WARNING: CONTAINS CONTENT THAT READERS MIGHT FIND UPSETTING
The face on the television was blurred. But, for one woman, that wasn’t enough to conceal the identity of the man who killed British backpacker Grace Millane.
Gut instinct told her the man with the obscured face was her abusive former partner – Jesse Shane Kempson, a man she went to police about the day she left him.
Kempson had now taken a life and it was a devastating realisation.
“My whole world came crashing down around me,” she would later tell the Auckland High Court.
As the police investigation tightened on Kempson, police contacted the woman and she underwent a filmed interview as they gathered evidence to bring him to justice. Her case, however, would become an entirely separate, second trial.
At the judge-alone trial in October before Justice Timothy Brewer, Kempson stood in the dock facing two charges of sexual violation, three of assault, two of assault with a weapon and one of threatening to kill in relation to the complainant.
Justice Brewer asked the woman how the knowledge of Millane’s death had affected the evidence she gave police.
“I’ve told nothing but the truth this whole way through,” she said.
“I was Grace’s voice and I will be Grace’s voice.”
She was not the only woman speaking up.
Another woman came forward after seeing Kempson’s identity publicised by international media as the man arrested and accused of killing Millane.
This second woman instantly recognised him as the man who had raped her in an Auckland motel.
On the same day he appeared in court for the first time accused of killing Millane, this complainant went to the police and – when presented with a photo ID montage – positively identified Kempson.
Her case was Kempson’s third trial, which began in November before Justice Geoffrey Venning.
He is appealing the conviction and sentence of both cases but the details can be revealed today after the Supreme Court ordered name suppression for Kempson to lapse.
A Tinder match that became a violent, toxic relationship
Crown prosecutor Fiona Culliney opened Kempson’s second trial by saying the complainant was continuously manipulated and abused by the defendant during their short relationship.
Defence lawyer Belinda Sellars, QC, said Kempson accepted it was a “difficult relationship” but he denied it was physically or sexually abusive.
The young woman’s filmed police interview was then played to the court.
In September 2016, after matching on Tinder, the woman picked Kempson up from his Mt Albert hostel and the pair went to a Grey Lynn cafe, exchanging small talk over coffee, she said.
Kempson claimed he had come to New Zealand from Australia on business.
He said he was adopted at a young age by an “extremely wealthy” man after his biological mother locked him in a car boot and set the vehicle ablaze. In the story he told, his mother was in jail for attempted murder.
In reality, he was born in Lower Hutt in 1991 and his parents separated when he was 3.
Kempson had grown up in the Wainuiomata and Porirua area. He moved to Australia in about 2013, leaving behind a family home where tensions had boiled over about his lying.
In her police interview, the woman said she knew Kempson’s stories were “bizarre” but she was vulnerable and liked to help “wounded birds”.
“I should have seen it but at the same time I just wanted to be loved and I wanted what all my friends had, which was, you know, the family and the kids and the man that loves them.”
And she said she was taken with him: a tall, attractive man feeding her the lines she wanted to hear.
“I should have known. You know? The warning signs were all there,” she said.
Within weeks, Kempson was asking her for money – he claimed his Australian benefactor was being prosecuted for fraud, which had also frozen his funds.
The woman recalled one incident before they moved in together in which he was in tears andwanting to break up, saying: “I’m messed up. I’m damaged. I’m bad news.”
She replied that it was okay, telling him “I can help you.”
He had next to no belongings.
“He just came with his softball bag … and a suitcase. And that was it.”
While she found it unusual that he had little support, she stuck by him and they moved in together
She was left to unpack everything on the day they moved as he claimed he had a softball tournament.
Feeling 'insane for wanting to leave'
Not long after they moved in together the fighting started.
The Crown case at the judge-alone trial was underscored by the theme that Kempson’s financial dependence had made it harder for his partner to leave an abusive relationship.
“We would just fight all the time … It was always around money,” the woman said in the filmed police interview.
He had promised they would go to Australia to access his money but they never did.
One day, after drinking a glass or two of wine and fed up with the bickering, she began to walk away with her keys.
In her evidence, she said he “slammed” her on to the ground and told her she was not going anywhere. The woman said he had really hurt her as she struggled to breathe properly.
Kempson claimed he had acted out of concern, she said, wanting to stop her from driving drunk.
