Rugby: Former All Black Byron Kelleher's decade of repeated drunken violence against women

Byron Kelleher (2007).
Byron Kelleher (2007). Photo credit: Getty Images

Warning: This article contains recounts of domestic violence

By Dana Johannsen of RNZ

The text message stopped Yuliana Desta in her tracks.

Four words that brought back the trauma she'd spent the past four years trying to suppress: "He's done it again."

Attached was a link to a news story about Desta's ex-fiancée, former All Black Byron Kelleher, facing domestic violence charges in France. Soon, her phone would be flooded with messages linking to headlines from around the world.

According to the reports, which originated from French newspaper Le Parisien, Kelleher last week appeared before the 24th chamber of the Paris criminal court on charges allegedly committed against another former partner.  

The police complaint details how Kelleher allegedly assaulted a 37-year-old woman during a violent altercation at their home in June last year, including the claim that he dragged his former partner down the hallway by her hair.

In the victim's statement to police, she described how episodes of "verbal and physical violence" were a frequent occurrence in the relationship, recounting an incident in Mauritius in February 2023 in which local police were called, and another alleged assault in May last year on Prince Albert of Monaco's boat.  

Kelleher denies the allegations. While he acknowledges the couple argued, he claims he had "not touched her".

The woman's story felt all too familiar to Desta. The high-flying lifestyle. The parties. The glamorous events. The drinking. The violence.

The reports compelled Desta, who met Kelleher in Bali in September 2018, to speak out about her experiences.

Byron Kelleher and Yuliana Destra.
Byron Kelleher and Yuliana Destra. Photo credit: RNZ

Over the course of the couple's tumultuous 16-month relationship, the Auckland-based make-up artist alleges she was physically assaulted multiple times, with the violence escalating each time.

Police authorities in three different countries were called after episodes of violence, including a "terrifying" incident in a Barcelona hotel room in July 2019, in which Desta alleges Kelleher punched her, strangled her and tried to suffocate her with a pillow.  

"I thought I was going to die. It was so scary, I was praying 'please God, let me see my son again'," Desta says.

Kelleher spent two days in a Barcelona jail after the incident, but when Desta elected not to press charges, the pair returned to Bali together.

"I know people will think I am stupid," Desta says of her decision to withdraw her complaint.

"It was stuck in a cycle. Something horrible would happen, and then [Kelleher] would be all lovey, all romantic, like a honeymoon. Then he would drink and become abusive again."  

RNZ has made several attempts to contact Kelleher, and put detailed allegations to him over email, but did not receive a response.

Desta opens her phone and scrolls down to a folder labelled "BK", containing hundreds of photos, videos, documents and text messages. A compendium of trauma.

As she recounts the timeline of her relationship with Kelleher, she pauses at times to find a photo or text message to illustrate her point.   

"I guess I knew I would need it some time," she says of the folder.

At first, it felt like a fairytale.

The pair met in August 2018 at Old Man's bar in Bali - an iconic beachfront venue in Canggu, named after the local surf break. Kelleher spotted Desta leaving and grabbed her hand.

"Where are you going?" he asked.

"I'm going home," Desta responded.

"No, stay here and dance with me."

So she did. She thought he was charming, fun and cheeky. They did not leave each other's side for weeks.

"He did not want me to go home, we basically moved in together straight away," says Desta.

But looking back, there were early red flags, she says. Desta recalls soon after they met, she received a message from a fake Instagram account warning the former flight attendant to "be careful" of Kelleher.  

Among the allegations made by the anonymous woman, who Desta believes was also Indonesian, was that Kelleher had been physically abusive towards her.

Damage to the walls of a Hillsborough property which Yuliana Desta says was caused by her former partner, ex-All Black Byron Kelleher, during a drunken, violent episode.
Damage to the walls of a Hillsborough property which Yuliana Desta says was caused by her former partner, ex-All Black Byron Kelleher, during a drunken, violent episode. Photo credit: RNZ

Confronted with the messages, Kelleher brushed the claims off as being the invention of a "crazy ex".

Desta also did her own research. After learning a few weeks into their relationship that Kelleher was a rugby star in New Zealand and France, she couldn't resist looking him up on the internet.  

