IT is late on the night of January 9, 2017, and Caitlin* is swiping through her Tinder account when she pauses to take a closer look at a profile.
The man staring back at her clutches a puppy in his right hand, while a heavily-tattooed left arm stretches out in front of him to take the selfie. The man’s name is Andrew. He looks pretty harmless.
Caitlin swipes right, indicating she likes the look of him, and by midnight the pair are matched and begin chatting online.
The conversation moves to text messaging and Andrew asks if he can come to her house.
Caitlin, then 20, makes it clear – she is not looking for sex and has had some bad experiences with men in the past. Have no fear, Andrew assures her, she is talking to a “genuine guy”.
“Yeh that’s not me,” Andrew writes. I don’t care bout getting my dick wet. I’d rather show a woman an experience.” It’s 3.50am now and Caitlin is still not convinced.
But Andrew is persistent. “Just go with it babe,” he urges. I want to show u what a decent bloke is like. No sex jus (sic) chat ok. I promise.”
But not long after he arrives, Andrew’s demeanour suddenly changes. He “flicks the switch” from friendly to fiend and forces himself on Caitlin, who screams at him to stop, and rapes her four times. Pinned to the bed by her arms, Andrew tells her: “I run the f---ing show, you don’t. Just do what you’re told.”
“Don’t try to fight me off again,” Andrew snarls. “I’ll put you through the f---ing wall.”
About five hours after they were matched on Tinder, Andrew taps his phone a few times and the pair are unmatched, deleting the conversation that led up to the attack.
Caitlin would not find out until months later but Andrew is serial rapist Andrew James Benn, then 27, who was in the midst of a more than four-year reign of terror across the Hunter.
The method Benn used with Caitlin was a constant throughout the 14 attacks he perpetrated on teenage girls and young women between September, 2012, and January, 2017.
On social media and through text messages, Benn sought to present himself as “a genuine guy”, a decent bloke who just wanted to be friends in a world full of sex-crazed young men.
He was different, he told the women he met through Facebook, Tinder and Snapchat. He just wanted to hang out, go for a drive to a lookout, to chat, to watch the sunrise or to cuddle.
But once he got them alone, Benn quickly revealed his true self; a depraved and sadistic rapist, a relentless and unremorseful sex offender who treated women like animals and was so arrogant and confident he would get away with it that he always used his own name and rarely tried to cover his tracks.
Before he raped one woman at a hotel in Newcastle in August, 2016, Benn blocked the only exit from the bedroom, laughed in her face and told her: “You’re not going anywhere. You don’t have a say now.”
Benn would also tell the women he raped that he was in charge and they were powerless.
But Benn was wrong.
These women, all strangers tied together by horrific circumstances, do have a say.
And they have chosen to speak out together about the horrific crimes that forever changed their lives.
As for being powerless?
While Benn sits in jail, the women he attacked are showing their strength.
In interviews with the Newcastle Herald six of the women revealed the profound impact the attacks had on them and encouraged other women who are the victims of rape or sexual assault to come forward and speak out.
The women who spoke to the Herald described the effects Benn’s attacks had on them, which included suffering PTSD, living in “constant fear”, losing or having to leave their jobs and their homes, moving out of the Hunter, contemplating or attempting suicide, blaming themselves and feelings of guilt and shame.
It is hoped that the publicity around the case and the women bravely speaking out will help remove the stigma attached to victims of sexual assault, which police say creates a reluctance for people to report attacks due to fear of being judged, not believed or blamed.
Benn, now 29, of North Rothbury, was two weeks ago jailed for a maximum of 40 years, with a non-parole period of 30 years for 33 offences, including 21 counts of rape, against 14 teenage girls and young women over a more than four-year period.
He lacks the notoriety of some of Australia's worst rapists, but Benn was convicted of attacking more women than infamous sex offenders like the Skaf brothers, the Bulli rapist, the North Shore rapist and the Ashfield gang rapists.
The public gallery in Newcastle District Court was packed with victims and their supporters as Judge Roy Ellis read a lengthy judgement detailing Benn’s depraved acts, which included repeatedly raping women, relentlessly forcing himself on girls using “extreme violence”, sex with girls as young as 15, blackmailing and threatening victims that the “Hells Angels” would “make them disappear” if they didn’t stay silent and laughing in the face of desperate and crying victims.
“The treatment of the many victims was nothing short of despicable,” Judge Ellis said. His conduct over the four-year period was evil. He left a path of emotional and physical damage for the victims."
It was arguably the worst case of serial sexual assault in the history of the Hunter.
And Benn was able to get away with it for so long, despite always using his own name and social media accounts and never covering his face, because the women were either too fearful, ashamed or embarrassed to come forward or because they dismissed his acts as the standard "douchebag" behaviour women have to deal with when dating online.
