Like so many other boys, he could ignore the uncomfortable moments if it meant pulling on a St Kilda jumper. It was 1976. He was 11 years old. A friendly man with a doting wife and a baby in the pram beside them offered him a game in the Saints Little League team.
The man said he was the team manager, or maybe the assistant coach. The boy was flattered by the attention, so the precise details barely mattered. It felt like the day his football dream was moving closer to reality.
Like so many who played for the St Kilda Little League, he’s now a man who doesn’t want his name forever associated with the paedophile ring that infiltrated the team in the 1970s. He has a career and a name to protect, and after all, it wasn’t his fault.
Yet he also knows the sad truth: this is how it works. This is how boys are silenced and remain mute in manhood. In recent weeks, he’s cried tears of guilt for the others — the ones who haven’t lived normal lives.
Warning: This story contains details of child sexual abuse which may disturb some readers.
Thinking back, he’s upset he didn’t see the warning signs. The man had taken such a genuine interest in him, driving him to Saints training and other outings, watching his junior games, developing a warm, father-like interest in a matter of weeks. But he says the lingering shoulder rub at the bowling alley certainly put him on edge.
The boy played in round six — St Kilda vs Footscray at the Western Oval. At the beginning of the second quarter, two men led the boy and his Saints teammates into the senior change rooms and kitted them out like their heroes. At half-time, they played — miniature league footballers for a day.
Next the boys lined the race for high-fives as their idols ran back out for the main game: Trevor Barker, Cowboy Neale, Barry Breen, George Young, Carl Ditterich, Rex Hunt. St Kilda lost by five points, but it was intoxicating. Every boy hoped he’d done enough to play again the following week.
A week later, things were looking up: the boy packed his boots and socks and the man’s car edged down the driveway. They drove away together for another day at the football. Then came a confusing update: the boy was only an ’emergency’ player. More doubts crept in. He wondered why this man who so clearly wasn’t the coach was driving him and other boys around town on weekends.
“I don’t think I was actually an emergency,” he says now.
The boy didn’t play. On the car ride home, a kilometre or two from home, he says he felt the shock of the man’s hands caressing his leg and moving up. Every misgiving and moment of confusion sharpened into focus, and he yelled: “Stop the car, I’ll get out here.” He says he’s never forgotten that panicked moment — the precise location, the feeling of fear.
“He’d sort of presented himself as the team manager, but in hindsight, he wasn’t. He was just this sort of hanger-on.
“Here was me thinking I might get to play another game for St Kilda Little League the whole time. I hung in there because I thought I’d get chosen. And that was, for my ego, the closest I’d get to playing for St Kilda.”
Now his prevailing feeling is anger — not only that nothing was done to protect him and other boys, but that the Saints jumper and the glamour of league football was the bait used to lure them towards harm. Since he read the story of Rod Owen’s abuse at the hands of St Kilda Little League coach Darrell Ray and team manager Albert Briggs, like many others, he’s also been wracked by guilt. Could he have spoken up? Was that his job?
Yet neither Ray nor Briggs was the man who groomed him. It was another fixture of the Saints Little League scene in that time — the one whom only the boys who crossed his path remember. His name was Gary Mitchell, a teaching colleague of Ray’s at Beaumaris Primary School, and a regular lieutenant in the football teams Ray coached.
Like Ray, Mitchell was a prolific sex offender. For six decades, he groomed and molested schoolboys who were placed in his care, leaving some of his victims to reel for decades in states of suicidal depression and misery. It took some survivors 50 years to speak of the horrors Mitchell subjected them to. As schoolteachers, the pair would fondle boys’ genitals for three to four minutes at a time — ordeals that many have never gotten over.
Dozens of Ray’s former players who spoke to the ABC in the last three weeks now wonder how Mitchell — unelected, undocumented and unsupervised — could create an unhindered path to grooming boys in the football teams coached by Ray, and how for a decade, between 1967 and 1977, the St Kilda Football Club provided the setting for wholesale child sex offending by Darrell Ray.
