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AustraliaEXCLUSIVE: Bulldogs stars who were falsely accused of rugby league's most infamous 'gang rape' scandal break their silence on the hell they endured - as the code launches an extraordinary crackdown on unproven off-field behaviour

22:35  02 march  2019
22:35  02 march  2019 Source:   dailymail.co.uk

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EXCLUSIVE : Bulldogs stars who were falsely accused of rugby league ' s most infamous ' gang rape ' scandal break their silence on the hell they endured - as the code launches an extraordinary crackdown on unproven off - field behaviour . Andrew Ryan was in Bulldogs team

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Two key members of the Canterbury Bulldogs team caught up in rugby league's most infamous off-field scandal have revealed the devastating effects the unproven allegations had on the players and their families.

Andrew Ryan and Hazem El Masri have spoken out about their personal experiences as the code struggles to deal with serious accusations against current stars Jack de Belin and Dylan Walker.

Ryan was the Bulldogs' captain when they won the 2004 grand final at the end of an incredibly damaging year for the club that saw a 20-year-old woman accuse players of gang-raping her after a pre-season trial.

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Fellow Bulldog, devout Muslim and family man Hazem El Masri broke the NRL's point scoring record that season after also being unfairly engulfed in the drama.

The woman alleged she was sexually assaulted by six Bulldogs on February 22 at the Pacific Bay Resort in Coffs Harbour, northern New South Wales.

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Those claims kicked off a media firestorm that Glen Pearce, one of the lead detectives in the case, says 'falsely tainted' the players and remains 'a stain that won't go away'.

No charges were ever laid and Pearce left the force in disgust at the way the case was managed by senior police.

The saga recently resurfaced in the media in light of sexual assault charges against Jack De Belin and Jarryd Hayne, bringing back some very bad memories for Ryan and El Masri.

'A lot of decent people, family people, lost their jobs,' El Masri recalls. 'It was devastating for the players, the staff, everyone.

'I remember being in an airport with the team and everyone was looked at differently - a look of, "Hang on a sec, is that one of them, could that be one of the guilty guys?"

'Our family suffered. My wife was pregnant at the time, and some of the questions she was asked about it, it was a very stressful time.

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'There were cameras everywhere you went. If you smiled, if you didn't smile, everything was scrutinised. If you looked the wrong way, smiled the wrong way - you wouldn't wish it upon your worst enemy.'

EXCLUSIVE: Bulldogs stars who were falsely accused of rugby league's most infamous 'gang rape' scandal break their silence on the hell they endured - as the code launches an extraordinary crackdown on unproven off-field behaviour© Provided by Associated Newspapers LimitedEXCLUSIVE: Bulldogs stars who were falsely accused of rugby league's most infamous 'gang rape' scandal break their silence on the hell they endured - as the code launches an extraordinary crackdown on unproven off-field behaviour© Provided by Associated Newspapers Limited The NRL has stood down star player Jack de Belin (pictured with girlfriend Alyce Taylor after a 2018 State of Origin match) from playing while he waits to answer a sexual assault charge

El Masri engaged his own lawyer as police questioned the players and was the only member of the team to refuse to take a DNA test - a decision he took out of concern for the effect it could have on his reputation.

'All these years later, people are going to Google your name and see that you took a DNA test for a rape allegation... my kids could Google my name, their friends could Google my name and say, "He took this DNA test, I wonder why?"'

Ryan says he and his teammates went through a shattering trial in the court of public opinion due to 'ridiculous' saturation coverage of the allegations, which were completely debunked by police and never resulted in any charges being laid.

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'I remember a girl told me at a pub, "F***k off, you rapist, get out of here",'' Ryan said of the slurs Bulldogs players had to deal with.

'Everywhere we turned it was in your face, non-stop.

'I've got four young kids and what they'll find if they Google my name, yeah, it's a factor... it's a worry.'

EXCLUSIVE: Bulldogs stars who were falsely accused of rugby league's most infamous 'gang rape' scandal break their silence on the hell they endured - as the code launches an extraordinary crackdown on unproven off-field behaviour© Provided by Associated Newspapers Limited St George lock Jack de Belin leaves Wollongong Local Court after appearing on a sexual assault charge. The NRL ruled on Thursday that de Belin had to be stood down from playing

Despite maintaining his innocence, NRL has controversially stood down de Belin from playing while he waits the outcome of aggravated sexual assault charges after a night out in Wollongong in December. The matter returns to court in April.

Similarly, the code on Thursday stood down Dylan Walker over domestic violence charges as part of a controversial new crackdown on off-field behaviour.

Walker is accused of assaulting his fiancée Alexandra Ivkovic outside their home in Dee Why on Sydney's northern beaches in December.

Walker has pleaded not guilty and his partner has retracted initial statements made to police.

NRL CEO Todd Greenberg said no judgment on guilt or innocence was being made against the players who had been stood down.

“That is a matter for the courts,” he said.

