Seroquel. Within six weeks of admission she had lacerated her arms and neck, tried to hang herself and absconded into town, where she threatened to jump off a bridge and was dragged to safety by her sister Brittany and onlookers. In counselling sessions she recanted her claim that her father had touched her inappropriately but described her relationship with him as stressful and said, “I don’t know who I am”.

Writing from prison, Susan Johnson recalls ­visiting her daughter in hospital and being alarmed by her drugged, robotic state and the doctors’ assurances that self-harming was normal. “I left very upset, distressed beyond belief and terrified,” she says. Emily’s counsellors, she says, seemed ­fixated on Martin, asking leading questions about his anger and controlling nature. Brittany recalls that one counsellor pressed her with ­suggestive questions about her father and said: “Dig deeper, you know there’s more.”

Hospital files describe Emily as reluctant to talk about either the incident in the Middle East or her father; she experienced “continual anxiety” about speaking to sexual assault counsellors and felt pressured by her psychologist to provide details. After three months in the hospital she began requesting release, and in mid-2010 she returned home and briefly resumed sport. But that experiment came to a calamitous end six weeks later, after Emily learnt something shocking: her father had been accused in the past of molesting teenage girls.

Every family has its secrets, and behind their high-achieving lifestyle the Johnsons were no exception. Between the ages of 28 and 30, Susan had suffered a miscarriage, the birth of a stillborn son and the death of a premature infant daughter. She’d been hospitalised for depression. ­Martin would later admit in court that he withdrew into his work during these traumatic years and was often an angry or emotionally disengaged father. In 2000-01, the couple separated for 18 months. Their son Will* remembers his dad as overly authoritarian and “just not the father-figure type”.

But Martin had a deeper secret: in the 1980s he had resigned his job as a high school physical ­education teacher after two senior girls complained he made sexual advances to them. One girl reported that his overtures began when she was in Year 10; the other said he convinced her to strip naked in the gym for a “skinfold test” during Year 11, and later “almost had sexual intercourse” with her in the school staffroom. Johnson, who was 27 at the time, insisted he was a victim of schoolgirl gossip, a stance he maintains to this day. But a departmental inquiry backed the girls.

Susan met Martin two years after these events and accepted his explanation. But her mother, who became aware of her son-in-law’s past in 1989, was understandably disturbed 21 years later when her granddaughter Emily accused Martin of inappropriate touching. In June 2010, according to hospital records, Emily was readmitted to the psychiatric hospital after taking a drug overdose prompted in part by her grandmother’s disclosure that “her father has [had] other sexual assault allegations made against him”. Eight days later, Emily experienced a disturbing childhood memory ­during a counselling session. “Asleep and woke up naked with father on top of her,” recorded her counsellor. “…Not able to recall further.” Within two weeks, hospital staff noted she was being “flooded and overwhelmed” by terrible memories of sexual abuse at the hands of her father. Her ­psychiatrist later described the memories as ­“dissociative flashbacks” and would eventually diagnose Emily with Dissociative Identity Disorder.

Dissociation has long been psychiatry’s most contentious issue. Many psychotherapists accept that adult patients can recall traumatic childhood incidents that were previously blocked from memory, a theory first proposed by Sigmund Freud more than a century ago. But research has shown that false or distorted memories can also occur, particularly if therapists ask suggestive questions, a problem that is particularly acute with Dissociative Identity Disorder, which can cause people to lapse into multiple personality states.

The reliability of “recovered memories” was discredited in the 1980s and 1990s after hundreds of therapy patients around the world began recalling bizarre incidents of childhood abuse involving satanic cults and child sacrifice; some patients subsequently recanted their memories and sued their therapists. One NSW family was awarded $165,000 compensation after an 18-year-old woman’s bizarre memories of abuse led police to charge her father, mother and grandmother, a case that collapsed after multiple children in the extended family made false or dubious allegations. Emeritus Professor Don Thomson of Deakin University, a forensic psychologist who is chair of the ethical guidelines committee of the Australian Psychological Society, fears these cautionary lessons are being forgotten as police and counselling services are inundated with allegations in the wake of the Royal Commission into institutional abuse. Thomson argues that a “dissociative flashback” is simply a recovered memory by a new name, and says many therapists seem heedless of the fact that false or distorted memories of childhood abuse can seem so real that they produce symptoms of trauma.

