Rape guilty plea

May 01, 2018

Indigenous elder Uncle Leon Saunders, 61, has been remanded in custody after pleading guilty to raping a woman less than half his age in Tatura last year.

He stands charged with the rape of the woman, 24, by performing oral sex on her without her consent, at his home in May.

Mr Saunders had invited the woman to his home for a massage. The court heard Mr Saunders is a professional massage therapist who got his qualification in 2002.

Mr Saunders was supported by almost a dozen family and friends during his County Court appearance in Shepparton yesterday.

The court heard how Mr Saunders messaged the victim on the afternoon of the rape, asking what she was doing later that night. ‘‘Would you like a one-hour full body relaxation massage?’’ he asked.

The court heard the woman arrived at his home just after 7pm and they had a discussion about his role at Rumbalara Aboriginal Co-operative.

Prosecutor Melissa Mahady told the court the two discussed what clothing the victim should wear and she told Mr Saunders, ‘‘I’ll keep my bra and underwear on’’.

He began to massage her, asked her to roll over and used both hands to massage in between her breasts.

‘‘The victim froze, not knowing what to do, she began to shake,’’ Ms Mahady said.

‘‘The victim then felt he (Mr Saunders) was trying to take her underwear off, she tried to stop him, but he was too fast.’’

The court was told the offence was committed as the victim lay frozen. ‘‘The victim waited to confirm he had left the room, dressed as quickly as she could, and left shortly after, still shaking,’’ Ms Mahady said.

The court heard on her drive home, the victim received a text from Mr Saunders, apologising for his behaviour.

A day later, the victim’s manager and a colleague noticed something was not right and she later reported the rape to police.

The court also heard how Mr Saunders asked the victim not to go to police, saying: ‘‘Keep it between me and you. I don’t want you and our families going through a court case, please keep it between me and you.’’

About two weeks after the incident, Mr Saunders was interviewed by police at the Shepparton Police Station and denied the allegation.

Defence lawyer Naomi Smith tendered numerous character references to the court, including references from Monsignor Peter Jeffrey, and Crs Dennis Paterson and Chris Hazelman.

‘‘Mr Saunders is an elder (of) Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Wurrung communities,’’ Ms Smith said.

‘‘At the age of 11, he travelled to Melbourne ... he was the victim of crimes of a sexual nature. He reports suffering flashback, nightmares and is sexually promiscuous as a result.’’

Ms Smith said her client’s credibility had been lost and conceded that the complainant’s position was that the offending was aggravated.

She also submitted to the court Mr Saunders suffered from bipolar disorder and said he was not using his medication.

‘‘Mr Saunders describes his offending as out of character,’’ Ms Smith said. ‘‘He shows remorse and regret ... the only sentence available is that of a prison sentence and I concede that.’’

Judge Christopher Ryan said he read the victim’s statement twice and described Mr Saunders’ actions had been ‘‘manipulative’’ and ‘‘predatory’’.

‘‘The victim feels alienated ... there has been pressure applied to her by other members of the community,’’ he said.

‘‘She suffers depression and anxiety to the extent she is violently ill.’’

Judge Ryan said there was ‘‘a certain predatory act towards his behaviour prior to the offending conduct’’ when Mr Saunders asked the victim to keep the meeting a secret.

‘‘It’s troubling, a gross breach of trust ... here’s a young woman who has known this man since she was a teenager,’’ he said.

Judge Ryan said one would expect a victim in a situation like this to ‘‘fight or flight’’ but said neither was an option.

‘‘Victims, as soon as they’re being interfered with, are entirely disarmed,’’ he said.

‘‘The woman freezes and the crime is committed. Entirely unable to move — and this is exactly how the complainant describes herself.’’

In January, three of the four charges Mr Saunders faced were withdrawn by prosecutor Leigh Harrison.

Mr Saunders’ part-heard plea hearing was adjourned as his defence awaits psychological and hospital reports.

He was remanded in custody until his next court appearance at a County Court in Melbourne in July.

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