A city’s shame: reliving childhood sexual abuse
WATCH: 16×9’s “A City’s Shame”
“I’m gonna go….I’m gonna go some place now, you see. This is the thing that I want you to know. “
The 58-year-old Montreal man who had been sitting across from me moments ago has disappeared. In his place sits a preteen boy, re-living a nightmare that started decades ago, back home in Saint John, New Brunswick.
“We used to go to bed at night in these tenements. There was two sayings: One was ‘don’t let the bedbugs bite.’ And they bit us. And the other was ‘don’t let the boogeyman get you.’ And he got us.”
He’s speaking on the condition of anonymity, so we’ll call him Ryan. Ryan has spent nearly the last half-century battling his demons, and trying to emerge from a haze of confusion, shame and depression after being repeatedly sexually abused in the late 1960’s. His abuser was a Saint John Police Sargeant named Kenneth Estabrooks.
The story is almost too horrifying to imagine. And it’s never been heard publicly.
It takes place in Saint John’s downtrodden South End, where poverty held families hostage.
“We came from a low income family…lower than low income. It was a matter of survival. One day at a time. Low income housing, flats that were…not suitable. They would be condemned today.”
The families were large, some with 7, 8 children. There was rampant alcoholism and physical abuse.
“Back then you were, you really got it. And it wasn’t just a little tap and it wasn’t just a time out thing. I was happy when I wasn’t in the house. I liked to be out of it. But uh….you can’t be a happy kid all the time when you have a very dysfunctional family. ”
Read more: Timeline of a city’s shame
When Ryan was out of the house, he ran with a pack of kids from the neighbourhood, most in the same situation. There wasn’t much to do but hang out on the corner, listen to the radio and watch for the police.
“We didn’t think fondly of the police. Maybe we should have, but we didn’t. And we gave them a run for their money. So it was just a ‘here they come again!’ And let’s see who’s going to tell them where to go.”
And it wasn’t long before the word started getting around about a particular police officer named Ken Estabrooks.
“Well as a kid, as a little kid he was in a uniform and he was intimidating. He was a big man. And he wore, you know he wore a uniform and that was power. The word was pervert. That was the common word. We knew it was a bad thing…’well watch out for him, he tries to get you in the car.’ Well we screamed…we would yell at each other too and say ‘here he comes let’s go.’”
It wasn’t long before Estabrooks became interested in Ryan. One day, he pulled up in his police cruiser as Ryan was walking alone, and ordered him into the car. He took him down to a rocky, garbage-strewn beach in the South End with a bad reputation. It was called Tin Can Beach.
“It was this quiet, secluded area where there wasn’t any traffic, there wasn’t any pedestrians. There was a mirror. He could…fix, adjust his mirror to see who was coming behind. He was touching me. He was touching himself and…I just went some place. Looking back I was a target. You know a kid walking home by himself, low self esteem, vulnerable.”
Over the next few years, it happened many more times. And Ryan wasn’t the only vulnerable child in the South End. 16×9 has spent more than six months investigating and has gathered the names of more than forty probable victims, speaking to ten. Their accounts are remarkably similar. A vulnerable, unsupervised child, Ken Estabrooks, and Tin Can Beach; the same details have come up over and over again.
“You know today you look back and it was open season for a pedophile. I mean, kids were everywhere. We were available, we were naive, we were uneducated, we weren’t fed properly, our brains weren’t fully developed.”
The results of Estabrooks’ abuse are devastating. Many of the people we spoke with have never told a soul, and have carried the sole burden of what happened to them for decades. They’ve struggled with alcohol and drug abuse, and many have spent years in jail.
Read more: Uncovering long-held secrets
“I’ve seen people turn to alcohol, I’ve seen people turn to drugs. I did that myself. I mean kids were being raped on the street.”
Ryan says the worst part is, the kids told police and social workers what Estabrooks was doing. Nobody listened.
“And we’d say this guy is doing this to the kids. And they go ‘oh are you sure about that?’ We put the message out there. But of course…it was….you protect him…your fellow officers. “
The record backs up Ryan’s accusation of a coverup. In 1999, Estabrooks was convicted of indecent assault, and sentenced to six years in prison. During the trial, a former police detective named Herbert Robertson testified that in 1975, two kids had complained that they had been molested by Estabrooks. Robertson was ordered to investigate by the Chief of the day, Eric Ferguson. Estabrooks eventually confessed. But instead of charging him, Chief Ferguson quietly had Estabrooks transferred to a city works job, apparently without telling anyone why.
There has never been a proper investigation conducted to find all of Estabrooks’ victims, and it’s too late to hold any of the principals responsible. Estabrooks died of cancer in 2005, shortly after serving his prison sentence. Ferguson, his deputy chief, and the Mayor in 1975, Edis Flewweling, are also dead.
Finally, last year, after another victim filed a complaint with the City, Mayor Mel Norton ordered an immediate investigation to find all of the hidden victims, and offer them counselling. He hired private investigator David Perry, a veteran sex crimes investigator, formerly with the Toronto Police Service.
In an exclusive interview with 16×9, the Mayor confirmed dozens of victims have come forward since the investigation began, and the list is expected to continue growing for several more months. Estabrooks preyed on children unchecked for some 25 years, and nobody knows how long that list might get.
For Ryan, it has been a painful reminder of a dark time in his life. He hasn’t been to Saint John since his mother died ten years ago. He says he can’t think of any reason to go back, ever.
“If there was some sort of inquiry…or if there was a sit down, evaluation of all of this that went down. The Estabrooks case. All of those kids that got raped, some of them are dead, some of them are struggling…some of them are having mental health problems, some of them are facing addiction. I’d like to go down and say you know what? You weren’t alone. And yeah we were robbed. But we’re not going to let them get away with it even if it’s 35, 40, 50 years later.”
The City of Saint John has set up a toll-free number; victims can call to speak to Dave Perry and his partner Laura Bradbury to receive counselling paid for by the city. The number is 1-866-790-4764.
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