LOST IN TRANSLATION
She was a Russian dancer. He was a suburban psychopath. IAN WISHART has the story of a paedophile’s manipulation of the law to gain access to children, and a trail of wrecked lives he’s left behind him
Teardrops well, glistening in the soft evening light, but they never fall. ‘I can’t cry anymore,’ she says after a moment, gathering herself again. ‘I don’t cry’, she repeats, softly, more to herself than anyone else. Her name is Elena Reznikova*, and on a cold August night she’s a long way from home, back in the Ukraine. The story of a journey from her life as a Russian ballerina to being surrounded by semi-stacked boxes of files in a tatty suburban law office after hours, is a long and, like many Russian stories, tragic one.
Daughter of a Soviet Air Force pilot, her mother a nurse, Elena Reznikova had a relatively normal childhood in communist Russia. Born in the remote province of Khazakstan – a legacy that would return to haunt her Down Under – Elena’s parents shifted to a home in rural Ukraine, not far from a local nuclear power station named Chernobyl. She draws back the collar of her turtleneck sweater: ‘See, I still have scar from cancer’, she notes, touching her throat. Her voice is hoarse and barely there.
As if sensing the unspoken question, she adds: ‘I have lost my voice, all year. Stress. It will kill me eventually, I think.’
Stress. Now there’s an understatement.
It was back in February 2001 that Elena met Paul Copeland – originally from Australia, now transplanted to New Zealand – courtesy of a Russian bride internet agency.
‘I wanted to get out of Ukraine, out of Russia’, she reflects. ‘I met a person on internet line. He look good. He promised me beautiful life, I would “bloom like a flower”. I fell in love with his photos, I was ready to take care of his children. He said he needs a woman who will look after his children, who will cook, who will clean – and I was the best – and I was ready to be a stepmother, to be friendly with his other partners. Because he was like me, he had three different children from three different relationships. Can you imagine this madness?’
Elena had been married and divorced. Like thousands of Russian women, she was deserted by the men in her life because of appalling economic conditions over there.
‘My friends told me, ‘don’t give up, you can find a good man’. Because it is impossible to find in Ukraine, with children, it is economic, men are unable to provide.’
Copeland, she says, was everything she thought she wanted in a man. ‘All my girlfriends were crazy about him because he was good looking, charming, gentleman, just a little bit drunk, but we just thought he liked his beer, as we do in the Ukraine.’
But Elena had no idea Copeland had a very dark past, despite an incident that ever so slightly foreshadowed what she would later discover.
‘My neighbours came over. We have a tradition in Russia to make a person drunk because we want to know how he acts when he is drunk, because people are different when they are drunk. Paul was drinking and drinking, and he started to try and jump off the second floor balcony, because he said he was trying to escape being locked up.’
In 1989, Paul Copeland hit the headlines throughout New Zealand for trying to murder his first wife with a crossbow in Tauranga. It was a well-publicised court case, with testimony of terror.
A report from his trial in May 1990 recounts the facts: ‘A 32 year old Tauranga man tried to kill his estranged wife by shooting her with a hunting bow and arrow…from only a foot away…the broadhead spear arrow penetrated part of the woman’s liver, stomach and one of her lungs, poking out the other side of her body.
‘She managed to make her way to the kitchen where she tried to use the phone but was prevented by Copeland, who forced her up against a wall in the hallway opposite the kitchen.
‘Feeling dizzy, she had slid down the wall but managed to get up again to make her way downstairs and to her car where her young daughter was waiting for her. She had collapsed beside the car and neighbours who saw her had rushed to her aid,’ the Crown Prosecutor was recorded as telling the High Court at Rotorua.
‘Copeland, from an upstairs window, had asked several times if she was dead yet.’
He was found not guilty by reason of ‘temporary’ insanity. Copeland, you see, had always been troubled. His father was named in investigations as a violent alcoholic paedophile who had allegedly sodomised his young son. In his early teenage years, Paul Copeland allegedly returned the favour by raping one of his younger sisters. There were burglaries, drug use, car thefts and fraud charges. Violence towards animals was also a Copeland trademark – executing cats and other small animals by bludgeoning them, revelling in the gore.
Little surprise that the teenager ended up in the Tokanui mental institution as a result of his behaviour. Family members would later talk of assault incidents in Australia with drink driving and firearms convictions added into the mix.
None of this, however, was contained in the internet dating agency files as Copeland linked up with Reznikova in far off Ukraine. Instead, the New Zealander turned on the charm, promising marriage and more to the former ballerina and mother of two boys.
‘He said he wanted to make me pregnant, that this was beautiful because I need a baby girl, so we need to do it immediately because it would be easier to get visas.’
