‘You’ll be raped’: Prison guard’s taunt
Trapped in isolation inside Sydney's Silverwater prison, Clarissa Meredith could hear the guards taunting her.
"The lights were on full blast 24/7. You couldn't sleep. It was freezing. And you can hear the guards talking about you," she said.
"They just said, 'You're going to be raped in here. You're going to be bashed.'"
Clarissa is one of seven family members who were falsely accused of abusing and torturing children from their circus school in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney.
The Cook family spent months in prison after being charged with a combined 127 offences in 2018. All of those charges were dropped in February of this year.
On Sunday night's 60 Minutes, the family spoke out publicly for the first time.
Theresa Cook-Williams, 60, her brother Paul, 54, her daughters Yyani, 35, and Clarissa, 25, and their relatives Lachie and Lucy all appeared on the program.
Host Tara Brown was scathing towards NSW Police, saying the accusations against the Cooks were "too ludicrous to believe".
"There wasn't a shred of credible evidence to back up the accusations," Brown said.
"Now, having destroyed the lives of innocent people, you'd think police would be big enough to apologise for their incompetence. They're not."
60 Minutes asked Police Commissioner Mick Fuller and Police Minister David Elliot for interviews. Both men declined.
NSW Police gave the program a statement Brown described as "extraordinarily defiant".
"There's no apology," she told viewers.
The family's nightmare started at dawn on Friday, September 1 in 2017, when police - including the heavily armed Riot Squad - raided their property.
"There was this bang and they just, one by one, just came through the door screaming, 'Police, police!'" said Clarissa.
"I distinctly remember the footsteps. They were running up the stairs, and they were, 'Get your hands up and get down on the floor!' And they dragged me from the bed. I was semi-naked," said Paul.
Lachie said he walked towards the police with his hands up, confused, and they responded by throwing him to the ground, pinning him there, and warning they'd shoot him if he moved.
"Then they stripsearched me. And they kept saying, 'You know why we're here, you know why we're here.' And I had no idea," he said.
Police didn't arrest anyone that morning. They were merely there to execute a search warrant.
"At that point, you thought, 'This is all going to go away?'" Brown asked Paul.
"Yeah. It's ridiculous. Ridiculous," he replied.
For the next five months, the family was kept under surveillance.
Brown asked Therese how she reacted when she was told the claims against her family related to a child sex crime.
"I thought they'd made a mistake. They were at the wrong place," Therese said.
"They got the addressed mixed (up) - I didn't know, I just. Because I knew we had not done anything."
After the dawn raid, Therese texted someone she knew to tell her what had happened. She was shocked to learn the accusations were coming from that woman and her husband.
Therese and her family members were accused of abusing the couple's children.
"The person that you contacted to warn - to say that the police might come - was in fact the person who had made the accusations to police against you," Brown said.
"Yes," Therese confirmed.
"I just thought, this can't be real."
The rest of the Cooks were equally bewildered.
"It hurt I suppose, because I had known the mother of the children my whole life. And I just didn't think that she could think that of all of us. It just, I guess, cut pretty deep," said Lachie.
One of the monstrous allegations involved Therese supposedly biting into a child's penis while Paul filmed it.
"How could the police believe that?" Brown asked the family's lawyer, Bryan Wrench.
"There's expert evidence from their expert who described that incident as implausible, and an expert who described the incident as impossible. They chose to ignore it," he said.
"It was almost deliberately ignoring the evidence that was available, that showed our clients did not do this."
As the investigation progressed, police interviewed the two alleged victims more than 20 times. And they resorted to undercover tactics in an attempt to gather evidence.
A junior police officer who had recently had an intimate relationship with Clarissa was enlisted to pretend he wanted to rekindle their romance. He invited her on a date - and showed up wearing a wire.
"I think a month had passed, also, without any contact between me and him. And then out of nowhere, I get this text. 'Can we start seeing each other again?'" Clarissa said.
"And so we did meet up. We did. We hugged and kissed and everything.
"And I just thought, 'It will be fine. The police would not stoop to this level of getting a cop who used to date me to interrogate me. That wouldn't happen. No way."