“There is absolutely no situation whatsoever which would warrant this being the price a woman should pay for meeting someone online, or anywhere for that matter,” Detective senior constable Lauren Park, who investigated and charged Benn, told the Herald.
The internet has provided a new challenge for law enforcement, Detective Park said, and while social media and dating sites can create a platform for people like Benn, “no still means no” regardless of where you first meet someone.
“No matter how long you have been communicating with someone in an online capacity, never forget they are still a stranger,” Detective Park said. “Sex offenders are not always going to appear “creepy”. They are manipulative and will tell you what you want to hear. They know how to gain a victim’s trust and will exploit that. It is important to be vigilant with who you interact with online. Exercise caution in regards to what information you share and with whom. If you are meeting someone for the first time always ensure someone knows where you are, who you are meeting and arrange to meet in a public place.”
Caitlin laments not seeing the darker side of Andrew Benn, but said he hid it well.
"I feel so stupid for giving into the nice guy facade he portrayed so well," Caitlin said. “You wouldn't look at him and think anything other than he was an average 20-something bloke. He would talk in a normal manner and ask about family and friends. He dressed normally and had an exterior that wouldn't make you doubt him or be cautious if you saw him walking towards you. Thinking back now to how inquisitive he was, I can see the ulterior motives he had and I feel like an idiot for not noticing it." Caitlin searches for a way to describe what it was like when Benn switched from "nice guy" to dominant and terrifying rapist.
"It is like a child playing with a jack-in-the box," she says. “Everything is going smoothly and then suddenly this thing jumps out at them. Your body freezes and goes into shock and you have no control over what is going on and no matter how many times you try to push away or put jack back in the box he will come out again and again and again."
She said Benn convinced her no one would believe her if she came forward and that there would be no DNA or proof they even had sex.
"After the attack I knew that I was not his first and wouldn't be his last unless he was reported," she said. "I didn't go to police immediately because of what he said and I blamed myself."
Caitlin said she convinced herself people would tell her Tinder is used for sex and because she met someone at her home at night she should have expected it, despite repeatedly telling Benn to stop.
For months after the attack Cailtin couldn't sleep in the bed where it happened. She lived in "constant fear", slept with a large kitchen knife by her side and would wake up with bruises on her legs from reliving the attack in her dreams.
She also said the rape stole her dream job because she was deemed unable to talk to victims because she is one.
Sage*, who was sexually assaulted after Benn tried to make her engage in group sex at a Newcastle hotel in 2014, said he built up her trust for months.
"I assumed he was half genuine and wanting to pursue something with me." Sage said. “He presented himself as more of a decent guy through messages and initially his confidence, the way he spoke, it made you feel special. And then he just turned out to be a dickhead.”
She said her life spiraled out of control in the months after the attack.
Sage became an alcoholic, lost her job, her car, her flat and was homeless living in a tent for two weeks before she got back on her feet.
When Benn didn't show for his sentence in Newcastle District Court three weeks ago, citing gastroenteritis, Sage became angry that she was being starved of "closure" and started drinking heavily before walking into traffic on a busy road.
She was taken to hospital, but discharged herself to be at Benn's sentencing a week later.
"I still can't fully explain that night," she says in her victim impact statement. “I just know I was very emotional and frustrated, feeling like I will never get closure from what happened to me four years ago. But I am glad I am still alive and I will continue to fight."
Zephira*, who was raped by Benn after the pair went for a drive to a lookout at Pokolbin in March, 2016, said the attack dealt a blow to her self-pride and had hampered future attempts to meet men who didn't want to get involved with a woman who had been sexually assaulted.
"It completely changed my perspective that I had of myself," Zephira said. “I'd heard of these type of attacks or incidents. I was always smart when I met people; I told people where I was going, I only went out in daylight, in the open. I did all those things with Andrew Benn, but he had a plan. He was just trying to make it happen any way he could."
Zephira said she was spared the worst of what Benn inflicted on others because she essentially "gave him as much shit" as she could.
"How do people manage in these situations?" Zephira asked. “Flight, fight or freeze. Some of these girls froze and just thought "don't kill me". Some tried to run. My choice was fight. I gave him shit. I gave him as much shit as I possibly could."
Like several others, Zephira came forward and spoke to police after publicity of Benn's arrest in January, 2017.
She described "exploding" at work when hearing the news and the rollercoaster of realising she was “part of a much bigger horrible plan”.
Her message to those suffering in silence is to speak up. "It is too much of a taboo subject for people to ignore," she said.
Kelly*, who Benn raped in September, 2016, and then threatened with a visit from the “Hells Angels” if she went to police, spent the next eight hours crying on her bathroom floor alone.
Since then she has struggled with shame and blames herself.