Because not every boy jumped out of the car, dodged a wandering hand or escaped the clutches of Darrell Ray and Gary Mitchell.
And not every boy has lived to tell his story.
“No child should have to endure what Rod experienced, and to hear that this abuse took place under the St Kilda name is shattering,” Saints CEO Matt Finnis said in a statement.
“Rod, and others like him, must be assured that should you make the choice to disclose information of this nature you will be heard, you will be supported, and most importantly, you will be believed.”
Finnis said the club would “seek advice from police and expert agencies to ensure Rod and anyone else who may come forward is supported.”
In the coming months, several men seem likely to seek such belief and support.
“This bastard f***ed up my life,” said one former St Kilda Little League player who told the ABC he was sexually abused by Darrell Ray.
Another player, who tallied 40 Saints Little League games between 1974 and 1976, outlines Ray’s prolific and unsophisticated offending: “He tried to molest as many children as he could,” he says.
“I used to cringe when I’d see him putting his hands down people’s pants in the dressing rooms.
“You’d be standing there and he’d lean over you. He’d sit next to you and start.
In change rooms, and on car rides to training and games, it was a routine that Ray would repeat for the duration of his 11-season stint as St Kilda Little League coach, and is the basis of most of the former players’ current allegations towards him.
The 40-game player says Ray built his St Kilda teams around a select group of star players — a team within the team. More often than not, he says, they were the half-dozen boys Ray regularly picked up from their homes early on Saturday mornings, only dropping them back home in the darkness of the early evening.
Other players called the select group “Ray’s favourites”, or “Ray’s pets”, but for some, that privileged status came at a cost. Favourites and pets were often boys the coach had molested. Some were also groomed by team “hanger-on” Gary Mitchell.
St Kilda Little League team manager Albert Briggs — molester of Rod Owen, and a man described by an associate of the time as “strange” and “possessive” of the Little League boys — was not exactly a shoulder to cry on.
“Mr Briggs was not friendly,” another former player says.
“He was a headmaster type figure who you didn’t mess with. I never liked him, but I never knew why.”
Players say Ray preyed on the youngest and smallest players, and “left the big kids alone”. As smaller players matured, some were able to physically stand up to Ray, but by then, many say they had suffered years of abuse.
For some, it was almost impossible to escape Ray’s vortex. Up to a dozen boys per season simultaneously played in three different football teams coached by Ray — his school, club and Little League sides — and in summer, cricket teams too. Exploiting the power imbalance, they say Ray created an almost unquestioning loyalty between player and coach.
Having secured their silence, the former players say Ray could and did interfere with the boys in almost any context. One player recalls rationalising it by telling himself: “He’s gonna get us into the footy team one day”.
Among boys whose entire world was sport, Ray also created a godlike coaching persona.
“At that age, a footy coach is someone you look up to,” one player says. “That’s how he got our trust.”
To understand the thrall Ray exerted, and the captivity in which he held the boys he groomed and abused, you need only ask for the recollections of players he coached. Some still feel, even after all these years, a strange gratitude, for his football guidance at least.
“The irony is that he was actually a very good football coach,” one says.
Another says: “Everybody loved Darrell Ray. And I must admit, he was a bloody good football coach. He was creative.”
A third, who played Saints Little League in 1977, hints more tellingly at the dynamics at play: “I don’t know if anybody put it this way, but my understanding is that some of those kids almost fell in love with him. The kids were in awe of him, because he had the power to play them in the Little League.”
Amazed to consider his unthinking compliance from the distance of 45 years, the 40-game Little League star of mid-70s cuts his nine-year-old self some slack.
“It was a big time in our lives, where we were living this pretend lifestyle trying to be AFL players,” he says.