Emily would undergo more than 1000 hours ofpsychotherapy with her psychiatrist over several years, as well as weekly meetings with a ­sexual assault counsellor, during which she recalled 13 years of savage sexual violence at the hands of her father. Most of the incidents she remembered took place in a chicken shed 40 metres from the family home, where she said her father brutally ­violated her with scissors, spanners, a G-clamp, a screwdriver and other tools, leaving her bleeding at times for days. She recalled being imprisoned naked in the shed during her childhood and adolescence, once for three nights in mid-winter when she was only six. The father she described was a vicious ­sadist who first raped her when she was five and assaulted her “every day” — she recalled being punched in the face, thrown to the ground, choked, held down on a jumping-ant nest, bashed in the head with a spanner, threatened with a machete and chainsaw, urinated on, locked in a storage box overnight and repeatedly thrown into the creek near their home and held underwater. As she grew into an adolescent, she recalled, he kept her imprisoned in the shed by wrapping her in barbed wire.

While remembering these incidents Emily would experience nightmares, flashbacks, hallucinations and “illusions”, her psychiatrist wrote, sometimes regressing into a child-like state or imagining her father was present in the room. She was hospitalised with seizures, repeatedly admitted to the psychiatric unit in a suicidal state and threatened to throw herself off a cliff “to stop the thoughts of past trauma”. On one occasion she left a counselling session in a daze and was found walking along a country road 10km away, unable to remember how she got there.

In November 2010 she reported she had been thrown against a car after encountering her mother and sister at a supermarket; two months later she appeared at the hospital with cuts and bruises, saying her father had dragged her into his car at the town swimming pool, raped her and whipped her back with a belt. A medical examination found no welts on her back and a vaginal examination was normal; when police interviewed Martin, he said he was shocked at the accusation and broke down in tears, saying “before she went into the mental health system she was — she was my best friend”.

Police laid no charges, but events changed dramatically nine months later after Emily arrived at work in a distressed and injured state, saying her parents had just tried to kidnap her on the street. The case was handed over to a detective constable who called Susan in for questioning. Like her ­husband, Susan railed against the mental health system and expressed fears for her daughter’s life. Calling the kidnap claim a “blatant lie”, she added: “I just want to know how long she can continue to fabricate and people keep believing her … We’re at a point we want this to go to court.”

The Johnsons were still unaware of the grave nature of their daughter’s allegations, which Emily now began detailing in a 78-page police statement that took three months to compile. In it, Emily described more than 40 horrific incidents of rape and assault from age five, alleging that her mother participated in and facilitated the abuse.

The allegations were so disturbing that Strike Force Willbe was formed, yet direct evidence of the crimes would prove elusive. Emily had been a sports star from age 10, participating in thousands of competitions and training sessions dressed only in shorts and skimpy tops, yet no friend, family member, boyfriend, athlete, doctor, physiotherapist or teacher testified to seeing any injuries consistent with the extreme violence she described. Emily remembered assaults so vicious they would have been life-threatening, but her school reports were normal, her sporting feats outstanding and for 13 years she had revealed nothing to anyone. Scores of young athletes had attended weekend and week-long sports camps at the Johnson property and noticed nothing; one athlete had lived with the family for six months, and Martin’s parents had lived with them for more than a year. Emily’s mother, father, younger brother Will and older sister ­Brittany flatly denied any of it was true.

Police found two crucial witnesses inside the family, however. Susan’s 79-year-old mother told them about the allegations Martin had faced as a schoolteacher. And Emily’s sister Carly gave police a damning statement, describing her father as a man of terrifying violence who locked her in the garage every week and began molesting her during sports massages when she was 14. Her mother, Carly said, was a heavy drinker who had engaged in sexualised behaviour such as demonstrating masturbation to them.

But Carly had also never noticed any of the grievous assaults Emily alleged, and her description of her father was at odds with dozens of affectionate emails she’d sent him over the ­previous three years. Only two months earlier she had signed off one message with “Love u dad!!!!” She had accused someone else of almost identical offences: in October 2010, Carly had lodged a ­formal police complaint against her ­former coach, saying he had molested her during massages from the age of 14 and had taught her and her sisters about masturbation when he lived at their house. The statement ­mentioned nothing about abuse by her parents.

