Why did the NZSIS cover up the crimes of child abuser Ronald van der Plaat?
In late 2020, it emerged that the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service had discovered evidence that Ronald van der Plaat was sexually abusing his daughter, Tanjas Darke, around a decade before he was finally convicted for the crime:
The spies who broke into the suburban house in West Auckland had their target under surveillance so they knew he wouldn’t be home…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.
In response, the SIS broadly confirmed the reporting, acknowledging that its agents had discovered evidence of “serious criminal offending” by an unnamed man but had done nothing about it. Requests for further information by RNZ have been denied, with SIS Director Rebecca Kitteridge citing national security for the refusal:
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.
Instead, the country’s primary national intelligence agency appears to have gone after the whistleblower, a former spy that took part in the break-in. Having laid a complaint with the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security over the case, he received a threatening letter shortly after:
“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.”
As a result, exactly what the SIS wanted to use this information for remains classified. What is known about Ronald van der Plaat is that he was born in the Netherlands during the 1930s, to a father who owned a cheese factory. His connection to New Zealand appears to date back to his studying for a masters degree in anthropology at Victoria University of Wellington, although the specific period he did so is unclear. What is known is that the VUW did not establish a chair in the subject until 1964, after lobbying by figures such as Ernest Beaglehole, who was appointed to the role shortly before his premature death at the age of 59.
Alive, Beaglehole had been a major figure in New Zealand anthropology, having studied at Yale University in the 1930s after winning a prestigious Commonwealth Fund scholarship. While in the United States, Beaglehole worked as a consultant to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and formed a close association with Margaret Mead. Arguably the world’s most famous anthropologist after writing Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), Mead had married a fellow scholar, Gregory Bateson, in 1936, with the couple staying together until 1950. During World War Two, Bateson would enlist with the Office of Strategic Services, one of many anthropologists who worked for the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency:
In 1947, John Cooper estimated that, during World War II, as many as one half of all professional anthropologists worked full-time in some war-related government, while another quarter worked on a part-time basis…These anthropologists used their skills to fill hundreds of positions in governmental agencies ranging from the Office of War Information to Office of Strategic Services…engaged in activities ranging from bureaucratic drudgery…to the cloak and dagger adventures of secret agents.
As it later emerged, the growth of anthropology in the later half of the mid-20th century was closely intertwined with the agenda of the CIA, who saw their cultural research as highly useful:
This paper explores a broad range of ways in which anthropological research was linked to military and intelligence agencies during the Cold War, and it examines evidence and implications of the 1976 findings by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (chaired by Senator Frank Church) that during the 1950s and 1960s “massive” amounts of international research were covertly funded by the CIA.
Back in Wellington, the subject got its first official professor in 1966, in the form of Jan Pouwer, a former government official in the Netherlands. A year later, his fellow Dutchman, Ronald van der Plaat, left New Zealand for Vanuatu which, like many of the smaller islands in Oceania, was of intense interest to both anthropologists and the intelligence services of various nations.
At the time, Vanuatu was known as the New Hebrides, jointly administered since the early 20th century by a power-sharing agreement of the British and French empires. By the time that van der Plaat arrived however, imperial rule had begun to deteriorate, with the traditionalist Nagriamel movement established in 1966. Despite calling for all undeveloped land to returned to native hands, the party was opposed to immediate independence, and was allegedly influenced by American and French interests. As a result, they had tense relations with the New Hebrides National Party, a socialist party with its base in the English-speaking sections of the country, particularly its bureaucrats.
By the time of the first ever general election in 1975, Nagriamel had formed the “Moderate” alliance with smaller parties, which lost a resounding defeat to the National Party for control of the new parliament. It had been on the eve On of this swirling turmoil that Ronald van der Plaat had arrived. According to the RNZ report, he was employed by Lloyds of London as an insurance agent. At the time, the financial titan was recovering from the effects of Hurricane Betsy, commissioning banker and diplomat Lord Cromer to carry out a secret inquiry. In his final report, Cromer recommended that Lloyds broaden its traditional lending beyond its wealthy clients, with the capital threshold significantly reduced. The deployment of van der Plaat to Vanuatu was likely part of this, and given the proximity of Lloyds and anthropology to the world of intelligence, it could well be that he operated as
Along with employment by Lloyds, what appears to be a pay sheet of van der Plaat’s dating between 1971 to 1977 has been uploaded to the Open Research library of the Australian National University, listing him as an employee of a “QIC” entity, likely the Queensland Insurance Company:
In 1922 the Company…now has branches in India, Canada, Fiji, Singapore, and Java. In addition, the Company has over 100 Agencies, extending to countries such as Holland, Belgium, Denmark, South and East Africa, China, Egypt, Iraq, Palestine, West Indies. and many other important centres throughout the world…The Queensland Insurance Co. Ltd. is the largest Australian Fire, Marine and Accident Insurance Company, and it is remarkable that from such a small beginning, as indicated herein, the Company now occupies an important position as one of the largest Australian institutions.
