By Sahar Adatia and Jimmy Singh
Last week, the Australian Federal Police cracked an underground parental abduction ring following a two-year investigation into the group that allegedly helped jilted mothers to abduct and hide their own children across Australia. Three men and a woman were arrested and charged for their alleged role in the kidnapping syndicate, which organised and financed the children’s snatching with plans to even use a yacht to smuggle them to New Zealand. The network managed to evade detection for a decade.
Among those charged include William Russell Massingham Pridgeon, a 64-year-old doctor from Grafton in NSW who is reported to have founded the Australian Anti-Paedophile Party. The party ran senate candidates in the 2016 federal election.
Pridgeon is accused of playing a central role in the network’s 10-person nucleus as the key financier, however the Australian Federal Police believe many more “like-minded” people assisted the group in its operation to contravene family law orders.
A second Grafton man also charged, Patrick Finbar McGarry O’Dea, was allegedly a co-organiser of the scheme. The 63-year-old arranged money for the women and used social media along with other public forums to unreservedly depict the fathers of their children as child abusers.
An 83-year-old man from Townsville was charged for allegedly assisting the two Grafton men, while a 78-year-old woman from Perth was also served a prosecution notice.
It is believed the network used a collection of phone messaging apps to communicate and plan the alleged abductions. Additionally, it’s reported that they also turned to supporters who provided food, accommodation and transport during the kidnappings.
Search Warrants Executed Reveal Plans to Sail Children Overseas
Upon the network’s arrest, ten search warrants were executed at locations in Grafton and Dubbo in NSW, as well as in Townsville and Perth. A yacht was also included in the examination, allegedly bought by Dr Pridgeon.
It is reported that the group was fitting out the yacht and had formulated strategies to use the vessel to covertly sail children around the country, with the possibility of kidnapping them to New Zealand or Zimbabwe. This would be arranged in order “to help mothers and their children start a new life.”
It is alleged one of the men also took sailing lessons in preparation.
Nevertheless, no fixed plans relating to any specific children were discovered by police.
Alleged Mastermind Charged with Conspiring to Defeat Justice, Child Abduction/Kidnapping and Proceeds of Crime Offences
Appearing in Brisbane Magistrates Court over the accusations on Friday, Pridgeon, the alleged mastermind behind the scheme, was charged with conspiracy to defeat justice. He was also charged with dealing in the proceeds of crime Charges to the value of $100,000 or more, along with two counts of child stealing and unlawful stalking Charges.
For most of the hearing, the doctor remained slumped in the dock with his eyes closed.
Meanwhile, Commonwealth prosecutor Christine Wilson spoke of the scheme’s intricacy.
“The level of sophistication with this case, especially with encryption communication, is quite high,” she said.
Speaking of Pridgeon allegedly buying a yacht and his suspected plans to sail the children overseas, defence lawyer Andrew Owens said that was untrue.
“He has a yacht, he’s wanting to retire shortly, and this was going to be a venture for him,” Mr Owens said.
Alleged co-organiser O’Dea, a permanent resident who migrated from South Africa 12 years ago, was also charged with conspiring to defeat justice, using a carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence, and publishing an account of proceedings, contrary to the Family Law Act 1975.
Both Pridgeon and O’Dea Released on Bail
Both Pridgeon and O’Dea were released on bail on the conditions that they agreed to report daily to police, hand over their passports, not come to Queensland unless for court matters, and stay off social media. They are also not allowed to contact witnesses or other co-accused members.
Pridgeon will also be forced to wear a GPS tracker whilst on bail.
Their defence lawyers said, that his clients were relieved to be granted bail.
“It’s going to be a long process,” he said.
“We haven’t seen really any brief of evidence, but we’ll have to see exactly what the evidence has because they’re quite unique charges.”
Both men are to return to court in Brisbane on 7 December 2018.
Syndicate a “Complete Disregard” for Decisions of the Courts
According to Australian Federal Police Assistant Commissioner Debbie Platz, the case has demonstrated a “complete disregard” for the rule of law in this country and the decision of the courts.
“Not agreeing to a [family] court decision is not an excuse for engaging in this vigilante behaviour,” Assistant Commissioner Platz said.
“During this two-year investigation, 10 missing children have been safely located in the custody of a parent who has abducted them. Five of these are believed to be linked to this group of people,” she told reporters in Sydney.
She also said the actions of the people involved have only potentially endangered the safety and wellbeing of the children rather than protect them, while the people who have assisted the group may be unaware of their involvement in criminal activity.
The Law and Penalties for Child Abduction and Kidnapping Charges in NSW
A person guilty of child abduction will face a penalty of up to 10 years imprisonment pursuant to section 87 of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW).
Under section 87 of the Act, you can only be guilty of a child abduction charge if:
- You either take or detain a child (under the age of 12-years of age); and
- At the time of doing that, you had the intention of removing (or keeping) the child from the person with parental responsibilities who has lawful control of the child; and
- The person with parental responsibilities who had lawful control of the child did not consent for you to take or detain the child.
A person guilty of kidnapping will face a penalty of up to 14 years imprisonment pursuant to section 86 of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW).
You can only be guilty to a kidnapping charge if:
- You take or detain a person; and
- That person doesn’t consent for you to take or detain him/her; and either one or more of the following:
- You did this with the intention of committing any type of offence that carries a maximum penalty of at least 5 years imprisonment (i.e. larceny, assault occasioning actual bodily harm or child abduction); or
- You did this with the intention of obtaining any other advantage; or
- You did this with the intention of holding the person to ransom.
If the person takes or detaines is a child (under the age of 16 years), then for the purposes of section 86 of a kidnapping charge, the law will treat the taking or detaining of a child as acting without consent.
Defences to a Child Abduction or Kidnapping Charge
You will be not guilty if any one or more of the following defences to these charges apply to you:
- You acted under duress or necessity.
- You are a parent to the child taken or detained (or where you have the consent of the parent of the child), and
- You’re not breaching any court orders regarding the child.
- You didn’t take any action to cause the alleged victim to accompany you (to constitute ‘taking’), nor did you do anything to cause that person to remain with you (to constitute ‘detain’). This can include a situation where the person alleged to have been ‘taken’ or ‘detained’ voluntarily accompanied you and/or remained with you.
Protecting Children: The Family Law Act 1975 (Commonwealth)
When a marriage or de-facto relationship breaks down, the welfare of the children should be the priority for all parties involved.
Issues associated with all children fall under the Family Law Act 1975 (Commonwealth) and when a court makes a parenting order, it is this Act that makes it a requirement to regard the best interests of the child as the most important decision. Thus, parents are encouraged to use this principle when making parenting plans.
The Family Law Act underscores the rights of children along with the responsibilities that each parent has towards their children. This presents a shift away from parental rights, the aim of which is to ensure that children can enjoy significant relationships with their parents and also be protected from harm.
Accordingly, there is also a presumption that arrangements encompassing shared cooperation and responsibilities between parents are in the best interests of the child.
When family law orders are made, despite being on an interim or final basis, they are binding on all parties involved. Breaching a family law order is a serious offence.
A person breaches an order if they deliberately choose not to observe the order or make no reasonable attempts to comply with it. Should they help someone else to avoid compliance or prevent someone else’s compliance, then they can also be in breach of an order.
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