Warning: This story deals with issues of sexual assault
She met him at a speed-dating event, and later, said he raped her. He told the police he’d stopped when she said “no”, and they dropped the investigation. The doctor’s note following an assessment read: “Sex assault by bodily force: Probable”. The complaint was among more than 10,000 individual sexual assault offences reported to the police in 2021, the vast majority of which never got further than a preliminary investigation. Tracy Neal investigates.
Suzi Bunting was once an international airline pilot, flying Airbus loads of tourists from the UK to sunny, far-flung holiday spots.
Today, she’s happy driving busloads of children to and from school before retreating to the quiet of her small home, full of pieces of another life, and the folder of documents she has amassed since events following a night out in May 2021.
It’s a diary of events that have cast a shadow over the person she once was and the capable career woman she imagined she still might have been, had it not been for the man she says raped her.
In the folder, there’s an ACC form about the counselling it is funding, detailed medical records including a forensic examination, plus the results of testing for Aids and any sexually transmitted infections following what happened that night.
Suzi Bunting, when she was a Senior First Officer on a Boeing 757 for Flying Colours Airline, later Thomas Cook Airlines. Photo / Suzi Bunting
The doctor’s diagnosis of injury reads: “Sexual intercourse without consent; bleeding and tears. Sex assault by bodily force: Probable.”
She’s decided to speak publicly because she believes it’s still better to report an assault than say nothing, despite how tough it is to get a complaint heard.
“Because you never know if they may have done it before and another report could make any case stronger,” she said.
Bunting reluctantly lodged a complaint with the police.
“It perhaps would have been easier to just put it down to a bad experience than go through waiting weeks and months for medical results and for the police to respond, because they are all so busy.”
The police never progressed beyond initial inquiries into the man she alleged had raped her. They told her in a letter seen by NZME that there was “insufficient evidence” to proceed.
The Nelson Police Adult Sexual Assault Team told Bunting they’d find it hard to disprove a “reasonable belief in consent” and that once she’d said “no,” the suspect in the matter “withdrew from sexual activity”.
Bunting strongly disagrees, but says she “didn’t want to make a fuss”.
“I assumed they knew better than me, so I accepted it when they said they weren’t taking it further,” said the softly-spoken woman.
Her complaint was one of more than 10,000 in 2021, the majority of which fizzled out after initial police inquiries.
A Ministry of Justice report released in August 2023 on reported sexual violence shows the majority of reports made to the police did not progress through the criminal justice system to a conviction.
Emma Brazendale, Sexual Abuse Support & Healing (SASH) manager in Nelson, said the police would only proceed if they thought they had a clear case; they would not put a survivor through a potential court case unless they were reasonably sure of a conviction, due to the intense toll the court process can take on a survivor.
“And by the very nature of sexual harm, it has usually happened between two people with no witnesses, so proving whether there was consent or not is incredibly difficult.”
In the two years that followed sexual violence victimisations reported in 2020, police identified a perpetrator in 44 per cent of cases. But continued investigation occurred in only 6 per cent of those cases of which fewer than half ended up in court.
Ministry data shows that in the year 2022/23, there were 6802 charges laid for sexual offences resulting in 3308 convictions, of which 300 were for rape.
The reasons given by police for being unable to progress the majority of complaints included unwillingness by the witness, or their determination that no crime had taken place. Sexual violence offences were also taking longer to get through the courts.
Each year more than half of reported victimisations had an investigation outcome within six months, and more than 90 per cent within two years. Reported rape offences were less likely to result in court action within two years than attempted sexual violation offences.
The same report found more than 90 per cent of sexual violence was not reported to police.
Bunting’s story began in Hertfordshire, north of London as the daughter of a professional classical musician and a driving instructor.
A career in aviation wasn’t on her radar but her father, who once played the French horn for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, had a private pilot’s licence and also built his own aircraft.
As a child, she was “dragged around airfields” and was later encouraged to learn to fly.
Bunting flew an air ambulance and then oil rig workers to and from a helicopter base in the Shetland Islands, before becoming a captain for UK-based Brymon Airways. She married an avionics engineer and graduated to flying large jets, including a Boeing 757 and Airbus A320 and A321.
Suzi Bunting (left), known then as Captain Castle, was captain of the first all-female crew for Brymon Airways. Photo / Suzi Bunting
She was pregnant, and on maternity leave when 9/11 happened, changing the course of her life.
“It changed the industry dramatically, along with my views on the future.”
After her daughter was born and she returned to work, she found herself thinking about her baby constantly.
The family quit the UK and arrived in New Zealand in 2005.
“We found Wānaka and it felt like my soul was there immediately. I felt like I’d come home.
“It felt like our daughter could have a more real, safer childhood.”
Her plans to resume a flying career in New Zealand were grounded by the global financial crisis in 2008 and its effects on aviation.
Her marriage ended in 2012 and Bunting moved to Nelson, attracted by the schooling options for her daughter, and her hopes for a new future. It took a while to get established, but Bunting got out and about by volunteering.
