A promising young chef has agreed to speak openly about the sexual abuse he suffered as a schoolboy in the hope of giving strength to other victims suffering in silence. Nathan Hale tells Richard McComb how a love of cooking transformed his life.
Nathan Hale, a promising young chef, locked away his darkest secret as he set about pursuing a career in the profession of his dreams.
His flair for cooking, nurtured despite a troubled childhood, had allowed him to keep a lid on his personal trauma.
No one, except his tormentor, a paedophile football coach, knew of the abuse he had suffered for two years from the age of 14.
But as Nathan, then 18, returned from a college catering placement in Albuferia, Portugal, his past returned to haunt him.
Met off the plane at Birmingham Airport by three West Midlands Police officers, Nathan was driven to a city centre police station where detectives specialising in child protection asked him about a man called Paul Gardner.
Nathan said he knew Gardner from informal football kick-abouts in a park near his home in Oldbury. The 31-year-old goalkeeper had offered to coach him and some other lads.
But what an officer told Nathan next left him dumbfounded: Gardner was in prison on child sex charges.
Nathan, who had always assumed he was the only boy targeted by the paedophile, learned he was one of eight boys identified by police as having been abused in Smethwick and West Bromwich.
Computer expert Gardner, who kept an electronic library of 17,500 child pornography pictures downloaded from a Russian website, used his mobile phone to film the boys. It was how detectives had traced Nathan.
Recalling the interview at Steelhouse Lane, Nathan said: “The police went on to show me images from one of the videos he had taken.
“They said, ‘Can you confirm this is you?’ It was so shocking, it made me cry. I was so emotional and I just broke down.
“The video was about 10 minutes long. I managed to push Gardner off and get out of the house.
“They police said, ‘Did you consent to this?’ And I said ‘no.’”
Nathan, now 20, is speaking to me in the kitchen of his grandparents’ home in Oldbury.
The kitchen table has been draped in cloth and dressed with flowers.
Nathan, who’s wearing black trousers off the hip with a belt proclaiming “Jesus Loves,” has prepared a tasty light lunch of grilled mackerel and a lemon and whiskey posset.
It is between discussions about cooking, about which he is passionate, that the spiky haired cook opens up about his experiences of being abused.
Disowned by his mother and left to sleep rough at the age of nine, Nathan tried to kill himself at school to escape Gardner’s clutches.
It seems intrusive to listen in but Nathan’s resolve does not waver during our two-hour meeting. It is he who has contacted me. He wants his story to be told.
Nathan has agreed to waive his legal right to anonymity in the hope that publicity about his harrowing experience will give strength and inspiration to other children and young people targeted by paedophiles.
In a direct message to abuse victims, he said: “I’ve been there and seen and felt the pain, gone through some very dark moments and emotions. You can’t let it break you or they win.
“I chose to stand up and acknowledge what happened to me. It spurred me on in my career decisions and has helped me on the road I am on today.
“Some people may judge you and I know it is hard to stand up and be counted. I know it is scary but be strong, take that first step. There is so much help and support out there to help you.
“Trust me when I say there is light and success waiting for you at the end of this difficult part of your life. But your first step is to tell someone.”
Gardner (31), who championed his love of Arsenal on the social networking site Bebo, was convicted of 34 charges relating to abusing children and taking indecent pictures. The boys were aged three to 15.
He was caught after he threatened the family of an 11-year-old boy, with whom he struck up an email relationship via Bebo.
Initially arrested for harassment, a forensic analysis of Gardner’s computer disclosed the grooming and abuse of children.
Jailed indefinitely, Gardner, who had previous convictions for child sex offences, was told by a judge at Wolverhampton Crown Court he faced the prospect of spending the rest of his life behind bars.
Police have now revealed there may be five other child victims who they have been unable to trace.
Gardner, of South Road, Smethwick, abused the youngsters at his flat and in the boys’ homes, often under the guise of repairing computers.
In many ways, Nathan was the perfect victim. Bullied at school, he suffered with undiagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder when the goalkeeper, who played in an adult five-a-side team, exploited his vulnerability.
Gardner threatened to expose the teenager as a homosexual if he told his family about the abuse.
Nathan recounted how he was plagued by guilt when he learned Gardner had gone on to abuse other boys.
“I knew it had happened to me, but I didn’t realise there were a lot of other kids,” he said.
