When rugby league star Brett Stewart was charged with sexual assault in 2009, it created headlines. But the story that wasn’t told was that of the people behind the now-disproved allegations.
Lisa Baker is getting the dinner ready when her fireman husband, Gary, comes home after a 12-hour shift, telling her she has to watch the 6pm news - but he won't tell her why. The first story is about a sexual assault allegation against National Rugby League footballer Brett Stewart. Lisa doesn't understand her husband's interest in the Manly Sea Eagles star. Not until the pixelated image of the father of the 17-year-old alleged victim comes on screen. "Oh my God. It can't be."
Despite the digital obfuscation, Lisa recognises the gait, the gesticulations, the man boobs and the bling. It's Raphaele Nero, the man who for the previous two years has held her beautiful, blonde, 38-year-old sister, Mary Baker, in his inexplicable thrall.
Even before Nero had come along, Lisa, a former model who wants to write, had started taking notes about the dramatic breakup of her sister's marriage. But with Nero on the scene she'd started churning through the notebooks, as everything he touched turned to chaos.
Ugly truth … one of the pictures found on a memory stick left in the case of a computer Nero had sold. It shows a daughter of Mary and Angus drawing on a naked Nero.
Now, here he is on the TV, doing all the talking, seeking justice for his damaged daughter, offering Lisa's book a celebrity denouement. And there is the shining star of the NRL: about to be the face of the league for the upcoming 2009 season, about to feature on a postage stamp, about to become the latest person whose life will turn to crap after being touched by Nero.
Three years later, Stewart has been cleared by a jury in no time flat, his footy career has been resurrected, he's won a premiership, he's back playing State of Origin. But ask around. Most people still think he could be a rapist. Advertisers won't touch him. He has to pay for his own boots.
As the sister of the alleged sexual assault victim told Good Weekend - describing her emotions as she gave evidence - "I'm not a footy fan but I felt for Brett Stewart because I felt, 'My father's tearing another innocent person's life apart.' He sees money signs around Brett. A perfect target ... My father just screws everyone's life that walks past him. It's terrible."
A sexual assault case shouldn't be about the victim's father, but in Nero's world - like this story - everything does seem to be about him.
A slow computer started it all for the Baker family (whose names, like that of Raphaele and the rest of the Nero family, have been changed for legal reasons). It was 2007, and Mary Baker was in the midst of a nasty split and custody battle with her de facto, Angus (again, not his real name), when her computer slowed to a crawl.
Mary suspected Angus was stalking her, and when her Uncle Jo found spyware on the computer, they suspected Angus had planted it. So they got a computer guy, Raphaele Nero, to come to Mary's home at Mona Vale on Sydney's northern beaches to fix it. The chatty, amusing Nero confirmed the diagnosis and said he'd have to take the computer away for a couple of days to clean it.
When he returned, he had news for Mary. He'd done a bit of digging in the computer and found documents that showed Angus was moving money offshore to hide it from her and the Family Court. Angus, a thickset guy with an eye for business, had started up his own telco at 21, sold it for millions and was now a property developer.
Nero and Mary talked some more. Nero hinted at a Mafia past; he was a computer hacker, too. He could help Mary take on her ex. So he started coming back with information he'd hacked from Angus's computer about shelf companies and Vanuatu bank accounts. He produced transfer documents proving Mary was about to be screwed for millions.
Nero was no oil painting but he made Mary laugh. And he was really good with her two daughters, so affectionate, even to the one who was "difficult". Mary was pathologically honest and fastidious. She was hard on herself, always striving to be a better mother to her two girls, then aged six and four. She couldn't understand how Angus could be so ruthless. She soon began a relationship with her saviour.
Nero had just come out of a 20-year marriage. He told Mary that his wife was a psychotic who'd run off with a millionaire tennis player - and still he'd had to hand over the house to her.
He kept coming up with information on Angus. Nero even had access to a program that could track Angus's whereabouts through his phone. That's how he knew that Angus had started stalking him as well. And now Angus had broken into the house and stolen Mary's mail. Nero moved in with her. She needed protecting. Soon, three of his five children had moved in, too.
That's when Angus seemed to turn nasty. Nero came home one night to tell Mary that he'd been contacted by police. A man had come forward saying he'd been hired by Angus to kill Nero, but because of Angus's arrogance, the hitman had changed his mind and was now co-operating with detectives. The cops were going to keep her ex under 24-hour surveillance.
It was time for Nero to reveal a little more about himself. He said his computer skills were in such demand the police used him to hack into paedophiles' computers. That's why he had a lot of police contacts who were always ringing with updates on Angus. He showed her their business cards.