In February 2012, as the police investigation gathered pace, Carly called her father, who had left Australia to take a job overseas. In an emotional outpouring she accused him of molesting her, saying she had experienced orgasms when he massaged her and had consulted psychologists about the sexual problems this had caused. Martin apologised repeatedly but said “I don’t even remember that”. Insisting that “I never went near you girls”, he said he had even consulted counsellors to see if he had “blocked things out”.

The call was a set-up — detectives were listening in. A week later police raided the couple’s home, accompanied by Emily, and retrieved two metal objects and a pair of girls’ underpants from locations where she said she had buried them several years earlier. The shed’s wooden frame was crudely etched with the words “bad dad”, “Traped” [sic] and “Mum is coming”, which Emily said she had scratched years earlier. For five weeks police intercepted the ­Johnsons’ calls as they discussed their dawning fears about the investigation. Nothing incriminating was said; instead, the couple sounded bewildered, angry and fearful for Emily’s welfare if the matter went to court. “You know how hard it is for me to even think that I’ve gotta fight [Emily],” said Martin. “Because, wow … it’s our daughter.”

The following day, police arrested Susan as she was running near her home. “What are you going to do to me?” she said. “I’m innocent.” Later that day she was charged with seven counts of sexually abusing three ­daughters. Nineteen months later, in November 2013, Martin appeared before a NSW magistrate on 117 charges of sexual abuse, having been extradited from overseas. Denied bail, he was sent to jail, where he has remained since. A ­blanket suppression order barred the media from reporting any further proceedings in the case.

By the time their trial opened in the NSW ­District Court in April last year, Martin and Susan Johnson had spent more than $800,000 preparing to defend themselves, forcing them to sell their home and all their major assets. In multiple pre-trial hearings, the Johnsons’ lawyers won access to the counselling notes of Emily’s psychiatrist and other counsellors. A senior forensic psychiatrist, Dr John Roberts, examined the notes and said they suggested Emily had experienced recovered memories that were of doubtful reliability without corroboration and an independent psychiatric assessment. A female athlete told the Johnsons’ lawyers that Emily had confided to her in 2013 that her allegations against her father were based on “repressed memories”. The Johnsons planned to defend the case on this basis but in late 2015 they ran out of money and Legal Aid NSW took over the case, assigning it new lawyers. Susan recalls that she didn’t meet her new barrister until a week before the jury was empanelled.

The 10-week trial before Judge Sarah Huggett was notable for its contradictory evidence. Susan’s mother testified that in 2002 she had inadvertently stumbled on her three granddaughters in her home massaging Martin, who was naked with “a huge erection”. Carly corroborated this story but her sister Brittany, who would have been 13 at the time, denied it ever happened. The girls’ grandmother described ­Martin as a violent man, and a neighbour recalled seeing him whip one daughter with a skipping rope, but a witness who lived with the family for six months recalled nothing unusual. More than two dozen people wrote statements in support of them.

The prosecution produced a diary that Emily said she had written when she was 14, describing incidents of abuse at home. But the spelling and language were child-like, and multiple entries were on dates when Martin was overseas or Emily was competing interstate; a forensic expert hired by police concluded that entries dated two weeks apart were entered on the same day.

The prosecution presented three major forensic reports: a DNA test of blood on the buried underpants was a partial match to Emily; a corrosion test on the tools retrieved at the property concluded they had been buried for more than three years; and a sexual assault physician, Dr Christine Norrie, who examined Emily at Nepean Hospital, western Sydney, testified that her hymen showed damage consistent with blunt force trauma in childhood.

In response, the Johnsons commissioned their own experts: one was an engineer who flatly contradicted the dating of the corroded tools; another was Dr Maria Nittis, a senior sexual assault physician who examined Emily at the same time as Dr Norrie and came to entirely different conclusions. Dr Nittis noted hymenal tears can have many explanations, and said the extreme detail of Emily’s childhood memories and the absence of any scarring made some of her allegations appear “implausible”. It was “highly unlikely” such extreme violence could have occurred without infection, she said, recommending Emily undergo psychiatric assessment.

But Dr Nittis and the defence engineering expert were never called to give evidence, and nor was the psychiatrist Dr Roberts. The jury was never told that Emily’s allegations might be the product of repressed memories; nor did they hear any evidence that Dissociative Identity Disorder has been linked to false memories of sadistic abuse. Writing from prison, the Johnsons say they were bewildered by their lawyers’ conduct of the case.

