A family of circus performers who were wrongly accused of depraved sex crimes against children have opened up about their 206-day ordeal – and hit out at the police tactics used to incriminate them.
Seven members of the Cook family – who ran a Blue Mountains-based troupe in Katoomba west of Sydney – were in 2018 arrested and charged with 127 offences related to an alleged child sex ring at their circus school.
Therese Cook-Williams, 60, her 54-year-old brother Paul Cook, her daughters Yyani, 35, and Clarissa, 25, their relatives Lachie and Lucy and one other woman were all cleared of any wrongdoing in Penrith Local Court two years later in February 2020.
The completely baseless allegations included rape, assault, kidnapping, participation in bizarre ‘blood rituals’ as well as false claims Therese bit down into the penis of one of the boys before using her teeth to pick him off the ground.
Members of the family were kept in custody for as long as 206 days before being granted bail.
Clarissa Meredith on Sunday night revealed New South Wales Police went to such lengths to find evidence against her they even enlisted a detective who she had dated to try and get a confession.
Therese Cook-Williams was told she could be facing 25 years to life behind bars after being falsely accused with being the ringleader of a child sex ring
Therese’s daughter Yyani-Rose Cook-Williams, 35, was falsely accused of ‘inciting’ a boy to rape another little boy
The junior policeman was wearing a wire and Clarissa said she had no idea her conversations with him were being recorded.
‘I think a month had passed or so without any contact between me and him and then out of nowhere I get this text [saying] “can we start seeing each other again”,’ she told 60 Minutes.
‘I thought it would be fine. The police would not stoop to this level of getting a cop who used to date me to interrogate me – that wouldn’t happen.’
Clarissa denied involvement in any sex crimes against children when questioned by the informant.
‘I did like him and I did trust him – it just adds an extra level of betrayal. The entire night was wired,’ she said.
The family on Sunday also addressed footage police used to falsely allege they were running a paedophile ring.
What seemed like innocent handheld video was used by police to argue falsely the family were sexually abusing young children
Clarissa Meredith on Sunday night revealed the extreme lengths police went to in a bid to get her to confess to offences she did not commit
One short and seemingly innocent handheld video showed two young children enjoying themselves with Yyani and Therese on a set of playground equipment.
Even though the clip showed nothing untoward, police wrongly alleged that on the same day the footage was filmed Yyani forced the children to perform sexual acts on each other.
‘I didn’t understand how they could see the boys so happy and normal and believe they’ve just gone through these really horrific experiences,’ Yyani said.
Yyani Cook-Williams was granted bail in August 2018 following her arrest in February of that year
In March 2019, one of the boys who claimed he was a victim of the family wrote a letter to his mother admitting he had lied about being sexually assaulted.
But by that point the three women had spent seven months in prison – with Therese told she could be facing 25 years to life behind bars.
For Clarissa, three weeks of her incarceration were in a cold solitary confinement cell where the lights always stayed on.
‘You couldn’t sleep. It was freezing. And you can hear the guards talking about you. They call you names and threaten you: “you’re going to be raped in here. You’re going to be bashed”,’ she said.
Therese, who was the wrongly accused ringleader, said her greatest distress were the death threats.
‘I was scared of being killed,’ she said.
‘I was just told when I was arrested that I’d be in prison for 25 years to life.’
All allegations against the family were false, with the Director of Public Prosecutions withdrawing all 127 charges, but the family was forced to hear them in court as the case played out in the public eye.
Yyani Cook-Williams pictured left after she was released on bail from Silverwater Correctional Facility in August 2018
‘I still get scared. Very, very scared,’ Ms Cook said.
‘I don’t think I’m broken. I think I’m different. I want to be resilient. I don’t know how my life will be. I still get scared – very, very scared.’
In a statement, NSW Police stood firm in their prosecution of the family and criticised the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions for deciding there were ‘no reasonable prospects’ of safe convictions.
‘As this position was strongly opposed by the NSW Police Force, Strike Force Baillieu investigators remain ready for the matter to proceed through court should the decision be made to prosecute,’ a police spokeswoman told Daily Mail Australia.
Yyani was wrongly accused of inciting two of the boys to have sex with each other.
