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Twelve-year-old Sam* stood watching level crossing railway works on a busy Camberwell road the day he first met by chance the man who would become his abuser.

Child sex offender Anthony John Hutchins, then aged 33, struck up a conversation with the boy and discovered they both loved railways, asking the child if he wanted to join him as a volunteer at tourist attraction Puffing Billy in 1975.

Convicted sex offenders Robert Whitehead (left) and Anthony Hutchins (right) with young volunteers at Puffing Billy in 1979.Credit: John Thompson

“I used to live near the railway line and hang around to see the station person and signal box regularly. I’d been in a locomotive with a person and nothing had ever happened. Even by 12, I had built up years of trust,” Sam told The Age.

“When Tony approached me and said he was the leader of the track maintenance gang at Puffing Billy I was in awe, I thought it was fantastic.”

Within weeks, Hutchins began collecting the child and driving him to and from the Belgrave railway, before repeatedly sexually abusing the boy in an engine shed, his car and even the child’s own home over the following four years.

The Puffing Billy steam train in the Dandenong Ranges.

On Friday, an 81-year-old Hutchins appeared in the County Court of Victoria after pleading guilty to sexual offending against two boys.

There, in a victim impact statement, the boy from the Camberwell rail works revealed the distressing impact Hutchins’ crimes still had on him more than 40 years later.

He described himself as the child who never spoke and instead suffered in silence for decades.

“Looking back I feel cheapened by the memories I now realise was in effect grooming. The vulnerability I had as a child, the common interest I had in trains … made me an easy target,” he wrote.

“In a very short period I went from head altar boy at primary school … to drinking at 14; expelled and self harmed at 15.

“What I thought I’d suppressed, I never really did. Emotional wounds … have never healed.”

81-year-old Anthony Hutchins appears at the County Court for sentencing. Credit: Eddie Jim

Hutchins worked for the Department of Defence for 25 years while volunteering at Puffing Billy Railway, where he oversaw track maintenance from 1961 to 1987.

As part of this role, the court heard he would supervise children who volunteered to work on the Puffing Billy network. He was also president of the Victorian Model Railway Society, a group of model train enthusiasts.

He was jailed in the late ’80s for four years over 66 charges of sexual abuse involving six other boys, aged 13 to 17.

Hutchins was charged again after Sam and another man recently came forward to detail the abuse they suffered during the 1970s.

“During this time you introduced him to Victoria’s model railway society, routinely taking him to meetings … and on train spotting trips … instigated by you. In a group setting … you’d always make sure you were the last two to leave,” Judge Trevor Wraight said.

“You only ceased when … a friend of his was in attendance and stood up to you.”

The court heard the second of the two boys was also 12 when he was abused after first coming into contact with Hutchins when he began volunteering at Puffing Billy on the weekends on the advice of his year six teacher.

Hutchins received a wholly suspended sentence.Credit: Eddie Jim

Hutchins soon learned the child had been secretly sleeping aboard a metropolitan train he caught to Belgrave on the weekends, so he could arrive at Puffing Billy on time. Hutchins offered the child the keys to a sleeping carriage at a nearby railway station on Saturday nights where he was later abused.

At one point the court heard the child ran to the Emerald police station to escape his attacker but was unable to raise any officers at night. The child later told police he began sleeping with knives to protect himself.

“If you tell anyone about this, no one is going to believe you,” Hutchins told the child.

The victim later reported the offending to police in 2021 after reading a news article in The Age which discussed “Puffing Billy paedophiles”.

Hutchins pleaded guilty to seven counts of indecent assault on the two boys.

Wraight said the harm he caused to the children could not be overstated.

“What is plain … is that offending of this nature not only devastates the primary victim but it significantly impacts a wide range of family members … changing their relationships indefinitely,” he said.

The judge accepted that an assessment of Hutchins had found he does not meet the criteria for paedophilic disorder.

Now aged 81 and morbidly obese, Hutchins lives with a significant list of medical ailments including cardiac and kidney disease, chronic renal disease, arthritis, leg ulcers and requires a permanent catheter.

Wraight sentenced Hutchins to two years and nine months jail, wholly suspended for three years.

Outside court, Sam said he initially took comfort in the fact Hutchins was jailed in the late 80s for crimes against other boys. But when he became a father himself, he finally found his voice and decided it was time to speak to the police.

He said he hoped his story would help empower other victims to contact police.

“I’ve been asked if I wanted Tony to get a longer sentence, but it’s not about that. The sentence doesn’t matter,” Sam said.

“I hope telling my story makes it easier for the next person. There are other people out there.”

Support is available from Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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