Richard Walker drove the school bus for the country school that Denise attended from kindergarten onwards. Her family’s property was the last drop off on the afternoon run and Walker would park the bus there before getting into his car to go home.
One afternoon in the late 1980s, Walker passed Denise’s home without stopping. He parked the bus and locked the doors and as Denise moved to get off, Walker pushed her onto a seat. He began kissing and groping her, and then digitally raped her. When she managed to get free, she ran home and vomited then went to her room and stayed there crying.
When pressed by her brother, Denise told him that Walker had kissed her. She made him promise not to tell their parents but a week later, he did. Denise found out years afterwards that her father had confronted Walker, but she wasn’t sure what if anything had come of his action.
Denise told the Commissioner that after the assault she started purposely missing the bus or making one of her friends stay with her till the end of the run. She became disruptive in class and one of her teachers, noticing the change in behaviour, asked what was wrong. Denise replied that she was scared to go on the bus. The teacher interpreted this as trouble with her father, and that she was possibly being abused by him. Denise had to clarify that it was a problem with the driver, but she wouldn’t expand on details.
About three days later, the school’s vice-principal pulled both Walker and Denise off the bus as it was about to leave. He berated Walker, telling him that Denise had a problem on his bus. ‘After that I just shut off’, Denise said. ‘I didn’t hear what was said after that. I just clammed right up.’ Other children pressed her to know what was discussed, and she became scared. ‘I just thought no one’s ever going to believe he did this, so I didn’t tell anybody.’
Shortly afterwards, Denise got an afternoon store job as another means of avoiding Walker. She left school at the end of the year, but would see Walker around town. He often came into the store and taunted her, asking if she was ‘catching the bus today?’
At 16, Denise met a boy and at 18, married him. ‘I think I did it for security purposes, like so I didn’t get male attention, I just didn’t want it ... I think he was safe so we ended up getting married and having kids.’
When her daughter turned five and was about to join the bus run with Walker still as driver, Denise had a ‘nervous breakdown’. She started to see a counsellor and soon afterwards her marriage came to an end. Her ex-husband then began to date Walker’s daughter, and with shared custody, the children now came into regular contact with Walker.
‘They came home from a visit and told me all about how they’d been to [Walker’s] house and stayed there overnight’, Denise said. ‘I just lost the plot, absolutely lost it, and I thought, I can’t keep doing this, so I went to my lawyer and he suggested that I make a statement to police, which I did.’
With hindsight, Denise wished she’d been better prepared before approaching police. Her father accompanied her and heard for the first time most of what was disclosed in her statement. ‘I couldn’t say everything that had happened in front of him. I know now that in the original statement I gave I didn’t say all. I only said about the outside touching.’
Police told Denise they couldn’t charge Walker because of the statute of limitations for abuse allegations that didn’t involve skin-to-skin contact. At the time of her report in 2010, it was more than 20 years since the assault took place.
Six months after her initial statement, Denise went to police to provide more details. After making a full disclosure, she was told they still couldn’t charge Walker because it would look like she’d provided further information so as to fit available charges. She was upset that police had spoken to her brother, but not the teacher to whom Denise had disclosed her distress in 1989, even though the teacher had provided a statutory declaration confirming this part of the account.
Denise told the Commissioner that she believed Walker had abused others. One girl had told her that he’d made sexually explicit comments to her, and two others said he’d ‘done something’ to them, but refused to be drawn any further. Denise had also received a letter from Walker’s sister which inferred he’d abused her.
In the Family Court, Denise got a protective order preventing Walker having access to or contact with her children. Attempts to restrict his access to other children weren’t successful. Walker still drove the school bus and when Denise informed the principal of the assault on her and the ensuing police investigation, the principal wrote down the names of her children and assured her they wouldn’t be put on his bus. Denise also informed state child protection services.
Denise said she was no longer scared to talk about the abuse.
‘I don’t care who knows. Before I was like, “No, someone will find out, and they will know it was me and it will be like, they will think this”. I don’t care anymore. I just think, no, I didn’t do the wrong thing … And instead of grabbing for a packet of pills like anti-depressants or whatever, I think, no, because I’m not the one that’s going to be messed up by this anymore.’
She said she was now with a very supportive partner. ‘He’s fantastic, I couldn’t have asked for better support and it’s made me be able to deal with it properly and yeah, do something about it.’