Open files: New Zealand's most famous unsolved murders

by Mike White / 27 December, 2016

Mike White revisits New Zealand’s 10 most perplexing unsolved murders.

Jennifer Beard. December 31, 1969.

As the world farewelled the 60s and the Age of Aquarius, New Zealand’s age of innocence and image as a safe place to travel was shattered with a vile summertime murder.

British woman Jennifer Beard, 25, had been working as a school teacher in Tasmania before coming to New Zealand to go tramping. She was due to meet her fiancé at Milford Sound but was last seen hitchhiking on the West Coast on New Year’s Eve. Her partially undressed body was discovered 19 days later under the Haast River bridge. It appeared she’d been attacked while going to the toilet, and was probably strangled. Her backpack and camera were missing and never found.

Witnesses saw a 1953-55 Vauxhall in the area, with the driver calling into several garages on the West Coast for repairs. Three days after Beard’s body was found, 50-year-old Timaru truck driver Gordon Bray was questioned by police for six hours. He owned a Vauxhall and had been in the area on a fishing trip. His car was searched but Bray wasn’t taken into custody.

The same day, a pair of trousers was found 100m from where Beard’s body had been. They were sent for scientific examination, but then forgotten for several months. When they were examined, a receipt with Bray’s name on it was found in a pocket. Despite this, and despite investigation head Emmett Mitten wanting to charge Bray with Beard’s murder, police and the Crown decided there was insufficient evidence. There were differences between Bray’s car and the one witnesses described, and Bray himself differed from the pot-bellied man with receding hair seen with Beard. The decision not to charge Bray was a narrow one, perhaps swayed by the pressure police were under by this stage regarding planting evidence in the Crewe murders case: the gap in discovering the receipt in the trousers would easily give rise to accusations it had been planted, some argued.

Bray himself later insisted he’d driven along the highway on December 30, not New Year’s Eve. He died in 2003 and his family insist he was innocent.

 

Olive Walker, May 15, 1970.

It was just before 7pm on a Friday night when 18-year-old Olive Walker left her Rotorua home. She’d told her sister, Mary, that she’d come and babysit, and would walk over to Mary’s house in Malfroy Rd. Olive was seen at 7.50pm but never arrived at her sister’s house, and her body was found 5km south of Rotorua late that night.

The best evidence police had were prints from a size 6 shoe found at the scene, along with tracks from a car with one odd tyre, but nobody was ever arrested for the murder. Forty years later, one of the officers involved in the investigation, detective sergeant Jack Collins, said he had been pressured to pursue someone he believed was innocent. Collins said he was visited by then assistant police commissioner Bob Walton, who tried to force him to investigate one of Olive Walker’s relatives who had a criminal record. However, Collins was adamant the man had no connection with the crime and didn’t fit the evidence they had. Collins was removed from the CIB the next day and didn’t work as a detective again.

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Jeanette and Harvey Crewe, June 17, 1970.

With the high-profile cases of Jennifer Beard and Olive Walker still unsolved, police were thrust into an investigation that would haunt them for decades, and provide one of their most shameful episodes. Jeanette and Harvey Crewe were both 30 and had a farm near the Waikato town of Pukekawa. Harvey was shot in the head as he sat in his armchair in front of the fire. Jeanette was clubbed in the head and then shot in their living room. The killer removed their bodies, but left their 18-month-old daughter, Rochelle, behind. It was five days before the scene – and Rochelle – were discovered.

Jeanette’s body was found at Devil’s Elbow in the Waikato River on August 16, and Harvey’s body was located upstream, tied to a car axle, a month later.

Initially police focused on Jeanette’s father, Len Demler but, after several months, turned their attention to local farmer Arthur Thomas, who’d once been romantically linked to Jeanette. Thomas was arrested on November 11 and convicted of the murders the following year, and again at a retrial in 1973. However concerns about his guilt and the police investigation continued to grow – with doubts the bullets found at the crime scene could have come from a cartridge police claimed to have discovered in the garden of the Crewes’ house.

Thomas was eventually pardoned in 1979 and given nearly $1 million in compensation. A royal commission set up to investigate the wrongful conviction concluded police officers Bruce Hutton and Len Johnston had planted the cartridge case from Thomas’s rifle, to fabricate evidence against him. Remarkably, no officer was ever charged for this, nor was anyone else ever arrested for the murders.

In 2010, after Rochelle Crewe asked for the case to be reinvestigated, police conducted a review into the initial investigation, but controversially decided to do this in-house.

After four years, it was unable to say who killed the Crewes, but claimed there was “significant physical evidence” linking the murders with the Thomas farm, and said it was highly probable a .22 rifle owned by Thomas was the murder weapon. It concluded the infant Rochelle had survived for five days without food or water, despite several witnesses reporting seeing someone at the Crewes’ house before the murders were discovered.