For 16 days, Emily gave evidence via videolink to the courtroom in Sydney’s Downing Centre. She described in excruciating detail each one of the 48 ghastly acts she said her father had perpetrated, becoming visibly distraught to the point of retching, and requiring frequent breaks. The anxiety attacks and self-harm she suffered in her youth, she said, were a direct consequence of her father’s abuse; the false rape allegation in the Middle East had been his idea, to distract attention from his own offending. Her sister Carly repeated her own allegations of molestation and violence, adding that she had “blocked out a lot of things”. Asked about her many emails expressing her love for her father, she replied: “He never knew that I hated him.”

Throughout the trial, the prosecution had been holding an ace card: police had obtained statements from the former high school students who had complained about Martin in the 1980s. Now in their mid-40s, the women recalled that he had lured them into sex by preying on their insecurities. Martin’s lawyers had successfully barred any ­evidence of the 1984 allegations from the trial, but the prosecution could have tabled the women’s statements if they called anyone to testify to Martin’s good character. To avoid that, Martin testified on his own behalf, insisting he was innocent but admitting his anger may have psychologically scarred his children. “I wasn’t a good father,” he said, “but I definitely was not an abusive father.” Susan denied both her own guilt and her husband’s.

After deliberating for 10 days, the jury convicted Martin on all 73 counts and found Susan guilty of 13 charges, acquitting her of the three charges related to Carly’s claims. Judge ­Huggett said Susan had shown a complete lack of remorse and jailed her for 16 years. Describing Martin as “selfish, depraved and sadistic”, the judge sentenced him to 48 years in prison.

Brittany was sitting in court on the day her parents were found guilty. “It was just that absolute moment of shock,” she says, recalling that her father appeared stunned and her mother ­terrified. Nearly three years after the case began, Judge Huggett lifted the suppression order that had barred journalists from the courtroom, granting the media access to a prosecution summary and her sentencing remarks. The stories that followed — “Worst of the worst”; “13 Years A Slave” — depicted the Johnsons as monstrous perverts, mentioning nothing of the defence case. Until they read those news reports, most of the couple’s friends had been oblivious to the extreme nature of the two sisters’ allegations. Many are now incredulous at the guilty verdicts. Six people who knew the family intimately, including a former boyfriend of Emily’s and two of her closest former friends, told this magazine they recall her as a vivacious teenager who showed no obvious fear of her father or any sign of trauma. “Every part of [her] story I feel I can give a rebuttal to,” says ­Cassie, one of Emily’s best friends for five years. One mother who saw the Johnsons weekly for many years and watched Emily grow from the age of eight says: “I don’t know anyone who knew them and trained with them who thinks this happened.”

Cassie and Ruby, who ­Martin coached throughout their teens, described him as exemplary in his conduct and inspiring. Others ask rhetorically why the Johnsons would have taken Emily to police and rape counsellors if they themselves were abusing her. Why would they permit scores of people to stay at their home during training camps? “Bizarre — it’s just absolutely bizarre,” says the teacher who lived with the ­family for six months. “For such a lovely family to go through this … my heart just sinks.”

The solicitor handling the Johnsons’ appeals, Greg Walsh, says evidence about recovered memory and Dissociative Identity Disorder would have been crucial to the defence; the fact that was it was never tabled “may well have occasioned a miscarriage of justice”. The verdict has split the Johnson family and their local community, with Brittany and Will insisting their parents are innocent, while Emily and Carly are supported by their maternal grandmother and aunt. On social media, Emily’s friends include a local police chief and magistrate, who described her and Carly as “my heroes!” In recent posts, a smiling Emily is shown skydiving and dressed for a wedding. The week her parents were sentenced, she appeared in her local newspaper discussing her latest sporting endeavours.

From jail, her parents send long, handwritten letters to Brittany, expressing bewilderment and sometimes anger over the events of the past seven years. “I wake every morning in the disbelief that I am here,” Susan writes, “and ask how could this happen to such a talented [and] beautiful family.”

Among the hundreds of legal documents she has waded through as she helps her parents prepare their appeal, Brittany recently encountered the statements of her father’s former high school ­students about his conduct in the 1980s. Today she wonders whether that scandal from her father’s past was the trigger for her family’s destruction. “In the end, this is the truth about my family,” she says. “People ask, ‘Why did this happen?’ but you can’t answer that in a simple sentence.”

* Names have been changed.