Finding Kirsa: The Napier schoolgirl who never came home

by Joanna Wane / 06 January, 2017

It was the first day of spring when Napier schoolgirl Kirsa Jensen went missing in 1983, after taking her horse for a ride on the beach. Her disappearance – followed by the abduction and murder of another local girl, Teresa Cormack, just four years later – marked the end of what seemed a more innocent time in New Zealand, when families still trusted the communities they lived in to keep their children safe. Today, the case remains open and the police have never stopped searching for Kirsa. Joanna Wane, who grew up in Hawke’s Bay, revisits the scene of one of our most disturbing unsolved mysteries and talks to Kirsa’s mother Robyn, who still holds to the hope that one day her daughter will be brought home.

She’s only 13 in that photo, the one everyone remembers.  The one that was plastered all over the local newspaper in Napier, where the Kirsa Jensen story ran on the front page for a record 28 days in a row.

The one that came to symbolise the very thing her mother Robyn had feared in those first few days, when there was still a thread of hope Kirsa was lying somewhere, injured from a fall; the one that placed her daughter next to Mona Blades, the teenager who vanished hitchhiking home to Hastings, on that terrible roll call of lost girls.

Kirsa had just started secondary school when the picture was taken: a shy kid in her green and white check uniform, with a sweet smile and a fringe tumbling over her eyes, a touch of sunburn on the tip of her nose. Summers breathe long and hot in Hawke’s Bay.

By the time she disappeared, 18 months later, her hair curled over her shoulders and she wasn’t one of the new girls at Colenso High any more. In her diary, she wrote about the boys she liked and worried about her weight. She’d started saving for vet school at Massey and was preparing her horse, Commodore, to compete at the Royal A&P Show over Labour Weekend. Kirsa told her mum she liked animals more than people. You could trust animals, she said. They didn’t let you down.

On September 1, 1983, Kirsa saddled up Commodore in the paddock by her family’s house next to St Augustine’s church in Marewa, where father Dan was the Anglican minister.

Cutting along the green belt through open land that’s mostly dense suburbs now, she made for the foreshore, a few kilometres to the south of Napier’s city centre, where a string of phoenix palms line Marine Parade. The sky was velvet blue and working out on the beach was one of her favourite rides. But this time, only Commodore would come home.

Yellowed newspaper clippings tell a story that unfolds through the headlines, which become increasingly grim. “Police hold fears for missing girl,” reports the Daily Telegraph, as the first news breaks. The next day, a photograph on the front page shows police divers searching the Tutaekuri River, near an old World War II gun emplacement at Awatoto, where the 14-year-old was last seen – and where a rope was used to tether Commodore, before the horse broke free to be later found wandering close by.

By day four, Operation Jensen is in full swing: “Girl’s disappearance ‘murder or abduction’”, runs the banner headline. Day seven: “Clairvoyants offer to help find Kirsa” and public donations boost a reward to $31,000 for information leading to her discovery. On day 11, the results of forensic testing are released: “Blood on rope human”. Detective Inspector Ian Holyoake of the Napier CIB,  who heads the inquiry, tells reporters that looking for Kirsa is like searching for a needle in a haystack. “And we haven’t found the haystack yet.”

Then, a breakthrough: “Samples taken from house”. Word spreads like wildfire that a key suspect has been identified. A local man, with a wife and two young children, he’d initially come forward as a witness and is the last known person to see Kirsa alive. He’s also a convicted rapist. The police, it seems, have finally got their man.

But months later, it’s Holyoake’s photo splashed all over the front page, not Kirsa’s, as the police are forced to admit they’ve reached an impasse and no charges will be laid.

Robyn remembers the tears rolling silently down her face the day Holyoake comes to their door, not with the heartbreaking news that Kirsa is dead but something unimaginably worse. “I’ve failed you,” he tells them. “I can’t find your daughter.”

And when she looks up, there are tears on his cheeks, too. 

A collection of family photos of Kirsa Jensen in the early 1980s.

It was a tradition in the Jensen household that Kirsa would dress the Christmas tree before her birthday, in mid-December. This year, the girl frozen forever in time – the girl in the picture – would have turned 48. A middle-aged woman, only a few years younger than me.

