A life ruined, Puffing Billy abuse victim sues the government

September 5, 2019

Author: Erin Pearson

When Justin Drew told his father for the first time that he’d been abused by serial Puffing Billy paedophile Robert Whitehead, his response was: “I wish I’d known sooner.”

Mr Drew was just 12 when Whitehead, who was allowed to work with children at the Dandenongs tourist train despite earlier being jailed for abusing a young boy, changed his life forever and set him on a downwards spiral into alcoholism.

He is suing state government, the Puffing Billy Preservation Society and Emerald Tourist Railway Board for damages. Mr Drew is the first person to take civil action against the government over Whitehead who was convicted of sexually abusing six boys.

It is only in the past year that Mr Drew first disclosed the abuse he suffered at the hands of the notorious senior Puffing Billy volunteer. No charges were laid against Whitehead, who died in prison in 2015, in relation to Mr Drew.

The 48-year-old said this was his chance to ease a lifetime of pain and suffering and recoup some sense of normality. “It’s really affected my life,” he said.

In 1983, Mr Drew’s fascination with trains led him to volunteer for Puffing Billy alongside dozens of other children and young teenagers.

In documents to be filed with the Supreme Court on Friday, Mr Drew claims he was first molested by Whitehead in bushland that same year. The same abuse continued once a month for about a year.

The abuse escalated the following year. Mr Drew has claimed he was raped by Whitehead in car parks at football ovals on five occasions.

By the age of 13, Mr Drew was drinking alcohol almost daily and in his 20s and 30s was a severe alcoholic.

Whitehead was able to prey upon child volunteers at Puffing Billy and other railway services for 30 years, between 1960 and 1990.

Victorian Railways rehired Whitehead in 1960, a year after he convicted for abducting and molesting an 11-year-old boy in 1959.

Mr Drew claims Victorian Railways failed to investigate Whitehead’s previous conviction, failed to investigate his activities with children and enabled him to use his position in the organisation to meet children.

Victorian Railways allowed Whitehead to be involved in Puffing Billy and allowed young boys to be in his care, despite knowing he was a risk to children.

Mr Drew also claims that senior members of the Puffing Billy Preservation Society and now-disbanded Emerald Tourist Railway Board knew that Whitehead “had or may have had a tendency to sexually assault young boys”.

The court documents identify members of the preservation society and the board who knew that Whitehead was a paedophile as early as the 1960s.

Lawyer from Margalit Injury Lawyers, Emily Sinclair, said the abuse occurred during a formative time of Mr Drew’s childhood and had an ongoing and devastating impact on his life.

“The defendants knew of Mr Whitehead’s prior offending and the other allegations of abuse. It beggars belief that nothing was done to protect my client from Mr Whitehead’s disgraceful behaviour,” Ms Sinclair said.

“The Puffing Billy youth program should have fostered a supportive, positive environment for growth and development for its young volunteers. Instead, the program facilitated the abhorrent and repeated crimes of a paedophile.”

At the time of the abuse Mr Drew was living in Upwey and a student at Ferntree Gully Tech School, where he said other students knew what was happening to boys at the tourist railway.

“Word gets around out there and I tried my best to ignore them,” he said.

“I’d say ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’ but they’d say ‘we know’.

“Everyone knew what was going on out there.”

By year 10 he had dropped out of school.

Every day from then until he turned 41, he consumed whatever alcohol he could get his hands on. In 2013, he was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and now lives on a disability pension.

Mr Drew said the abuse robbed him of his lifelong dream to own a home as he struggled to ever hold down a long-term job.

Now married and a father himself, he said it was never too late to tell someone about abuse.

“My father was the first person I told. It was only just recently too,” he said.

“He’d always wanted me to get a trade and said he’d always wondered why my life happened the way it did.

“Now he knows.”

This article was also published in The Age. To read the article click here.