By August 2001, Elena was pregnant with their child – her third.
‘Paul was very good for about two weeks after I got pregnant, then he started to drink, he said he’d spent all the money for tickets, nearly, and I said, “Listen, we have to have money for tickets to go to your country”.’
In September that year, the couple and Elena’s youngest son, Yuri, landed in Auckland.
‘I couldn’t speak English. None. I couldn’t put sentence together. I couldn’t make myself understood. I left behind my eldest son because the immigration people in Moscow said it would be hard to get him out here, because Paul didn’t have enough money to pay. But he promised me he would bring him out later.
‘I’d always wanted to speak English well, like I do now. I wanted my children to speak English, and I wanted to have a good job and be happy. So New Zealand looked to me like a countryside that I liked, because my family came from the countryside. We had 100 turkeys. My family grows vegetables, we have lots of food, very hard working people.’
Clean and green the countryside in her new home might have been, but behind the four walls of Copeland’s house she began to discover his demons.
‘When I arrived in September I used to clean the house because I was a good cleaner…and I found some photos of other women with children, in Spain, Africa and elsewhere. So I asked him, ‘was this your previous girlfriend?’ He said ‘no, I just used to live with her for a while’. I said ‘why didn’t you bring her to New Zealand?’. He said ‘she wasn’t good, but her children were good’.’
Elena wasn’t quite sure what he meant.
‘When we first arrived, we had sex all weekend, every day, but when his other children arrived he wasn’t interested in me, he doesn’t have sex with me. I’m asking him, ‘Paul, I’m waiting for you upstairs’, but he never came up. I’m four months pregnant but I’m a woman who is still healthy, you know.’
Over the weeks and months of her pregnancy that followed over the summer of 2001, Elena claims Copeland became more and more distant, more focused on the children, including Elena’s six year old Yuri.
‘On the beach I noticed that he was putting his fingers in between the children’s legs every time he picked them up. His children always used to scream in the bath. I said to him, you bath boy, I bath girl. He was always present in the bath when the children were there. I don’t leave babies in the bath alone, but when children are five or older it is a different thing.
‘I often heard the children sobbing, and once [his daughter Amanda, from his second wife] came out crying and I asked “who hurt you”, and she pointed at Paul saying “him”.
‘He used to call me worthless, and good-for-nothing whore. On the few times we had sex after that he became violent, even though I was pregnant. He never kissed me, and turned my face away during the act of intercourse. He was cold and brutal. Then, at the end, he got worse. He had so much sex with me at the end that I had premature baby.’
Their child, Nicholai, was born in March 2002, with complications.
‘When he was born the baby didn’t breathe, and he said “I don’t know why I should have to buy expensive medicine just to keep the baby alive”. He refused to buy medicine, so I used to go to the church, and there was a very good woman there and she gave me $20.’
When the baby had to be rushed to hospital, Paul Copeland allegedly took his time.
‘He wanted the child to die. He told me. He didn’t want to take me to hospital. He went so slow. As a mother, I’m lucky I have medical skills to keep this child healthy and alive, so when he got better – it was four months later – I moved out of the house.
‘There was a neighbour across the road, and everybody knew about his background, nobody told me, it was a huge secret from me. And when I used to speak to people in the church, everywhere, people used to be so nice, they understood my problem and thought they would encourage him to marry me, so I would get residence. But I wanted to go back to Ukraine because I left my son behind and he told me I will never see him. Then he said if I went back he would keep my two other children with him, so I used to carry on in the home, being with him together, and no one could help.’
When she tried to get Copeland to sign their baby’s birth certificate, he spat the dummy.
‘He screamed at me about a former wife who had taken his money. He called her ‘a bitch, a whore and a lesbian’, and swore that no woman would ever get anything from him, although he did eventually sign the certificate.’
During this time, she says, Copeland would often threaten to have her deported back to Ukraine without her children. ‘I’ll keep them, and you won’t be able to go to court because I’ll make you leave the country.’
Copeland also took the unusual step of publishing a photograph of his fiancée onto an internet porn site, along with a story about their sexual exploits when he first met her in Russia: ‘My Elena didn’t like to drink, that was a problem! Still, I had my two beers and the offer of SEX was on, it was the Russian wash down now with no hot water from the tap. So Elena would fill a basin with hot water, and I would sit in the bath. Elena would wet me then with soap wash my body down, then rinse me. Now, guys who haven’t experienced this, it is good, very good to receive this care. So we are clean now, and it’s time to get dirty, so it’s off to the bed again for a lesson in Russian! The sex was good, very good…as will be revealed soon.’
The revelations are too graphic to reprint in a family magazine.
