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When Victorian railway sex predator Robert Whitehead died in jail last year, he took a big secret with him.
That secret was the identity of a small but powerful group of Victorian men who, according to his victims, ran what amounted to a protection racket for Whitehead, and whose influence allowed him to abuse train-loving boys, whenever he wanted, for at least three decades.
Whitehead died he was aged 84. He had pleaded guilty to 24 charges ranging from sexual penetration, indecent assault and false imprisonment involving six boys. Sex crimes detectives believe he may have abused many more.
But even though Whitehead was first convicted and jailed for abducting and abusing a child in 1959, the Victorian government's railways department – his employer – gave him long-term leases on old railway buildings at Brighton Beach and Taradale in country Victoria.
He used Taradale to sexually assault boys and it is highly likely he did the same at Brighton Beach.
There are also allegations that at least one man who retains a senior position within Victoria's volunteer railway community was aware of Whitehead's offending and, rather than acting on it, would encourage boys to undergo "initiation" with Whitehead at the Taradale station, near Bendigo.
Victims Wayne Clarke, Bill Elms and John Smithers believe Whitehead was acting with protection. They think a small network of politicians, police, bureaucrats, a former Puffing Billy tourist railway leader and others in the volunteer rail community actively shielded him from scrutiny.
Some, perhaps, knew of the nature of Whitehead's offending. Others turned a blind eye, simply not wanting to hear a bad word about the charismatic official, or risk reputational damage to their beloved trains.
Either way, Whitehead was able to consistently abuse children for decades between 1959 and 1990 – and well into the 2000s, he remained an influential figure at the Seymour Railway Heritage Centre and was able to mix freely with children.
"He [Whitehead] told me he had protection. That he was royalty," said Smithers, who was indecently assaulted by Whitehead at Puffing Billy in the Dandenong Ranges in the early 1980s. "[He said] there was no point in me saying anything because no one would do anything."
Wayne Clark Abused
Detectives did not launch an investigation into Whitehead until 2014, after Wayne Clarke told them of the sadistic abuse he'd suffered as a 13-year-old at the disused Taradale station Whitehead leased from the government. Police searched their records, but could find no mention of the once physically imposing railway man.
This did not seem that unusual until Whitehead's siblings asked police if they were aware of their brother's stint at Melbourne's notorious Pentridge Prison in 1959. That sentence had been imposed after he was convicted of abducting and molesting a boy scout. The news came as a bombshell for both the detectives and Whitehead's victims.
Back in 1959, the Scouts movement had the sense to expel Whitehead immediately. But the same cannot be said for Whitehead's employer, the Victorian Railways department, where he was a rising star.
As The Age revealed last year, it was Bolte government minister Sir Murray Porter, a friend of Whitehead's father, who successfully lobbied the state's railway chiefs to give Whitehead a second chance. Their re-hiring of Whitehead was a fateful and life-changing decision for at least six boys.
In the railways, it seemed, Whitehead could do no wrong. He was appointed train controller at Melbourne's busy Spencer Street station and was among the state's most senior volunteer rail officials. The position won him the admiration of boys and the respect of their parents. At that time in Victoria there was a big cross-section of people involved in both the government railways and the volunteer network.
As Whitehead rose through the ranks, his 1959 conviction was forgotten.
Clarke accepts that it is possible that the passage of time was enough reason for all police records of that conviction to go missing.
But he is more sceptical about the apparent lack of police records about Whitehead's activities at North Williamstown's Australian Railway Historical Society in 1976 and Puffing Billy a decade later. Both organisations had other paedophiles in their ranks at the same time as Whitehead, and Whitehead's behaviour was the subject of a number of complaints to police.
In an email to Victoria's police chief commissioner, Graham Ashton, Clarke has asked for an explanation as to why sex crimes detectives in 2014 could find no records of any of it. .
"I can only think that he has had one or a handful of people on the inside looking out for him for some reason," Clarke said.
The police commissioner's office has promised to investigate Clarke's concerns.
Bill Elms was one of those who had complained. He recalls making statements to police about Whitehead's frightening sexual abuse in the 1980s. Elms, who works in Victoria's railways, said years later he tried to tell a senior manager about Whitehead but was told to keep quiet or risk losing his job.
Elms' mother, Alice, said in the 1980s, she had repeatedly told Puffing Billy's long-serving president Lon Wymond about Whitehead's predatory behaviour. No action was taken. At the time, Whitehead was secretary of the Puffing Billy board.
Whitehead was booted out of the Puffing Billy organisation in 1990, around the same time as Wymond was replaced as president. No reason was given for his expulsion and no one reported Whitehead to police. This allowed him to move on, and he became an influential member of Seymour's historical rail society during the 1990s and 2000s.
Wymond, who received an Order of Australia for his Puffing Billy work, died in 2010 and cannot answer questions.
In fairness to Wymond, one Puffing Billy volunteer from Whitehead's time is adamant the former president did act on reports about another paedophile operating at Puffing Billy, Tony Hutchins, by calling the police.
"I know he did that because I reported Hutchins to him. We'd all had our suspicions about Whitehead as well but I can't say what Wymond did or didn't know in respect to him," the volunteer said.
But Whitehead victim John Smithers said Wymond did not react well when he tried to complain about Whitehead's abuse of him at Puffing Billy in the 1980s.
"Wymond told me that how dare I say such things about such a great man as Whitehead and that I'd better keep quiet if I wanted to go anywhere in the Puffing Billy movement," Smithers said.
Smithers, who still works for Victoria's railway department, said Whitehead did not forget his complaint, and had enough influence in the department to exact revenge. .
"I was in at the old head office building in Spencer Street and had got a school-leaver position to be trained as a driver. But then Whitehead saw me in the office and went in to talk to the men who had just offered me a job, and all of a sudden the job was gone. I'll never forget Whitehead standing on the stairwell above me saying: 'I told you that you should've bent over for me'.
"He was a bastard," Smithers said.
Clarke has been at pains to get answers from the Victorian government about how a convicted child sex abuser such as Whitehead was able to secure leases on railway buildings in Brighton and Taradale, which is where he was subjected to a terrifying series of ordeals in 1975.
"There are Victorian Railway records that show they were aware of his 1959 conviction and yet this didn't stop them leasing railway buildings which he used to take boys away to and abuse them. That staggers me," Clarke said.
He has been frustrated by a lack of response from various government departments and agencies. Victoria's Minister for Tourism and Major Events, John Eren, agreed that the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources should have acknowledged a letter from Clarke far earlier than it did.
"He is right to feel let down," Eren said. "What happened to Robert Whitehead's victims was abhorrent. They deserve a sense of closure."
Eren said the department was now examining "complex historical records, files and other information" in an attempt to answer Clarke's questions.
Clarke, Smithers and Elms are all keen to publicly hear from the board that controls Puffing Billy now. They know that these people are not responsible for failing to stop Whitehead and other paedophiles from preying on children there in the 1970s and 1980s.
But they believe they are owed a public apology for what happened to them so long ago.
This article first appeared on www.theage.com.au
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