JT breaks silence on Bulldogs Coffs Harbour rape scandal
JOHNATHAN Thurston today becomes the first Bulldogs player to give his version of the Coffs Harbour scandal that engulfed the club 14-years ago - revealing in an exclusive book extract what he says happened the night a woman claimed she was gang raped by six players.
"HEY, THERE'S THAT SHEILA FROM the other night," said a teammate, pointing at a young woman on the dance floor.
It was 1.30 in the morning, Sunday, 22 February 2004.
I was standing next to three of my Bulldogs teammates in the Plantation Hotel in Coffs Harbour, sipping a can of bourbon and cola.
We had demolished the Raiders 30-12 in a pre-season trial match that day, and I was excited about the prospect of the season start.
Bulldogs coach Steve Folkes had given us a leave pass.
Folkesy was an old school coach. He was happy for us to have a drink as long as we turned up at the pool at 7am for recovery.
I looked towards where my teammate was pointing, through the crowd - heaving and rowdy - and saw a young woman wearing black.
I had never seen her before. "Who?" I said. "From when?"
The boys filled me in.
Apparently a few of my teammates had met her at the pub on Wednesday night, when we were given a leave pass and told we could hit the town.
Some of the boys went to the movies, others stayed at the team hotel and a group went to the pub.
I went to the pub but left early, hoping to get a good night"s sleep with our game against the Raiders just a couple of nights away.
"She came back with the boys on Wednesday night," the teammate continued.
"She slept with six of them."
I nodded and sipped on my drink.
I wish I could tell you that I was shocked by the group sex - but I wasn't.
Consensual group sex, a girl sleeping with more than one NRL player at the same time, was not unusual.
Looking back now, I can see how distasteful and disrespectful it was.
Now, 14 years later, as a dad of three daughters, I don"t condone that type of thing.
But back then I was just a 20-year-old doing my best to fit in.
I can't tell you my story and omit the most controversial chapter of my career.
I can't leave out an event that then threatened to end my career before it even got started.
I'd rather forget these events but I owe you the truth.
Again, this is my story. I can only tell you what I did and what I saw.
She appeared to be wet and looked like she was crying. I shrugged. "Who cares?" I said. And I didn't, not until Monday when all hell broke loose.
With this I will become the first member of the 2004 Bulldogs squad to publicly speak about the incident that became known as the "Bulldogs Rape Scandal".
And there are no winners here: it is all pain, hurt and ugly.
Back to the Plantation Hotel, where my teammate had just pointed out a woman in the crowd. "She wants to meet up with some of the boys again," he said.
"But I don"t think they want to see her again."
I continued drinking, not giving the young woman in black another thought.
I was on a high after our trial win. I spent the rest of the night playing the pokies and drinking with my teammates, as well as a few of the Canberra boys, who were also at the pub.
At about 5am, I jumped into a taxi with a couple of teammates.
That 7am start at the pool was on our minds.
Then one of my teammates was shouting. "F**k off," he yelled.
"Get out of here. You're not coming with us."
I turned to see the young woman in black. She was trying to get into our taxi. One of the boys pushed her out and gave her a gob-full. She wasn't impressed.
"You are just a nobody," she screamed. "A F**khead."
She was still shouting as the taxi pulled away. I figured that was the last we'd see of her.
But about an hour later, when I was in my room at the Novotel trying to sleep, my roommate said, "Shit, that girl is coming. Have a look." I looked out the window.
She was walking towards our rooms.
She banged on the door of the room next to us, where some of my teammates were staying.
At first the boys tried to ignore her.
"Let me in," she screamed.
They didn't respond but she kept at it. Eventually one of the boys opened the door and gave her a spray.
I don't know exactly what was said but the message was for her to go away and leave them alone.
We could still see her through the glass. One of the boys in my room opened the window. "Get lost," he yelled. "Just go home. We don't want you here. F**k off."
The woman started to scream and swear, but eventually she left and I went to sleep.
My alarm went off at 6.45am. I jumped out of bed, still half drunk.
"Let's go," I said to my roommate. "We can't be late."
Our recovery session was to be held at an Olympic-sized pool located in a training facility that was part of the hotel.
I grabbed my towel and goggles before braving the daylight.
"Hey, there's that bird from last night," a teammate said as we made our way to the pool. "What the hell is she still doing here?"
I looked over and saw the young woman in black sitting on the side of the road, not far from the hotel office.
