TWELVE years after the infamous Coffs Harbour sexual assault case ripped the Canterbury Bulldogs apart, the NSW Police Force has gone to the rare step of reviewing its handling of the case – and it’s due to a year-long campaign of unrelenting pressure by Dogs great Graeme Hughes.
On February 22, 2004, police received a complaint alleging several Bulldogs players had sexually assaulted a woman at a hotel in the NSW North Coast town.
What followed was a TV, radio and newspaper firestorm as police brought players in for questioning and released statements to the media on their progress in the investigation – statements that are one of the issues at the heart of Hughes’ mission to have the case reviewed.
“Players were put through hell in the court of public opinion with smears on their reputations that last to this day,” Hughes tells RLW.
“I want the NSW Police to apologise to them and the club.”
On top of that, the team lost about $650,000 in sponsorship and was fined a further $500,000 by the NRL, with $350,000 of that suspended.
Club great Steve Mortimer, then Bulldogs CEO, resigned over the scandal and long-serving team manager Garry Hughes, brother of Graeme, was sacked.
No charges were ever laid against any of the players, and former detectives who worked the case insist it was obvious very early on that the evidence against the Bulldogs didn’t stack up – another of the big issues Hughes is raising.
Hughes first made a complaint about the handling of the case to the NSW Police Force a year ago. He’s since chased the matter up numerous times, even corresponding with the NSW Minister for Police and Office of the NSW Premier.
Eventually, he succeeded in having the case reviewed. That review was concluded in mid-August and is now with the NSW Police Office of General Counsel, awaiting a decision on whether action will be taken over its findings.
As RLW went to press, that decision had not been taken – and the NSW Police had not given Hughes a time frame for when that might happen, despite having had two months to do so.
The former Bulldog’s list of complaints over the case is long and complex, but some of his key grievances are:
– That the investigation was pursued despite the lack of evidence to support the accusations – something detectives on the case repeatedly pointed out to their superiors.
– That false and misleading statements were made to the media in spite of the evidence.
-That police failed to consider charges against the alleged victim for making false accusations, even though detectives wanted to re-interview her with a view to doing so.
-That police referred the case to the Department of Public Prosecutions unnecessarily, given the obvious lack of evidence.
“I want to get a clear explanation about why millions of rugby league fans didn’t get access to the truth,” says Hughes.
“I also want to know why no apology was made to the club and the players.
“Guys are still suffering over this and many people still think of them as guilty. That can’t continue.”