This story was originally published on RNZ.co.nz and is republished with permission.
Warning: This story discusses rape and sexual abuse.
The SIS broke into a house and found evidence a man was raping his daughter, then failed to report it to police, leaving her to be sexually abused until she escaped two years later.
The spies who broke into the suburban house in West Auckland had their target under surveillance so they knew he wouldn’t be home. They knew how to defeat the locks and where the burglar alarm was.
They knew what their spymasters wanted and they delivered it: photographic evidence that the man they were targeting was inflicting horrific sexual abuse on his own daughter.
What the agents didn’t know was why their SIS bosses were targeting the rapist. Why was he under surveillance? And why did the state intelligence agency want evidence of his crimes? The spies didn’t know. They didn’t even know the names of the other agents working on the case.
That is how intelligence agencies work – in silos, on a need-to-know basis. It’s the only way to keep secrets. And this secret has been kept for 30 years – until today.
The man the SIS found was sexually abusing his daughter was Ronald Van Der Plaat, who would later be convicted of depraved, cruel and sadistic crimes against his daughter, who he kept as a sex slave for 23 years.
When he was finally held to account, he became known as one of New Zealand’s most notorious sex offenders, for repeatedly shackling and raping his daughter, and was compared with infamous Austrian Josef Fritzl, who kept his daughter locked in a cellar for nearly 25 years.
The spy agency could have acted, after it gathered its evidence in late 1989 and early 1990. But it did not share the evidence with the police.
It would be two more years before Van Der Plaat’s daughter would escape that house of horrors and another six years before she felt able to go to the police.
Van Der Plaat was eventually convicted in 2000 and sentenced to 14 years jail for rape and sexual violation for his offending between 1983 and 1992. But his daughter could have been spared at least two years of horrific abuse if the SIS had gone to the police.
Why didn’t they?
What would you do if you found out a young woman was being sexually abused by her father?
That question was raised by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Brendan Horsley, the independent watchdog of the spy agencies, in his report into the case, released last week.
Horsley’s answer cuts to the heart of this story: what are the ethical and moral standards we should expect from the SIS, an agency whose mission is to keep New Zealanders safe?
“What is reasonable for an intelligence agency in such circumstances,” Horsley writes in his report, “is not necessarily what is reasonable for an ordinary person.”
But what if you used to work for an intelligence agency and now you are an ordinary person?
That was the dilemma for former SIS agent Ewen Inglewood*. He was one of the spies who captured photographic evidence of Van Der Plaat’s crimes in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He’d tried to get his superiors to go to the police and had been rebuffed.
It had haunted him ever since that the SIS could have intervened and helped Van Der Plaat’s daughter, who had been abused since she was nine and was in her late 20s by the time Inglewood took those photos.
In June 2020, after hearing the RNZ spy podcast The Service and grappling again with the things the state intelligence agency had asked him to do, he decided to have one last try at holding his former employer to account.
Inglewood made a complaint to the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS).
He expected answers would finally be given as to why the SIS didn’t go to the police about Van Der Plaat. What he didn’t expect was that the SIS would threaten to go to the police about him.
At exactly 5.37pm on 20 August this year a CourierPost parcel was picked up from SIS headquarters in central Wellington.
When it arrived at the door of Ewen Inglewood’s home the former agent’s blood began to boil.
“As you will recall the obligation to protect classified information gained in the course of duties for the New Zealand Government is lifelong,” the letter began.
It was signed by SIS Director-General Rebecca Kitteridge and the sting was in the tail. The unauthorised disclosure of classified information could have “serious implications” for the government whether or not the information was current or historic, Kitteridge wrote.
“We take any failure to comply with undertakings to protect classified information very seriously. This includes consideration of referral to New Zealand Police for investigation of any criminal wrongdoing.”
The SIS hadn’t gone to the police over Van Der Plaat but here they were threatening to call the police in on their former agent.
They even quoted the potential offence. Breaching section 78AA of the Crimes Act could land Inglewood in jail for five years for disclosing classified information.
Inglewood wasn’t intimidated; he was angry. He’d worked for the police and the SIS for nearly 30 years, since 1969, countering major security threats to his country.
He was first seconded to the SIS in 1985 to work on the investigation into the Rainbow Warrior. On 10 July that year a Greenpeace boat protesting French nuclear testing in the Pacific was blown up in Auckland harbour by spies from the French intelligence agency the DGSE, killing a photographer on board.
Inglewood stayed on after the investigation, working in a covert role for the SIS (often referred to as the Service) between 1986 and 1992.
“In my career with the New Zealand government I undertook well in excess of 1000 covert entries to premises. Many of these operations involved significant risk to my personal safety and, I believe, illustrate that I have a degree of fortitude,” Inglewood wrote back to Kitteridge.
“I refuse to be intimidated by the Service and in fact your letter has increased my resolve to ensure the Service is held to account for any illegal conduct including its failures to protect a young woman from the sadistic actions of her father.”