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EXCLUSIVE: Bulldogs stars who were falsely accused of rugby league's most infamous 'gang rape' scandal break their silence on the hell they endured - as the code launches an extraordinary crackdown on unproven off-field behaviour© Provided by Associated Newspapers Limited Bulldogs winger Hazem El Masri (in grey) leaves the Sydney Police Centre after meeting detectives investigating the false claims of a woman that she was gang raped at Coffs Harbour EXCLUSIVE: Bulldogs stars who were falsely accused of rugby league's most infamous 'gang rape' scandal break their silence on the hell they endured - as the code launches an extraordinary crackdown on unproven off-field behaviour© Provided by Associated Newspapers Limited Bulldogs including Sonny Bill Williams (right) were slammed in the media for wearing T-shirts, shorts and thongs to police interviews in 2004 - but teammates including Andrew Ryan and Hazem El Masri say the episode was a 'laughable' media beat-up that smeared the players

Ryan's recollections of the Coffs Harbour saga show how badly accused players can struggle if they're not allowed to take the field, and how easily their families are hurt by off-field scandals.

'It probably impacted the players' families more,' he said. 'We could get on the training paddock and park it away, but the families, they're the ones getting questions, they're getting bombarded, so you feel for them.

'The only way to get away from it [the scrutiny] for us was at home with your loved ones or on the training paddock ... That was our safest place to be.'

El Masri is in a unique position to speak on the code banning accused players.

In addition to the Coffs scandal, he suffered when he was dropped from his role as an NRL ambassador when he faced a domestic domestic violence charge in 2015 - with the ban lifted when he was found not guilty.

'They stood me down without even hearing me or holding any internal investigation whatsoever, even though I had a recording [that exonerated him in court]. And yet the allegation just stuck there,' he says.

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'There was no grounds whatsoever for that. I never got called in, they never heard my side of the story.'

Despite that episode, El Masri told Daily Mail Australia he thinks the NRL should be able to stand players down if there is sufficient evidence they could have committed a serious crime and the player is given a fair hearing by the code before any ban is put in place.

EXCLUSIVE: Bulldogs stars who were falsely accused of rugby league's most infamous 'gang rape' scandal break their silence on the hell they endured - as the code launches an extraordinary crackdown on unproven off-field behaviour© Provided by Associated Newspapers Limited Several players from the 2004 Bulldogs team (pictured) have spoken out about the toll the Coffs scandal took on them - and the fact no charges were ever laid against any of them

Ryan and El Masri are not alone in speaking out about how the Coffs Harbour scandal has left its mark on them.

Willie Mason told the Sydney Morning Herald, 'When they say, "You're a rapist", that makes my blood boil. Calling me a rapist just makes me want to snap and kill the bloke.

'For blokes like [2004 teammates] Sonny Bill [Williams] and Willie Tonga and Reni Maitua, it's hard ... We don't take s*** like that.'

COFFS HARBOUR SCANDAL TIMELINE

February 18, 2004: A 20-year-old woman told police she had consensual sex with six Bulldogs players on this date while they were in Coffs Harbour, northern NSW, to play a trial game.

February 22: The same woman claimed she was sexually assaulted about 6.30am. She said she was vaginally, orally and anally raped by six Bulldogs players in the pool area of the Pacific Bay Resort. A hotel worker later told police he saw the woman having sex with one player in the hotel's pool area and the sex appeared to be consensual.

February 23: According to former detective Glen Pearce, police hadn't identified a single witness whose evidence supported the allegations by this time. Four players had been interviewed by police. Former detective Glen Pearce says  investigating police didn't think the allegations stacked up enough to take the matter to court.

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February 24: Broadcaster Ray Hadley reads out the woman's allegations on his top-rating radio show. Detectives say this information was leaked to him by other police and should never have been made public because it could prejudice the case and increase stress on all involved.

February 24: Police have by now identified 'significant errors' in the five statements given by the woman - and the number of errors increased over time, according to Pearce. Officers also say players might have to provide DNA samples.

February 24: Bulldogs players and official have a meeting to address the allegations.

February 25: Detective Gary McEvoy contacted by NSW Police head of forensic services Superintendent Phil Fogel who McEvoy says told him allegations were 'red-hot' news in Sydney and he'd been told to give investigators all possible assistance – even if it meant putting previous, serious cases to one side.

March 3: Bulldogs CEO Steve Mortimer tells the media, 'If only a fraction of what is alleged to have happened to various women is true, it very much appals me. It goes against my family values and my faith.' Mortimer says two players will be severely disciplined for breaching the club's code of conduct.

March 3: Bulldogs players arrive for police interviews dressed casually – only captain Steve Price, Braith Anasta and Hazem El Masri were 'dressed appropriately'. Club chairman George Peponis says players were instructed to dress differently and ignored the directive. Players deny this and say they were given no time to prepare.

March 9: Detective Chief Inspector Jason Breton, the head of the investigation, confirms to the ABC that Bulldogs players are being investigated for gang sexual assault, a new offence at the time which carried a life sentence – and insists 'there's a seventh player involved' and that members of the Bulldogs organisation 'know what happened'.

