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How child rapist spent 25 years on the run after vanishing from NZ

Author
Craig Kapitan,
Publish Date
Sun, 9 Jun 2024, 1:38pm
Lima Aleni, who was accused of child rape, was taken into custody at Auckland Airport after years of evading New Zealand authorities. Photo / AP
Lima Aleni, who was accused of child rape, was taken into custody at Auckland Airport after years of evading New Zealand authorities. Photo / AP

How child rapist spent 25 years on the run after vanishing from NZ

Author
Craig Kapitan,
Publish Date
Sun, 9 Jun 2024, 1:38pm

WARNING: This article deals with the subject of sexual abuse and may be upsetting for some readers.

In 1996, Lima Aleni – an Auckland church deacon accused of child rape – vanished while awaiting trial despite his passport having been surrendered upon arrest. He would remain a fugitive for the next 25 years.

But in 2022, after he was taken into custody at Auckland Airport while en route from Australia to Samoa, authorities started piecing together where he had been all that time.

They also began to reacquaint themselves with what remained of the 1996 police investigation file – parts of which had gone missing or been destroyed over the decades the case was on hold – in preparation for Aleni’s much-delayed trial.

Since then, Aleni has been found guilty in Manukau District Court, and earlier this year he was sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment for the historical offending, despite prosecution setbacks caused by the long delay. The conviction was also recently upheld following an appeal in the High Court at Auckland, where his 1990s trial had initially been set to take place.

Appeal documents recently released to the Herald outline difficulties with the trial, how they were overcome enough to convince two judges of his guilt and new details on how he spent his 25 years avoiding the New Zealand justice system.

Vanished

Law enforcement at first was flummoxed.

How could someone who had surrendered his passport not be found anywhere in New Zealand?

At trial last year, Aleni suggested it had all been a misunderstanding. He was under the impression the charges had been dropped, so he went to Samoa to visit with family just before Christmas 1996 not thinking there were any travel restrictions, his lawyer suggested.

He then started a new life in Australia, unaware, he said, that anyone was looking for him.

Judge David McNaughton, who oversaw Aleni’s judge-alone trial last spring, didn’t buy it.

Judge David McNaughton oversaw Lima Aleni’s judge-alone trial.
Judge David McNaughton oversaw Lima Aleni’s judge-alone trial.

“He claimed that the police had returned the passport enabling him to leave the country... [but] there are no records of the defendant arriving in or leaving New Zealand after December 1992,” McNaughton noted in his November judgment finding Aleni guilty of one count of sexual violation by unlawful sexual connection, four counts of sexual violation by rape and one count of indecently assaulting a girl between the age of 12 and 16 years old.

“The obvious inference is that the defendant used another passport under a different name. Clearly, he had no intention to remain for trial. He had not been in contact with his lawyer for months and had not been reporting weekly as required by the bail conditions.”

Aleni claimed at trial that his 1990s lawyer was at fault for having not kept contact with him, allowing for the mistaken impression the charges were dropped.

The suggestion was rejected at the district court and High Court levels.

“Any reasonable person in his position would have sought confirmation that the charges had been withdrawn,” Justice Graham Lang said in a recently issued decision dismissing Aleni’s appeal.

Justice Graham Lang recently issued a decision dismissing Lima Aleni’s appeal. Photo / NZME
Justice Graham Lang recently issued a decision dismissing Lima Aleni’s appeal. Photo / NZME

Regardless of what prompted the sudden move, Aleni’s freedom overseas did not last.

In August 2012, he was sentenced in a Melbourne courtroom to nine years and 10 months’ imprisonment after he was found guilty of strikingly similar charges – sexually abusing two other girls while living there.

Under Australia’s Migration Act, any non-citizen resident who serves a year or longer in prison can be deported under the controversial Section 501 character test. Court documents state Aleni was “endeavouring to travel to Samoa” in April 2022 after his release from prison, but it is not clear if the then-61-year-old was doing so under an order from Australian officials or if he was proactively going to Samoa to avoid being sent to New Zealand.

Either way, the Auckland stopover meant one thing: He’d be spending the foreseeable future behind bars in New Zealand.

Times change

Soon after his 2022 arrest, Aleni was taken to the High Court at Auckland to schedule a new trial date.

There was only one problem: While child sexual abuse trials used to be commonplace at the High Court, things had changed in the two and a half decades he’d been absent.

“The legislation and the landscape has moved on since that time,” Justice Sally Fitzgerald said as she ordered the case be transferred to Manukau District Court, explaining it would now be a better fit there.

The judge also ordered exhibits held at the High Court to be temporarily released to police so that copies could be made. Due to the passage of time, the police file had been destroyed some time ago, she explained.

Justice Sally Fitzgerald ordered the case be transferred from the High Court to Manukau District Court. Photo / Michael Craig
Justice Sally Fitzgerald ordered the case be transferred from the High Court to Manukau District Court. Photo / Michael Craig

Eighteen months later, the case was ready for trial.

Although Aleni had been charged in 1996 and was initially set to go to trial in early 1997, the charges dated back as far as 35 years. His now-adult accuser detailed multiple times he preyed on her over a multi-year period beginning in 1989, when she was still in primary school.

The girl made an outcry when she was 15 and, with support from her mother, detailed the abuse to police. Aleni had repeatedly threatened to kill the girl if she told anyone what had occurred between them, she told police.