Elena could see no way out. Although her understanding of English was growing, she still found it hard to speak it, and many people simply wrote her off as ‘an over-emotional Russian’. But the woman from the church who’d paid for the medicine to save Nicholai’s life turned out to be a guardian angel.
‘So that woman, she said “I will help you go to a Women’s Refuge”. I said “what is that?” Because we don’t have that in our country. Can you imagine how crazy it seemed for me to leave for Women’s Refuge with four-months-old baby, and leave the man whom I loved, believe me. Later on I realised it was only about that he wants children to abuse.’
Elena fled on a Friday afternoon with baby and older son in tow. She asked the Women’s Refuge to help get her deported back to the Ukraine on the grounds that her immigration status was now void because of the relationship break-up. And she didn’t have the money herself for airfares. But on Monday morning, Paul Copeland had already obtained a court ruling preventing Elena from taking baby Nicholai out of New Zealand.
The Russian mother was trapped. Her own immigration status meant she now had to leave New Zealand; the court order meant her four month old baby son could not go with her. Paul taunted her by threatening to keep Yuri as well.
‘He always told me that he would send me back to Ukraine but he was keeping Yuri with him.’
Even so, Elena Reznikova still had no idea just what her fiancé had done in his past. It wasn’t until Paul’s sister picked her up from the refuge that the missing pieces of the jigsaw began to tumble into place.
‘She told me her brother is a paedophile, and he raped her and two others. And their father was a paedophile. It was like a dream for me because she got my Russian dictionary and she showed me the words. I hadn’t realised then that he had tried to kill his ex-wife. I was more shocked when I found that out.’
It was at this point that Elena was introduced to Copeland’s third wife, a woman named Elizabeth who’s still living in hiding, 11 years after first meeting Copeland. Elena had found a contact number for her and rang her from the Women’s Refuge. Elizabeth says she could barely understand the distressed Russian woman with the thick accent, but she took down bottles so she could feed baby Nicholai. When she heard Elena’s suspicions that the children had been sexually abused, this former Copeland bride heard the penny drop. Elizabeth immediately phoned Copeland’s sister when she got home, who explained that Paul had also sexually abused her when she was a child. ‘You should believe Elena,’ Copeland’s sister told Elizabeth.
It turned out Elizabeth was another foreign woman lured into Copeland’s orbit in 1994, just four years after his trial for trying to murder his first wife. Elizabeth’s own marriage was in difficulty, and she says Copeland was ‘very romantic’ and charming, and convinced her to leave her husband. She says he acted like a father to her two daughters, and ‘got me pregnant two months after we met’.
Sound familiar? Copeland told Elizabeth it would be easier to get residency if she was pregnant.
Once his victim was trapped, Copeland moved from suave suitor to Hannibal Lecter, catching the neighbour’s cat, gassing it, and then burning it in front of his wife despite her pleas to spare the creature.
A recent study suggested people who torture animals are more likely to be sexual abusers. On the Richter scale of deviance, Paul Copeland was already an 11.
After Elizabeth and Paul’s son, Timothy, was born in 1995, he again turned his attention to Elizabeth’s two older daughters, often watching them shower, poking them frequently with a toilet brush while they were naked, assaulting them, verbally abusing them, making one of the girls pick up excrement in the garden using only her bare hands.
Elizabeth worked nights, leaving her husband to babysit six-month-old Timothy and her two daughters. The children’s grandmother would often pop in and find the girls weeping and distressed. He teased one of the older girls about her weight, calling her Moby Dick, and suggested to a family friend the other ‘would be a slut and pregnant’ by the time she was 14.
It was around this time that Elizabeth, wife number three, discovered a box under the stairwell containing files relating to Copeland’s childhood and the fates of wives one and two.
She read of the bow and arrow attack on wife one, the declaration of temporary insanity and the very brief spell in Tokanui Hospital before the psychopathic Copeland had convinced the cuckoo-keepers he was sane enough to fly the nest. She read of how Paul had allegedly been raped by his own father, and the history of sex abuse in his family. She discovered how he’d met wife number two, a German woman (mother of Amanda), and burned her passport and all her papers. How he’d smashed all the windows in his house on one occasion, and psychiatric reports detailing the horrific tortures he’d practiced on animals as a child.
Naturally, after reading all this, Elizabeth became absolutely terrified about what might happen to her and her children.
When she tried to leave, and she did so half a dozen times, Copeland would invariably track her down, stalk her and terrify her until she returned. In the end, however, he booted her out along with her two daughters. Elizabeth says he physically threw them out the door, locked it and stayed inside with Timothy and Amanda. By the time Elizabeth returned with help, Copeland had barricaded both of his biological children in an upstairs bedroom.