As for the pay sheet itself, the ANU site lists the uploader as the Burns Philp shipping company, a major player in the transport sector of the pacific which was undergoing a dramatic diversification in the 1970s that saw it acquire hundreds of other companies:
Through the first half of the 20th century, Burns, Philp grew into one of Australia’s leading corporations, listing on the Australian Stock Exchange where it became a blue-chip mainstay. Through the 1960s, the company’s strategy was characterized as conservative…The late 1960s and early 1970s, however, saw the emergence of a new breed of corporate conglomerates…Burns, Philp’s management caught conglomerate fever in the early 1970s, launching a buying spree that lasted for nearly a decade. By the early 1980s, Burns, Philp had been transformed into a sprawling, internationally operating empire of more than 200 companies involved in some 100 separate industries.
A important figure in the history of Burns Philp was Peter Finley, later knighted for his services to business. His daughter, Amana Finley, became a prominent philanthropist, attracting Princess Diana and “her pal” Henry Kissinger to Australia.
As for Ronald van der Plaat, it is understood that he began abusing his own daughter while stationed in Vanuatu, with growing attention from the local authorities leading to his deportation to New Zealand in 1983. By then, Vanuatu had finally gained independence, with the renamed National Party, Vanua’aku Pati, beginning nearly two decades of unbroken rule in the country. At the start however, there had been initial uncertainty, with Nagriamel leader Jimmy Stephens forming a breakaway state on the island of Espiritu Santo that was later revealed to have been supported by the right-wing Phoenix Foundation:
In 1972 [Michael] Oliver and his band made the first attempt to create their ‘new country.’ This was the ‘Republic of Minerva,’ a tiny reef southwest of Tonga more than a metre under water at high tide. Two thousand Americans were lured into supporting the planned seizure of the reef and the creation of a taxless utopian state where free enterprise and ‘rugged individualism’ would mostly substitute for government…Davis’s statement attracted the twilight zone of capitalism to Oliver’s cause. They included ex-CIA, OSS, SAS and FBI agents, soldiers of fortune, tax-dodge lawyers and tax-haven specialists, arms dealers, drug traffickers, mafiosi and straight-out hustlers.
It was this shadowy world which now enveloped Oliver. In 1973 he formed a plan to foster a revolution on the island of Abaco in the Bahamas as a means of creating his libertarian nirvana. His chief aide was Mitchell Livingston Webell, OSS veteran of Indochina, millionaire firearms tycoon, head of Military Armaments Corporation (MAC), trainer of mercenary armies and inventor of the best muzzle silencer for the world’s deadliest hand-gun.
Despite having left the now-independent nation, van der Plaat did release a book soon after his return. Named This is Vanuatu: people, customs and art (1986), his collection of photographs was published by the Braynart Group, based in Australia’s New South Wales.
Later renamed Zorch Publications before being deregistered in 1992, there is little evidence of Braynart’s other output, despite being described as “one of the largest independent tourism publishing companies in Australia” in a write-up of its owner-director, Craig Davies, who is also the founder and director of Hotel Representation Australia. According to his LinkedIn, in which Auckland’s Takapuna Grammar is listed as his education, HRA is involved with “numerous” hotels across the Asia-Pacific region. Before that, Davies has a three year gap before his only other employment, Paradises Ink, a publishing company which appears to be a successor to the Braynart Group, which for whatever reason, is not listed.
Along with the Braynart book, a photo taken by van der Plaat from his time in Vanuatu was used by anthropologist Lamont Lindstrom, whose visiting fellowships include the East-West Center. Set up by the US government, the organisation was closely linked to the State Department, which submitted the report to Congress that formed the blueprint of its creation. Although whether or not Lindstrom was directly associated with van der Plaat is unclear, the photo is of a bare-breasted young girl, a chilling fact given the abuse he was continuing to inflict on his daughter at the time.