He had managed to make her “feel insane” for wanting to get out. There was a time later that year when she managed to stay away for a couple of days.
But Kempson begged her to come back just to talk, promising he would refrain from violence, she said.
“I just want to see you,” she recalled him saying.
Her keys were on the table during the standoff as she delivered the news that she simply did not want to be with him anymore.
“Something snapped and he grabbed the keys,” she said.
And there was a terrifying look in his eyes that she already knew too well – she described it as “pure evil”.
He would change like Jekyll and Hyde. It was like he would not control that side of his anger.
“You’re not f***ing leaving,” she said, recalling his words.
He coerced her to stay using a threat, she said, and when he calmed down they went out for dinner.
Walking beside him, she thought about how she was doomed – trapped in a volatile relationship, having already tried to leave.
The young woman moved her belongings back in and told everyone the situation was fine.
But the reality was different; he was isolating her from her family, withholding affection and repeatedly threatening her with a butcher’s knife.
Through tears she said: “I could never understand why he got so angry towards me. I just loved him.”
Sometimes he’d lock her out on a balcony, once leaving her out in the rain in the dark, she said, likening it to him treating her like a dog.
“It was like a game to him. He loved seeing me cry. He loved seeing me upset. He loved seeing me scared. He loved it because it was power and control for him.”
He was “eating away” at her spirit and who she was.
'You are going to die today'
In her police interview she recalled the worst night in the relationship. It was January 19, 2017.
By the time she made it home from work he had already fallen asleep on the couch with ankle weights on. There was a glass of wine on the table.
Quietly, she sat nearby on the edge of the couch.
His eyes struggled to focus on her as he woke, she said. He was groggy. “Jesse are you okay?”
“He said: ‘I’ve been sent here by the CIA to kill you’,” she said, recalling his words.
“You are going to die today. You are going to die.”
As fear came over her, he said she knew too much.
“I’m going to murder you.”
He told her to run upstairs and fetch a USB stick, giving her a minute’s deadline to fulfil his strange demand. She grabbed it from his laptop bag and returned.
Kempson then chased her around the house with a knife as she desperately tried to keep him at arm’s length pleading for her life.
“You don’t have to do this,” she told him.
Then she was on the floor, he was on top of her and had her in a chokehold, she recounted.
“Shush … It’s time to go to sleep”, he told her.
“I have never been so scared in my life,” she said.
Somehow she managed to wriggle free. She said he then slumped down, with his eyes rolling back in his head. He started crawling on the floor trying to get to her.
He claimed he had been given drugs and needed food, which she ordered for him but he did not eat.
“I haven’t told a soul what he did next.”
Kempson forced her into sexual acts by threatening to kill her and her family.
“We woke up in the morning and I said to him: ‘What the f*** happened last night?’
“And he just said to me: ‘We are not discussing that. That never happened’. And laughed. And that was the night that he tried to kill me.”
That night she had written an account of the events down – minus the details of the sexual violation – while he was asleep.
“And I signed it because I honestly thought that night I was going to die and if my body was found people would need to know that it was him that did it.
“A piece of me died that night and I lost my fighting spirit.”
'That was my out'
It was months before she was able to leave him. She was walking on eggshells, frightened by the volatility of the relationship.
“Towards the end he just hated me. He hated my presence.”
While she had seen him checking out other women before, she said finding concrete evidence of his infidelity gave her the “final push” to leave.
While he was in the shower she took photos of the telling phone messages.
“That was my out. I took that and I ran.”
The same day, in April 2017, that she ended the relationship, she went to the police and made a complaint about the violence she had suffered at the hands of Kempson.
She did not tell the police about the sexual violations she had suffered as she was in the company of her father and too embarrassed to share all the details.
She said she had been told at the time by police it would be her story against his.
Ultimately, she sought and was granted a protection order against Kempson but did not pursue any criminal charges at that stage.
'I will be Grace's voice'
The woman was tearful as her evidence neared its close in the Auckland High Court.
“Did knowing about Ms Millane make any difference to how you spoke to the police?” Justice Timothy Brewer asked her directly.
“I didn’t want to bring up my past again but I also wanted the truth to be out about who Jesse is,” she replied.
“And the pattern of behaviour and how this whole thing could have been avoided. It really could have.”
She soon added: “I told nothing but the truth the whole interview. I’ve told nothing but the truth this whole way through. I was Grace’s voice and I will be Grace’s voice.”
