What happened on Russell Manser's first night in jail haunted him. Revealing his secret changed his life (2024)

For Russell Manser, robbing a bank felt like parachuting out of a plane. The adrenaline, the rush, the risk.

Crashing through the doors, sizing up the room, hoping the security guard in the corner didn't decide to be a hero. Leaping over the teller counters to empty the drawers where the big bank notes were kept.

And yet, in spite of the balaclava and the weapon, he was regarded by his peers as "a gentleman" bank robber. Polite. Professional. The guns were rarely loaded. "You don't want people panicking because that will cause you problems."

Sometimes he would even apologise and tell them to "have a good day" on the way out. The real thrill was getting out the door without being blasted in the head, holding a big bag of cash.

But there is no such thing as a gentleman bank robber. There is just a criminal. He knows that now. He knows he traumatised and damaged people, terrified them.

What happened on Russell Manser's first night in jail haunted him. Revealing his secret changed his life (1)

"I'm not asking anyone to necessarily forgive me, I did a lot of distress to a lot of people," Manser says. "But now I have the opportunity to make up for it."

Because for all the bravado and swagger, Manser was suffering. As a teenager, his own life had been destroyed by the penal system. He was carrying a weight, a secret shame and an anger that would take 30 years to shift.

Once he shifted it, he found he could help others do the same.

'That's what I wanted to be like'

For Manser, bank robbers held a special allure. Men coming home from prison were often greeted like football heroes.

"I really looked up to them, they had the best clothes, all the girls were keen on them, driving round in the latest hottest cars," he remembers.

In the early 1980s, Mount Druitt, in the western suburbs of Sydney, was a diverse suburb.

"One end of the street you'd have a bank robber, a couple of doors down the captain of the Australian Socceroos team," says Manser's childhood friend, Sarah Johnson.

Manser's law-abiding parents believed in keeping a good family name.

"They were big on that."

But Russell's life was heading in a different direction.

Down at the local shops, the boys who had been to jail or boys' homes provided useful information on how to steal cars and rob.

He would see the working people at the bus stop, "going to work at five o'clock in the morning and getting home at seven at night. They looked miserable to me." And he would see criminals driving past in Mercedes Benz cars.

"That's what I wanted to be like," Manser says.

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'They stripped me naked'

At first it was joy-riding in stolen cars, breaking into a milk bar to steal chocolate. It could have ended there if he and a friend had not stolen a ute, become involved in a police chase and crashed the car.

He was sentenced to six months in the notorious Daruk Boys Home.

"The first night I seen staff grabbing kids out of beds and taking them to the ablutions block," Manser remembers.

"The second or third night I could smell one of the staff members breathing on me, and he had breath like a sewer. He marched me into the ablutions block and sexually abused me."

Manser told staff including a woman who worked in the laundry. They didn't believe him or act on it. And it was soul destroying.

"There was a sort of a pact amongst the other kids not to say anything because it would make it worse for everyone."

He had never heard of the word paedophile.

He ran away, intending to tell his parents what had happened, but his father was very ill with emphysema. And in any case, Russell was too ashamed.

Promising it would be alright, his parents drove him back. Instead, he was put in isolation in the winter at zero degrees.

"They strip you naked and so you just jog on the spot trying to keep yourself warm. And then they just come in and bash you, in my case, sexually abused me."

He was 15 and just felt worthless.

"An emotional void was created within me," he says.

But one useful thing he did learn in Daruk was how to steal luxury cars. A year later, when he stole a Porsche from the wealthy Sydney suburb of Whale Beach, the police chase was by helicopter, "like a scene out of the Blues Brothers."

Manser, about to turn 17, was sentenced to 12 months in an adult prison to deter "kids from Mount Druitt stealing Porsches from affluent areas".

At Long Bay he was put into One Wing — a protection wing — which often housed sex offenders who would otherwise be killed in the main prison. He was skinny, young, blonde and blue-eyed. A "pretty boy".

Manser says as he was put into a cell with two paedophiles, the prison officer said, "have fun, boys".

"I was just a kid," Manser recalls.

Both men sexually abused him that night. Nowhe looks at itas "government-sanctioned sexual abuse." He was a powerless, defenceless, frightened teenager.

A couple of nights later, another inmate sexually abused him. After the abuse he told Manser, "don't say nothing and I'll give you this." It was his first shot of heroin.

"From the moment I tried heroin I just loved it. That void from the abuse was filled straight away."

What happened on Russell Manser's first night in jail haunted him. Revealing his secret changed his life (3)

Professor Ian Coyle, a clinical and forensic psychologist, who first saw Manser in 2006, says of the more than 500 victims of child sexual abuse he's written reports on,only three of them escaped drug addiction.

"Child sexual abuse is a life sentence," he says. "Very, very few people ever fully recover from it. Drugs are a way of coping with what has happened."

And crime is a way of paying for the addiction.

Manser came out of Long Bay hurt, angry, and now with a heroin addiction to support.

As the addiction deepened, so too did the need to feed it. "He started going for the serious money," says his biographer and former bank robber, John Killick.

"In the early 90s I robbed five banks," Manser admits. "I got $90,000 from the Lane Cove Commonwealth. You could buy a house in Mount Druitt for 25 grand back then."

He was too "desensitised", he says, to understand the damage he was doing to the people in the banks.

He was, says Killick, "at the top of his game." Except that he kept getting caught.At the age of 23 he was handed a 15-year sentence.

What happened on Russell Manser's first night in jail haunted him. Revealing his secret changed his life (4)

Joining a jail program designed to address behaviours that constantly got people into trouble, Manser was belligerent, tough, never revealing the sexual abuse, as a documentary from the time shows.