Elizabeth staked out the local supermarket and tried to grab Timothy from the shopping trolley while Copeland’s back was turned, but he foiled the rescue by screaming ‘Help, this woman is stealing my son!’ He put Timothy in hiding. Police eventually found the two year old at Copeland’s sister’s house.
The stalking and terror got worse, however, and eventually Copeland managed to convince Elizabeth that he would leave her alone if she’d just give him access on alternative weeks to Timothy.
Mindful of the crossbow attack, Elizabeth signed the custody form.
It was after that, she says, that she noticed her little boy’s behaviour change markedly on his return from access visits; it was, she says unusually aggressive and strange.
This, then, was the story of wife number three.
The woman who would have been number four, Elena, is deeply saddened at the fate of Copeland’s first two children.
‘Last time I saw Timothy and Amanda they put their heads down, they know that I know their problem but I can’t help them. They don’t talk, they’re very embarrassed to tell anybody what’s happening to them because they’re scared that their father will kill them. He told them, “I will kill you if you tell anyone”. He told it to my son but my son is Russian and Russians are very strong. We have a, how do you say, self, self-preservation, as a child when you’re young. You learn to save yourself in a difficult situation, even losing your life.’
In the past year, Elena’s older son Yuri has told of being made to watch naked children on Copeland’s computer during the months that Copeland has had Nicholai in his care, and Elena’s family friends say Nicholai has complained of a “sore bottom”, and “dad touching me in the bottom”.
‘I have three boys,’ says Elena. ‘I have a lot of experience as a mother of boys. When they are small their penises never stand up, they don’t have hormones for sex, but my little boy, his penis is so sensitive. I think it has been massaged. He wakes up at night and says “it hurts”. I am so scared what will happen to him if he goes back to his father. This child has already been damaged.’
Yuri says he and the other children witnessed Paul Copeland interfering with Nicholai’s genitals and bottom – in fact, all the children were made to watch it.
Elena obtained a psychologist’s report on Yuri two years ago, and she says the psychologist was convinced Yuri had also been abused.
She says one of the most frightening things about Copeland is his psychopathic aloofness.
He’s absolutely normal in public, but he’s not normal. His body language is absolutely absent. He doesn’t move, there’s no body language. I didn’t want to have anything to do with a former criminal anymore because I was scared that one day I would have to protect myself and the lives of my children. He told me I would never see my eldest son again, and I haven’t seen him in four years, his threat came true.
‘When I go to bed I feel that I’m already dead or am unable to leave, or help my children to be happy, to be together. The man is killing me psychologically, emotionally. He would like to kill me physically. He has already tried to kill his ex-wife.
‘My second relationship, my partner said “Elena, I can’t pay these bills for lawyers, this is crazy, just give the child away”. I said, “Peter, this is sexual abuse”. He said, “I know”. He said, “sorry Elena, I do love you but with all these problems I don’t want you. I don’t want your children”.’
Nor has the New Zealand Government come to the rescue of the children. The Immigration Service has cancelled Elena’s right to stay in New Zealand, and wants to deport her, if necessary without her children who would be left in the care of Paul Copeland.
‘My application for residence was cancelled because I was born in Khazakstan. It’s another nonsense. Khazakstan is part of Russia and it appears on my birth certificate, but my parents took me out of Khazakstan when I was two months old, so Immigration Service asked me for a police certificate from Khazakstan, and it’s impossible to get! It’s so stupid.’
It wouldn’t be the first time New Zealand’s bureaucrats have been called stupid.
With Copeland continuing to stalk her and harass the men helping her, Elena found herself increasingly isolated. No money to keep up her fight to stay in New Zealand long enough to get the non-removal order lifted, no money to buy groceries. No work permit. She turned, reluctantly, to prostitution to pay the bills.
‘I hated it. I did not want to do. But how else could I survive? How else could I provide?’
Today, she sells other services.
‘My flatmates discover my cooking and cleaning is so good, they pay me to do all of it.’
With the help of a Russian-speaking lawyer, she’s launched a renewed bid to secure New Zealand residency and, as at the time of writing, she has temporarily wrested back control of her children from Paul Copeland and is helping heal their scars.
‘I got Nicholai back two weeks ago,’ she murmurs. ‘He wakes at night, but I think he will get better. I love him. Once I didn’t want to stay in New Zealand. Now I do.’
The most stunning aspect of the whole story, however, is why on earth a man with Paul Copeland’s psychiatric history, a sexual predator who raped his own sister and tried to murder his wife with a bow and arrow, a man who enjoyed killing cats in the cruellest ways he could find – why such a man would be allowed anywhere near a child by New Zealand’s social workers and psychologists.
For Elena, that is the biggest mystery of all.
*All names except those of Elena Reznikova and Paul Copeland have been changed for privacy purposes