Justice Brewer told her he appreciated it was never easy recounting to a room of people intimate details. “Those are all the questions that you are going to be asked. That’s your part done,” he said.
She sobbed as she left the room.
He treated her badly
Defence lawyer Belinda Sellars, QC, said it was clear Kempson had treated the woman badly, she was “essentially his meal ticket”.
“He took her money, he was unfaithful and he repeatedly made promises that he did not keep,” Sellars said.
The complainant had very good reasons to be extremely upset and angry at him, she said.
But while the relationship was abusive financially and emotionally, Kempson claimed he was never physically or sexually violent.
Sellars said the woman’s evidence lacked credibility and reliability, pointing to changes between her initial statements and her later evidence.
The lawyer also pointed to the thousands of texts exchanged during the short relationship. Many referred to emotional abuse and financial abuse but none to physical or sexual abuse.
At a hearing spanning less than 10 minutes on October 22, 2020, Justice Brewer announced he had found Kempson guilty on all eight charges.
He found the detail the woman provided convincing and the letter she wrote that night corroborative, even though it did not mention the forced sexual contact.
“This omission is more consistent with a hurried letter written in emotional turmoil just after the incident than with a carefully considered fabrication,” he said.
A third trial begins
Little more than a week later, Kempson was on trial in the Auckland High Court for a third time.
A year after his ex-girlfriend left him, he was on Tinder again and he met another woman he would go on to hurt.
After exchanging texts with the young British woman, they met for a date in Auckland’s Viaduct Harbour.
They started drinking at Dr Rudi’s, with a view of the waterfront, before moving on to an Irish pub called O’Hagan’s.
Crown prosecutor Claire Paterson said the accused had talked about the future and marriage, topics the woman found “odd” given they had just met.
“At this early stage in the night it is clear, in the Crown submission, that Mr Kempson was trying to impress [her] – making overtures which were unusual and off-key in the context of a first date,” Paterson said during the Auckland High Court trial.
At one point he even claimed he had friends in “high places” at Immigration who could help her, but she was not interested in doing anything to upset the process, Paterson said.
The pair ended up at the Epsom motel where he was living. He became aggressive when she rebuffed his sexual advances and – later the same night – he raped her, the prosecutor said.
“She froze. She tried to block out what was happening.”
She did not know how to get home, Paterson said, so she stayed in the room until the morning, when he drove her to a supermarket carpark.
The prosecutor said the complainant did not want him to know exactly where she lived.
'He didn't look like the pictures'
The young woman gave evidence in court recalling that the date did not start quite as she imagined.
“He just didn’t look like he looked in the pictures,” she said.
She did not know quite what to think, it did not seem like the same person.
He did, however, present himself well and implied he had a lot of money, she said.
Once, at the second bar, he insisted they each have a shot. It was not the kind of night she was going for.
Still, they continued with drinks and dinner.
“He was saying how lucky he was to be on this date with me.”
Kempson also asked his date if she found him attractive. She tried to laugh off such a forward question but he asked for a yes or no response. “I thought he was quite a funny guy. I didn’t see it going anywhere, though.”
They kissed at two of the bars they visited and, to her surprise she said, he then drove them to the Epsom motel where he was living.
He claimed all the bars would be closed.
“I just believed him,” the complainant said.
She said he told her to come inside and have a drink, and she obliged, assuming once inside she would be able to sort out how to get home.
“I couldn’t just stay in the car,” she said.
“I didn’t know where I was.”
'Never been shouted at like that before'
She told the court that once inside the motel room she rebuffed his sexual advances, and in turn he asked what her problem was.
She said he told her he had treated her “like a princess” by paying for everything and she was “being ungrateful”.
These remarks, the Crown said, showed he believed he was entitled to sex because he had paid for drinks and dinner that evening.
“I have never been shouted at like that before ever, by anyone,” she said.
“I was really scared and upset.”
The woman told the court that she repeated that she wanted to go home.
It was only then, she said, she realised she had lost her bag, meaning she did not have her house key or money to pay for a taxi.
She tried to make some calls on her phone, which was unreliable, the court heard. The phone data recorded an outgoing call at 11.41pm to the last bar they visited, followed by several calls to her mum. On the young woman’s evidence, none of the calls connected.
“Please tell me you’re still awake, please, please, please,” she said she messaged a friend.
