Ben Hills

A little boy beaten, tortured and finally killed by the couple meant to care for him – including a Hillsong-worshipping rapper. The death of Levai shocked Australia. But what has been kept secret until now is that for months people begged police and social workers to intervene. No-one did.

Early one chilly autumn morning, as Kayla James was buttering her breakfast toast, her new boyfriend came into the room carrying the tiny body of her seven-year-old son in his arms. “Levai fell over,” said Kodi Maybir. “It was an accident.”

It should have been obvious to anyone that the child was seriously injured – he was unconscious, his breathing was shallow and there was foam around his mouth. Kodi later testified at his trial that he repeatedly asked his girlfriend to call an ambulance, but she refused, saying: “He’s just fooling around… he’s faking it.”

Kodi smoked a “cone” of marijuana while he thought about it and then he hit the unconscious child in the stomach and yelled: “If you are faking it, wake up!” When there was no response, he had a better idea: he lit a cigarette lighter and held the flame to Levai’s hands and feet. This time, the child flinched.

“See – he’s okay,” said Kayla.

“He’s not okay, you f–– psycho bitch,” replied Kodi.

Inexplicably, neither called for help. They placed a mattress on the floor of the office in the southern Sydney suburb of Oatley, where the family of five had been living in squalid circumstances: Kodi, Kayla, Levai and his younger brother and sister. Then Kodi went off to hospital to visit a newborn nephew, they ordered pizza, and that night he and Kayla had sex a few metres from where the boy lay dead or dying.

It wasn’t until a little after six the following morning, May 21, 2013 – nearly 24 hours after Levai had been injured – that Kayla noticed the little boy was cold and stiff. She finally called 000. Paramedics were shocked to find that the child had been dead for some time. As they waited for the police to arrive, Kayla held Levai in her arms, while Kodi knelt beside her and said: “He’s in a better place, he’s with the angels now.”

First he told police that the boy had fallen off a pogo stick.

Kodi made up a number of stories to explain Levai’s injuries. First he told police that the boy had fallen off a pogo stick. Then he had fallen off a catering-sized instant coffee tin, on which he had been forced to balance as a punishment. When doctors also discounted that as the cause of Levai’s injuries, Kodi finally struck on the story he told his trial in the NSW Supreme Court last year – that he had accidentally thrown him on the floor whilst “play wrestling”.

The judge, Justice Robert Hulme, dismissed these during Kodi’s sentencing as “outrageous and transparent lies… cowardly attempts to avoid responsibility”. He said it was more likely that, after subjecting Levai to months of “cruel, degrading and inhumane” treatment, Kodi had lost his temper and slammed the boy’s head onto a hard surface, fracturing his skull and causing the brain haemorrhage which killed him.

After a seven-week trial, a jury convicted Kodi of the murder and 13 other charges of assaulting and “recklessly wounding” Levai over a 10-week period, and of producing “child abuse material”. Bizarrely, the most powerful evidence against Kodi and Kayla came from hours of video recovered from Kayla’s mobile phone, and from a computer on which the pair recorded themselves browbeating Levai, getting his siblings to hit him, battering him with a spatula and a wooden plank and even trying to force him to insert a finger into his three-year-old brother’s anus.

In March 2016, Kodi was sentenced to 42 years’ jail, with a non-parole period of 31 ½ years. Although the sentence was backdated to his arrest in September 2013, he will be at least 61 before he is released. On social media, many thought even this not harsh enough – some called for the death penalty to be brought back for such crimes.

As for Kayla, she was convicted last year of multiple charges of assault, and of Levai’s manslaughter – relating to her “gross negligence” in not getting medical help. Because she pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against Kodi, Kayla’s sentence was reduced by 40 per cent to 14 years’ jail, with a non-parole period of 10 ½ years. The court heard evidence that Kodi, who describes himself as a Christian hip-hop artist, had bizarre “boot camp” parenting ideas. Kayla had fallen under his influence “like a member of a cult.”

The family lived above a bottle shop in an office with no windows, no bathroom and no toilet.