March 9: Bulldogs CEO Steve Mortimer confirms sponsor Bing Lee has cancelled its agreement with the club, worth around $500,000.

March 18: Garry Hughes is sacked as Bulldogs football manager for failing to enforce the club's code of conduct. Club chairman George Peponis says the move 'is not specifically' about Coffs Harbour.

March 18: The club fines Willie Mason $10,000 and Brent Sherwin $5,000 for wearing thongs and shorts to the March 3 police interviews. Other players are threatened with probation.

March 22: Steve Mortimer resigns as Bulldogs CEO.

April 1: Police give a brief of evidence to the Director of Public Prosecutions. Malcolm Noad is announced as the new Bulldogs CEO.

April 27: Police announce they will not charge players after the DPP found insufficient evidence to prosecute.

Club legend Steve Price wrote in his autobiography 'Be Your Best' that during the  Coffs Harbour affair, 'I would go to pick my kids up from school and could sense the other parents looking at me. I can just imagine what the other players went through.'

Bulldogs coach Steve Folkes said in the days after the allegations were raised: 'We've had more front pages than the 9/11 disaster in New York.'

The team's hooker in 2004, Corey Hughes, was fined $10,000 by the club for becoming involved in a brawl at a racecourse that started when he was called a rapist. His brother Glen, who played for the Dogs in 2004, was also involved.

Ryan, El Masri and many of their teammates remain angry over how the Bulldogs were treated by the media - especially when it comes to three instances of what he calls 'ridiculous' reporting - and they're backed by Glen Pearce, one of the lead detectives on the Coffs Harbour case.

On February 24, 2004 broadcaster Ray Hadley read out details of the woman's gang rape allegations on his top-rating radio program and the scandal became the biggest news story in the country.

'I believe what Hadley did was grossly negligent,' Pearce told Daily Mail Australia.

'Someone [in the police force] leaked a document to Ray and the information wasn't tested at all ... it's purely based on what she said and as time went on it was proved that what she was saying was rubbish ... it basically put fuel on the fire.'

Later that day the Bulldogs players and staff held a meeting to address the allegations. Media outlets seized on it as the team trying to get their stories straight before they were interviewed by police.

Ryan says the meeting was nothing of the sort and Pearce insists the players never gave the impression of colluding with each other.

On March 3 players were photographed wearing T-shirts, shorts and thongs as they arrived at the Sydney Police Centre in Surry Hills to be interviewed by detectives. They were slammed for being disrespectful and the images became synonymous with the case.

Ryan and club officials say the players were at training when they found out they had to attend the interviews and simply didn't have a chance to change, describing the coverage of the incident as 'laughable'.

On April 27 the police announced no charges would be laid due to lack of evidence, but the mud continued to stick to the players, even when Pearce went public about how poorly the investigation was handled.

'We knew the woman's allegations didn't stack up within 48 hours,' he told Daily Mail Australia. 'There was no independent evidence to support what she was saying but there was overwhelming evidence to support the Bulldogs from a variety of sources.'

Two vastly experienced private investigators who were former detective sergeants - one acting for the Bulldogs and one for the NRL - both reached the same conclusion that the woman was not telling the truth within a similar time frame.

But despite Pearce and other police warning their superiors - including Detective Chief Inspector Jason Breton, who headed the investigation - that the evidence overwhelmingly pointed to the players' innocence, Pearce says senior police kept 'telling the media a completely different story'.

When Breton announced the decision not to press charges, he even told the media there was evidence a rape had occurred - comments then NSW Premier Bob Carr publicly rebuked him for.

In January 2005 Pearce filed a formal report asking for the woman who made the allegations to be charged with making a false statement.

The lead detective on the Coffs Harbour case responded to Pearce on June 16, saying: 'I agree totally with Glen Pearce. The evidence against [the female] is very strong to the point where if this was any other matter [the female] would find herself charged.'

Pearce says: 'Had senior police disclosed the true status of the evidence at the time, the players would not have suffered the damage to their reputation.'

Soon after his request was rejected Pearce left the force in a decision he says was '100 per cent' about the handling of the case.

Almost 15 years later, despite being innocent, the stain still remains for the players, but their memories of that year aren't all bad.

'Winning the grand final that year is the best moment in my football career,' Ryan says.

'The best part was when we got to where our families and friends were afterwards at the leagues club. To share it with the people who were there through thick and thin for us, that was the most special bit to me.'

EXCLUSIVE: Bulldogs stars who were falsely accused of rugby league's most infamous 'gang rape' scandal break their silence on the hell they endured - as the code launches an extraordinary crackdown on unproven off-field behaviour© Provided by Associated Newspapers Limited Hazem El Masri (pictured with his family) was engulfed in the 2004 Coffs Harbour sex scandal and went on that year to break the NRL's point scoring record with 139 goals and 16 tries
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