"I became so accustomed to putting on a facade, I didn't want to engage in those feelings. I had them tucked away, bolted down."

The shame was too great.

Manser took every course he could in prison and got into physical fitness. When he got out he started a business as a fitness instructor and stayed on the straight-and-narrow for years, meeting a woman and having two sons. He wasn't easy to live with, but underneath the trauma was unresolvedand his marriage collapsed.

What happened on Russell Manser's first night in jail haunted him. Revealing his secret changed his life (5)

Diagnosed with depression, he started drinking, got into amphetamines and it all came crashing down.

"If I have a shot of ice or speed, I'll end up in a psych ward two hours later. But the sad part was that I'd keep doing it."

He was back on the merry-go-round.

With new security in place, bank robberies were almost a thing of the past.

"Bank robberies were sort of a dying art form for criminals with security and changing amounts of cash that was available," says Detective Terry Dwyer, who led an investigation into some of Manser's robberies.

But by then, Manser was desperate and careless. CCTV captured him placing a finger under his jacket to mimic a firearm as he left fingerprints at the scene.

What happened on Russell Manser's first night in jail haunted him. Revealing his secret changed his life (6)

Justice after a 30-year secret shame

Back in prison, Manser reached rock bottom — a life he thought was not worth living.

"I knew a lot of things had to change in my life".

And then he saw on television headlines about the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

"When I saw the head of the Catholic Church, George Pell, getting questioned about church cover-ups, it gave me a lot of faith that my story might be believed."

He wrote a one-page letter to the commission.

Three weeks later, he got a visit from a representative.

"I was just blown away that these people were actually interested in my story, it was a massive relief to have this off my chest. I've been holding onto that secret for 30 years and it was destroying me."

It was a crucial turning point according toProfessor Coyle, who had diagnosed Manser as having chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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While there were no criminal charges against the perpetrators from Daruk because they had died, but Manser received compensation and an apology letter from the NSW Government.

That letter meant everything to him: "Tentimes more than the money. I felt validated from all my bad feelings and all the madness that I'd ever been through."

'I could help these people'

During the lengthy process with the royal commission, Manser was making regular phone calls from prison.

"There are normally 50 blokes in the prison yard, and everyone knows what everyone is talking about. If you get labelled a police informer, it could cost you your life."

He called a yard meeting and made his disclosure.

"I said, 'I'm not talking to the police or anything. I'm talking to the royal commission about abuse that happened to me, because it's been ruining my life for a long time'."

One by one prisoners came to him, shook his hand, gave him a hug.

"So many blokes after that came to me and told me similar stories and asked how they would start the process. Within a month, I would have been talking to about 40 people."

And so, a seed was planted:"I could help these people."

What happened on Russell Manser's first night in jail haunted him. Revealing his secret changed his life (8)

After he got out of jail, abuse survivors who had heard Manser's storystartedgetting in touch.He created a business, started on a laptop computer at the table in his one-bedroom unit at Coffs Harbour.

"I didn't even know how to use that computer."

That business has grown into a support and advocacy service that refers survivors of abuse, largely prisoner and ex-prisoners, for rehabilitation, treatment or legal advice.

Lawyer Lisa Flynn says: "We give initial advice on options, such as ‘redress’ or civil litigation. Redressis a capped amount of monetary assistance available through the National Redress Scheme and can be a simpler process."

However, she explains, prisoners and ex-prisoners may face extra hurdles accessing the National Redress Scheme, so many choose civil litigation instead. Manser's business is often engaged to assist.

"We take the initial abuse report — they are a lot more at ease telling their story to someone like myself than any sort of authority figure — and we charge a fee for that and supporting them through the entire process," Manser says.

During post-production, Australian Story received unsubstantiated allegations that Manser's business engages in '"claim farming'" —pressuring abuse survivors to make claims in return for kickbacks from lawyers.

Manser denies the allegations, which he says are "hurtful" and says the business charges for a valuable service. However, he admits there have been problems. "Not for one second would I say we haven't made any mistakes."

''We had people working with us that were doing some unscrupulous things," he explains. "One sent out a whole heap of pamphlets to different prisons and there's a suggestion they offered money for referrals, but that person was sacked over that."

Manser is adamant that his business is helping the marginalised.

"We haven't broken the law. We've created something for people who would never talk, we've created an opportunity for them to get justice as well."

'I just want a peaceful life'

David Booth was serving a sentence of 19 years for armed robbery when he met Russell in a Queensland jail.

"I didn't grow up with a lot of care and I didn't extend a lot of care," Booth says.

He was made a ward of the state at 11 and was sexually and physically abused in institutions.

"I think the greatest help I got from Russell was that the abuse wasn't my fault."

Mansertransition from repeat offender to an advocate for justice and prisoner rehabilitationhas caught the eye of senior figures within the system, including Luke Grant, the Deputy Commissioner of Corrective Services NSW, who recently invited Manser back into jail to share his story with inmates and staff.

"It's fantastic to learn from people who've managed to move beyond their criminal life," he says.

"A lot of victims find it very difficult to accept that people can change, and we need to tell as many stories we can about the prospect of people changing."

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But it's not always easy: drugs are still seductive and a temptation Manser has to constantly battle.

"I do a lot of Narcotics Anonymous meetings because I understand that I'm an addict for life and I've always got to address it," he says.

Yet, for those who know him, it has been an improbable journey, an unexpected turnaround.

"There's nothing in that old life that appeals to me. Not one thing. I want a good, peaceful life, and so I'm hellbent on making the right choices."

Watch Australian Story's Breaking Freeon ABCiview or YouTube.


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What happened on Russell Manser's first night in jail haunted him. Revealing his secret changed his life (2024)
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