A few weeks later, a frail old guy came to Mary's door and confessed he was the hitman. He was shaking as he apologised and said he only accepted the job because he had terminal cancer and wanted to leave his family the $50,000 he was going to earn from the hit.
Lisa hadn't seen Mary in a while, but when she next visited, her sister was pale. The normally shining blonde hair was limp. The usually spotless house was gathering cobwebs. She had so much on her plate. There was the stalking, the hitman, tracking down the missing millions; as well, the house was bugged, the phone was tapped. And Nero had to go away a lot. He was a Learjet pilot, too, Mary said.
Lisa was stunned. "A Learjet pilot?"
"Yeah, he's a fully qualified pilot, but only works occasionally when his mate's on holidays and he needs to fill in." When that happened, Mary usually drove him to work in his full pilot's uniform but dropped him near the airport at a branch of a doughnut chain because, well, he liked doughnuts. Mary said he'd take them all flying next week. He really was full of surprises, thought Lisa. A computer genius and a pilot. Amazing for such a clumsy guy.
Despite Nero's many promises to take different family members flying, whenever one of them was about to go up with him, Nero's doctor always seemed to ground him at the last minute. He produced a letter from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority showing that Angus had dobbed him in for not having had a medical.
Lisa had her doubts about Nero, but she always did with Mary's boyfriends. There was something about Mary. Ever since high school, her guys tended to punch above their weight - big talkers who promised sports cars and nannies and smothered her in adoration. Lisa remembers when they went to see the film Forbidden Lie$ about the Norma Khouri literary fraud; Mary believed Khouri's side of the story despite all the evidence that she'd made up her tale of an honour killing in Jordan in her book Forbidden Love. Mary could never lie, and didn't seem to believe others could, either.
Lisa had wanted to use the day out to discuss Nero with her sister, but before they could sit down for lunch he'd rung up saying they quickly had to go test-drive a new Mini Cooper S. Every time Lisa tried to get her alone, Nero always barged in with some fresh emergency: Angus had posted pornographic pictures of Mary on the internet; Angus had had a cocaine-fuelled threesome with Mary's best friend (so she could never talk to her again); Angus was gay; Angus was a paedophile; the helicopters overhead were the police doing surveillance. What was that noise? Angus? Mary never had a moment to think.
Nero's youngest daughter, Jill, remembers them all coming back to the Mona Vale house one afternoon to find a long, bloodied knife on the kitchen bench. Nero went into hyperbolic overdrive. "Can't you see, Mary? Angus is setting us up for murder. We must go get rid of this knife." They ran out of the house and drove off with the knife, leaving the kids wondering what was going on.
Another time, a basket of food was found on the front doorstep with a note: "Love, Angus." Nero raced it off to the drug lab. He came back with a "lab report" confirming the food was poisoned.
Nero was always talking to his police friends. He'd put down the phone, shaking his head. "They don't know why I'm with you because you have quite a reputation for going through guys. They're telling me I should be good because I'm on parole and I shouldn't be mixing with you, but I defended you. I told them I love you and you're not a slut."
Nero had confessed to Mary that he'd been in jail for money laundering, you know, for the Mafia. So when the Baker family eventually learnt he'd served four years for garden-variety fraud - $350,000 from a finance company - Mary said she already knew about it.
Angus's first wife had died of an illness, but suddenly Nero produced diary entries he'd hacked from Angus's computer: "F...ing bitch she has to die." Then he produced a hacked AMP insurance policy that showed Angus had insured his daughters and Mary for a total of $15 million.
Nero suspected they were being poisoned, so he took Mary to Royal North Shore Hospital for a hair-sample test. A nurse came out and handed her the results. There were traces of arsenic. She'd been poisoned.
Mary's mother, Betty, never liked Angus. She, like the rest of the family, had been swept away by Nero's stories about him, but there was a limit to one man's evil. She sat down with Mary and rang AMP, quoting direct from the $15-million insurance policy document. No such numbers existed, said the woman on the phone. Betty read out the names and numbers again. Same result.
Betty hung up, trying to digest all that this call meant. "He's lying," she said.
Mary went white. "I'll handle it. I'll handle it." Nero came in the room. He was never far away.
Next day, Betty rang Royal North Shore and they laughed at her. They didn't do hair-sample tests for poisons. She rang the police. They knew nothing about the murder plot, the surveillance. This was scary. Not only was Nero lying, he had accomplices - the nurse, the hitman. Both fakes. It was as bad as learning they were real.