I didn’t know Kirsa, but I grew up in Hawke’s Bay just 25km away, in the days when you still biked to school and “stranger-danger” wasn’t what teachers talked about when you got there. She’d moved to Napier from Opotiki when her father took up his new parish, a country kid who went to pony club and won ribbons for her champion lambs on show day. I escaped to the city as soon as I could and never looked back.

Maybe she’d be running a vet clinic somewhere down the line, with a couple of horses in the paddock and shots of grey in her hair. Maybe she’d have married and had a family, like I did, although she once told her mum she didn’t want children; they’d have to rely on her older brother, Michael. To Robyn, who taught music and English at Colenso, that seems horribly prescient now.

This year, my own daughter turned 14 – the same age Kirsa was when she went missing. I’d left for Auckland by the time she disappeared, but it rocked me. I ached for her family and the way they became public property, with sightseers cruising past their house as if it were some kind of tourist attraction, taking photographs of Kirsa’s animals through the fence.

Yet what I remember most of all is disbelief, and a sense of outrage this had happened on my old turf. How could a teenager riding her horse in broad daylight, in sight of a main thoroughfare, simply vanish? And every time I came home and drove the coast road to Napier, I’d look out over that desolate stretch of driftwood and shingle, and think about her. Paying my respects, I guess. But as time passed, it also felt like an act of defiance. Whoever took her, however it ended, she was not forgotten.

Robyn Jensen, with the Photo she gave the police.

Every night for a year, Robyn left the back door unlocked and the outside light on for Kirsa. In the early days, when the house was full of people, she slept on the lounge floor because she couldn’t face being in a warm, comfortable bed when her daughter might be lying out somewhere in the darkness. And each morning, Robyn would draw back the curtains in Kirsa’s bedroom to let in the light, and decide what clothes to wear to help her through another day.

“If Kirsa came home, it was important she saw me dressed well,” she says. “It was a way to show her, ‘I’m carrying on here. And I’m carrying on for you, darling. Wherever you are.’”

At first, Robyn is wary when I contact her by email in the provincial town where she’s moved into semi-retirement, after running the guidance departments at Auckland’s Rangitoto College and Onehunga High. “No matter how many years, any ‘outside’ contact brings on a deep breath,” she writes.

For journalists who want yet another piece of her, on a significant anniversary or when someone else’s child goes missing, it’s just a story, even if it’s a respectful, well-intentioned one. For Robyn, this is her life. And she’s spent much of it alone, after her marriage to Dan foundered within months of Kirsa’s disappearance. In 2003, she wrote a thesis for her master’s degree on the grief experiences of parents who have lost a child through violent crime.

“Men and women grieve in different ways,” she tells me. “It’s a very isolating thing. All my energy went into getting through a day at school, giving Michael some attention and trying to find Kirsa. Any more than that and I just couldn’t cope.”

Adding to the pressure were public expectations of how the family would react as “church folk”. “People would say, ‘At least she’s safe with God.’ You smile, but you think, ‘Just stand in my shoes for a little while.’ That trite… almost garbage, really. It’s not comforting to anyone; it was absolutely not comforting to me.

“It’s something I’ve been asked many times: was it my faith that sustained me? The answer is no. It was Kirsa who sustained me. The love we shared and continue to share is my strength. And I knew, if the situation was reversed, she would have been strong for me.”

On the table in her living room is a bowl filled with five white pebbles, each printed with a single word: laugh, family, joy, dream, live. Framed on her wall is the photo of Kirsa in her school  uniform, the one Robyn gave to police when the search began in earnest because it was her favourite picture and captured the light in her daughter’s eyes. “The shyness was real; that was her,” she says. But she was also very effervescent. A quick, independent thinker and so funny, with a lovely sort of sparkle.” And a determined streak, like her mother. “If it was going to be done, it was going to be done properly.”

Robyn dreamt about Kirsa as a bride once, at a time when a few of her contemporaries were getting married. But when she pictures her today, it’s the schoolgirl she still sees, forever 14.

