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Chilling details revealed in suspected cold case murder of Joanne Chatfield

Seventeen-year-old Joanne (Joe) Chatfield vanished without trace 30 years ago. Now, chilling new details have emerged about the night she disappeared and a reward offered for any information. Donna Chisholm investigates.

Joanne Chatfield had been gone eight weeks by the time her University Entrance results arrived at her Mangere Bridge home in south Auckland. The envelope sat unopened on her bed in a room that her mother Claire left untouched until she moved house a decade ago.

In many ways, the room was Joe, with its line of stuffed toys sitting on a pretty floral bedspread a jarring contrast to the black walls above that were crowded with posters: anarchy, Amnesty and anti-vivisection. Here lived the kind little girl, the feisty and independent punk rocker, the talented but conflicted young woman who wanted to change the world.

Perhaps she would have, but Joe Chatfield never got the chance. She’s been gone 30 years now, and that envelope is unopened still. “If I opened it,” says Claire, “I’d be admitting she is dead.”

Auckland Detective Sergeant Len Leleni talks to the media in 2007 about the reinvestigation of Joe Chatfield’s disappearance. The inquiry unearthed stunning new information which has not been revealed until now.
Few vanishings have been as complete and mysterious as that of Joe Chatfield, apart from 18-year-old Mona Blades, while hitchiking from Hamilton to Hastings in 1975, and 14-year-old Kirsa Jensen in Napier in 1983. The other two are household names. Joe Chatfield is not, but police believe that like them, she was most likely abducted and murdered. In 2008, Auckland coroner Murray Jamieson concluded Chatfield had probably met with foul play and was dead.

I met Joe Chatfield once, a few months before she disappeared. It’s why you’re reading this story now. She turned up at the Shortland St offices of the now- defunct Auckland Star because she wanted to become a journalist, and I was asked to talk to her about her options. I don’t recall much of our conversation, but the image of her, with her bright mohawk, laddered stockings and Doc Martens, was striking and unforgettable. In August this year, when her name popped into my head – as it has done often over the years – I realised the 30-year anniversary of her vanishing would be potentially the last chance to appeal for more information.

Now, in response to North & South’s inquiries, police have renewed their offer of a $50,000 reward in the case, and revealed disturbing new information about what happened at the concert she attended at the Auckland University Students’ Association building on the night that she was last seen, 19 November 1988.

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Police have discovered a woman was kidnapped at knifepoint from the gig, taken 200-300m away into bush, and raped. The information has not been made public before now because of the woman’s fragile mental health. It was the most significant new lead uncovered during a reinvestigation of the case that began in late 2005 and ran for more than two years.

Detective Sergeant Len Leleni, who was in charge of that inquiry, says cases such as Chatfield’s are “never really closed”, and the reinvestigation was not that unusual. But several people who spoke to North & South said police told them at the time they were taking a fresh look after admitting the first “missing persons” inquiry hadn’t been thorough enough. About six police were assigned in 2005 and close to 100 people were interviewed, but the file was largely inactive again by 2008. A $50,000 reward for information in November 2007 produced nothing new of any value.

Leleni now believes that if the rape victim’s attacker can be found, the mystery of Chatfield’s disappearance may be solved as well. “If we find one, there is a good chance we will find the other. For something like that to happen on that night, at that time, what are the chances? And it’s the most obvious connection. We have to be careful not to say they are one and the same. But you could say with a reasonable degree of confidence that there could be a connection between them.”

The woman disclosed the attack to people close to her when it happened, but felt no one believed her. It has had a profoundly negative impact on her life. She did not report the attack to police – detectives came across her only when they were tracing as many people as they could find who had been at the concert. This was not done when Chatfield disappeared; even her close friends who were at the gig say they were not formally interviewed at the time.

Leleni says the woman’s behaviour was so unusual when they questioned her, they thought she might have known more about Chatfield’s disappearance and was covering it up. “It took a few visits by a female officer until she eventually explained everything that happened.” Police hoped the fact she had finally talked about something she had kept largely buried for so long would help her to heal.

“Even when she finally did break, that was the first thing she said: ‘You don’t believe me’. But once she understood that we did, and to us it had a significant relevance to what we were doing on every level… that’s when we realised how wide our net should be.”

A full scene examination was done, which unsurprisingly revealed nothing. However, as a result of the woman’s disclosure, police began looking for any-one with a record of suspicious behaviour in the university environs, not just for sexual offending, but even minor infringements such as trespassing. They also re-interviewed men who had been jailed for serious sexual violence.

“They were committing their offending at the time Joe went missing. We certainly put the wind up a couple of them, but there wasn’t any evidential link between them.”

Leleni believes that as relationships and loyalties change over the years, it is still possible for those who know what became of Joe Chatfield to come forward.

“Time can be an enemy in some ways, because people’s perception of what happened changes. But the good thing about it is the people who influenced someone to stay silent do move on. That’s one of the things about a cold case – you don’t know where you are going to get your answer from.”

Joe Chatfield (third from left in front row) as a fourth former at Onehunga High School in 1986. Her close friend, Jenny Stone, who was with her on the night she disappeared two years later, is second from right in the third row.
Joe Chatfield had big plans that weekend she went missing 30 years ago. She had her last day at Onehunga High School on Friday, the much-anticipated concert to attend on Saturday, and on Sunday, she was leaving home and moving into a flat.

The last reliable sighting of her was by one of her best friends, Jenny Stone, and Stone’s flatmate, Nigel Mison, immediately after the University of Auckland gig, at which two fringe ­multimedia and performance-art bands with cult followings – The Ministry of Compulsory Joy and Tinnitus – had played.