Betty was a woman of substance. From poor Dutch migrant origins, she had created a successful business career. And she was fearless.
She attempted two interventions to get her daughter back. On the first, Betty stood toe to toe with Nero, abusing him with such ferocity that "the paint was peeling off the walls". Passively watching it all was Nero's then 16-year-old daughter, Belinda, expressionless, hugging her knees to her chest and gently rocking. The second intervention left three doors off their hinges, and Nero huddling with Mary in the en suite.
Despite the help of uncles, aunts and in-laws, they couldn't get Mary to leave. "It's all about the money," Mary kept repeating. She looked dazed. Maybe sedated. It was like losing her to a cult. She didn't want to be saved.
Mary and Nero moved out two weeks later and put the house on the market. Betty had paid for it, but it was in Mary's name.
A corrupt life
Jill Nero remembers her father explaining the intervention away as a home invasion. Betty had stolen money from him, he said, and had come back looking for more. "That's how he covered that up to Mary. 'Your parents are crazy. They want more money. We've got to hide in the closet.'"
For Jill, it was a familiar scenario. "My first recollection as a kid was people banging on our door at midnight and us terrified and crying and him going out and coming back all bloodied and bruised," she says. "He owed them money but he'd decided to beat them up. Or they'd beat each other up. This would happen regularly. On one occasion he called the police saying this guy who had come to his house had pulled out a shotgun. That wasn't true. This poor guy got frickin' arrested. Absolutely crazy."
While the family lived in a small rented house in the western suburbs, Nero always kept lavish apartments in the city. Pool tables, coffee machines. The kids would occasionally be allowed to visit on weekends and Jill remembers doing a midnight runner when the rent was due. "As a kid, you think your life is normal, but we pretty much knew our life was corrupt."
After he was jailed in 2002 for the finance company fraud, Nero's very sane, hard-working wife - who, like Mary, had been alienated from her own family when she married him at 19 in 1986 - started receiving plain yellow envelopes in the mailbox, with no stamps or addresses on them. They were getting two or three a week. Temptation got the better of her and she opened them to find little plastic bags of toenail and fingernail clippings. Turned out he had convinced his fellow inmates he could change their DNA. All they had to do was get their clippings to this address.
"We never saw how he got paid for that," says Jill. "Nothing came to us. He always said he did it to feed the family. He had five small kids. Nothing was ever spent on us."
When Nero got out of prison in November 2006, just four months before he met Mary, he scammed the Qantas steward son of one of his prison buddies. "[The son] invested all this money into this supposed investment company, which was a fake," says Jill. "The investment company was actually my father taking his money. He pretty much ended up broke, as everyone does who deals with Raphaele."
After the Baker family's failed intervention, Nero and Mary moved to a powder-blue pile with sculptured shrubs not far from Mona Vale in Frenchs Forest. Evil Angus kept terrorising them. "I think my father used to hire people to come and break into the house, knock and scare us at the door," says Jill. "One night someone broke in. They ran up the stairs and banged on the door and ran out. They didn't take anything. Raphaele was like, 'I had a feeling this would happen', and he wouldn't call the police."
Jill's older sister, Belinda, had a breakdown one month after the Baker family intervention, suffering psychotic behaviour and auditory hallucinations (details of which were suppressed by the court) and has been on psychiatric medication ever since. Jill, then 15, had a breakdown soon after, suffering panic attacks. She was hospitalised for three days. "When he came out of prison," she says, "I told myself I wasn't going to get myself in that position. I just kept on seeing these things happening. I'd overhear what they were saying and it just wasn't right. I was having this massive panic attack. I said to Mum, 'I'm done. He's affecting my health.' All his lies were a massive burden on me." She hasn't talked to him since.
"Belinda is still stuck. She knows his lies. She tells me all the time, 'I know he's lying but I've got nowhere else to go.' That's the position he puts you in. That's the way he makes people feel. They have nowhere else to go."
Jill doubts her sister has the psychiatric problem she's been diagnosed with. "When she was living with my mother, she was a normal teenager. My father's got her onto all these [psychiatric] drugs which have made her, like, crazy. It's drugs she's not meant to be having. I've tried taking her to other doctors and get her assessed but she's too scared ... Ever since she's been on those drugs, she's worse."
Sitting out back of a groovy Surry Hills office, Angus admits he did put the spyware in Mary's computer that began the awful mess. "That's the only thing I was accused of that I actually did," he says. But he was surprised when he learnt of all his alleged crimes. "I could have gone over and belted him, but I'm a big believer that the pen is mightier than the sword. That's when I started my quest to research." If he wasn't stalking Mary before, he certainly began taking a very keen interest in the affairs of Nero. This man was living in the same house as his daughters, after all.