But what should have been going through the minds of some spectators at the two trials was this: how could such brutality have been going on in an office above a sleepy suburban street for so long, without anyone noticing? What were the neighbours thinking? What were friends and relatives doing? Why weren’t police called? Where were the social workers?

The answer is this. Records I have seen show that for 11 weeks prior to Levai’s death, NSW Family and Community Services (FACS) – the organisation entrusted with keeping children safe – had known that Levai was “at risk of significant harm”. At least a dozen times, they received reports that Levai was being neglected and physically and sexually assaulted, that he had not been given medical attention and was not attending school, that Kodi and Kayla were not able to look after him “due to drug and/or alcohol misuse” and that the family was living in squalid conditions.

Yet nothing was done. The case was allocated the least urgent priority in the FACS lexicon, to be investigated within 10 days. But even this never happened. No social worker ever visited the children when the bruises and abrasions on Levai’s body would have been apparent. No-one ever inspected the inside of the family’s premises above a bottle shop in Oatley, which had no windows, no bathroom, and no toilet (the children were bathed in a bucket and forced to wear nappies). The red flags were ignored.

Kodi’s mother will never forget the phone call she received the morning of Levai’s death. A careworn woman of 54, Patricia Connell (who uses her maiden name) lives in a weatherboard house on the western Sydney suburb of Greystanes with her daughter Tabitha and Tabitha’s family.

“Something terrible has happened to Levai,” said Kodi that day.

By the time Patricia had driven to the office in Oatley, it was festooned with crime scene tape and swarming with police.

Shaking and sobbing, Kodi hugged her. “I have failed them,” he told her. “I have failed them.”

With hindsight, Kodi’s relationship with Kayla had the dice loaded against it from the start. Both came from broken homes, raised by struggling single mothers and with little opportunity for education. Both had married in their teens or early 20s, had children and separated from their own partners. Both had periods of homelessness and welfare dependency. None of this, of course, excuses their depraved behaviour – but it may help to explain it.

Kodi was the second of Patricia’s five children, fathered by her Fijian former husband, all born in different places as he drifted around the state: the Sydney suburbs of Auburn and Kogarah, Taree, Gosford and Orange. Although Kodi’s father became a born-again Christian and a Pentecostal pastor, the court heard that he was a violent man. Patricia says she was was relieved when he abandoned the family – although not to discover that he refused to pay child support.

“I prayed a lot to God to provide,” says Patricia. “And somehow I kept a roof over their heads, even if it was a caravan, and food in their tummies, even if I had to beg for credit at the stores.”

Kodi, who was then 10, “had a lot of hurt and pain not having a father around”. Living by that time on the NSW Central Coast, he became the class clown at school and fell in with a bad crowd, lucky to escape a criminal record. Kodi sought solace in religion, transcribing Biblical quotations onto sheets of paper, which he stuck to his bedroom wall in the form of a cross. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5) was one of his favourites.

Shaking and sobbing, Kodi hugged her. “I have failed them,” he said.

Leaving school at 15, with no qualifications, Kodi took whatever work he could find: burger-flipping at McDonalds, making sandwiches at Subway, working in the Table Eight warehouse. Through his church connections, he was also a volunteer for the Christian charity Prison Fellowship, which – among other good deeds – runs a holiday camp at Toukley on the NSW Central Coast for young people with a parent in prison, called Camp WerX.

It was here, in 2005 and 2006, that Kodi appears to have developed his ‘boot camp’ theories of parenting, apparently based on the lead character in 1990s Hollywood comedy Major Payne, in which a pseudo-psychopathic ex-Marine knocks a college platoon of misfits and miscreants into shape, using live rifle rounds and hand grenades.

According to his sister, Tabitha, who also volunteered at Camp WerX, Kodi adopted the name General Kopri. He would drill the children aged 7-14 like military recruits, wearing a whistle around his neck and a hat with the word JESUS on it, picked out in diamantes. Getting up before dawn, they would address Kodi as ‘General,’ chant war-cries, wear camouflage paint and do push-ups, running, abseiling and archery.