The review, led by detective superintendent Andy Lovelock, cleared Len and Norma Demler, Jeanette’s parents, of any involvement. However, it said the evidence suggested Arthur Thomas may have committed the murders, but may also have been innocent.

That equivocation extended to the actions of their own officers. Despite the findings of the 1980 Royal Commission, and the view of a QC who reviewed the 2014 report, police only admitted there was a possibility the shell case had been planted by police and there was insufficient evidence to implicate anyone in planting it.

Police apologised to Rochelle Crewe for mistakes made in the original investigation, but have never apologised to Thomas. His brother, Des Thomas, said the police review was “bloody disgusting”, labelling it a whitewash. He claimed police ignored evidence he gave them about another suspect, and it appeared police had not moved on from 1970 when they accused Arthur Thomas while denying any wrongdoing.

Len Johnston died in 1978, and Bruce Hutton in 2013. At Hutton’s funeral, the current Police Commissioner, Mike Bush, said in his eulogy that Hutton had “integrity beyond reproach”. He later apologised for these comments.  

Mona Blades, May 31, 1975.

At Queen’s Birthday weekend 1975, 18-year-old Mona Blades decided to surprise her family in Hastings with a visit. She was living in Hamilton but wanted to celebrate her nephew’s first birthday, and had bought a set of colourful cups as a present for him. Blades set off early on Saturday morning, and was seen by a truck driver getting into an orange Datsun station wagon near Taupo at 10am. A fencing contractor later saw a similar car, parked 200m down a gravel road that ran from the Taupo-Napier highway. Because nobody knew she was travelling to Hastings, her disappearance wasn’t raised for three days. Extensive searches failed to find her and a $10,000 reward didn’t lead to a conviction. There have been several suspects – one of whom shot himself shortly after Blades’ disappearance. In 2012, police dug up the laundry floor of a Kawerau house, where they’d been told Blades had been buried, but found nothing. The fact that disappearances were uncommon in New Zealand at the time has made her case one of the country’s most notorious unsolved crimes.

Tracey Patient, January 29, 1976

It was summer, school holidays, the Doobie Brothers were playing at Western Springs, and 13-year-old Tracey Patient had been at a friend’s house for the evening. They walked part of the way back to Tracey’s home, then Tracey carried on by herself towards Dellwood Ave in Henderson. It was around 9pm and she had about 500m to walk. When she didn’t arrive home, her father, John, and older sister, Debbie, got in the car and drove around Henderson looking for her. Tracey’s body was found the next morning by a man walking his dog along Scenic Drive in the Waitakere Ranges. She had been strangled with a stocking, and dumped in the bush.

It was two years before the police gained their best lead. An anonymous phone caller said Tracey’s signet ring, given to her a by a boyfriend and worn by her when she disappeared, was in a rubbish bin at Avondale Mall. The caller also mentioned the number 126040. Police found the ring, but have never worked out the relevance of the number.

The Patient family, who had shifted from England two years before Tracey was killed, returned to the UK. Over the past 40 years, 850 suspects have been looked at. In late 2015, police resumed the investigation, putting a team of eight officers on it. But in late October, 2016, they announced the investigation has been wound down and will no longer be actively investigated unless new information comes to light.

Ernie Abbott, March 27, 1984.

New Zealand has had few cases of terrorism, but the Trades Hall bombing is one that falls into that category. A green suitcase had been left in the foyer of a building which housed the offices of several trade unions, in Wellington’s Vivian St. Ernie Abbott was a unionist and caretaker at the building, living upstairs with his dog Patch. As part of his job, he went to remove the abandoned suitcase, which had been booby trapped and loaded with 1kg of gelignite. It exploded as he lifted it, shunting a car parked outside across the road, splintering doors, and smashing holes in walls. Abbott, 62, was killed instantly, his watch stopped at 5.19pm. Patch was burnt in the explosion but survived.

It’s unlikely Abbott was the target – several other people had walked past the suitcase before he moved it, and the suspicion remains that its targets were a number of union leaders whose meeting in the building had finished 30 minutes before the explosion.

A sticker for Ecuadorean Rica bananas on the suitcase was one of the only clues police had, along with the fact it contained a mercury switch, suggesting it was the work of an expert bomb-maker. One theory was the bomber was a British military expert on the run from the IRA, who’d been shipped to New Zealand and then skipped the country the day after the explosion. Others described a middle-aged man in a suit loitering around the area earlier that day. While the political climate at the time was tense, with Prime Minister Robert Muldoon’s government being strongly anti-union, the exact motive for the bombing has never been uncovered. Nor, despite a huge investigation and offers of sizeable rewards, has the perpetrator.

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Jane Furlong, May 26, 1993.