Angus was on site at one of his property developments when he got a call from a private investigator, John Bracey: "I've got some photographs here of your children. You'd better come and see them." Angus thought it was another Nero set-up, so he took a witness. Bracey pulled up the digital images on screen and they barrelled Angus. They showed Nero lying on his stomach with his pants down, a bright green feather sticking out his backside and Angus's daughters, then seven and five, drawing pictures on his naked rear. As the series of photos unfolds, Nero progressively pulls up his shirt, and the girls, often laughing, often working intently in the way of small children with felt pens, extend their drawings from his buttocks to his shoulders. The photographs appear to have been taken by Mary in a motel. Nero's daughter Belinda is in the last few, wearing a sky-blue negligée.
Bracey had found the photos while working for a woman in Sydney's Seaforth who had hired Nero to fix a virus-riddled computer. The woman was going through a messy divorce from her wealthy solicitor husband and Nero had employed all the same tactics he'd used on Mary: fake stalking, harassment, overseas bank accounts, hidden real estate, escalating into the husband having had affairs and being a paedophile. She parted with a total of $98,000 for Nero's help. As part of the scam, Nero sold her his crappy old computer for $5000. But he stuffed up because, inside the case, he'd left a memory stick containing documents and these photos.
Angus took the pictures straight to police. "The children were removed within the hour," he says. "There was a fairly large investigation. Mary was mystified as to why she lost her children. She wrote [the Seaforth woman] a letter: 'You know what you've done. You've taken two children away from their mother and we've been nothing but nice to you.' She's so ignorant about the fraud."
Nero had cost Mary her children, and she didn't seem to know it.
In the opinion of one person familiar with the family and the photos, Nero appeared to be grooming the children. "And he's grooming her [Mary] as well - that this is really funny and I love your kids and this is natural. He's grooming the whole family that he should be allowed to be in the nuddy with two girls."
This person also believes Nero acted strangely towards his own children. "Look at Belinda ... a withdrawn child, huge emotional problems. They had to fetch her from the school because she had a breakdown there, in trouble with the law continually, and he was always touching her. I mean really touching her. Hugging her. I actually said to him before I knew or suspected anything, 'Leave the kid alone.' 'Oh this is what Italians do. We love it.' Hmmm. It was too much. The kid could hardly walk past without him wanting to grab her. The kid accepted it. She never said, 'Oh, Dad, go away.' She'd just take it passively.
"And he was always going on about paedophilia. The minute the kids were out of his sight, he'd be like, 'Where are the kids?' Every second person was a paedophile, which I thought was rather odd. I mean, how many are there?"
"Did you touch my daughter?"
Nero had bounced $23,000 worth of rent cheques for the Frenchs Forest house by the time the family bolted to a townhouse at North Manly in early 2009. They'd only been there a few weeks when Belinda, by now 17, ran into Brett Stewart at about 7.30pm on the night of March 6. Stewart, in a black suit, had been at Manly's season launch. He'd texted his girlfriend from a cab to ask if he should pick up takeaway on the way home.
Stewart's version is that when he came to the gates of the townhouse apartments, where he lived with his girlfriend, he noticed a stocky girl who looked about 13 or 14 wearing blue shorts and a blue singlet. She asked him if he was Brett Stewart: "I've seen you on TV."
"Yeah, you probably have ... What are you doing?"
"Having a cigarette."
"Yuck," he said, waving his hands in front of his face. "What are you doing that for? That's not good for you."
He says she didn't answer, but grabbed his arm and said, "I just want a kiss."
Stewart said he backed away as she tried to kiss him and pushed both her arms off him to fend her off. He says she gave him an odd look, giggled and walked off.
He walked over to the letterboxes to wait for a minute because he was told in club briefings that if there was ever a scene, to stay where you are and let the dust settle.
That's why he was still there when Raphaele Nero came shouting down the driveway with Belinda behind. "Is this him? Did you touch my daughter?"
Stewart tried to calm the situation. Said there'd been a misunderstanding. But Nero went in swinging and Stewart ducked and covered, not wanting to retaliate. Nero only stopped when witnesses came on the scene. Nero rang 000 and - even though he later denied knowing that he was dealing with a famous footballer - said that someone called Brett assaulted his daughter and had his pants down and his penis hanging out of his trousers. When he put Belinda on the phone to the 000 operator, she said it was someone called Stewart even though she later denied knowing that it was a famous footballer.