A tall, whippet-lean figure, with shoulder-length black ringlets, a beard and Nutella-brown eyes, Kodi was popular with the boys. Years later, some of them even provided character references for him at his trial.

By his early 20s, Kodi had met a young woman named Naomi at Hillsong church, where he had taken to performing his ‘Christian hip-hop’ routines. Although Naomi was still at high school, they moved in together and had two children. By now, Kodi had regular work as overnight concierge at a serviced apartment building in the city. His life seemed to be back on track – until their relationship broke down in the middle of 2012.

Kodi appears to have based his ‘boot camp’ theories of parenting on 1990s Hollywood comedy Major Payne.

“He was heartbroken, really a broken man,” says his mother. “They had been together for nine years and now she was refusing to even let him see the kids.”

Naomi took out an apprehended violence order against Kodi. She reported him to the police when he twice breached it by trying to text and telephone her.

It was a triple whammy. As well as losing his family, Kodi had lost his job, having been diagnosed with Marfan Syndrome – a genetic disorder affecting his heart – and lost his home (they had lived with Naomi’s parents). He moved into an Oatley studio where he and some friends had been making music videos to post on YouTube.

That was where, in early January 2013, he met Kayla James, who had come to the studio with a friend. It was to be a fatal attraction.

If anything, Kayla’s background was even more disadvantaged. She was born in New Zealand, of Cook Islands heritage, and the family migrated to Australia when she was a child. Kayla told psychiatrists who interviewed her for the court proceedings that she was sexually abused by relatives and her father inflicted drunken violence on the family, forcing them on occasion to flee to a refuge, before he abandoned them when Kayla was 11. At her trial, psychiatrists described her as having a low IQ and a “dependent personality disorder”.

Kayla fell pregnant with the child she would call Levai when she was 16. She had two other children in the next five years, before the father – who Kayla claims had also been violent to her – abandoned them, returning to New Zealand and refusing to stay in contact with the children or support them. When she met Kodi, she was living on welfare with her brother and sister-in-law, Francis and Nanette James, in The Ponds, a remote new north-western Sydney suburb.

“She told us she was desperate,” says Kodi’s mother, who offered to let Kayla and the three children camp in her garage. “I found her crying one day and she said Levai had been molested by his grandfather, and she had to get away.” (Levai’s grandfather has not been charged. Evidence at Kodi’s trial questioned the credibility of the abuse claims)

Kayla and Kodi’s life as a couple in the following four months, leading up to Levai’s death, has become one of bitterly-contested narratives. Kodi maintains that Kayla had been a harsh disciplinarian and he had introduced his “boot camp” methods to protect the children. At Kayla’s trial, however, it was claimed that the cause of her cruelty was that she had fallen under Kodi’s evil influence, with one psychiatrist likening her condition to Stockholm syndrome, in which a captive becomes bonded to a kidnapper.

At Kodi’s trial, the evidence was that he had persuaded Kayla that she was a ‘bad mother’ who needed to discipline the children more strictly – especially Levai. He seems to have become convinced that he was on a religious crusade. He called himself General and the children Spartans, or his Army of Helpers, who would do the Will of God. He videoed a rambling autobiography, fantasising that it would be released after he won a Grammy or an Aria award, in which he boasted: “All you single mums out there, just know that the Army of Helpers is coming.”

As for Levai, the little boy was subjected to bizarre punishments such as standing on the coffee tin, bracing himself against the wall for hours with his arms outstretched while Kodi read him Bible passages, being slapped, punched, flogged with pieces of wood, put on a restricted diet, forced to wear urine-soaked pants on his head, and even on one occasion to eat faeces.

Kodi boasted: “All you single mums out there, just know that the Army of Helpers is coming.”

Whoever was most to blame, it is incontestable that Levai suffered terribly. Video and eyewitness evidence led both Kodi (subject to an appeal) and Kayla to be convicted on numerous counts of assaulting him, and of responsibility for his death. It is equally incontestable that both FACS and the police were told repeatedly that the child was being abused, and failed to act to stop it.