In the letter Kitteridge had sent Inglewood, she claimed she was writing to “a range of people who previously had access to classified information” as a result of the RNZ podcast series The Service.
But analysing the timeline, Inglewood was sceptical. The Service podcast was released in June and he had no prior knowledge or input into it. Why was the SIS writing to him six weeks later?
His training meant Inglewood didn’t like coincidences and tracking the courier parcel uplift times and his own phone logs only increased his suspicions.
On the same day that the SIS had sent him the letter threatening police action – in fact just 12 minutes after the parcel was picked up by courier – he’d received a call from a staffer at the office of the Inspector-General.
The staffer was calling to get Inglewood’s help to track down another agent who had worked on the surveillance operation against Van Der Plaat and also wanted permission to access Inglewood’s personal SIS file. They told him then that they had been in contact with the SIS that week, seeking documents related to the Van Der Plaat case.
“I conclude, therefore, that your letter to me was not initiated by the Radio New Zealand articles,” Inglewood wrote to the SIS, “but was in fact a direct result of my approaching the office of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security. I interpret your letter to be intimidatory and threatening in nature, designed to encourage me to withdraw my complaint to the Inspector-General.”
The SIS rejects that. In fact, Kitteridge says she herself took the case to the Inspector-General in July – a month before Inglewood received his unwelcome parcel from the SIS.
Kitteridge says she was so concerned when she first heard about this case in July that she commissioned a review of the SIS handling of it and then beefed up the rules that agents should follow today if they come across serious crime while gathering intelligence.
While Inglewood doesn’t like coincidences, perhaps it was just that. Maybe the SIS letter asking him to keep his mouth shut just coincided with his complaint to the Inspector-General.
Either way the central question would now be addressed: What should the intelligence agency do if, in the course of its spy activities, it found evidence of serious criminal offending?
As for Van Der Plaat, the offending was about as serious as it gets.
Ronald Van Der Plaat, the son of a cheese factory owner, was born in Holland on Christmas Eve, 1933.
He went to university in New Zealand, studying for a masters degree in anthropology at Victoria University, before moving to Vanuatu in 1967 to work for Lloyds of London as an insurance surveyor.
It was in Vanuatu that he began abusing his daughter. She was nine years old.
Authorities in Vanuatu suspected abuse and Van Der Plaat was deported. He and his daughter moved to Auckland in 1983, where the abuse continued.
She finally escaped from Van Der Plaat’s West Auckland home in October, 1992, two days after her 32nd birthday.
She was 40 years old by the time she walked into court on 9 October, 2000 for her father’s trial.
The court found that Van Der Plaat had sole care of his daughter since she was nine and treated her as a “sexual slave”. The judge viewed his offending as “at the very upper level of seriousness in terms of cases of sustained abuse to come before the court”.
The offending was described as “depraved” and of “indescribable cruelty”. Van Der Plaat took many photographs of his offending which the judge said were “disgusting”.
The use of stupefying and dangerous drugs that continued throughout the offending was an aggravating factor in the judge’s sentencing of Van Der Plaat to 14 years jail.
In a Court of Appeal judgement, knocking back a legal bid to reduce the sentence, the judges said Van Der Plaat’s daughter was so traumatised by her ordeal that “she was effectively prevented from leaving the abusive relationship in which she was trapped.”
The offending was so sinister and bizarre that when Van Der Plaat’s daughter eventually reached out to the police in 1998 with a 25-page letter detailing the abuse, police initially thought it could be a hoax.
Van Der Plaat’s daughter did not want to be interviewed for this story. Although she overturned a name suppression order to write a book and participate in a television documentary about her life in the early 2000s, RNZ has decided not to use her name.
RNZ discovered several months ago, piecing together information from multiple sources, that it was Van Der Plaat that the SIS was targeting back in 1989 and 1990. We held off naming Van Der Plaat to give his daughter time to privately digest the news the abuse could have been stopped earlier.
What would it take to stop you going to the police if you found out a woman was being sexually abused by her father?
Even if we use Inspector-General Brendan Horsley’s claim that what is “reasonable” in these circumstances is different for an intelligence agency than it is for an ordinary person, wouldn’t it need to be a major intelligence prize to prevent the SIS handing over evidence of this type of offending?
There are few clues as to why the SIS was targeting Van Der Plaat. The most obvious lead is his Vanuatu connection. Van Der Plaat lived there for many years and even produced a book This is Vanuatu: People, Customs & Art, released in 1984.
The 1980s was a period of civil strife in the newly independent Vanuatu, which had been administered by French and British interests as the New Hebrides. Was the SIS, or one of its Five Eyes intelligence partners, interested in what they could learn from Van Der Plaat, or his contacts, about the political climate in Vanuatu?
There is little evidence Van Der Plaat had any high level political or diplomatic connections, although there is a brief reference in his daughter’s book that he lived with a Finnish diplomat in the outback of Australia for a time.
Was someone using the evidence of Van Der Plaat’s crimes as leverage over him?
Ultimately though, if not even the agents who broke into his house knew why Van Der Plaat was under surveillance, speculation is all any of the rest of us have.