A Google search returned articles about his previous brushes with the law, including a conviction for domestic violence in France in 2017.

Desta says Kelleher told her the news stories exaggerated the incident, and that while he had argued with his then-partner, there had been no violence.  

Less than two months into their relationship, Desta alleges Kelleher assaulted her for the first time during a trip to Bangkok in November 2018.

The pair had a heated argument after a night out at a party at a friend's house. Desta says a "very drunk" Kelleher wanted to kick on and go out to a bar. When Desta said she wanted to go back to the hotel, he started openly flirting with another woman in the street and encouraging her to go with him.

As Desta stormed off, she alleges Kelleher grabbed her aggressively and tried to strangle her.  

The arguing continued to the couple's hotel, where security staff were forced to intervene and pull Kelleher off her, she says.  

RNZ has seen photos from the time of the incident that show extensive bruising to Desta's upper arms.

Desta says when Kelleher returned later the next day he avoided discussing the previous evening.

"He came back the next day, he was really hungover and sick," she says.

"I don't know what he had done, but he was just like 'I'm sick, I need help'. So we didn't really talk about it."


Back home in Bali, the relationship was punctuated by periods of volatility. Desta cites four dates, including one incident on Boxing Day 2018, in which fights became physical, but she describes these events as "minor".

With a seemingly casual detachment, she flicks through photos showing a series of bruises, marks and cuts from each of the incidents. The injuries serve as perverse timestamps.

The first time Desta went to the police was on May 11, 2019.

The then-30-year-old had stayed at a nearby hotel the previous evening following an argument with Kelleher and she wanted to get away from the situation and "have some breathing space".

The next morning, Desta says she received a text message from the housekeeper showing photos of woman's underwear on the floor.

Byron Kelleher trains with the All Blacks (2003).
Byron Kelleher trains with the All Blacks (2003). Photo credit: Photosport

Desta returned home with a friend to confront Kelleher and found him locked in their bedroom with another woman.

"He came out with the girl, and I was trying to record him. He tried to grab my phone, and he was punching me in the side of the face as well," Desta recalls, pointing to her temple.

"I tried to get outside and he chased me and pushed me into the rice field in front of the villa. He punched me as I was on the ground."

Amid the chaos, Desta's friend called the police, but by time authorities arrived Kelleher had fled the scene, and later, the country.

"I made an official report, but by then Byron had already gone. He ran away back to New Zealand," says Desta.

The police report, translated from Indonesian, noted that the "victim was experiencing pain in the right temple" from where she had been struck, and "both hands and fingers of the victim had abrasions, [and] both feet of the victim had abrasions/bruises".

With Kelleher back in New Zealand, Desta focused on getting on with her life and travelled to Europe in June - a trip the couple had originally planned to take together. Instead, some of Desta's friends joined her.

Soon, Kelleher was messaging Desta again after seeing pictures of her trip on social media. Within days he was flying out to Europe in a bid to mend the relationship.

"He reached out to me and said 'I love you, I still want you in my life'," Desta says.

"He wanted to meet me in Paris and try to move on from the past. It was like honeymoon season, he was very loving, very romantic, and stupidly I said we can try again."

The honeymoon did not last long.

A few days after their Paris reunion, the couple travelled to Cyprus to attend a promotional event for a wine club Kelleher was involved with. On the evening of June 25, Desta alleges Kelleher attacked her following a night of drinking at a friend's house where they were staying 

Desta alleges Kelleher threw her onto the bed and punched her, choked her, and covered her nose and mouth to prevent his friends from hearing his partner's screams.

The alleged assault resulted in damage to the bridge of Desta's nose, later requiring surgery.

The next day, Desta told Kelleher she wanted to return home to Indonesia.

"He didn't want me to go, he wanted me to go to some more events with him, and he made this big public apology on Facebook. He said how sorry he was, how much he loved me, how I was his angel," she says.

"Again, I took him back. Because I thought he was really genuinely sorry, and he was taking responsibility."

While the post, dated June 26, 2019, did not mention any physical violence, the 57-test All Black said he wanted to take responsibility for his actions, and acknowledged he had hurt Desta "so many times".

Kelleher ended the post with: "Thank you for making me a better man. I can't wait to have more beautiful moments and journey of our life together forever. Thank you for being my anchor. You save [sic] my life."

