• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ
Grace Millane.

Grace Millane's life: Far more than the details of her death

Warning: This story and related coverage of the trial contain graphic details that may be distressing for some readers.

"I will let you know what happens tomorrow" - That was the last message Grace Millane sent her best friend, but she never got to tell Ameena Ashcroft about her night. The Brit, in Auckland on the trip of a lifetime, was out on a date with a man who would go on to murder her in his apartment.

Ashcroft was one of the last people to hear from Millane. The pair had grown close while playing hockey together at the University of Lincoln, and different time zones and thousands of kilometres hadn't disrupted their tight friendship.

On 1 December, 2018, the eve of her 22nd birthday, Millane got in touch with Ashcroft. In a series of messages, she said she was on a date with the manager of an oil company. "Cocktails all round," she wrote. The date seemed odd, Ashcroft thought, but tired after getting off a long-haul flight, she didn't mention it. The friends messaged back and forth; Millane telling her more whenever the man went to the bathroom. He lived in a hotel. He was travelling to London the following year. "Literally I click with him so well. I will let you know what happens tomorrow," Millane wrote. Then: "Out of everyone from Lincoln you are my favourite."

Ashcroft never heard from her again. Millane's silence was worryingly abrupt, not only for Ashcroft. Millane was a woman who kept her friends and family close, staying in touch daily with some. So when birthday wishes went unanswered, her family were quick to raise the alarm.

Police started searching for Millane. CCTV footage of the warm Auckland evening of 1 December showed Millane walking toward the Sky Tower where she would meet the man she'd matched with on Tinder. She stopped on Federal Street to take a photo of a Christmas tree display, and sent it to her family.

Millane's worried family waited for news, and instead of talking to and messaging Millane, Ashcroft found herself speaking to police. She described her friend as outgoing and friendly, and said she thought Millane was having the time of her life abroad. "Grace was really loving her travels and I could feel her positivity. I think Grace was happy in her life because she was achieving her long term goals and realising her dreams." Indeed, Ashcroft said, on the night Millane met her killer she seemed to be having fun. "I sensed Grace was having a good time and she seemed to be drunk and really enjoying herself".

Related articles: Why is it that so few believed Grace Millane's killer would be held accountable? | How domestic violence has been normalised in New Zealand | 'I took pleasure in making her feel worthless'

An image of Grace Millane amid candles at a vigil in Wellington, 12 December 2018.

Grace Millane had landed in Auckland on 20 November 2018, after setting off from her hometown in Essex six weeks earlier. She had travelled to Peru, where she traced a similar path to one her mother travelled in earlier years; sightseeing and mingling with other backpackers. When she arrived in New Zealand, she messaged her family and sent photos of a trip to Northland.

Now, less than three weeks later, on 7 December, David Millane landed in Auckland, to find a country consumed with Millane's disappearance.

On 8 December, the man Millane who had met on Tinder was arrested and the following day, Millane's body was found inside a suitcase in a shallow grave off Scenic Drive in West Auckland.

There was an outpouring of grief across the country. Later, David would thank New Zealand for taking his daughter into its heart. Aotearoa was the country that turned their world upside down but it was also the country that said sorry. "Grace was not born here and only managed to stay a few weeks, but you have taken her into your hearts and in some small way she will forever be a Kiwi," he said.

The Millane family gave their blessing to a vigil organised for Federal Street, but said they wouldn't attend. On 12 December, hundreds gathered and the metropolitan strip was still and quiet as people lit candles. David slipped into the crowd, unnoticed among the sombre throng of people. One of the lead investigators in his daughter's case, Detective Senior Sergeant Greg Brand, watched him from a distance.

Crowds gather in Auckland for the vigil of Grace Millane.

Mark Longley spoke of his daughter Emily, who was murdered by her boyfriend in England in May 2011. As Longley described the agonising wait on his long haul flight and the unbearable prospect of having to identify his child in a foreign morgue, tears streamed down David's face. "My heart went out for David. I just really felt for him," Longley told the crowd. "For a father that's hard; when you've raised your daughter in a loving and caring environment and you've taught her to be free-spirited and think for herself and that comes and kicks you in the ass because then she says she wants to go off travelling and there's this big adventure. And you don't want them to go but then you can't stop them because it's how you raised them."

Millane might have been close to her family, but they didn't know everything about her travels. Her friends knew she was active on dating applications Bumble and Tinder but, as David put it, it wasn't her family's business. "I did not know specifically that Grace was dating online and it's not something she's discussed with me, nor I believe with my wife," he told police. "All I know is all the kids these days are dating online. It seems to be how younger people meet each other. I don't believe children tell their parents everything and nor should they, necessarily."

But a year later, he, and Millane's mother Gillian, had to see their daughter's life laid bare. At her murderer's trial, 36 Crown witnesses were called. Millane's parents sat in the front row of the public gallery, flanked by police officers, listening to every last detail in the case. They heard a pathologist describe their daughter's injuries in scientific detail. They watched CCTV footage of her killer wheeling her body out of the CityLife hotel in a suitcase. And they were in court when the jury was shown the photographs he took of her body the night she died.

The last hours of Millane's life were turned over and over, slowly dissected and unpacked for context and meaning. But what became evident, other than the goings on of that fateful night, was that Millane was much more than those last moments of her life. She was an adventurous traveller, but most of all, she loved and was loved - as a daughter, sister, aunty and friend.

Her family have continued to hold her close in death, launching the charitable trust 'Love Grace'. It delivers handbags (Millane loved a good handbag) full of sanitary items to domestic violence victims. In David's words, Millane's legacy as a "lovely, outgoing, fun-loving and family-orientated daughter" lives on.

Grace Millane. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

This article was first published on Radio NZ.