(The allegation of the penis made it to the committal hearing and was thus widely aired in the press, but by the time the case came to trial, the visible penis had been dropped from the prosecution case. It was unsubstantiated by witnesses or Belinda. The jury heard the 000 call but was specifically warned to ignore the penis allegation.)
When the police arrived, Nero did all the talking.
At 8.05pm on the night of the incident, jill received a phone call from Belinda, asking for their mother in an excited state. Jill said she wasn't there. "What's wrong?"
Belinda said that Stewart got out of the taxi, said something about how disgusting smoking was, then tried to kiss her and stuck his finger up her vagina. "That's when she ran back home and told my father and my father ran out, the saviour that he is," recalls Jill. "She's honestly swore to me, but I don't know if my father has conned her ... I've asked her what happened and she tells me the same thing every time.
"I do believe 100 per cent my father's made it 10 times worse for her. I don't know what happened, I wasn't there, but his lies have made it worse. Three weeks after that incident, I heard my father saying in the background while I was on the phone to her, 'We're gunna contact Today Tonight and get money.' I'm like, 'You can't. There's a court case going on.' So it was all money-driven. Always money-driven."
In the days following the incident, News Ltd papers ran with lines like, "Brett Stewart was so drunk he cannot remember allegedly attacking a teenage girl but witnesses claim the footballer had to be pulled off the 17-year-old" ... "Police witnesses told The Daily Telegraph Stewart exited the taxi ... and crash tackled the girl" ... "The Daily Telegraph has learned the diabetic Manly star was so drunk he could not immediately remember what took place."
One can easily surmise who this police witness was. Nobody claimed that Stewart crash-tackled the girl, was pulled off her, or was too drunk to remember. In fact, the police officers who later gave evidence said he was courteous and in control.
The ABC's Media Watch did not query where those stories came from, but it did attack Channel Nine for raising Nero's history of fraud. It suggested that the Manly club was running a smear campaign. A somewhat defamatory comment still on the Media Watch website reflects the thinking that many of us would have shared at the time: "Shame on anyone who thinks that it is okay to start a smear campaign against the father of the alleged victim. This is typical, a player sexually assaults someone, the club covers it up using a smear campaign."
The jury took less than an hour to reach a verdict. Some of them wept as "not guilty" was read out. But few people understood the flimsiness of the case. Mud is sticky. Most of us continue to think the worst of footballers with expensive lawyers.
Not Lisa Baker's fireman husband, Gary, who went to court every day of the case. He was filling in as the station commander at Manly fire station recently and noticed a poster of the 2012 Manly team on the wall. "Somebody had written 'rapist' across Brett's forehead. This is in the heart of Manly with a bunch of blokes who should know better. "
Not Nero's daughter Jill. Even though her sister Belinda has been consistent when telling her story, Jill clearly feels it is a story that's been tainted by their father.
Nero says he lives in Bondi now, but Jill doesn't necessarily believe it. After the Stewart case, Nero faced two court cases: for the bounced Frenchs Forest rent cheques, and for perjury related to a string of traffic offences that he'd blamed on Angus. Nero pleaded guilty to both and walked out a free man.
According to Jill, he had weight-loss surgery about a year ago. "He did the same thing back in '98. He was going through a court case where people had to identify him as the person who had committed the crime. He was acquitted because they couldn't identify him because of the dramatic weight loss. I believe this is why he's doing it again.
"I've been waiting for him to go back to prison. I know he's my father but I don't consider him my father. He's done the dirty on many people ... I'm surprised he hasn't got a bullet in his head."
Mary is lost to her family. None of them have seen her for years, but they are waiting, hoping. Many of them co-operated with this story in the hope it would trigger something in her. Lisa has finished writing her book but doesn't want to publish it while her sister is still in the con man's grip. She'd like a happy ending.
Angus's daughters see their mother and Nero once a month. They choose to believe the con man over their father. They tell Angus to stop sending Mummy letters, stop stalking Daddy Raphaele and stop stealing his money.
The police call Angus from time to time, going through the motions.
"Angus, have you broken into the house?"
"Good. Thank you. Goodbye."
Angus is still somewhat obsessed by the case and followed Nero through his various court battles, to the detriment of his current relationship. "My children have lost their mother. I suffer the pain every day. It's a nightmare I can't get out of."
And Brett Stewart? His management declined to co-operate with this story.
Read more: http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/lifestyle/sins-of-the-father-20120611-204wg.html#ixzz1y0DEOBmT