Two weeks later, Desta was fighting for hers.

"I thought I was going to die"

As Kelleher downed glasses of sake at a Japanese restaurant in central Barcelona, Desta was wracked with a feeling of unease.

 "When he drinks, that's when the trouble starts," she says.

Byron Kelleher (2007).
Byron Kelleher (2007). Photo credit: Getty Images

Desta's statement to Barcelona police, which RNZ has had translated, details what happened next.

After the couple left the restaurant, they returned to their rental motorcycle and Kelleher, despite being highly intoxicated, insisted on riding back to the hotel.  

Desta told police she became scared after Kelleher began driving erratically, sometimes on the wrong side of the road, and demanded to get off. She walked back to the hotel, where she was greeted by an angry Kelleher in the reception.

Inside their hotel room, the fight became violent.

"He kept getting angrier and angrier and tried to rip my [fake] eyelashes out, and grabbing at me, punching me in the face," Desta recalls, her voice shaking.

"Then he twisted my arm and pushed me down onto the bed. He grabbed a pillow and put it over my face.

"I thought I was going to die. It was so scary, I was praying 'please God, I want to see my son again'.

"That was all I could think 'I want to see my son again.'"

Desta managed to flee the hotel room, screaming for help as she ran down the corridor to the stairwell. Hotel management saw Desta on the security cameras in a distressed state and called the local police.

After being detained by police, Kelleher spent two days in jail, but was released after Desta elected not to press charges. Desta was there at the station to pick him up.

"It sounds so stupid, but when you are in that cycle, it is so hard to break that pattern. And then he would beg me to take him back and tell me how much he loved me. He's telling me 'you're the love of my life, you're my everything, I will change,'" says Desta.

"I couldn't talk to my family because I was just too embarrassed and scared. I had just put all these happy photos on Instagram from our holidays and I didn't want people to really know what was really going on.

"The only person I was listening to was him."

The orchardist

After the chaos and turmoil of the previous three months, one of the conditions Desta placed on remaining with Kelleher was that the couple would move back to New Zealand.

Desta, who had been living apart from her young son for more than a year, wanted to establish a custody-sharing agreement with her former partner, who is based in Auckland.

She also believed that being away from the party lifestyle in Bali would help Kelleher address his drinking.

Back working on the family kiwifruit orchard in Te Puke, in which Kelleher is a 60 per cent shareholder according to Companies Office records, the rugby star had an apparent epiphany.  

In a message to Desta on August 16, he wrote how working in the orchard requires a lot of "care and gentleness". He explained that if he was too rough picking the fruit, he would break or damage the canes that produce the fruit, ultimately affecting his bottom line.

"So I am taking a lesson out of the orchard by treating you more softly and gentle so I don't break or harm you and you will treat me better."

His resolve was short-lived.

Two weeks later, another violent incident resulted in police attention.

 The couple had been having casual drinks at the home of Desta's former partner, whom, Desta says, Kelleher got on well with.

However, when Desta wanted to call it a night, she says Kelleher became belligerent.

"It was the same old story. Byron kept drinking, drinking, drinking. He was a lunatic that night, crazy," she says.

When they returned home, Desta alleges Kelleher punched several holes in the wall of the Hillsborough property they were renting and was being "extremely aggressive" towards her.

Fearing for her safety, Desta fled the house and managed to flag down a passing car and convinced the driver to take her back to the home of her former partner.

Minutes later Kelleher also arrived back at the Mt Eden property, where he broke a door and forced his way into the house.

Video footage taken that night shows a clearly agitated Kelleher yelling and swearing, demanding to see Desta. As Desta's former partner tried to calm the situation, the pair were involved in a minor scuffle.

With Kelleher unable to be subdued, another person at the property called the police.

It was the third time in five months law enforcement had been called on Kelleher. This time, he could not escape charges.

The former All Black appeared in the Auckland District Court on charges of assault and willful damage. The charges related only to the fracas at the Mt Eden home.

Kelleher later completed diversion and in March 2020 was discharged without conviction.