Kempson said he was too drunk to drive her anywhere else that night, she told the Auckland High Court.
“It didn’t make any sense because he had been drinking and driving the whole night.”
She said he acted like he was doing her a favour by letting her stay.
There was only one bed in the room, she said, so she lay as far away from him as possible, fully clothed.
“I was still really upset about not being able to get home.”
But he got into the bed and he then started having sex with her.
Paterson asked if the woman had responded in any way that could have been described as positive.
The woman said no, and that she was crying.
“I didn’t even want to go to the motel.”
The next morning, Kempson drove her to the bar to retrieve her bag and then to a supermarket carpark.
They did not contact each other again.
The Grace Millane story – the accused makes headlines
Crowded around a glowing computer screen at work with her colleagues, the woman was not prepared for how the story of the Millane homicide inquiry story was going to develop.
The Daily Mail, in breach of name suppression, was reporting who had been charged with the murder and her workmates had been searching the name on social media.
She immediately recognised the photos of the accused as the Tinder date who had raped her.
Her boss would later describe how she went pale immediately after looking at the profile picture. The employer pulled her aside to talk in private and would later tell the court she learned “things got quite ugly” at the motel that night. “She felt sick about the whole situation.
“I just felt awful for her. It was highly concerning to me.”
She encouraged the woman to go to the police.
Crown prosecutor Hannah Clark asked if they ever spoke of it again.
“I spoke to her many, many, many times.
“It was awful. She just didn’t recover from it once she had let it out. She just didn’t get back to [herself].”
Striking parallels: 'That could have been me'
In cross-examination, defence lawyer Tiffany Cooper said if the woman had not been enjoying her time at the bars there had been “ample opportunity to bail”.
Cooper argued if there had been an argument about sex at the motel it would have been an “enormous sign” to leave.
The woman insisted she had tried to leave.
However, she agreed she had immediately seen the striking parallels to Millane’s case.
Both were young British women who enjoyed travel and both had gone home with Kempson after a Tinder date.
Cooper said the complainant must have thought “that could have been me”.
“You didn’t want to be the woman who had slept with Grace Millane’s murderer,” Cooper said.
The woman maintained she had not wanted to have sex with him.
“Your motivation was to assist the police to try and get Grace Millane’s murderer,” Cooper added.
In her closing argument, Cooper said throughout her evidence the woman had tried to “distance herself” from her connection to Kempson and the idea she had enjoyed his company.
The defence case argued that two people had met up for drinks and in a boozy night had casual sex.
Until Millane was killed, that night looked very different, she said.
Cooper said she had no doubt the woman regretted connecting with Kempson on Tinder and that she regretted having sexual intercourse with someone that was later convicted of murder.
“But of course we know that hindsight and regretted sex, reluctant sex, doesn’t make it rape,” she said.
Judge believes the complainant
On November 6, Justice Venning announced he had found Kempson guilty on one charge of sexual violation by rape.
“In short, I accept the evidence of the complainant,” Justice Venning said. “That evidence has made me sure.”
It was the third time Kempson had been told in a High Court dock he was a guilty man. And he could not abide it in silence. It sparked an outburst.
“You’re so full of s*** mate. You have no reason to convict me,” Kempson said.
“I can’t wait for the Court of Appeal to overturn you, mate. You’re full of s***.”
Unperturbed by the outburst, Justice Venning reminded Kempson of the verdict: “You are, as I say, convicted.”
In his released decision, he said: “While she was in the room physically, it was like she was frozen, she just let him do what he needed to do so she could try and go to sleep and go home as soon as possible.”
She did not consent, the High Court judge said.
Trust in people 'completely broken'
For physically and sexually abusing his former partner, Kempson was sentenced to seven years and six months in jail.
The former partner bravely read a statement to the court about how the abuse affected her and how she was determined to leave it behind.
She told the High Court he had financially, verbally, physically and sexually abused her.
“The physical pain he has caused me pales in significance to the emotional damage he has caused me.”
His actions had rocked everything she held to be “right and true” in the world.
“I changed from a confident young woman to someone whose trust in people was completely broken,” she said.
“I became so scared and fearful that the fear made me irrational about how he was able to hurt me even after the relationship was over.
“I was looking over my shoulder even after I knew he was in custody.”
She lost confidence in herself and her judgment.
