Damon John Exley in the High Court in Wellington last year. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Warning: This article discusses sexual assault and may upset some readers.
An escaped prisoner who raped a woman after she offered him a lift threatened to deface the cell with faeces, and scrawled “not guilty ‘fk u’” on his shirt before his sentencing this afternoon in the High Court in Wellington.
Damon John Exley was found guilty in July 2023 of rape, abduction for sexual connection and assaults with a weapon after he threatened and raped a woman who picked him up while hitchhiking after he escaped from Rimutaka Prison.
He also pled guilty before trial to charges of unlawfully taking a motor vehicle, escaping jail and burglary.
Before his sentencing, he threatened via a letter to the court that if he was made to attend court in person or via audio-visual link he would stage a “dirty protest” with his own faeces.
Exley had fired his legal counsel and represented himself during sentencing.
He refused to accept his guilt for the attack on the woman, saying he did not “accept guilt for something he had not done”.
This morning he appeared via audio-visual link from Rimutaka Prison, and although there was no dirty protest he did refuse to face the camera or acknowledge he could hear the court.
His regulation prison shirt was pulled up, revealing a singlet with the words “not guilty” and “fk u” written on the back.
The court was adjourned to remove the singlet, but when Exley returned he attempted to take off his regulation prison shirt to reveal another message written on the skin of his back. He was removed from the video booth by Corrections officers and then refused to return to the court.
Judge Paul Radich told the court Exley was “making threats as to what he would do in the booth, and would need to be in the booth by force”.
The court was adjourned again to decide how to proceed, as a defendant cannot be sentenced unless they are present.
He returned to court in the afternoon, blocked from view by a screen. His victim, a 65-year-old woman whose name is suppressed, told the court his attack on her changed her life.
“I stand here as a survivor of a truly horrific attack. I’m a different person from who I used to be, and my friends and family miss the real me.”
She said in the wake of the attack she suffered immense anxiety and lost her job due to the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder. Her fear of driving, due to the flashbacks she experiences, meant her relationships with others had suffered too.
“I’ve been scared to leave my home. I find it very hard to trust people.
“I have become isolated and this has put a strain on relationships with people who are important in my life.”
She told Exley that in time, for her own well-being, she may be able to try and forgive him – but she would never, ever forget.
“How dare you take away so much of my life when I did the right thing by offering you a ride? I hope for the rest of your natural life you reflect on what you have done but my sentence is permanent.”
Exley was eventually sentenced to preventative detention, meaning he will be imprisoned for an indeterminate length of time, and even if released could be recalled to prison at any time.
Judge Radich said preventative detention was the only way to ensure the safety of the community.
In February 2022, Exley was hitchhiking near Ōtaki after escaping Rimutaka Prison two days earlier. It was pouring with rain and his victim driving home to Feilding from Wellington took pity on him.
She pulled up alongside him and invited him into her car to give him a lift – with no idea how dangerous Exley was.
The pair chatted briefly, but when she went to drop him off he pulled a large knife from his backpack and revealed he was not who the woman thought he was.
He told her he was an escaped prisoner from Rimutaka and that he intended to have sex with her, saying he had gutted things before and saw “no harm in doing it again” before he raped her.
Afterwards, she drove him to Masterton where they stopped at a laundromat to dry Exley’s rain-soaked clothing the woman managed to alert a passerby to her situation and police were called.
‘Extremely upsetting’: Corrections offers heartfelt apology to victim
In a statement to the Herald today, Department of Corrections chief custodial officer Neil Beales offered an apology to the survivor of Exley’s horrific offending.
“While I cannot imagine the pain she has faced, I hope that today’s outcome can be part of her healing process. I fully appreciate that today has been extremely challenging and distressing,” he said.
He also acknowledged how upsetting Exley’s escape and re-offending would have been for those harmed by his previous offending.
On Exley’s escape, Beales said it should have never been able to occur.
“It was unacceptable, there can be no excuse, and we take full responsibility for the failings that led to it,” he said.
Corrections’ deputy national commissioner had met with the survivor last year to listen to her and apologise for its failings.
“While we know there is nothing we can do to fix the trauma and harm caused, this discussion included how we can further support her. We also provided her with a copy of the reviews carried out following the escape and will continue to answer any questions she may have,” Beales said.
Following the escape, a security practice review and full operational review were carried out at Rimutaka Prison. They were both completed in 2022 and contained recommendations, all of which have been actioned.
Beales said significant operational and security improvements have been made, including closing the area where Exley was employed and subsequently escaped, improving the selection process for prisoners working in industries at Rimutaka Prison and improving the procedures for the operation of the emergency entrance points at the prison.
“The reviews determined that the escape occurred as a result of systematic failures. It was not the result of one sole cause, factor or person,” Beales said.
One staff member resigned and three other staff were subject to sanctions following Exley’s escape.
‘Near continuous’ offending from Exley
Exley has an extensive list of prior convictions, with upwards of 250 previous charges since 1983.
Judge Radich said a report from psychologists showed the offending was “near continuous” except when Exley was incarcerated.
This was the third time Exley had threatened a woman at knifepoint – he was convicted of similar offending once in 2000 and again in 2005 when he threatened and tried to assault two separate female real estate agents at knife and gunpoint.
He was serving preventative detention with a minimum period of eight years for this offending when he escaped.
He has escaped custody seven times previously, including one escape from Kaitoke Prison in 1992 with two others. During this escape, Exley seriously injured a Corrections officer with a wooden mallet and then fled to a farmhouse and held a family at gunpoint before he kidnapped a female member of the family and put her in the boot of his car.
The Crown said in its summation the prior offending showed a pattern of behaviour and a propensity to take advantage of women when he was alone with them and to threaten with a weapon, with the intention of sexual connection.
In court on Friday Crown lawyer Stephanie Bishop said Exley’s life had been comprised of “continuous offending” which only ceased when he was incarcerated -and even then, Corrections struggled to curb his offending.
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@example.com
• 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.
Vita Molyneux is a Wellington-based journalist who covers breaking news and stories from the capital. She has been a journalist since 2018 and joined the Herald in 2021.