The victim, now in her 40s, testified remotely over two days.

Defence lawyer Sanjay Kumar tried during cross-examination of two police witnesses – the original lead detective on the case and the detective who took it over after the defendant’s return from Australia – to explore the incomplete police files. The trial judge shut him down both times.

“The reason for the judge’s intervention is not apparent from the trial transcript, but it is likely that he considered this line of questioning to be irrelevant to the issues he was required to determine,” Justice Lang noted in his appeal decision.

The district court trial judge did allow testimony from the victim’s mother, who described an incident in September 1997, months after Aleni’s trial had to be adjourned due to his failure to appear, when the defendant’s wife returned to New Zealand for a funeral.

She testified that the wife of the defendant called her apologising for her husband and begging her to have the charges dropped. She also asked for an escort back to the airport because several police helicopters were monitoring her, the mother recalled.

The defendant’s wife, who also testified, acknowledged being back in New Zealand for the funeral but denied the discussion described by the mother occurred.

In a reserved decision several months after the trial, the district court judge listed nine reasons why he accepted the victim’s evidence, including her “highly specific, detailed accounts” of each offence. The judge made it clear that how Aleni spent his time as a fugitive also made the case against him stronger than it might have otherwise been had he remained for the 1997 trial.

“The propensity evidence relating to the offending in Australia provided significant support for the complainant’s version of events,” Judge McNaughton explained.

Furthermore, the judge added, the credibility of the defendant and his wife “was significantly undermined by Mr Aleni’s attempts to influence the evidence given by his wife”. At one point during the trial, the defendant interrupted his wife’s testimony by calling out to her in Samoan, after which her testimony changed.

“I don’t want to have to do that, but you call out to your wife again while she’s giving evidence, you are going to be removed from the courtroom and held in custody downstairs,” Judge McNaughton warned him.

Miscarriage of justice?

As is often the case with appeals, Lima did not attend the High Court in April when the case was brought before Justice Lang.

To win an appeal of conviction, his lawyer would have needed to prove that a miscarriage of justice had occurred at the district court level.

One such potential miscarriage of justice, his lawyer argued, was the decision not to let him subpoena the complainant’s younger brother overseas so that he could be questioned under oath. The brother had said via a 2022 phone conversation with a detective that he didn’t want to become involved with the case. He said he could not recall some of the same details from the 80s and 90s that his sister had told police in her account.

“The Crown decision to exclude such a substantial witness was extraordinary,” Kumar said during the High Court hearing.

Child sex offender Lima Aleni's appeal of conviction was heard before Justice Graham Lang in the High Court at Auckland. Photo / Nick Reed
Child sex offender Lima Aleni's appeal of conviction was heard before Justice Graham Lang in the High Court at Auckland. Photo / Nick Reed

In declining the defence request for a subpoena, another district court judge found during a pre-trial hearing that the brother’s testimony would not have been significant as he was being “asked to remember mundane matters that occurred 30 years ago when he was 8-10 years old”. At any rate, the judge noted, the evidence could be introduced in court by reading what the brother told police – an offer the defence declined.

In his High Court decision, Justice Lang agreed with Crown prosecutor Anna Devathasan that the miscarriage of justice test failed. Lang said there would have been “significant risk” for the defence in calling the brother, who he characterised as “hostile” to Aleni.

The defence also argued on appeal they should have been allowed to explore further the issue of the missing police files. While Justice Lang agreed in part “because it formed a relevant part of the general background to the case”, he said the argument again didn’t rise to the level of a miscarriage of justice.

Like the trial court judge had done, Lang went on to point out the credibility of the victim’s evidence juxtaposed against Aleni’s reduced credibility due to his attempts to influence his wife in court.

“The complainant has a remarkable memory of the events that she described,” Lang wrote. “She was able to describe the factual basis for each charge in a straightforward manner and with little prompting by counsel for the Crown.

“Her delivery was so fluent that at one stage during her evidence-in-chief, Mr Kumar raised a concern that she was reading from one of the statements she had made to the police. However, a police officer who was present in the room with her whilst she was giving evidence confirmed to the judge that she did not have any of her statements in front of her at that time.”

The defence was not able to demonstrate during cross-examination that her recollections were “unreliable or inherently illogical”, Justice Lang added, explaining he was “also satisfied the evidence does not disclose any reason why the complainant might be prepared to fabricate her allegations”.

Lang agreed the “parallels ... are obvious” between the Australia and the New Zealand allegations.

“Like the [Manukau District Court] judge, I am satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the complainant was telling the truth,” he concluded. “The appeal against conviction is dismissed.”

Craig Kapitan is an Auckland-based journalist covering courts and justice. He joined the Herald in 2021 and has reported on courts since 2002 in three newsrooms in the US and New Zealand.

SEXUAL HARM

Where to get help:
If it's an emergency and you feel that you or someone else is at risk, call 111.
If you've ever experienced sexual assault or abuse and need to talk to someone, contact Safe to Talk confidentially, any time 24/7:
• Call 0800 044 334
• Text 4334
• Email [email protected]
• For more info or to web chat visit safetotalk.nz
Alternatively contact your local police station - click here for a list.
If you have been sexually assaulted, remember it's not your fault.

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