Jane Furlong was due to give evidence at two criminal trials, one involving gangs and another relating to a man attacking sex workers, when she went missing. The 17-year-old was working as a prostitute and was dropped off around 8pm by her boyfriend, Daniel Norsworthy, on Auckland’s Karangahape Rd. The couple had a son, Aidan, who was just a few months old, and had just moved into an Onehunga flat. When Norsworthy returned to K Rd a short time later, Furlong was gone. Nineteen years later, on 19 May, 2012, a woman walking her dog at Sunset Beach, Port Waikato, nearly 100km away, saw a human skull in the sand dunes. DNA testing revealed it was Furlong.

The clothes found with Furlong’s body were different to those she was last seen wearing, raising the possibility she was alive for some time after her disappearance. Norsworthy initially declined to speak to police after Furlong’s body was found, but eventually met with them more than a year later. Despite the discovery of her body, police have been unable to charge anyone with Furlong’s murder, though they suggest those involved must have known the Port Waikato area. Furlong’s mother, Judith, told the Herald on Sunday Jane “just knew too much about the wrong people”.

Claire Hills, April 28, 1998.

The murder of Claire Hills is without doubt one of New Zealand’s most bizarre and brutal killings. The 30-year-old was driving her black Mazda hatchback to work at Auckland International Airport’s McDonald’s, where she was due to begin her shift at 3.30am. Around 5.45am, a woman walking on the domain at Mangere Mountain noticed a flash near the soccer clubrooms and then saw someone running away from a parked car, across the playing fields, as the car burst into flames. Police were notified about the fire at 6.05am, but the officer who took the call failed to contact the fire service. When the fire brigade arrived at 6.32am, they discovered Hills’ burnt-out vehicle. Hills had been bound, placed in the rear of the vehicle, doused with petrol and burnt alive. While the delay in notifying the fire service would not have saved her life, valuable forensic evidence was lost. Hills, who was also known as Lisa, had run away from home in Australia when she was 15, arrived in New Zealand with her boyfriend on a false passport, and had lived here since then. She had been a member of the Jehovah’s Witness church but had left it, and was living on her own in Herne Bay.

For many years, police believed they knew who the killer was, telling Hills’ family they didn’t have the evidence to charge him. However, in 2007, they discovered the suspect’s DNA didn’t match that found at the scene, and were forced to rule him out and reopen the investigation. The DNA sample police have does not match anyone on their database, meaning the killer may be still in the community.

Kayo Matsuzawa, September 11, 1998.

Equally callous and mystifying was the murder of Japanese tourist, Kayo Matsuzawa. The 29-year-old came to New Zealand in 1997, worked in a Christchurch restaurant and studied English. She arrived in Auckland on September 11, 1998, and CCTV footage shows her getting off a bus in Queen St at 2.41pm. She checked into a Queen St backpackers for three nights, left her luggage in room 25, then went out again. Her naked and decomposing body was found 10 days later in a fire alarm cupboard in a Queen St building near the backpackers, by a technician doing a routine check. The area was accessible only by swipe card, which made the decision to dump Matsuzawa’s body there perplexing. It was unclear how she had been killed, but forensic material was able to be taken from the scene. However, despite finding some of her possessions in rubbish bins around the city, and offering a $75,000 reward, nobody has ever been charged with Matsuzawa’s murder.

Kirsty Bentley, December 31, 1998.

About 3pm on a hot Ashburton afternoon, 15-year-old Kirsty Bentley walked her dog, Abby, down to the town’s river. It was New Year’s Eve, there were plans for a family dinner and her boyfriend was coming over to stay. When Kirsty’s mother, Jill, arrived home just after 5pm, Kirsty hadn’t returned and they soon contacted police and began searching for her. The following morning, Kirsty’s underwear was found on the riverbank, along with Abby who was tied up nearby. Seventeen days later, two men looking for a cannabis plantation stumbled across Kirsty’s body, near the Rakaia River, nearly 60km from Ashburton. It had been hidden in scrub but by then was so badly decomposed, little forensic evidence could be gathered. Police, however, believed Kirsty had not been killed at the Ashburton River where her clothes and dog were found, insisting this scene had been staged by the murderer. Almost immediately, suspicion fell on Kirsty’s father, Sid, and her brother, John. John had been the last person to see Kirsty, and Sid had trouble recalling his movements that day. A theory arose that John had killed his sister and, because he couldn’t drive, Sid had helped him dispose of the body. But there was little sense of motive, and no evidence at all, and both John and Sid completely denied any involvement.

Sid died in 2015, aged 64. A coroner’s hearing into Kirsty’s death a year later merely ruled she’d been killed by a massive blow to the back of her head, at an unknown location, on the day she went missing. Four detectives have led the investigation over the years. None have managed to crack the case, and since Sid Bentley’s death, little investigation has been carried out.

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