Tanjas and her father Ronald van der Plaat
Tanjas and her father Ronald van der Plaat

For almost a decade Tanjas Darke has tried to 'tuck away' her horrific past, but the terrifying nightmares have returned.

Penniless and alone, the 49-year-old New Zealander now has the added misery of fearing for her life.

In early February, Tanjas' father Ronald van der Plaat was released from prison after serving nine years of a 14-year sentence for a crime that deeply sickened the entire nation.

Her story is hauntingly similar to that of Austria's Elisabeth Fritzl, who was held captive by her father Josef Fritzl for 24 years and forced to bear seven of his children.

For 23 years, van der Plaat used Tanjas as a sex slave while living in the tropical paradise of Vanuatu and later in NZ.

At 30, her nightmare intensified when she became pregnant with his child, which she later miscarried.

Van der Plaat has always denied guilt, and police initially believed Tanjas' story too terrible to be true.

Then a search of his home revealed hundreds of photos of Tanjas being abused, as well as the equipment he used to restrain her, hidden in the attic.

Tanjas, who has described her father as having an insatiable sexual appetite, says he often used handcuffs, chains and padlocks to keep her restrained while performing heinous sex acts on her.

Psychologically, his weapons of choice were threats, lies and manipulation. Now that van der Plaat, 76, is a free man, Tanjas is once again on the run.

The horrifying truth

In an exclusive interview with New Idea from an undisclosed location in Europe, Tanjas reveals the tragic details of her transient life ever since her father was incarcerated, her sadness at never having children and the failure of her marriage to the man who helped rescue her from van der Plaat's evil clutches.

Although Tanjas reiterates that she's 'moved on' with her life, there's no doubt that her horrific past still haunts her and she continues to live in unimaginable terror of her father.

'My father's very vengeful. He's had a lot of time to think and emotionally he hasn't let go,' a softly spoken Tanjas says.

Parole conditions state that van der Plaat is banned from having contact with Tanjas, but, even so, she's terrified he will use other means to track her down.

'Since he's come out of prison, he's being well monitored and is careful. He doesn't want to go back inside,' Tanjas explains.

'He made attempts to find me many times in the past, and I've had to move in a hurry on several occasions. It's better to safeguard my whereabouts. I never inform anyone where I'm going or what I'm doing. I just go and arrive.'

Van der Plaat was sentenced in November 2000, after just five and a half hours of deliberation by the jury.

The judge described Tanjas' woeful tale of abuse at the hands of someone who was supposed to love and care for her as 'despicable' and van der Plaat's continual denials as 'breathtaking arrogance'.

Throughout van der Plaat's trial, harrowing evidence detailed his abuse, which began when he first groped his daughter at age nine. By the time she was 12, he was systematically raping her.

As Tanjas reached adulthood, van der Plaat began torturing her in a series of bizarre and sadistic rituals.

He would often stuff wax into her ears, gag her and lock her head into a specially designed box before having sex with her.

Other times he would hang his daughter from the ceiling of his west Auckland home – the very same home he's now returned to live in – and perform sexual acts on her while she was strung up in agonising pain.

Since her father's release, Tanjas admits that she is struggling.

On one hand, she wishes her father was locked away for good, but on the other, she feels a sense of compassion for him. She makes a link to Austrian kidnap victim Natascha Kampusch, who was held captive for eight years by Wolfgang Prikopil, until she managed to break free in 2006. Prikopil committed suicide on the same day she escaped from him.

Psychologists have suggested that Natascha had Stockholm syndrome, the coping mechanism whereby abductees exhibit loyalty to their kidnapper.

'I understand the confusion she is going through. In that respect, I'm very mixed up,' Tanjas explains.

'When someone has gone to prison, they have paid their debt to society and they need to be allowed to rehabilitate and reintegrate. My father should be given that opportunity.

'There have been cases of paedophiles and rapists who have been let out and hounded. These people are more likely to re-offend if they're cornered,' she adds.

Although this is Tanjas' biggest fear, she still expresses concern towards van der Plaat.

'I never want to see him or communicate with him again, as I don't want to be reminded of what I went through – that has very nicely been tucked away in my life. But I'm human, and he is my father.'

Continuous struggle

Young Van der Plaat

While van der Plaat has now settled back into his home in Auckland's Te Atatu, Tanjas is broke and 'desperate'.

She adores her four Boston Terriers and has a few boxes of trinkets she 'drags around', barely surviving on the odd cleaning and bar jobs she lands. The generosity of friends helps see her through.

'It's like a permanent working holiday,' she says optimistically.

'You always hear of Kiwis going abroad and working in pubs and I never thought I would be doing that. I've been homeless once and ended up begging a hotel to let me clean rooms to put a roof over my head. We're really lucky in New Zealand. We've got social security and health care. If you really need it it's there.'

Tanjas' health is one of her biggest concerns. From the age of 18, van der Plaat force-fed his daughter the powerful sedative Mandrax to tranquillise her before having sex.