Levai’s post-mortem report is a silent witness to his suffering. His body was a battleground of cuts and bruises and broken bones, some newly-inflicted, some weeks or months old. As well as the fractured skull, there was evidence of four broken ribs, and broken bones in his face and one hand, and a foot.

When she met Levai, says Patricia Connell, he was “The saddest, most down child I have ever seen in my life. His whole countenance hung to the ground, he was so sad and depressed. He never said a word, never smiled. Your heart just went out to him.”

A month short of his eighth birthday, the scrawny little boy was only 117cm tall and weighed just 20.5kg. He was mildly intellectually handicapped – at six, his teachers said he couldn’t write his name. He had the language skills of a child aged two or three.

The first red flags that Levai was in danger came on March 7 and 8, 2013, when a relative rang FACS to report that Kayla and the children had moved into unsuitable commercial premises – Kodi’s recording studio – where Kayla and Kodi were using drugs.

The relative said marijuana was cut up in a bowl and left on a table accessible to anyone in the room, including Levai. FACS was told that Kayla had only known Kodi for a few weeks. The caller raised serious concerns about Kodi’s influence on the family.

Levai’s body was a battleground of cuts and bruises and broken bones, some newly-inflicted, some weeks or months old.

In the FACS documents I have sighted, that report was classified as ‘ROSH’ (a child at ‘risk of significant harm’) and it was to be investigated within 10 days – but it never was. No-one ever visited the family or looked inside the office. If they had, they would have seen the disgusting conditions in which the family was living, with no bathroom or toilet. There is only one record of any attempt to investigate the complaint – a police officer visited the premises once, but found no-one there and went away.

The second red flag should have been even more alarming. On March 14, Kayla herself went to the police and to FACS to claim that Levai had been sexually abused by his grandfather. Appearing frightened and upset, she had made a video of the three children describing a sexual ‘game’ he had played with them.

Again the report was classified as ‘ROSH’ and again, inexplicably, it was given a low priority. Urgent cases can be classified to be investigated within 24 hours.

This time, the complaint was referred to a Joint Investigative Response Team, a team of social workers, police and representatives from the Department of Health and the Director of Public Prosecutions that is supposed to investigate serious cases of child abuse. However, the team failed to respond. Neither Kayla nor Levai was ever interviewed about the allegations of sexual abuse.

On March 31, the third red flag went up. Kodi, Kayla and the children had gone to live in a tent at the Bulli Beach Tourist Park, near Wollongong. They had no transport and little clothing. Some of the other campers had seen Kodi abusing Levai – the child had been forced to sit outside the tent, crying in the cold; he had been punched in the face, and forced to run up and down the beach while being hit with a stick. Kodi told one camper that he had shaved off Levai’s hair and eyebrows because he wanted to make him “like Neo from The Matrix”.

Wollongong Police were called. When they arrived that evening, Kodi and Kayla told them that they were living in the caravan park to get away from Levai’s grandfather, who they said had sexually assaulted the boy. The police looked at Levai by the light of a torch, but said that they could see no injury and went away.

Kodi, however, was asked to accompany police to Wollongong, where they served him with a summons relating to his breach of the apprehended violence order taken out by his estranged wife.

FACS was notified and once again classified the case ROSH. It was referred to the Joint Investigative Response Team – which failed to investigate within 10 days (or ever) what had now become a litany of threats – all of which had been logged: allegations of sexual abuse, assault, drug use, breach of an AVO, as well as inadequate care and accommodation.

Over the next two months, there were at least eight more reports to FACS raising further concerns about Levai being at risk. These related to the alleged sexual assault, to Levai not going to school, to drug use, and to shocking living conditions at the office in Oatley to which they had returned.

The file shows that the case was opened and closed. Boxes were ticked. Responsibility was passed from office to office. One social worker “would be unwilling to take the matter if they are itinerant”. Another notes that a family of five living in a tent with no transport and inadequate clothing “has not been screened as ‘inadequate shelter’ as it does not meet with the definition”.

No-one from FACS ever jumped in a car and went to see what was really going on.

