A former bank robber and career criminal has revealed how he turned his life around after being sexually abused at a juvenile home and again in prison and going into a destructive downward spiral of crime and violence.
Russell Manser, then 17, remembers a prison guard saying ‘have fun, boys’ as his mattress was thrown to the floor of a cell he shared with two men in a protection wing of Long Bay jail used to house convicted paedophiles.
Manser’s history of incarceration began at 15 when he was out with friends on an ordinary Saturday night and made the drug-fuelled decision to steal a ute in Parramatta, in Sydney’s west.
What ensued was a dramatic police chase in which the teenager could barely even reach the pedals, ultimately crashing the stolen car.
‘It was often you’d be driving cars on phone books. I’ve seen some kids, one doing the pedals and one doing the driving,’ he told Daily Mail Australia.
Manser was sent to Daruk Boys Home at Windsor, a town northwest of Sydney, for six months and within days had been sexually abused by wardens.
Russell Manser (pictured right) was sexually abused at the notorious juvenile school Daruk Boys Home at Windsor, in Sydney’s far northwest and later at Long Bay Correctional Centre while still a teenager
Manser robbed five banks in the early 1990s, on one occasion stealing $90,000 from the Commonwealth Bank in Lane Cove (pictured, CCTV footage from inside one of the banks)
‘The first night I seen staff grabbing kids out of beds and taking them to the ablutions block,’ he told the ABC’s Australian Story.
‘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.’
Authorities have since urged any male who attended the school between 1965 and 1985 to come forward. In 2018, it was reported at least 80 alleged victims had opened up about instances of sexual and physical abuse at the home.
Manser, the youngest of six children, grew up in Mount Druitt in Sydney’s west.
His parents were ‘ten pound poms’ who emigrated from Liverpool and supported their large family with factory work, his mother working in a plastics factory.
‘There was no dysfunction, there was no domestic violence or alcoholism in my family growing up in Mount Druitt,’ Manser said.
However Manser couldn’t help but notice the special treatment dished out to returning inmates who were lauded like ‘servicemen’ in his suburb.
These men had new cars, nice clothes and pretty girlfriends, which appealed to a teenager desperately seeking a distraction from what he saw as a life of misery.
‘I would always see people really busting their a*ses. The only people who showed any sort of opulence were the criminals,’ he said.
‘Waking up at five o’clock in the morning in the middle of winter to walk to the bus stop to go and work in a factory for 10 hours.
‘They looked miserable and it really didn’t appeal to me.’
Manser, the youngest of six children, grew up in Mount Druitt in Sydney’s west (Manser is pictured, left, with former bank robber and author John Killick, who wrote a book about Manser)
Manser had just turned 17 when when he stole a Porsche from the wealthy suburb of Whale Beach on Sydney’s northern beaches.
He was given an adult sentence of 12 months in Long Bay Correctional Centre to send a stern warning to other aspiring criminals in Mount Druitt.
Manser admits he feels resentful of the sentence and said in comparison to some of the other kids in jail his criminal history was minimal.
‘It was illegal for any of us to be there, the way they did it was illegal because they had to go through the Attorney-General,’ he said.
‘The courts had no power or jurisdiction to be able to do that directly. The lawyers should have said “this kid has been illegally placed in prison”.
‘That failure to contact family services, child safety and say these kids are in serious danger. There’s a duty of care there and they failed to do it.’
Manser was sexually abused by two men within hours of arriving at One Wing, a notorious protection unit used to house convicted pedophiles.
He remembers the prison guard saying ‘have, fun boys’ as his mattress was thrown to the floor of their cramped cell.
The teenager was abused a few nights later by a third inmate, who offered him his first shot of heroin in return for his silence.
Manser (pictured) had just turned 17 when when he stole a Porsche from the ritzy suburb of Whale Beach on Sydney’s northern beaches
In an assessment done four weeks after he arrived, a psychologist stated there was a high probability he was being sexually abused at Long Bay.
Manser left prison a shell of his former self and nursing an addiction to heroin.
He went on to rob five banks in the early 1990s, on one occasion stealing $90,000 from the Commonwealth Bank in Lane Cove in Sydney’s north.
Manser committed five robberies within a few months, never stopping to consider the impact he was having on the terrified clerks and witnesses.
By the age of 23, the career criminal had been sentenced to 15 years behind bars, with a non-parole period of seven-and-a-half years.
On his release, Manser started his own business as a fitness instructor, got married and welcomed two boys into the world.
However the short-lived period of peace was disrupted by memories of his abuse, which were becoming harder to ignore.
His marriage broke down and Manser numbed the pain with drugs and alcohol, returning to his hallmark of robbing banks – this time leaving fingerprints.
Back behind bars, he realised ‘a lot’ needed to change.
Former bank robber and biographer John Killick wrote the book The Voice of a Survivor detailing how Manser (pictured with his partner) turned his life around
After seeing the announcement of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Manser got the boost he needed.
He wrote to the commission and was visited by a representative, before finally receiving an apology from the NSW government and compensation, three decades after he was abused at Daruk Boys Home.
When asked about the possibility of confronting his abusers at Long Bay, who he says are dead, Manser asks what purpose it would serve.
‘It doesn’t give me any closure, I’ve done a lot of work on that stuff in regards to holding on to resentments and what that’s achieving and you know, really worked hard to sort of let that stuff go. It’s hard some days,’ he said.
Manser said he received closure when he accepted that what had happened to him in Daruk and Long Bay hadn’t been his fault.
‘It takes a lot of practice, it takes a long time. I want a sense of peace,’ he said.
Manser now runs an advocacy group that helps connect survivors of abuse, prisoners, and former prisoners with legal advice, treatment and rehabilitation.
It began when other inmates started suspecting he was ratting to police when in reality he was on the phone with the Royal Commission.
Manser (pictured with his partner) now runs a support and advocacy group that helps connect survivors of abuse, prisoners, and former prisoners with legal advice and rehabilitation
After he announced this to the prison yard, several inmates asked how they could share their own stories of abuse.
‘That’s basically where the Voice of the Survivor was formed. I just had this way of people telling me their stories and feeling at ease,’ he said.
Manser now boasts 12 employees who work connecting their 13,500 clients with 36 law firms after starting the business on a laptop he didn’t know how to use.
‘It’s a real privilege to be in this position. It’s a real privilege when people trust me with their deepest, darkest secrets. It’s so rewarding,’ he said.
When asked what advice he would give his teenage self before he lost control of his life, his response was simple: ‘Believe in yourself’.
‘Now I sit in boardrooms with these barrister types and my young bloke asked me how I can even talk to these people,’ he said.
‘I told him I just believe in myself, and it was one of the first times I said it openly.’