“Then I saw an ad for bus drivers, so I gave it a go, and here I am, driving a school bus in the afternoons.
“I’ve been doing the school run for three years now and I love it.”
But her social life was lacking so one night she went to a speed-dating event.
“It was something for me to do on my own, safely, and something I could do to get to know others regardless of whether a relationship came out of it.”
It was one night in May 2021 that Bunting met a “confident, outgoing and friendly” man who talked a lot and gave her his business card.
The next evening she went to a barbecue he’d invited her to.
“The barbecue was fun, this guy was very sociable, and I got to meet a lot of new people.”
When the evening died down and she was about to leave, he offered her a coffee.
“I sat down, kicked off my shoes and put my feet up on the sofa – I regret doing that now.”
He moved in closer and began rubbing her back, then started to kiss her but she recalls saying she didn’t want sex on a first date.
“The next thing he picked me up, took me to the bedroom and I froze. My mind froze, I couldn’t think.”
She knows now that the term is “fawning” - a survival strategy when a person fears the backlash if they don’t appease the other person.
“I fawned, so police interpreted that as me letting him undress me, and having sex.”
Bunting said she’d said “no” while on the sofa, and once more when he was on her.
“That’s when my brain started going crazy with what was going on: ‘Was he actually raping me?’
“It was very weird to try and think, ‘Have I asked for this? Is this what he’s doing? I’ve said no, what do I say now?’”
Bunting said she was completely sober and didn’t think she was dressed in a way that was at all provocative.
“But I know that’s most people’s first thought – that I must have asked for this in some way.”
Bodily force: Probable
The next day she went to her doctor, thinking it wise to get an STI check. The doctor swung into action and sorted a hospital appointment for a medical forensic check and an appointment with SASH.
The GP’s injury, diagnosis and assistance note said: “Sexual intercourse without consent, bleeding and tears”, and that sex assault by bodily force was probable.
The doctor referred Bunting to counselling for relief from sexual abuse.
Bunting was shocked by how busy SASH was, as well as the police.
“The whole thing took months and months to get to an interview, to get to a decision.”
In November 2021, six months on from the incident, Bunting got a letter from a detective, saying her case had been reviewed by the officer in charge of the Nelson Police Sexual Assault Team, who recommended that no charges be laid.
Police say that for a sexual violation matter to proceed to court, there are three aspects to consider and all must be proven.
The letter said police felt there was insufficient evidence to place the matter before the court, and they could not disprove there was a “reasonable belief in consent” or that on consent being withdrawn, the suspect in the matter “withdrew from sexual activity”.
“There is not a reasonable prospect of conviction,” the police said, leaving the door open to review it.
Detective Inspector Dave Kirby told NZME that police follow legal guidelines from the Solicitor-General in making decisions on whether to prosecute.
For every offence there are aspects that must be proven “beyond reasonable doubt” to obtain a conviction, he said.
For a sexual violation matter, there are three aspects and all must be proven: That the sexual activity occurred; that at the time it occurred, the complainant did not consent; and that the defendant did not believe, on reasonable grounds, that the complainant was consenting.
When questioned further, police said that in reference to Bunting’s case, there was no denying that sexual activity did occur, but the other two points critical to establishing a solid case were not able to be proven.
Bunting said she had asked herself many times since, what the police consent campaign: “Just say no” really meant.
“I found it quite shocking what it does to your head. Afterwards, I was thinking, ‘I said no, did I encourage him to ignore that?’”
Bunting said there was no doubt the experience had affected her deeply, but she credited her “fantastic counsellor” for helping her through.
The experience hadn’t ruined her life, she said, but it had changed it. It had made her anxious, on high alert and had reshaped her view of men.
“I certainly view men, as a whole, differently. I’m more aware of misogyny and feel more and more like a second-class citizen.
“I’ve never felt that before.
“I am now aware of how it messes with your head, the blame you put on yourself, the questions you ask yourself and the shame you feel because it’s a taboo subject.”
She said she had learned how to accept that what happened did happen, even though she still struggles to say it.
It had also given her a new perspective on how women who make rape claims are viewed, but she had grown from the experience too - for the better.
“I’ve learned to have an opinion, to be able to decide who I want to see, and what I want to do.
“Beforehand, I went with what others wanted - I put others’ opinions before mine.”
Bunting said she was no longer actively looking for a relationship.
“I think, if anything, what happened has opened my eyes to an awful side of life that, sadly, many are suffering in silence.”
Brazendale said SASH worked with anyone who had been sexually harmed, whether or not they had reported to the police.
“We work to bring survivors to a place of healing regardless of whether the case has been heard in court, or what the outcome of the court case was.”
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.
Tracy Neal is a Nelson-based Open Justice reporter at NZME. She was previously RNZ’s regional reporter in Nelson-Marlborough and has covered general news, including court and local government for the Nelson Mail.
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