Desta says the charges, and the fear of reputational damage if they became public, seemed to be a wake-up call for Kelleher, prompting a period of sobriety. (Stuff later reported on the charges in March 2020 after successfully challenging an application for permanent name suppression).

"From the night he got arrested at [my ex-partner's] house to December [2019] he didn't drink. It was the best time in our relationship," she says.

"He was amazing - active, happy, fun, romantic. Everything was great."

So when, in early December 2019, Kelleher asked Desta to marry him in an elaborate proposal in Bali, the answer was an immediate yes. 

By the end of the month, their relationship would be over.

The end

Back in Auckland, Kelleher convinced Desta they should have a night out to celebrate their engagement.

The couple had shared a bottle of champagne to toast their engagement in Bali, giving Desta confidence that Kelleher had his drinking under control.  

"But I was wrong. We went out to the Viaduct and he started drinking heavily again. He was out of control, slurring his words," she says.

Desta claims she tried to get Kelleher to slow down and drink some water. He responded by throwing the water back in her face.

Furious, Desta decided to leave. She alleges while she was waiting outside on the street to catch a taxi home, Kelleher put her in a headlock and tried to drag her away.

The altercation was seen by members of the public, who filmed the incident and came to Desta's aid.

A Whatsapp exchange from the early hours of Sunday, December 15 shows Desta warning Kelleher that someone had filmed the incident and telling him to go home.

YD: "You better go home."

YD: "This [sic] people calling the police."

BK: "Going home now so it's up to you."

YD: "They are worried about me."

BK: "Because of u"

YD: "No"

BK: "Yes"

YD: "Because of [how] you treat me. They saw it."

BK: "Up to you"

YD: "You strangling me. You pulling me."

BK: "Your fault, your problem."

Desta says following the incident she was pressured by Kelleher and his family not to press charges or go to the media. But she was also worried about the video being made public. Only days earlier, news of their engagement had made headlines in the NZ Herald.  

"Can you imagine? We have just got engaged and then this video is released in the media? I was so embarrassed," she explains.

"I was also stressed because it was also during the process to get my son back. [Kelleher] assaults the father of my child, then while [facing those charges] he assaults me again, all the time I am trying to protect him and help him with his court case.

"It was just like 'wow I can't do this any more'. That's the time I decided of course I am going to choose my son, and I ended it with Byron."

Despite the violence throughout their relationship, and the fraught end, Desta says she remained on reasonably good terms with Kelleher, who sent messages checking in on her from time to time.

In one of her last conversations with Kelleher, the topic of the trauma Desta had suffered during their relationship came up. She warned him that if she ever heard that he used violence against another woman, she would speak out about her experiences.


Last week - almost four years to the day she last saw Kelleher - Desta decided it was time to "step out of the shadows" after fresh charges of domestic violence were levelled at the former All Black in a Paris court.

It is the third time Kelleher has been before the courts in France. In March 2017 he was found guilty of domestic violence and ordered to pay a $300 fine by the Correctional Court of Toulouse, following an incident in which he assaulted his then partner and caused damage to a door while heavily intoxicated.

In 2009, he received a fine and a two-month suspended sentence following a brawl that occurred after he collided with another vehicle while driving drunk.

Drinking and violence are also common strands of the current complaint against him, which were brought by another former partner.  

According to media reports following his appearance in a Paris court last week, it is alleged Kelleher has a long history of verbal and physical violence towards his former partner.  

The police case outlines frequent episodes of violence over their tumultuous relationship that began in 2010 and ended in 2015 after she gave birth to their son.  

The pair apparently rekindled their relationship in 2022, when Kelleher returned to reconnect with his son. Not long after, the woman, referred to in media reports under the pseudonym Olivia, alleges the abuse continued.

"[Kelleher] regularly consumes alcohol and in large quantities ... He repeatedly insults me, pushes me, pins me against the wall, punches me and strangles me."

 A representative from the Paris court told RNZ the case had been adjourned until May 6.

RNZ attempted to contact Kelleher's former partner in France but did not receive a response.

In court last week, the woman's legal advocate, Thibaut Rouffiac, said it is hoped Kelleher will be held accountable for his actions.

"It is time for Mr Kelleher to understand that at home, things are not resolved through violence like on a rugby field.

"We hope that the impunity he has enjoyed so far will finally end."