“Kirsa is just part of me and always will be,” she says. “She’s with me all the time. There are particular days when I feel overwhelmed by what happened. It becomes woven into the fabric of your life. But mostly, she’s just with me, whatever I’m doing. It’s hard to put into words. Part of me is Kirsa. And wherever I am, she is too.”

But grief has also anchored her to the past, because she has never stopped waiting for her daughter to come home. “That’s the hope, that she will be found one day. I hope it’s while I’m still alive. And as I get older, there’s an urgency about it. I’m very healthy, there’s nothing wrong. I might live to 96, but who knows? How much time have I got left to find her? As you’re racing through the years, you wonder, is time running out?

“I’m held here with Kirsa not being found, but my life has continued going around, with the things I’ve done and have achieved,” she says, her finger tracing a series of circles radiating out from that spring day Kirsa disappeared. “I’m still held there and I haven’t moved, because I haven’t seen her body.

“I’ve done nothing a parent grieving for their daughter would physically be able to do. If she’d been found – and I can just feel it so deep in my heart now I’m talking – I could have cradled her in my arms and touched her and talked to her... done all the things a mother would do for her dead child. And I’d know she was dead.

“Common sense tells you it’s 99.9 per cent likely that she is. I don’t think she’s been kidnapped and taken on a boat overseas, which was the kind of nonsense some people suggested in the early days. But there’s no proof she’s dead. None whatsoever. She is lost. And she’s still lost, after 33 years.”

I ask if she’s imagined the moment – the call from police, the knock at the door. Would she feel anger or absolution? Would she break down or, finally, experience a sense of release?

“What would it be like?” she says, and whatever I expected her to say, it’s not this. “Absolute joy. Absolute joy. And I would want to hold her, hold her close to me. I’m aware it would probably be just a few scattered bones, depending on where she is. But if I could ask for one thing, that would be my wish.”

For Ian Holyoake, it began and ended with a phone call. The second call came nine years after Kirsa vanished, when John Russell – the key witness turned prime suspect – committed suicide, within weeks of his release from Lake Alice Psychiatric Hospital.

By then, Holyoake had risen through the ranks to assistant police commissioner. Over the years, he’d been contacted occasionally by Russell, who had become increasingly unstable and, Holyoake believed, tantalisingly close to unburdening his conscience. So, when a colleague who’d worked on the case rang with the news Russell had been found dead, he told Holyoake to keep an eye on the mail.

“Every morning, I was just about at the door shaking the hands of the postman,” he says. “But no, there was nothing.” No deathbed confession, after all.

Holyoake was home on study leave when the first call came, the morning after Kirsa went missing. An overnight search had drawn a blank, and a possible case of misadventure was already starting to look more like foul play.

The officer on the phone told Holyoake they’d been contacted by Russell, a 32-year-old orchard manager from Whakatu, who claimed to have talked to Kirsa at the gun emplacement. “I thought, that’s one witness,” Holyoake  recalls. “Then he said, ‘One other thing, boss. He’s got a conviction for rape.’ And I thought, that’s something. I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

However initially, at least, Russell’s story checked out. He told police he’d finished work and was heading into Napier on State Highway 2. As he drove across Waitangi Bridge, he glanced over to the gun emplacement at about 4.30pm, and saw a bald, middle-aged man standing near a girl and her horse; a white ute with brown sides was parked nearby.

Something about it didn’t feel right, he said, so he doubled back at the Awatoto fertiliser works and drove down to the foreshore. By then, the man was gone. Kirsa, who had blood on her face, told him she’d had a fall from her horse, but someone had gone to get her parents, so Russell drove off. Family and neighbours confirmed he arrived home soon after. Too soon, it seemed, to have snatched a teenage girl.

Whatever happened, the window of opportunity was agonisingly narrow. Two surfers reported seeing a girl on the beach, leading a horse by its reins, at about 4.20pm, about 10 minutes before Russell arrived. At 4.40pm, a passing motorist noticed an agitated horse at the gun emplacement. By 4.45pm, when another surfer arrived, the horse was still there, but the foreshore was deserted. Kirsa was gone.