RNZ, using the Official Information Act, asked the SIS for its file on Van Der Plaat but the response was a little like Churchill’s description of Russia: a riddle wrapped up in an enigma.
“I neither confirm nor deny the existence or the non-existence of the information you are seeking,” spy chief Rebecca Kitteridge responded.
She quoted section 10 of the Official Information Act – a special section that allows the rejection of a request when even the acknowledgement that information exists could prejudice national security.
The SIS did release a summary of its internal review into its handling of the Van Der Plaat case – although it doesn’t state his name.
“The review found that the NZSIS did obtain some information about the serious criminal offending the full gravity of which was not obvious until much later,” Kitteridge says.
The SIS review says there was no specific law dealing with disclosure of information about criminal offending at the time of the Van Der Plaat operation. “The NZSIS arguably had no ability to share information obtained outside its security mandate”.
Kitteridge also claims that the SIS “almost certainly” discussed the allegations with the police, but she cannot produce any records to prove this and the Inspector-General’s report shows he was unconvinced any communication took place.
“As a result of my inquiry I am satisfied that NZSIS did not inform the police of what it had learned,” Horsley says.
“I think it most unlikely that any sharing with the police could have occurred without leaving any trace whatsoever in Service records. I conclude that no such sharing occurred.”
To say that Inspector General Brendan Horsley’s report is not the full story is a little like saying that the universe is big or that the SIS is secretive.
His report reads like a masterpiece of understatement and minimisation. Van Der Plaat is not named and his barbaric act of keeping his daughter as a sex slave for years is airbrushed out of the picture. In the report there is just a man who the SIS knew had committed “serious criminal offending”.
But as the report itself notes this is the “unclassified version”. The classified version may never see the light of day.
So why release a report at all? By law the Inspector-General must release a report for public consumption following a complaint.
Reading the report you can almost feel the Inspector-General, formerly deputy solicitor general at Crown Law, squirming as he tries to align the morality of an ordinary person and mindset of an intelligence agency.
“I take the view that at the relevant time it would have been proper for the Service to at least consider passing information to police that might have assisted in preventing or detecting serious crime.”
The SIS, he writes, “did not perceive the full scale and nature of the crimes of which the offender was later convicted”.
They should at least have thought about it. It was probably a misunderstanding. The SIS didn’t quite realise the gravity of a father sexually abusing his daughter.
“It interpreted the information it had – which was well short of the information that subsequently supported the offender’s conviction – in ways that meant it did not recognise the full gravity of the situation or the particular crimes being committed.”
Horsley can only bring himself to question the morality of the SIS, not to condemn it.
“A Service officer proposed, with good reason, that the Police should be contacted. More senior staff in the Service were entitled to make a decision. The information was not passed on. I find that questionable, but in the absence of any recorded reasoning and considering all the circumstances I cannot be sure it lacked a proper foundation.”
Van Der Plaat was released from prison in 2016, subject to strict supervision orders.
His Parole Board report from that year said he still denied the offending against his daughter and he had offended again by “making an intimate visual recording” while on parole after his initial release in 2010.
He is 87 and has severe dementia now, so any secrets he holds about why the SIS was targeting him are likely to go with him to the grave.
But what happens next time? What would the SIS do today if its officers discovered a serious crime while gathering intelligence or countering espionage?
Kitteridge says law changes in 1996 and 2017 make it easier for the SIS to now share information with other law enforcement agencies.
She says as a result of this case she strengthened SIS guidelines for disclosing crimes to police and she released them to RNZ under the OIA.
Under the Disclosing Serious Crime Standard Operating Procedure, any SIS intelligence officer who comes across a serious crime must report it to their investigating officer. That person is then tasked with deciding whether to retain or disclose the information.
So the SIS could still today come across a serious crime and not report it to the police. It retains the discretion – the right to do nothing.
But while that is their right under the law, Kitteridge says the reality is different.
“The review established current NZSIS practice is, where intelligence indicates there is a threat to the safety of any person or that serious harm may be occurring relevant information is passed to police.”
So maybe Inglewood’s attempts to hold the SIS to account for their action – or inaction – 30 years ago have had some effect. He has at least brought the story to light – and that is no mean feat, given the consequences he faced in speaking out.
Or maybe it was the SIS that actually pushed the story into public domain, if only by accident.
It was the SIS letter threatening potential police action against Inglewood which led him to email RNZ and release the correspondence between himself and the SIS.
“In these documents I have been careful to ensure that there is no classified material,” Inglewood wrote in his email to RNZ. “Unless of course the Service claims a right to classify material about the rape and torture of a young woman by her father.”
*Ewen Inglewood is a pseudonym as naming an SIS officer is an offence.
Need help? If you or someone you know is in a dangerous situation, click the Shielded icon at the bottom of this website to contact Women’s Refuge in a safe and anonymous way without it being traced in your browser history. If you’re in our app, visit the mobile website here to access Shielded.
This story was originally published on RNZ.co.nz and is republished with permission.