"I thought this is something that happens to other people, not me," Kelly said. “I'm smarter than this. How could this happen to me. I felt like it was my fault. I felt somewhat to blame because I had taken all these self-defence classes and I was an independent, stand-alone woman and when it came to the crunch I couldn't move, I could barely breath. I thought it was my fault and that I should have fought back. I can still hear his voice. If I close my eyes I can still picture exactly what he was wearing. It is burnt into my memory."
Kelly, like several others, said she felt guilty when Benn was arrested because she realised he targeted other victims after her.
"If I had been brave enough to stand up and say this is what happened to me, then maybe it could have been prevented," she said.
Terrified Benn, or someone else, would attack her, Kelly changed jobs, moved out of the area and has been diagnosed with PTSD and suffers from agoraphobia.
It was towards the end of October, 2013, when 17-year-old Tarly received a Facebook friend request from Benn. And, after a few weeks of chatting, the pair decided to meet up.
Benn was supposed to drive Tarly into Newcastle for a date, but instead went to a boat ramp at Morpeth where he raped her in the backseat.
When a few other cars arrived, he drove to the Morpeth cemetery where he again raped her.
The attack led her to fail her exams and drop out of high school.
Tarly said blanket warnings about social media safety didn't quite suit the complex case because Benn was a master manipulator.
"I shouldn't have clicked approve on Facebook and I shouldn't have talked to him," she said. “But I don't know what to say. He was acting normal, he was being sweet and then he went and did this. It could happen to anybody."
Tarly, like many others the Herald spoke to, was crestfallen when Benn showed no remorse or contrition for his actions and didn't once turn to look at the public gallery, packed with the women he attacked, during his three-hour sentence hearing.
“It would have been heaps easier if he said he was sorry for what he done,” Tarly said.
In fact, according to a psychologist who assessed the 29-year-old, Benn only showed emotion once during their consultation – when discussing how he accidentally ran over his dog in the days before he was arrested.
Otherwise, he had shown very little insight into his offending and couldn't really even feign remorse.
For defence barrister Rebecca Suters, there was very little to mitigate Benn’s years of sexual assaults; no psychological or psychiatric illness, nothing in his early years to suggest this type of behaviour was going to develop.
Benn had become a heavy ice user during the four-year period of offending and his family, his only remaining support network, had noticed a significant change in him.
"When someone uses a drug such as ice it does impact on their reasoning, judgement and level of aggression," Ms Suters said. “If there is evidence to support he was using drugs it may explain, not excuse, how the offender comes at 23 years of age to start committing these sorts of violent and forceful offences."
Benn was, in essence, an "untreated sex offender", Ms Suters said.
Typically, once Benn convinced the girl or woman to meet up with him it didn't take him long to seek out physical contact.
He would usually ask for a hug, then move in for a kiss. If they wouldn't even touch him he would become angry and say things like: "Well, why are you even here then if you don't want sex." On one occasion he threatened to "crash the car and kill both of us" because a girl wouldn't hold his hand.
The sexual activity was often never consensual and Benn would just not take no for an answer, forcing himself on the girl until he was finished with them. But sometimes the sex began as consensual and Benn relentlessly tried to do something else, some other act, that the girl didn't consent to.
Most of the time he was horrible to the victim in the aftermath of the attack.
He would threaten or blackmail them if they looked like going to the police. He would tell them not to "carry on" when they accused him of rape.
"You just need to calm down, get over it and stop carrying on," Benn told one woman he had detained in a room and forcibly sexually assaulted.
"You don't have to be such a little c--- about it," Benn told another girl he raped three times. If you're going to be like that I'll leave."
But, bizarrely, sometimes he would contact the women again as if nothing had happened. When he saw one woman again in public he whispered disgusting things about what he did. When she protested, he smirked and walked off.
Occasionally he would acknowledge things didn't go smoothly, like when he told one woman: "I guess I misread it".
“I told you no and don't the whole time and was trying to get away but you were holding me down and wouldn't let me leave the room," the girl replied in all caps. “How can you misread that?”
But fundamentally, when questioned by anyone, Benn’s position was that the women were making it up.
Riley* was the last woman that Benn attacked and the first to provide a statement to police.
It was January 13 last year when Riley met up with Benn and he drove her out to Cessnock under the guise of watching the sunrise. Once there, he indecently assaulted her. Riley ran for her life, called the police and hid from Benn.
"When I found out there was 13 other girls it was so heartbreaking,’ she said.
When he was arrested at 3pm on January 14, 2017, Benn seemed stunned that Detective Park could charge him based solely on the word of the many victims.
"Yeah but don't you need some sort of evidence to do this?" Ben asked, incredulously.
When Detective Park explained they did have evidence and had spoken to a number of other women, Benn replied: "But don't you need more evidence than just statements. I don't understand how you can do this if you only have statements".
He didn’t know it then, but Andrew Benn was about to learn that the sound of 14 voices shouts down one.
*Not their real names.
Lifeline: 13 11 14.