“I carried so much shame about what he had done to me that it took me to learn that someone else had died before I was able to find the courage to speak out about what he had done to me.”
It had taken a lot of time, healing and counselling to speak about the damage he caused, she said.
“And find the voice to speak out about how violence of any kind – sexual, verbal, physical or financial – cannot be tolerated and needs to be spoken about.”
She had battled to do that.
It had taken the support of loved ones and a lot of time, effort and energy to seek the help she needed to get on her feet, she said.
“To ask for help from others to rebuild your life is an extremely difficult thing to do.
“But it is what I have done.”
Before leaving the courtroom behind her, she hugged Detective Inspector Scott Beard, who was seated beside her in the public gallery.
"You don't have any power over me anymore."
On November 27, Kempson was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in jail for raping his Tinder date in an Auckland motel. Justice Venning said this would be added to his recent seven years and six months term but served concurrently with the murder sentence.
Defence lawyer Tiffany Cooper told the High Court that while Kempson’s family were not present in court as they were scattered across the country, he still had their support.
“That is something that is obviously going to be of great importance as he goes forward.”
Justice Venning said it was apparent from Kempson’s response to the verdict that he did not accept the offending.
“You have no remorse or insight into it.”
The High Court judge said the man had a troubled upbringing and his parents had split when he was 3 years old.
“Your mother rejected you. That may go some way towards explaining your attitude towards women,” Justice Venning said.
Kempson laughed from the dock in response.
Cooper had provided to the court a number of letters of support which “paint a more positive picture”.
“You are fortunate to have that support if you are to be rehabilitated in the future, you will need it,” Justice Venning said.
The court also heard the victim impact statement, read by a support person.
She said at first she tried to block it all out as though nothing had happened, but in the back of her mind she worried about what she would do if she saw him in the street.
“Would you try and talk to me, as though nothing happened?
“Would you hang your head and continue walking?”
Her brain was wracked with these fears and others.
“I don’t think you realise the impact that you had on me that night and until I went to the police station I don’t think I did either.”
At first there were many sleepless nights.
“Every time I closed my eyes, I would see your eyes popping out of your head staring at me in anger.”
Sometimes when the comfort of sleep could be found it was violently interrupted. She would wake up crying and screaming. She would find herself pushing her partner away, afraid it was Kempson.
“I had to check my front door was locked at least three times every night because I was scared you would find me.
“I lost a lot of confidence and became extremely paranoid.”
And she was terrified her partner would leave due to the irrational behaviour.
“How do you explain that you can’t go to work because you are scared of someone who is in custody?”
As an independent person it had been difficult to admit she needed help and counselling, she said.
The court case was a trigger.
“Mostly because I blamed myself. If only I had bought a new phone or found a way to leave earlier or gone to the police earlier. Maybe events that came to pass could have been different.”
She was overcoming these thoughts and felt lucky to have support of friends, family and police, she said.
“I don’t want your sympathy but I want you to know this hasn’t been an easy road for me.”
It had taken time, strength and tears to be able to speak about what he did and say that it was not okay.
Many people had reassured her that telling her story in court would bring about a sense of relief.
“For me, I am yet to feel that weight being lifted. I don’t know if I ever will.
“But I walk away from this feeling as though I have done the right thing for myself.”
And she was a different person now.
“I am not scared. I am strong. I am not alone. I am loved.
“I have so much to look forward to in my life and I will not look back.”
While he is publicly identified to the world today, the woman’s statement said she would never speak his name again.
“You don’t have any power over me anymore,” she said.
Domestic violence – do you need help?
If you’re in danger now:
• Phone the police on 111 or ask neighbours of friends to ring for you.
• Run outside and head for where there are other people.
• Scream for help so that your neighbours can hear you.
• Take the children with you.
• Don’t stop to get anything else.
• If you are being abused, remember it’s not your fault. Violence is never okay.
Where to go for help or more information:
• Shine, free national helpline 9am-11pm every day – 0508 744 633 www.2shine.org.nz
• Women’s Refuge: Free national crisis line operates 24/7 – 0800 refuge or 0800 733 843 www.womensrefuge.org.nz
• Shakti: Providing specialist cultural services for African, Asian and middle eastern women and their children. Crisis line 24/7 0800 742 584
• It’s Not Ok: Information line 0800 456 450 www.areyouok.org.nz
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