In the following months, more than 800 white utes were investigated and cleared as police hunted for the mystery vehicle, and the mystery man, seen by Russell. Like Kirsa, they were never found. But DNA testing showed blood at the scene was highly likely to be hers.

“As time went by and we couldn’t find a ute with any form or that had been in the area, we started looking in more detail at what we did have,” says Holyoake.

The only real evidence was a piece of rope tied to the gun emplacement that matched the broken remnant tied to Commodore. And that rope didn’t belong to the Jensens. In what was ground-breaking forensics at the time, 42 pollens, spores and minerals were extracted from its strands – broad bean, pumpkin and beetroot; copper sulphate from an orchard spray; an unusual type of green sand – then cross-matched with samples taken from Russell’s home, car and the orchard where he worked. “We found the lot of them.”

Two golden-blonde strands removed from inside Russell’s cream Austin Cambridge were sent to Canada for analysis, along with hair from Kirsa’s brush. Again, the results showed a strong statistical match.

But it wasn’t enough. Under pressure, Russell conceded the rope was from an old caravan awning his employer had asked him to take to the dump. He’d kept a few pieces, but couldn’t explain how one had been used to tether the horse. None of Kirsa’s blood was found in his car and he’d already admitted talking with her so it was plausible there’d been an accidental transfer of hair. “All we had was this scungy bit of rope and a horse that couldn’t talk.”

On legal advice, it was determined there wasn’t a strong enough case to take to court. “I couldn’t dispute that,” says Holyoake. “We had some suspicions, and some scientific evidence, but not enough to get over the bar.”

Whether under the weight of guilt, or being falsely fingered, Russell’s behaviour became increasingly erratic. He turned up at Dan Jensen’s church and later at the family’s house, where Robyn confronted him – but he never admitted knowing where Kirsa was.

His marriage fell apart and he went into psychiatric care. After he was seriously injured in a car crash, there was speculation it had been an attempted suicide. Holyoake’s final chance to draw out a confession came a few years later when he was district commander in Christchurch and Russell walked into his office, after absconding from a nearby mental unit.

“Could I have done it?” he rambled. “Could it have been me?”

“It was bloody weird,” says Holyoake. “I tried to get through to him that if there was something, for goodness sake, don’t let it rest on your conscience. But his mental stability wasn’t good and in the end, I got someone to take him back.”

He suspects Russell no longer knew whether he’d killed Kirsa or not. Forensic amnesia, it’s called. “Plenty of people do that: hide the horror in their mind. And the longer the time goes by, you convince yourself you never did it.”

For her part, Robyn Jensen believes Russell is the guilty party. “When I heard he’d killed himself, I could almost hear the door slamming,” she says. “How am I going to find her now?”


Ian Holyoake (left) with Napier District Commander Kevin Ford and Police Commissioner Bob Walton, 1983.

In truth, it’s never ended for Holyoake, just as it hasn’t for Robyn. In 1999, the cop they call “Kiwi” – after his uncle, Sir Keith Holyoake – stepped down from the police and ran a holiday park in Napier for 10 years before he finally retired.

The son of a Motueka tobacco farmer, he’s 75 now; still married to his teenage sweetheart, Eleanor. And when colourful defence lawyer Mike Bungay wrote his book, Bungay on Murder, in the early 1980s, Holyoake was involved in 10 of the investigations featured.

He continues to advise on Kirsa’s case, which remains active. In the past year, every exhibit has been reviewed. Witness statements have been scrutinised and key people re-interviewed, including Russell’s wife. Nothing of any real significance has emerged.

Detective Sergeant Emmet Lynch is the latest in a series of officers in charge of the Kirsa Jensen files, which fill 25 large boxes. He was in his last year at school in Napier and already looking seriously at a career in the police when she went missing. His little sister was 12. “It could have been any one of us,” he says. “We’d disappear for the whole day, and Mum and Dad would have no idea where we were. But it was expected you’d be safe.”

Through the lens of today, it seems incredible no charges were brought against Russell. Both Scott Watson and David Tamihere were convicted of murder on evidence that was similarly circumstantial – and without the bodies being found.