She appeared to be wet and looked like she was crying.
I shrugged. "Who cares?" I said. And I didn't, not until Monday when all hell broke loose.
We were ushered straight into a room when we arrived at Belmore for training on Monday morning.
Apparently a story had broken on radio that morning, but most of us were oblivious.
"Boys, we have a very serious matter to address," said Garry Hughes (Gaz), the Bulldogs Football Manager in 2004.
"I was approached by two detectives in Coffs Harbour yesterday. They informed me that a girl has made some very serious allegations. She alleged that she was sexually assaulted by between three and six players in the early hours of yesterday morning."
Sexual assault. Police. I was stunned.
Gaz told us that the woman had been found by hotel staff on the grounds of the hotel and was taken away in an ambulance.
Two Coffs Harbour detectives had come to the hotel during our recovery session and spoken to Hughes.
"I spoke privately to a number of players after recovery yesterday," Gaz said.
"And four players gave statements to police at Coffs Harbour before we came home.
"I thought that would have settled the matter but there are to be further investigations by both police and the club."
The press got hold of the story and the allegations went public on Monday morning.
You are just a nobody, she screamed. A F**khead.
"I need to know exactly what happened," Gaz said.
"I need the truth and I expect anyone that was involved to put up their hand.
"This is very serious matter and you need to come and see me if you were involved in any way with this girl."
I later found out the six players went to Gaz's office after the meeting.
They told Hughes that they took the woman back to the Novotel and had consensual sex with her on the Wednesday night.
They also told Gaz that they had rejected her on the Sunday morning, first at the Plantation Hotel and then at the Novotel.
Another player admitted having consensual sex with girl on the Sunday morning.
He brought her back to the Novotel at the end of the night and had sex with her in the pool area.
When Hughes took statements from the players, he told us he would back us to the hilt.
He was filthy on us for breaking team rules - we weren't allowed to bring people back to our team hotel - but he was adamant we had not broken the law.
I was not involved in any capacity with the woman who made the accusations.
I was not involved with her on the Wednesday night and I did not see what happened in the pool area on the Sunday morning.
However, I was shocked and scared to be interviewed by police for the second time in a year. The press absolutely hammered us and it felt like the public thought we were all guilty even though a charge had not been laid.
Every player in the squad was under suspicion. And we couldn't even defend ourselves.
We were told that we were not allowed to speak to anyone except a lawyer.
We all wanted to clear our names, but we couldn't even tell the police.
On 3 March the players were interviewed at the Sydney Police Centre, but our lawyers advised us to say only, "I am not prepared to answer at this time under legal advice."
And we copped a hammering for turning up to the Sydney Police Centre in casual clothes, some of the boys in shorts, others wearing thongs.
The press said that what we wore showed that we were not taking the allegations seriously. We were being accused of rape - of course we were taking the allegations seriously.
That is why we all volunteered to give DNA.
The truth is we were at training when we were told we had to go and give our statements.
We had just finished a session and were told to go straight to Surry Hills. We went in the clothes we had on.
The season began, and I was soon being called a rapist by fans at football games.
I scored two tries in our season opener against Parramatta - and we won 48-14 - but it was hard to celebrate when we were all under a cloud.
Just two weeks after my injury, on 28 April, the rape case was thrown out.
The Director of Public Prosecutions ruled there was insufficient evidence to launch a prosecution. No charges were ever laid and we were all cleared of any wrong-doing.
Some police involved in the investigation have since come forward and said there should never have been an investigation at all.
Several witnesses backed up the account of the player who slept with the woman on Sunday morning, including a hotel grounds man and a couple who were playing golf.
Both parties gave statements to police saying they saw the player and the woman in the pool area having consensual sex.
I am adamant no one broke the law.
I think the woman who made the allegations did so out of anger after the boys reduced her to tears. I genuinely feel sorry for her.
I was angry for a long time but now, looking back, I can understand that she went through a lot too.
We could have handled the situation better.
We didn't treat her with respect. She should never have been treated that way.
I don't think management at the Bulldogs handled the situation well.
They never came out and backed the players and they also denied us the opportunity to give our version of events that night.
The way Garry Hughes was treated was also a sore point with players.
He should never have been sacked.
Johnathan Thurston: The Autobiography, by Johnathan Thurston with James Phelps, is published by HarperCollins Australia and will be in all good bookstores and online from October 18.