WARNING: Some readers may find this story distressing.
“Help, someone’s taken my child.”
The mother had been walking through a Canberra city plaza with her children one Saturday when a stranger grabbed her five-year-old daughter, tucked her under an arm and ran.
On Friday (3 September), the ACT Supreme Court heard about the shock and terror she felt when now 27-year-old John Michael Gray tried to carry off her daughter.
“A stranger with a knife stole my daughter right in front of me,” she wrote in a statement.
“I keep replaying in my head the image of her little feet protruding under this man’s arm as I ran after him.”
She said once her daughter was returned to her, thanks to quick-thinking bystanders, they were both in shock and “visibly trembling”, while her two other young children who saw what happened were terrified.
“The only comfort they have is that ‘the bad man’ has been taken away,” the mother said.
Her daughter was now afraid of crowded places and unfamiliar men and was scared that an intruder would come in through her bedroom window.
Court documents show the mother left a shop in Petrie Plaza with her three children at about 1:00 pm on 15 August 2020 and started walking towards Bunda Street.
Her five-year-old daughter spotted Gray sitting in the doorway of the Bunda Building and he stared back at her.
He got up, grabbed her around her waist, tucked her under his arm and ran down an alley at Tomcuwal Lane as the girl’s mother shouted for help.
A man nearby heard her calls and gave chase. Gray dropped the girl and a knife and kept running until the bystander caught up with him on Narellan Street and performed a citizen’s arrest.
Justice Michael Elkaim called this bystander an “unquestionably brave person”.
It was not the first time Gray had committed a child-related offence. He also has a conviction from 2018 for procuring a child under the age of 14 for unlawful sexual activity and was on the sex offenders register.
Justice Elkaim said Gray, who identified as an Indigenous Australian, spent a large part of his life in Wagga Wagga and had never been employed.
He said Gray’s lawyer, Jonathan Cooper, said his client spent time in foster care as a child and at the time of offending was deluded, hearing voices and homeless.
Mr Cooper had said he was now properly medicated for schizophrenia.
Gray wrote a letter apologising to the girl and the mother, saying he was “devastated” about what he had done.
“I had delusional thoughts and was sick,” he wrote.
“It has been scary in jail because of my offence.”
Due to Gray’s medical history, Justice Elkaim said he had to conclude his actions were a product of a psychotic episode derived from mental impairment.
But he said he could not forget the “horrific experience” endured by the victims and said it was important to note that when Gray wasn’t complying with medications “there is a real chance of him transforming into a sexual predator”.
Gray pleaded guilty to charges of unlawfully taking a child and possessing a knife in a public place without a reasonable excuse.
Justice Elkaim jailed him for two years and six months’ ending in February 2023, but the non-parole period of 15 months means he is eligible to be released from custody in November 2021.
Gray, a short, overweight man with dark hair and a spacer earring in his left ear, waved at his lawyer before being led out of the courtroom.
The mother thanked the quick-thinking bystanders who chased and held Gray until police arrived, the shop staff who sheltered her and her family, and the police themselves.
If this story has raised any concerns for you, 1800RESPECT, the national 24-hour sexual assault, family and domestic violence counselling line, can be contacted on 1800 737 732.
In an emergency call 000.