Lynch says nothing in Russell’s recent behaviour had raised alarm bells, but he did have a criminal record: in 1970, he was sentenced to two and a half years in jail after he and three other men abducted a woman in Palmerston North and raped her. But jurors wouldn’t have known that if he’d been put on trial for Kirsa’s disappearance.

There’s no evidence Kirsa and Russell had ever met, and Robyn says the teen usually rode to the beach with a friend and took a different route.

In today’s tech-savvy world, juries would be able to digest complex scientific evidence, says Lynch, and police  have access to more advanced surveillance techniques. “Different times give it a different flavour in terms of how far we could push things, for sure. But it’s still a 50-50 call.”

He suspects the abduction was planned. Perhaps Russell had spotted Kirsa before on her rides at the beach; perhaps he feigned an injury and she went to help. Perhaps he had just enough time to hide her somewhere. Perhaps the next day he went back.

“That’s the great unknown,” he says. “The prime suspect may no longer be able to be put before the courts. But when you have a mum out there, sitting and hoping, who by her own statement is getting older and would love some resolution, that’s the force that drives us. We’d just love to find Kirsa and get her the respect that she deserves.”

In the foreword to Robyn’s book, Kirsa: A Mother’s Story, which was published in 1994, Holyoake wrote that over a long police career, there’s always the chance you’ll eventually encounter an investigation that remains a mystery. “This book describes such a case.”

To Robyn, the officers involved in the inquiry became like family. The second in charge, Bill Withers, is retired and still lives in Hawke’s Bay. One of the key detectives, Murray Sawyer, went on to found Television Hawke’s Bay. But none took their failure more personally than Holyoake, whose daughter Lisa was in Kirsa’s year at Colenso, where Robyn taught. “On occasions,” he notes in the foreword, “they shared the same teacher. Now that teacher has written her story – but I still have my daughter.”

A decade later, the Holyoakes lost her, too. Lisa died of cancer, when her own daughter was just 18 months old.

Each year, on the first day of spring, Ian and Eleanor visit Kirsa’s memorial in Waitangi Park, on the wild, unkempt Awatoto foreshore where she was last seen. Often they find keepsakes left there: a children’s toy, driftwood, wild flowers. On the 30th anniversary of her disappearance, Holyoake’s Rotary Club organised a makeover of the site, planting three pohutukawa alongside the tree her family had placed there.

The old gun emplacement has been bulldozed over and there are plans to redevelop the 300ha park, where Te Takitimu waka is thought to have landed – bringing the first Maori navigators and settlers to Heretaunga. William Colenso set up his first Christian mission station here and, in 1840, local chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi on a ship moored off the coast. Now Kirsa, too, is part of its history.

In 1998, an inquest was finally held at the Jensens’ request. “Your daughter’s death is an indictment to all reasonable people,” says coroner Warwick Holmes in his report. “You as a family were entitled to assume Kirsa’s activities on the regretful day that 1 September 1983 has now become would have been safe from the menace  which clearly overtook her.”

The 10th anniversary memorial, placed at Awototo

St Augustine’s church, where a memorial chapel is dedicated to Kirsa, was closed two years ago as an earthquake risk and its future is uncertain. Colenso College has a memorial cup for Year 10 academic excellence in Kirsa’s name.

Dan Jensen remarried and lived for many years in Australia before retiring to Tauranga. Michael, Kirsa’s brother, has never spoken publicly about her loss, but Robyn is a much-loved grandmother to his two children. Both her parents have died and are buried at St Peter’s Church in Bombay, south of Auckland. “That’s where I’ll be one day,” she says. “In my will, I’ve said that if Kirsa is found after I’ve died, to put her there with me.” 

That urgency, that sense of her own mortality, got her thinking. “Maybe if I had bumper stickers printed that said, ‘Find Kirsa’. Not ‘Find Nemo’ but ‘Find Kirsa’, and distributed them through New Zealand. Bumper stickers all over the land. Find Kirsa. Find Kirsa…”

It’s time to put Kirsa back on the front page.


This article first appeared in the December 2016 issue of North & South.
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