But playing for St Kilda had pitfalls. Another player from St Kilda’s 1974 Little League team says he remembers Ray’s Cheshire cat grin as he watched the boys showering in the Kardinia Park change rooms after a muddy game against Geelong.
Standing in the shower among Ray’s “favourites” that day was a boy whose story now haunts the memories of those who knew him.
One former St Kilda Little League player describes the impact on those who were abused by Ray as a continuum. Fighting back tears, he places himself at the “not affected” end of the scale, then progresses through other phases — the drug and alcohol abuse, stunted emotional growth, unfulfilled potential, mental health breakdowns and shattered lives of some men — until he reaches the “horror stories”.
Trevor Foster is one of the horror stories.
Trevor was the kind of boy who needed only a fleeting moment to make a lifelong impression. One Saints Little League player who recalls barely a second of the 1973 and ’74 seasons brings immediately to mind the image of Foster’s long blond locks trailing him as he flew for a spectacular mark, like a miniature Trevor Barker.
Teammates from Foster’s mid-teen years remember a talent reminiscent of Melbourne’s champion wingman Robert Flower — a dashing outside player who was somehow also bravely diving in and under the packs, always at the forefront of the action, in football and in life.
Trevor’s sister Leigh, five years younger, recalls how the universal adoration of her brother smoothed her own path through primary school.
“I’d walk down the street and people would say ‘There’s Little Foster’,” she says.
“Who I became in those early days was based on his reputation.”
That reputation was built not just on Foster’s sporting brilliance and eye-catching surfie appearance, but an effortless charisma that set him apart. In Beaumaris FC junior teams containing players destined for league lists, Trevor was elected captain. Yet in the macho environs of football clubs, this leader was his own man — a poetic soul and an oddball.
There were signs of inner turmoil, too. A former teammate describes his playing style: “He had a bit of courage, which might have been a bit of fearlessness, which might have been a bit of recklessness, which might have been a bit of ‘F*** the world, I don’t care what happens to me’.”
Nowadays, Trevor’s mates lament the traits that defined him, because they were the same ones that would have made him such easy prey for Darrell Ray: he wasn’t just short, but wisp-thin and cute; upon his arrival in town, he fell within Ray’s preferred range of eight and nine-year-olds; he was besotted with football and eager to please; tellingly, Trevor’s dad was not on the scene, and he tended to project the deficit of fatherly guidance.
Ray spotted the talent and vulnerability immediately. Foster was ushered into the Saints Little League scene, and more than any player in the team, boisterous but fragile Trevor gained confidence in the cheers from the outer.
From a shoebox of ephemera, one of Foster’s St Kilda Little League teammates of that period produces Ray’s typed match report of the team’s game against Fitzroy at Moorabbin in 1974. It hints at Foster’s dilemma: “‘Mighty Midget’ Foster was a great forward, and obviously a favourite of the crowd, judging from the roar each time he got the ball.”
Trevor was also a favourite of Ray’s. Unable to contain her anger as she describes the four decades of drug abuse and hardships that followed, one friend summarises the conclusions drawn by most who knew Trevor:
Unlike many of Ray’s victims, who repressed their traumas quickly and sometimes forevermore, friends and family say Trevor felt immediately compelled to disclose what the coach was doing to him, sharing details with children who couldn’t comprehend his experiences and adults who refused to. Eventually, that inaction contributed to a sense of betrayal from which he never recovered.
She remembers how a “bright, normal, kid” started to hit the skids in his teens. Drinking and drugs were common features of the teenage lifestyle in 1970s Beaumaris, but Trevor, lacking fatherly guidance, unsupported through his ordeal and disdainful of authority, seemed keener than most to push the boundaries. His fearlessness on the football field bled into the rest of his life, and his limitless potential seemed to evaporate.
“He was always looking for someone to support what he’d gone through,” Leigh says.