The file’s final entry is on May 21, 2013, when FACS was notified of Levai’s death “in suspicious circumstances” and that his younger brother and sister were at Hurstville police station. The department finally realised what it had known for months; that Kodi and Kayla were unfit parents due to “… drug and alcohol history of carers, transience, allegations of sexual assault, allegations of physical abuse (and) failure to provide medical treatment.”

All this, of course, demands an explanation. Indeed, the latest FACS annual report on child deaths in NSW says: “Every child’s death is a tragedy and should be the subject of scrutiny and review… the media plays an important role in supporting the community to gain a better understanding of child deaths.”

“The saddest, most down child I have ever seen in my life. Your heart just went out to him.”

So I drafted a series of questions about the red flags that should have alerted the department to the fact that Levai was a child at terrible risk, and asked for an explanation of why FACS failed to act. I received this from the department’s media unit, with instructions to attribute it to “a FACS spokesperson”:

“We were deeply saddened by the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of Levai.

FACS, with Police, JIRT and other agencies, had sporadic contact with this family. Unfortunately, their itinerant lifestyle made locating the family difficult.

In hindsight, more weight should have been given to reports made to FACS suggesting the children were at risk.

All child deaths are a tragedy and FACS is committed to learning, constantly reflecting on and improving our practice in partnership with other agencies and the broader community to keep children and young people safe.”

At their request, I attended the FACS head office in Strathfield, two adjoining four-storey buildings near railway lines, where many of the department’s 2,000 case workers are based. The purpose was a “background briefing” on Levai’s death, but the senior bureaucrat with whom I sat down would add nothing to what I already knew.

She had no explanation for the lack of response, beyond “no-one stood back and looked at the whole picture.” She declined to be quoted on even that and declined an invitation to elaborate on how and why FACS failed Levai.

The child had been punched in the face and forced to run up and down the beach while being hit with a stick.

The police were even less forthcoming. When I asked why they had failed to investigate complaints that Levai had been sexually assaulted, and why no inspection of the premises in Oatley had been carried out, the police media unit emailed me this:

“As the matter is subject to an appeal process it would be inappropriate for police to provide further information at this time.”

As for Kodi, as soon as his case hit the headlines once again, at his sentencing hearing in early March, he was moved for his own protection from the “general population” at Parklea prison, to a solitary cell where he spends his time reading Tolstoy, a biography of Martin Luther and, of course, the Bible.

He has already, or so he complained to the Ombudsman, been assaulted once, not long after he was taken into custody – by three prison officers, who bashed him so violently he defecated. The Ombudsman referred the allegation back to Corrective Services to investigate. That was the last Kodi heard of it.

Twice a week, on Mondays and Fridays, Kodi’s mother and sister Tabitha drive to the prison, where they are fingerprinted, put their shoes through a scanner and are ushered into a glass-walled cubicle, separated from the other prisoners and their visitors by a two-metre fence. Looking thinner than before, with his curls now down to his shoulders, Kodi wears a pocketless white onesie, with ‘visitor’ on the back in red lettering.

While he eats chips and chocolate from a white plastic bowl, he talks with no apparent optimism about his upcoming appeal, against both his conviction and his sentence.

“I know I couldn’t do something like that,” Kodi insists. “But I trust in God to get me through this.”

His eyes brim with tears as he talks about the three children he may never see again – the two who reside with his estranged wife Naomi, and the third child with Kayla, a little girl he has never seen, born while they were awaiting trial. Like Levai’s two siblings, who have been sent to New Zealand to live with their biological father, Kayla’s new baby was taken away from her at birth and now lives with her grandmother.

After the visit, Kodi’s mother Patricia and her daughter Tabitha look through the FACS file with mounting dismay, noting the list of complaints they had received.

“Why didn’t they do anything?” Patricia asks. “Levai would still be alive and Kodi wouldn’t be in there if they had.”

Kids Helpline can assist children and parents: call 1800 55 1800.

For crisis support call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Secrecy’s dark shadow

It is one of those shocking statistics that is trotted out every 12 months and goes largely unnoticed. On average, each year in NSW, 11 children are murdered – bashed, stabbed, suffocated, burnt, strangled or shot.