Having settled in Auckland’s Te Atatū, van der Plaat kept Tanjas under tight control, with his physical restraints including a padlocked box which was placed over her head. Along with this, “dangerous and stupefying drugs” were also used to further his abuse, including Methaqualone, which was most famously sold under the brand name Quaalude. At some point, his victim suffered an overdose of the drug during a trip to the Solomon Islands, causing permanent heart damage. Eventually however, she was able to convince him to let her move out, following her impregnation by van der Plaat, which she argued would raise questions.
Even after she left, her father continued to manipulate her, holding on to her cats and using them as a bargaining chip. Finally, having fled to Germany with her partner, she felt confident enough to contact police nearly a decade after the SIS break-in. It would two more years for her father to be convicted though, with law enforcement reportedly believing the detailed account was a hoax. During a search of the house however, photographs of the abuse were found in his possession, as had been discovered by the agents. Two years later, in 2000, van der Plaat was convicted and sentenced to 14 years in prison.
He proved to be a highly litigious prisoner, managing to enlist a number of high-profile lawyers to represent him in his attempts to escape punishment and harass his daughter through the courts. In the initial trial, he was represented by Allan Roberts, who was made a judge in 2007, sentencing a beneficiary to community service for insulting him on Facebook. Back in 2001, van der Plaat had appealed his sentence, with Kevin Ryan QC taking on his case. Interestingly enough, Ryan would later be appointed as a magistrate in the Pitcairn Islands during a wide-ranging sexual abuse scandal in 2004 which released the small pacific community.
That same year, van der Plaat sued Tanjas for ownership of various artworks that had been sold after his conviction, now represented by lawyer Graeme Minchin. A fairly reclusive figure, Minchin has little in the way of a public profile, although it appears that he was an anarchist activist during the later decades of the 20th century before becoming a lawyer. Most known for his role as counsel for the family Steven Wallace, who was shot by police while damaging property with a golf club, Minchin’s other clients range from Simon Oosterman, also an anarchist activist, and most bizarrely, an unregistered gun rights group calling itself the Kiwi Party.
In 2010, van der Plaat was paroled, to some controversy. The reporting also revealed another fragment of his past, describing him as a former antiques trader in Auckland. Afterwards, he dropped off the map for two years, until he was discovered holding a child’s hand:
In 2012 van der Plaat was back in prison after he was caught “grooming” a five-year-old girl…After his arrest police found he had taken naked photographs of the girl.
Having only been caught by a neighbour in a chance encounter at the Auckland Museum, van der Plaat was again represented by Minchin, who unsuccessfully attempted to seek name suppression:
A woman who lives behind Van Der Plaat’s Te Atatu home told Fairfax she had seen children in Van Der Plaat’s backyard and she wondered how he could have got away with it.
The Department of Corrections and minister Anne Tolley both declined to comment saying it was inappropriate with the case before the courts.
Sent back to prison, it appears that he then obtained the services of yet another lawyer, Michael Bott, by the time of his supervised release in 2016. Describing himself as “formerly involved in the construction industry” before he became a lawyer in 2002, Bott was a director of Blackstone Chambers, a prominent institution in New Zealand’s legal circles, from 2005 to 2012. Among his clients include a range of sexual offenders, as well as Kerry Bolton, a far-right activist who named the alleged victim of a sexual attack by Kāpiti Coast district councillor David Scott on a live radio show, potentially jeopardising the trial.
Bott’s most recent litigation on behalf of Ronald van der Plaat appears to date back to 2018, attempting to appeal the aging sex offender’s supervision orders. Since the SIS revelations, Bott has had nothing to say publicly, which mirrors the wider lack of interest by the legal fraternity, as well as the media. Even in the original report by RNZ, aside from a mention in his daughters book about him living with an unnamed Finnish diplomat for an unspecified time in the Australian outback, and a mention of his time spent in the political turmoil of Vanuatu, there is little investigation of his potential links to the world of espionage beyond a
Beyond that however, the close links between anthropology and American intelligence has been ignored, along with van der Plaat’s employment with QIC, and what his relation was to the Burns Philp company or Lamont Lindstrom. In the end, the image of van der Plaat which is presented is of a largely irrelevant man, whose seeming protection by the SIS makes little sense. Already, the media has moved on, as the agency appears to prefer that they do. Due to this lack of pressure for more answers then, it could be that the truth behind why Ronald van der Plaat was allowed to continue abusing his daughter may never be known.