“I thought at the time that if I had spoken out earlier I might have saved the other kids going through the same thing. Boys were abused before and after me over a period of about seven years. I felt guilty.
“But the police officer said, ‘It’s not your fault you didn’t seek out help.’”
Nathan’s trust in the police, both to protect him and stop Gardner hurting anyone else, was critical in winning his co-operation.
Nathan said: “I couldn’t keep running from the abuse. It was time to face my demons, be a man and stand up and let the world know and help put Paul Gardner behind bars for good so he couldn’t continue to hurt and prey on innocent young people.
“I felt doing this would help me finally accept what happened to me – look him in the eye and let him know he no longer had control over me and show him and the world that I was strong enough to stand up and finally close that chapter of my life. It has been hard, but I’m glad I did it.”
Despite extensive inquiries, Det Con Alistair Gadd, who interviewed Gardner, said police had been unable to trace five boys filmed by the paedophile, who would now be aged between six and 14. The youngest would have been three or four when they were abused.
Det Con Gadd, of West Midlands Police’s child online safeguarding team, said: “We exhausted all means of locating these children.
‘‘We did ask Gardner but he was unable to assist with their location or identity.
‘‘He did state he would have been the perpetrator of those offences but he couldn’t identify the children.”
* If you have been a victim of child sexual abuse, you can speak to specialist officers at West Midlands Police. In the first instance, call 0345 113 5000 and ask for your local public protection unit
Ambitious Nathan determined to make a name for himself
Nathan Hale doesn’t believe in setting his sights low when it comes to his cookery ambitions.
Take a ladle of confidence, add several tablespoons of culinary skill – and a pinch or two of cockiness – and you’ve got a working recipe for the 20-year-old chef.
“I want to become the next Jamie Oliver,” said Nathan, who’s already worked shifts in some top kitchen’s including Purnell’s in Birmingham. “I think it’s about time some of the older chefs took a back seat and let the young chefs come through.
“Jamie Oliver is in his late 30s. Marco Pierre White’s now in his 50s. Gordon Ramsay’s getting on a bit. It’s about time someone younger came in and blew the market wide open – and I want to be that person.”
Nathan’s drive would be admirable in any young chef, but it is all the more remarkable because of the challenges he has had to overcome.
He was not diagnosed as suffering from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder until he was 15 and was always getting into trouble at Bristnall Hall Technology College, Oldbury.
Nathan recalled: “One lesson the teacher walked in and I was swinging from the overhead projector by my legs.
‘‘I used to jump on the tables, I used to shout out, I used to dance. I was really naughty but I was just expressing myself in a different way. Other kids can sit there and concentrate for a whole hour’s lesson, but I couldn’t. I had to get up and move.”
Something clicked when Nathan went to cookery classes and his creative streak flourished.
“I realised I had found something I could do by myself. When you do PE or English or maths, you have to do it how the curriculum says. With cooking, I could put my own mark on it.”
Nathan is fulsome in his praise of cookery teachers Julia Souten and Lynn Samuels who saw his potential and nurtured his talent. If he behaved well in other lessons, the school agreed to arrange special after-hours’ cookery activities for him.
Nathan said: “I was cooking lobster by the age of 15.
‘‘The school paid for a chef to come in after school and work with me. We would do everything from classical French to modern-day English.
‘‘We would spend hours just experimenting with stuff. Cooking was a release for me, allowing my creativity to flow. Being pent-up in maths, science and ICT is not creative, it didn’t do me any good.”
Nathan started attending a Saturday morning junior chefs’ academy at University College Birmingham and excelled in Brian Turner’s FutureChef competition at the age of 14.
A combination of cookery and a diagnosis for ADHA (for which he was put on the non-stimulant drug Strattera, or atomoxetine, which he still takes) transformed his academic record and behaviour.
“I left school with 11 GCSEs, A grade to Cs, and I didn’t really start concentrating until Year 10 (age 15). ‘The combinations of the cooking and the tablets made me really concentrate,” said Nathan. “Now I go back to the school to help other kids on a mentoring basis.’’
After leaving Bristnall, Nathan completed a three-year diploma in professional cookery at UCB and is now studying for a degree in hospitality and culinary arts at Manchester Metropolitan University.
He has been pleasing crowds with his food, demonstrating his skills at last year’s Taste of Birmingham food festival alongside leading local chefs including Aktar Islam of Lasan.