SURVIVOR: Debbie McDonald was sexually abused by her stepfather almost 50 years ago.
SURVIVOR: Debbie McDonald was sexually abused by her stepfather almost 50 years ago. Hamish Broome

She confronts her abuser after 50 years, forces a confession

DEBBIE McDonald's heart was pounding as she knocked on the front door.

Inside the home was her stepfather, the man who routinely sexually abused her as a child, almost 50 years before.

She had always dreaded the thought of confronting him, but police had told her it might just provide the damning evidence they needed to prove his guilt.

So she decided to go through with it.

They had fitted Debbie with a covert wire, which had been approved by the courts. One way or another, she would have to get him to confess.

Fifty years before, Debbie was living a normal childhood in the New South Wales' south coast town of Pambula, when one Sunday she and her four siblings were bundled into a car by her mother and a strange man and told they were leaving town "on a holiday".

 

LOOKING BACK: Debbie McDonald pictured before a wedding ceremony for one of her elder siblings in the mid-1970s.
LOOKING BACK: Debbie McDonald pictured before a wedding ceremony for one of her elder siblings in the mid-1970s. Contributed

They never returned to Pambula again, instead moving to the Gold Coast for a few months before settling in South Lismore.

The man, their stepfather Winton Leslie Smith, would become Debbie and her siblings' tormentor.

 

ABUSER: Winton Leslie Smith, pictured in the 1970s, was jailed for a minimum 10 months in the Lismore District Court after pleading guilty to the historic child sexual abuse of his stepdaughter Debbie McDonald between 1969 and 1971.
ABUSER: Winton Leslie Smith, pictured in the 1970s, was jailed for a minimum 10 months in the Lismore District Court after pleading guilty to the historic child sexual abuse of his stepdaughter Debbie McDonald between 1969 and 1971. Contributed

Prone to violent outbursts, he would belt them on the bare bottom at the slightest provocation.

He ruled the home with an iron fist and all the children lived in fear.

Each meal time, they would sit in a rotating roster at different seats around the table. If any child made trouble, the one closest to Smith would cop a vicious belting.

But for Debbie he reserved a darker form of abuse.

He would premeditate the sexual abuse of Debbie by ordering her to say she was sick, to stay at home from school.

A bricklayer by trade, he would then stay at home with a "bad back". That's when the worst of the abuse occurred.

"This is our little secret" he would tell her.

But while Smith was the perpetrator, it took many others to look the other way for him to get away with it for years.

When Debbie was 13 years old she told her mother about the abuse.

But her mum refused to believe her, telling her to her face she was lying.

When she was 14 years old she ran away, hitch-hiking back to Pambula with a girlfriend to her grandparents' home.

Her family told people in Lismore Debbie had run away because she was "jealous" of her sister winning the local sugar cane princess competition.

She remembered trying to tell her grandparents about the abuse, but they wouldn't listen either. "Nanna said to me 'dear, we don't really talk about things like that'," she recalled.

 

LOOKING BACK: Debbie McDonald, then 16, after she had left home.
LOOKING BACK: Debbie McDonald, then 16, after she had left home. Contributed

The abuse defined Debbie's life and the depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress that followed. What made it worse is none of her loved ones seemed to want to help bring Smith to justice.

She was even told if she took Smith to court, her mother would kill herself and she would be responsible.

"'Just let it go and get on with your life', they would say," she recalled. "'If you love (your) mum, you won't do this.'"

That's one of the reasons it took Debbie 48 years to take the matter to police.

That, and the fact she was in "absolute terror" of Smith.

"I just lived in fear all the time of being in the same room with him alone," she said.

It wasn't until 2015, when Debbie started seeing a new psychologist, that she summoned the courage to take action.

"I had seen many psychologists, counsellors and psychiatrists over the years and they would all tell me I needed to have him charged in order to move on with my life," she said.

"But because of my love for my mother, I didn't do it."

This time was different - Debbie was ready, and the psychologist was persistent.

"She said 'Deb, you have to do this or you're never going to heal'."

Debbie was assisted to prepare a written statement to lodge with police.

Detectives spent days tracking down paperwork to corroborate her school absences.

They tried to access medical records from 1970, including the time Smith took her to see a chiropractor and then attempted to rape her on the bench seat of his blue ute.

But much of the old paperwork was lost, and it wasn't quite enough.

That's why their best chance was to ask Debbie to extract a recorded confession.

That was what brought her and her daughter to the door of her abuser, under the guise of catching up with her mother after a long absence.

Their plan was to have Debbie's daughter distract her mother with "chit chat" while she sought out Smith for a "private conversation". Detectives told her she had to be specific about the alleged abuses when confronting him.

When she finally asked to speak with him her heart was beating so fast it was like an "out of body experience", she said.

The first time she asked him, he tried to blame her, saying she seduced him. Then as she began to walk out in fury, he called out words that incriminated him beyond doubt.

It was enough.

When the lead detective saw her, he gave her a big thumbs up, saying it was more evidence than they could have hoped for.

Smith was charged with seven historic child sexual abuse charges, but three charges were withdrawn in a plea deal to avoid a lengthy trial.

He ended up pleading guilty to two counts of indecent assault on a female between 10 and 16, and two counts of attempted carnal knowledge - father on girl between 10 and 16.

When Smith was sentenced last week in the Lismore District Court* to at least 10 months in jail, Debbie didn't know whether to "laugh, cry or scream".*

The best thing was, the black knot she had held in her stomach for all those years had gone.

*Lismore District Court Judge Clive Jeffrey sentenced Smith to an aggregate of two years and four months in jail, with a 10 month non-parole period.



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