The number fluctuates from year to year. In 2013, the year of Levai’s murder, there were “only” two children killed. In 2014, the last year for which we have figures, there were nine. In the past 15 years for which we have reliable statistics, a total of 165 children have had their lives snuffed out, usually by a parent or a parent’s de facto partner.

We know this because 13 years ago, after a spate of child killings spotlighted gross inadequacies at DOCS (as Family and Community Services or FACS was then known), the NSW Ombudsman was charged with producing an annual independent report. This scrutinises the cause of death of every child in the state – whether deliberate, by disease, or by accident. It recommends ways in which the toll can be reduced.

Hundreds of millions of dollars of extra money has been poured since then into the vast bureaucracy responsible for the welfare of the state’s children. Between 2012-13 and the current financial year alone, FACS’ child protection budget has increased from $1.3 billion to $1.7 billion. The department has boosted its payroll to more than 2000 case workers.

Admittedly there is a huge volume of reports to handle of children at risk of significant harm. Last year there were 126,146 ROSH reports, as the department calls them. Extraordinarily, fewer than one in three of these children ever saw a social worker face-to-face. That’s just 28.1 per cent – exactly the same figure as two years earlier, in spite of the extra money and staff.

Over the years, two things have stayed the same. The number of “abuse-related deaths”, as they are classified, has remained stubbornly high, averaging eight per year. Secondly, around a quarter of these murdered children had, like Levai, been the subject of reports of abuse to FACS – reports which were not acted on in time to save lives.

That amounts to more than 40 children since 2000 who might not have died if the case workers responsible had taken the appropriate action: providing support and counselling, money for child care or medical needs, and – as a last resort – taking the child into protective care.

Time and again over the years, the Ombudsman’s Child Deaths Review team has pointed to failures in the system. As far back as the first report, in 2003-04, several cases of murdered children with histories similar to Levai’s were highlighted with the comment: “On occasions, inadequate or no responses are being made to reports of a child being at risk of significant harm.”

Fast forward a decade to the latest report and little has changed. You read of the need for “better and more timely information exchange and collaboration between police and FACS to improve responses to children living with domestic violence and to enable better assessment of the risks to children”. The report says that FACS should pay “particular attention” to any new partner in the house – such as Kodi.

The third minister for Family and Community Services in three years, Brad Hazzard, was on hand for the release of this report. He came out with the usual press release: “Nothing is more important than protecting our children. I will ensure that we learn from this report to better protect children.”
But there was nothing specific announced. The minister declined to discuss Levai’s death with SBS, referring questions to FACS.

So why is there no community outrage at the department’s failings? Largely because, in the name of protecting children’s privacy, the NSW government has stripped them of the dignity of their identities. Under the Children (Criminal Proceedings) Act of 1987, it is usually illegal to identify children who are the subject of court proceedings.

Here’s the rub: in every other state, if the child is dead, its name can be used. Not in NSW, which has seen cases with a complete news blackout of the trial when parents murder their children. Justice can never be seen to be done.

The effect of this is to discourage reporting of such cases, because editors think the public is uninterested in anonymous victims or perpetrators, and there are no photos to illustrate TV or online accounts. Because of this, there is little call for bureaucrats and politicians to be held to account. Incompetence, dysfunction and indifference can only flourish in the dark.

The only reason Levai’s death can be reported in such detail is because of a rare ruling by a remarkable judge. Sentencing Kodi Maybir for his murder, Justice Robert Shallcross Hulme – a 20-year veteran of the Supreme Court – ruled that the media could report Levai’s first name.

“I did so,” said the judge, “Because I am concerned that it would be disrespectful to his memory to completely anonymise him.”

If NSW is ever to do anything to prevent more children like Levai dying while FACS looks on, it will only happen if we have a change in the law, or more Justice Hulmes to bring about more transparency and accountability.

Publishing Info

Pub: SBS Online
Pub date: April 2016

Kodi Maybir performs as ‘General Kopri’ (YouTube).