After years of drug abuse, Tanjas suffered a massive heart attack at 37 and was fitted with a pacemaker.

'I try very hard not to think about those lost years and I always have this sense of how much time we have left in this world. When my heart stopped, I was in a very bad way for a few days,' she says.

'I realised that this was probably it for me and there were regrets on things I would like to have done.'

Before his arrest in 2001, van der Plaat was considered an intelligent, educated and polite man. He worked as a LifeLine counsellor and was a master in Pacific Island artefacts, appearing several times on New Zealand television.

Tanjas says he'll still want to be seen as a good person, but she has a warning to those who get too close to him.

'It's only when he is around someone all the time, where the possibility for control is in place, that issue can arise. Is he going to cruise by a school and drag a kid off the road? I don't think that would happen. He's a sexual deviant in a different light.'

Parole board documents state that van der Plaat is not to visit or loiter around any school in the Te Atatu area or have unsupervised contact with anyone who is under the age of 16.

The documents also mention that van der Plaat is now in a relationship.

Traumatised and very frightened, a broken Tanjas could not fathom escaping from her father during her decades of abuse. When she was allowed out of the house to work – earning the only family income – van der Plaat would stalk her, calling every half an hour to check her whereabouts.

When Tanjas was home, she was expected to do all the household chores.

Tanjas' only reprieve from her hellish life came in the early '90s, when she befriended gem cutter Bill Darke.

In 1992, Bill managed to persuade a frightened Tanjas to leave van der Plaat and helped her draw the strength to tell police her horrific story.

In 1994 the couple married, but sadly they divorced two and a half years ago.

Although the pair remain good friends and communicate regularly, the stress and trauma of Tanjas' appalling upbringing eventually took its toll after 14 years of marriage.

'I needed to be on my own,' says Tanjas, who has penned details of her abuse in the book Flight of the Dancing Bird.

'I don't want to be alone forever, but I needed to find myself and shake off the past. It's very difficult to do that. Apart from what's in your head, it's how people perceive you. I wanted to run wild a little and do my own thing.'

Tanjas is not in another relationship but hopes to find love again one day. However, with any romance that arises, she knows a time will come when she needs to reveal her horrifying past.

'It's not the sort of thing you drag up on the first date,' she says. 'Nothing would be more shocking than discovering that the person you're with has got something very dark in their background. But I'm not embarrassed or ashamed by my past. It was none of my doing. It's a fact of life that it happened.'

Although Tanjas desperately wanted to have children, she and Bill were unfortunately never able to conceive.

The only time she did fall pregnant was to her father, who kept very meticulous records of her periods on a calendar in the kitchen pantry.

Tanjas admits that she was thankful when she miscarried. She'd been terrified that if she had a daughter, her little girl would be forced to go through the same living hell that she had endured.

'I so much would've loved to have been a mum,' Tanjas says. 'But you can't go on about what you can't have. As hard as I tried, it never happened. I have my Bostons and my friends. You make do with what you have.'

Further pain

In a hurtful twist to Tanjas' story, her mother, Charlotte Stravers – who abandoned her then nine-year-old daughter with van der Plaat in Vanuatu – funded her ex-husband's criminal trial.

She paid for his legal costs again when van der Plaat tried to sue his daughter from his prison cell for the return of a painting by New Zealand artist Gottfried Lindauer that Tanjas maintains she owned.

Eventually, Tanjas gave up the court battle, unable to afford her mounting legal costs and the looming threat of coming face to face with her tormentor again.

'My mother will always love my father,' Tanjas says. 'They have a very unusual love-hate relationship. My mother still believes that I should recant so that he would be not guilty.'

Tanjas believes her mother is battling with the unbearable shame over the circumstances she left her young daughter in, and her desperation to exonerate van der Plaat is an attempt to ease her own conscience.

'If he were found not guilty, there would be no guilt on my mother's shoulders,' Tanjas explains.

'Having her standing up in court against me was incredibly hurtful. I'm nearly 50, and I still desperately need a hug from a real mum. It's probably the one thing in life I crave.'

Aside from one half-brother and an aunt, all other family, including two other half-brothers, have rejected Tanjas.

'They took the stance that I had shamed the family name by dragging it through the courts and it would've been far better to put up and shut up,' Tanjas says.

Despite her situation, Tanjas is unbelievably positive and relishes the fact that she is 'free' daily. She has an amazing group of friends and the love of her pets.

'I'm no longer a victim. I've gotten past even being a survivor. I'm the girl next door,' Tanjas declares.

'Although I occasionally have nightmares or panic attacks, I am strong. Regardless of everything that life has thrown at me, I am happy.'

• New Idea approached Ronald van der Plaat to respond to this story. He refused to comment. However, in a story with a New Zealand newspaper, he protested his innocence and says he plans to mount a legal appeal in order to clear his name.

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