It did happen. The young officer questioned her about the allegations. She told him she had been falsely accused.
"I liked him. I did like him and I trusted him," she said.
"It's just an extra layer of betrayal."
Finally, on February 5 of 2018, the police swooped in. They arrested Paul, Therese, Lachie and Clarissa. Yyani and Lucy, who were living together in Sydney at the time, were also arrested a short time later.
"I said, 'We're innocent.' One of the detectives said, 'We need to believe the children.' I just said, 'We're innocent.' I just kept saying, 'We're innocent,'" said Therese.
"I remember crying myself to sleep in the cell. It was overwhelming and terrifying," Lachie said.
"I hadn't felt dread like that before in my life, and I was so afraid."
Like Clarissa, Paul told 60 Minutes how he was taunted by the prison guards.
"I was in an empty courtyard. It was away from the other cells. And one of the officers said to me, 'You're an animal. You're just an animal, you are, and you belong in a cage, and that's where I'm taking you now. Get in there. And this is the sound that I love, the locking of the door,'" he said.
Meanwhile, Mr Wrench and his colleagues were going through a police brief of the evidence in the case, which was thousands of pages long.
"Not one piece of evidence that said our clients were guilty," Mr Wrench said.
"There was just nothing there."
Virtually the entire case was based on the 27 interviews, across three years, that police conducted with the alleged victims.
It eventually emerged that one of the children told his mother he'd been lying all along - a fact she withheld from police.
60 Minutes obtained quotes from one of the mother's police interviews, discussing that subject.
"He suddenly came up to me and said to me, 'Mum, I'm really sorry, I've been lying about the whole thing. Nobody hurt me, I've been lying to you,'" she said.
"So can you explain why it's not in notes for the police?" an officer asked her.
"I took it out because I think I thought - I didn't want anybody questioning whether he was telling the truth about everything, I guess," she responded.
"Anyway, eventually he told me the truth again, after about two hours reading reassuring scriptures from the Bible, and cuddles and patience and love."
"It's like she's going to each of the kids and coercing them into saying stuff to her," Yyani told the program.
"And not leaving them alone until they've told her something that someone's done to them."
A Supreme Court judge would eventually describe some of the alleged abuse as "bizarre, implausible and in some cases physically impossible".
On February 14 this year, all charges against the Cooks were withdrawn. The magistrate said there was no evidence to support them.
"This is probably one of the greatest miscarriages of justice this state has seen," Mr Wrench said that day.
Speaking to 60 Minutes, he said the family was considering making a civil claim to "redress the pain and the suffering" inflicted upon it. He slammed NSW Police.
"They've said nothing to the family. They haven't even apologised for their actions," Mr Wrench said.
"There's one word we're looking for, and it's sorry. And to date, it's been two years, and we haven't heard those words.
"The public has a right to expect that police will investigate both sides of the story, and if they did that, we wouldn't be sitting here today."
"Every report of child abuse is investigated with the same tenacity, and where there is evidence of criminal behaviour, we will place people before a court," a NSW Police spokesman told the program.
"Whether the DPP - or the court - has a different opinion is why we have a judicial system; so that every alleged victim can have their chance to tell their story and innocence or guilt can be determined within our state's legal framework.
"All alleged victims of crime - including children - deserve the opportunity to have their matters investigated without prejudice."
Each of the family members told Brown they were dealing with the trauma of their experience in their own way.
"I don't think I'm broken. I think I'm different. I want to be resilient. I don't know how my life will be. I still get scared - very, very scared," Therese said.
"It's not easy, but it's just one step in front of the other, and just try to focus on the positive.
"Because I don't want to turn into a bitter old grumpy lady. I'll probably be a grumpy old lady, but's the bitter angry I want to skip. That's all."
"I'm really angry because it's so hard to recover from something like this. And I just think if you don't need evidence to put someone behind bars - and that's terrifying. That is absolutely terrifying," Clarissa said.
"Of course it will have an impact. You know, your reputation's been destroyed," added Paul.
"Some people say your life's been destroyed. But I refuse to believe that."
Originally published as 'You'll be raped': Prison guard's taunt