Beth spotted her rapist at the shops. Now he will die behind bars

Fifty years of pain: Beth and Jeri say the emotional and physical effects of their sexual abuse as young children have been devastating and long-lasting.
Fifty years of pain: Beth and Jeri say the emotional and physical effects of their sexual abuse as young children have been devastating and long-lasting.

It was a scene commonplace in any suburban shopping centre.

A married couple in their 70s doing their weekly grocery shop; him picking out the meat and her choosing the ripest veggies from the stack to have with dinner that night.

They were oblivious to those around them, as elderly couples often are, and in turn, attracted little, if any attention themselves from other shoppers.

All except one.

Beth* sat frozen, coffee cup sitting all but forgotten in front of her, as she stared angrily from across the plaza at this apparent scene of domestic bliss.

"He'd stayed in the area, we were never able to escape him," Beth says.

"Now here he was, going about his life, getting his groceries, all the while keeping his dirty little secret."

When will it stop?

That moment was the beginning of the end for Beth.

Now in her late 40s, she had spent decades trying her best to avoid Maximo Cabezuela, the man who had subjected her to years of sexual abuse as a child.

But she'd run into him while going about her daily life more times than she cared to recall, and here he was, right in front of her yet again.

She saw him twice more that same week. The second time at the same local shopping centre and the third time when she was picking her father up from hospital after a routine procedure when he told her Cabezuela was there.

They always asked the same questions - 'did you have a witness? Has he done it before? Did you keep a diary?' I was five for goodness sake.

"I don't know what came over me, I went looking for him," she said.

"I was opening doors, looking behind curtains...I didn't know what the hell I was going to do if I found him."

She didn't find him, but it was the last straw.

"I thought 'I can't physically or mentally handle this anymore'. That's when I went to the police."

Age of abuse

Beth was five years old when Cabezuela began molesting her. Jeri* was aged just three. They are two of four girls Cabezuela abused during his reign of terror.

The exact details of what he did to the pair aren't worth repeating, other than to say it was frequent, terrifying and always came with a warning of trouble if they revealed it to anyone.

It eventually ended when both girls got their period. Neither divulged the abuse at the time, too fearful of the ramifications if they spoke up.

It was only when Beth had a severe mental breakdown around the age of 16 that it all came flooding out.

Both girls had displayed warning signs early on, if only someone had cared to ask the right questions.

Jeri, who says she vividly recalls that first act of abuse despite her tender age, went from being a child "full of excitement" to living in constant fear.

The second time, she had been sent to get potatoes from a storage area under the house. Her father had beaten her severely upon her return because she'd been gone too long.

She recalls just one night of reprieve in those long years: "the only time I ever felt safe was the night I slept in the kennel with the dog after my father beat him. I was nine."

Beth too had gone from a bubbly, smiling child to a shadow of her former self and was constantly getting into trouble at school.

She began seeing a psychologist at the age of nine, and started self-harming at 12.

Then, as she got older, she began believing herself at fault, recounting how a former floor manager had repeatedly looked up her dress whenever she was on a ladder at work.

"I kept thinking, 'it must be me, I must be doing something to make these men like this'."

Dead ends

Beth was wrong, of course. She had done nothing to trigger or encourage the depraved acts that were committed against her. She would come to learn that in time.

But back then, it did little for her self-confidence that her repeated attempts to report the abuse to police came to a dead end.

"We tried telling people many, many times but they treated sexual assault differently back then," she said, recalling reports made in the 80s and 90s.

"They always asked the same questions - 'did you have a witness? Has he done it before? Did you keep a diary?' I was five for goodness sake."

Jeri got a more abrupt answer when she called a police hotline in the 80s to report the abuse.

"The operator told me 'unless you have a witness we can't help you".

But both women say things were different when they walked into Lake Illawarra Police Station in 2016 - Beth first, Jeri a few days later.

They were still asked those same initial questions, but unlike before, there was a sense of hope and more importantly - belief.

Their cases were assigned to Detective Sergeant David Auld and Sergeant Belinda Colbeck. The pair has nothing but praise for the two senior officers.

"They were upfront," Beth says.

"They told us a lot of these types of cases don't get to court because of lack of evidence, and it's more difficult with historic offences.

"I was concerned about not being believed, but I thought at this point I had nothing to lose anymore."

Both women gave their statements to police.

"I'd never given that level of detail to anyone," Jeri says.

"The process was extremely difficult, doing it made it so real for me."

Cabezuela was arrested and charged within a week. Beth and Jeri both admit to feelings of intense relief, and to a degree, disbelief.

"For once in our life someone was actually doing something about it," Beth said.

"It was the validation that someone was listening to us."

Trial and punishment

Cabezuela pleaded not guilty to 27 charges involving Beth, Jeri and two other girls.

Beth wasn't surprised at this development.

"I think he really believed in his head he'd done nothing wrong," she says.

But the jury begged to differ, finding Cabezuela guilty on all counts after minimal deliberation.

For Beth, the trial process was excruciating and elicited vivid flashbacks that lasted months.

"Emotionally it was so draining but at the end of the day I would never give up," she says.

"Every moment I refused to let him get away with it and I knew the only way that it wouldn't happen was by me telling the truth."

Likewise, Jeri found recounting her abuse in court a traumatic experience.

"I didn't want to be forced to relive things," she says.

"But in comparison to the turmoil I'd been through in the last 53 years, it was a breeze."

Cabezuela was sentenced to a maximum of 28 years' jail in the NSW District Court earlier this month.

Judge Sarah Huggett set a non-parole period of 18 years.

However, having turned 80 in the past few weeks and with a long list of medical issues, Cabezuela will most certainly die in prison.

Jeri doesn't consider herself a vengeful person, but "karma" is the word that comes to mind when she thinks of what's ahead for Cabezuela.

"All I hoped was that he'd never be let out to touch another child again," she says.