She explained how she repeatedly insisted she was innocent during an initial police interview for ‘what felt like an hour’.
‘I would rather be accused of murder,’ she said.
Therese Cook is pictured after an accident
The family’s relative Lachie said police raided his home in 2019 saying ‘You know why we’re here, you know why we’re here’ despite him having no idea what they were talking about
Paul Cook said he still carries ‘pain, sadness, some days despair’ and added his reputation has been ‘destroyed’ despite all charges being dropped.
He said in prison officers called him an ‘animal’.
‘I was in an empty courtyard. It was away from the other cells. And one of the officers said to me, “You’re an animal. You’re just an animal, you are, and you belong in a cage, and that’s where I’m taking you now. Get in there. And this is the sound that I love, the locking of the door.”‘
Lachie also spoke of the harrowing moment police raided his home in September 2017 on a warrant that prompted police to closely monitor the family for the next five months.
‘They strip-searched me,’ he said. ‘And they kept saying, “You know why we’re here, you know why we’re here.” And I had no idea.’
This dilapidated home was wrongly alleged to have been involved in the child sex abuse ring
Pictured: The family’s relative Lucy who was also wrongly accused of taking part in child sex abuse
After all charges were dismissed, the family’s defence lawyer Bryan Wrench said the prosecution’s case was weak.
‘Crucial evidence had been overlooked and the police had no leg to stand on,’ he said at the time.
The family are now considering suing NSW Police for compensation.
Mr Wrench reiterated his clients’ innocence, and said he was pleased they could finally be reunited after were separated for the length of the court case as part of their bail conditions.
‘Not one piece of evidence that said our clients were guilty,’ he said. ‘There was just nothing there.
The family (pictured) all maintained their innocence throughout the ordeal and were finally vindicated after nearly two years of hell
The family’s lawyer Bryan Wrench leaves the Penrith Local Court in February 2018. ‘Not one piece of evidence that said our clients were guilty,’ he said
‘There’s one word we’re looking for, and it’s “sorry”. And to date, it’s been two years, and we haven’t heard those words.
‘The public has a right to expect that police will investigate both sides of the story, and if they did that, we wouldn’t be sitting here today.’
Police falsely alleged in court Therese Cook was the ringleader and organised the ‘systemic rape and detention of the boys’.
The family-run Katoomba circus school is pictured
Therese Cook (left) and Yyani-Rose Cook-Williams (right), together in costume
She was charged with 43 offences, including aggravated assault of a child, sexual intercourse with a child under 10 and holding children against their will. All charges were dropped.
Paul Cook was wrongly accused of filming at least one encounter on his mobile phone and three counts of aggravated sexual assault in company.
Meredith, Cook’s adopted daughter, was charged with rape, assaulting two of the boys and depriving a boy of his liberty.
They all maintained their innocence throughout the ordeal and were finally vindicated after nearly two years of hell.
NSW Police called for a review of the decision to withdraw the charges earlier this year, but it was rejected by the Director of Public Prosecutions.
Timeline of events leading to dismissal of all charges
February 5, 2018: All seven members of the Cook family were arrested on a property in Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains, falsely accused of sexually assaulting three boys under the age of eight.
February 9, 2018: Accused enter pleas of not guilty.
Mid-August, 2018: Therese Ann Cook, her daughter Yyani Cook-Williams and Clarissa Meredith were all granted bail.
They were not allowed to contact each other or other members of the family during court proceedings.
March 8, 2019: One of the boys who claimed he was a victim of the family wrote a letter to his mother admitting he had lied about being sexually assaulted.
Defence solicitor Bryan Wrench told the court the boy had written a letter saying: ‘Mum I’m really sorry I’ve been lying about the whole thing. Nobody hurt me, I’ve been lying to you.’
He claimed the boy’s mother had hidden the note from investigators.
February 14, 2020: All charges against each of the seven members of the family were dropped.
They had maintained their innocence throughout the court process.
September 13, 2020: The family broke their silence to appear on 60 Minutes and discuss the trauma of the false accusations and wrong charges.
The inside of the circus which was at the centre of the false allegations is seen above