In his late teens, Foster moved to the Gold Coast, closer to his father, but life became no easier. Consumed by his various resentments, he traded the cheeky charisma that endeared him to all for a wounded sense of persecution that could damage relationships and ruin employment opportunities.
Attendees at Trevor’s 21st birthday party recall a jarring speech full of digs at those who’d let him down. Friends who’d seen the sun-bleached knockabout wooing women at the beach struggled to reconcile the Trevor of happier times with the jaundiced drug addict who railed at society’s failings.
Convictions for drink-driving and marijuana cultivation gave way to early parenthood, and the possibility of a settled life. But like his grounds keeping jobs at golf courses, grown-up responsibilities never stuck for long. If there was a 50:50 decision to be made, Trevor would always go the wrong way. He felt constantly judged. Once thought of as a pot-head dreamer, he became a heavy user, self-sabotaging his way into endless setbacks.
In the late 1990s, there was briefly hope of a turnaround. Buoyed by the bravery of former schoolmates who’d prompted a police investigation, Trevor hoped to become involved in the prosecution of Ray.
But what might have been a period of vindication, catharsis and rebirth turned sour: with nobody to back his story, Trevor was not involved in the trial; Ray’s 44-month sentence for 27 counts of indecent assault carried a minimum of just 17 months in jail; where other victims pursued successful civil action and received compensation payouts, Trevor almost inevitably missed out.
“That personifies Trevor in his 20s and 30s.” Leigh says.
“Nothing ever seemed to work out for him.”
As all the letdowns sunk in, Trevor’s life slowly but surely unravelled. Steady relationships and regular housing were swapped for boarding houses and cheap hostels. By his 40s, bipolar and schizophrenic diagnoses were no surprise to the family and friends who’d receive his irregular phone calls — sometimes the charming Trevor of his boyhood, reciting a brilliantly-conceived poem, more often the paranoid, addled and aggressive stranger who’d replaced him.
Considered worldly and literate, Trevor had written a few unpublished books. Now he threatened homicide and self-harm, talking in delusional diatribes about a TV script he’d written and an upcoming trip to Sydney to pitch it — the journey from which he’d never return.
It is difficult for those who knew Trevor at his vivacious best to imagine the hopelessness of his final days: the brush-offs from startled receptionists at the TV production offices he stalked with his ‘script’; the sighting of Foster, wearing only underpants, mumbling incoherently into a public telephone at the Taronga Zoo wharf; the final glimpse of him recorded by a CCTV camera at Circular Quay, where he took possession of some property from an unidentified man and walked in a southerly direction towards his demise.
Among the many horrifying aspects of what followed, the inability of paramedics and the New South Wales coroner to determine the precise date of Trevor’s death is only a subtle indignity. Yet its imprecision speaks of the bureaucratic indifference felt by many victims of sexual abuse: “Mr Foster died on 26 or 27 February 2012.”
Foster was 48 years old, broken and homeless. He died from stab wounds to the neck, most likely inflicted by a fellow rough sleeper — a lonely and demeaning ending, buried under a pile of tattered blankets in a garden bed within Sydney’s Domain parklands.
Leigh chooses to remember the spirit of Trevor’s first eight years, rather than the 40 years of confusion and pain that followed.
“To screw someone up to the extent it did, for him to have led the rest of his life the way he did, it just wasn’t him,” she says.
Pragmatic in their grief for the clever little urchin who lit up so many lives, the Fosters found no fault with two particularly tragic sentences from the inquest: “It is impossible to exclude the possibility that Mr Foster caused the injuries to himself while delusional.”
“Further it is possible, although much less likely, that another, unidentified third party caused the fatal wounds.”
“Anyone who has that type of experience, please contact the police, our integrity department, and we will deal with it in the appropriate way,” McLachlan told the ABC in April.
“There’s a couple of things. There’s obviously a police issue at the heart of it. As I understand, that league hasn’t operated for decades. So, I guess the primary thing I’d say is that we take these things seriously, we’ll work with the police.”
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