Stone says the show was “very confrontational, experimental and weird. It was gross.”

It involved “spontaneous theatre” – stage acts with simulated sex, videos and visuals including 8mm film and strobe lighting set on 16 cycles a second. It was, Compulsory Joy frontman Bruce Hubbard acknowledged at the time, intended to be disorienting.

There had been violent incidents at another Compulsory Joy gig at the university – Hubbard had his nose broken by an aggressive skinhead – after which he demanded the university change its security firm. But he told North & South this one attracted a smaller, quieter crowd. At about midnight, when the show was over, Stone and Mison were standing outside when they offered Chatfield a lift home. “She said, ‘No, I’m just going to go and crash under a bush,’” says Stone. Chatfield then walked down a path towards Symonds St. “I was concerned, but Joe was very headstrong, like we all were at that age.”

Chatfield may or may not have had a plan as to where she was heading that night, says Leleni. “It was clear the night wasn’t over for her. She might have got into a car with someone she knew, but I think that’s unlikely. The trouble with it is that if they knew her, the type of people she hung out with, it wouldn’t last long as a secret.”

Indeed, he says, what struck him during the re-investigation in the mid-2000s, was that everyone who was friendly with Chatfield, or knew her at all, “bent over backwards” to help. “Some were almost over-helpful: anything they could possibly remember they gave us, even if they weren’t 100% sure about it, which made our job a bit more difficult when you had to follow everything.”

They were, he says, “the wrong type of people” to have had anything to do with her disappearance and be able to keep it to themselves, making it more likely that the person who encountered her was a stranger. More realistically, he says, someone driving past happened across her, stopped and attacked her, dragging her into the car.

“It’s hard for me to prove, but that’s my general feeling. She wouldn’t be a pushover unless you were quite determined about what you were going to do. You’d avoid [her] – she gave an air of confidence about herself. I don’t think she’d come across as a victim if she was walking down the street… because of the way she’s dressed she’d be a little fiery, so you wouldn’t casually approach her if you didn’t have a specific purpose.”

Despite being the last person to see Chatfield alive – something that’s haunted her all her adult life – Jenny Stone says she can’t remember being asked to give a statement until the reinvestigation 20 years later.

“I was disappointed that they thought she’d just run away from home. It was ridiculous. I didn’t think they cared at that time. I felt they thought it didn’t matter anyway because it was [just] a teenager, and not even a normal teenager, an odd-looking teenager.”

Stone doesn’t have any theories about what happened after Chatfield walked away from the university that night. “I just wish I could see her again. It’s a massive gap in my life. But I’m a fairly positive person, so a piece of me always thinks she will show up one day.”

There have been conflicting reports about Chatfield’s demeanour at the gig, with several people reporting they saw her upset, or in tears. Stone recalls she was “just normal Joe”, but Mison, who now works for a natural health store, says she was upset at times – although he can’t remember what about – and also happy at others. “I remember her dancing and I thought she was drunk. I think there might have been a few tears. I think she was all over the place emotionally.”

Gig-goers also told police about seeing Joe sitting outside, appearing to help another girl who was “extremely intoxicated”, Leleni says. “Joe stood up – she had a can in her hand and threw it – and then ran through an area where there were seats outside, and started screaming. But it wasn’t a scream as if she was upset, but a scream as if she was really happy – saying, ‘Yahoo!’ for whatever reason. That was the closest we came to her being upset about something.”

He says other people police spoke to said Chatfield was quite lucid.

“We interviewed the barman, who said she was trying to chat him up so she could get free drinks. She probably had been drinking a fair bit, but not to the extent she’d be falling all over the place.”

Concert-goers reported little out of the ordinary as far as drug use at the event. Chatfield, like many teens, smoked dope, but there was no evidence she was into anything harder. Glyn Beaumont, another punk rocker and schoolmate of Chatfield’s at Onehunga High School, although a year younger, often attended gigs at the university with her. He says apart from cannabis, the drugs of choice were prescription pills. “Codeine and travel sickness pills crushed into vodka was pretty common.” But Chatfield always seemed “very responsible”, he says. The tightly knit punk followers at high school weren’t allowed to wear their mohawks up at school. At weekends, they’d use Lux flakes and hot water to style their hair into colourful spikes because they couldn’t afford gel.

In May, Beaumont asked for help on social media to find out how to access the police files, after getting no response from his calls to investigating officers. His search for information was triggered by another news story about a “cold case” that failed to include Chatfield on a list of missing people.

“Joanne’s parents don’t even have a body to bury, a gravesite to visit. It’s like she never existed.”

It was not unusual for Chatfield to walk home alone, or to a friend’s place, from gigs, as she planned to do on the night she vanished. The habit alarmed Warwick Jordan, owner of the Hard to Find Bookshop in Onehunga and a friend of Chatfield’s father, Bruce, from whom Claire had separated when Joe was four. Chatfield planned to move into a flat above the shop on the weekend she disappeared and had already moved some belongings in. Bruce Chatfield and another couple also flatted there.

Claire Chatfield wasn’t keen on Joe moving in with her dad, who she says wasn’t a good role model. Indeed, Bruce Chatfield, an itinerant with an alternative lifestyle, said at the time he planned to be a flatmate to Joe, rather than a father. But Joe was excited by the prospect of an independent lifestyle, and the fact the room she’d be shifting into was old and dark, with a broken windowpane. Jordan says he told her he’d get it fixed and she told him not to. “It was one of those weird little things I never changed because she wanted it that way.” He says it was in the same state when he finally left the Onehunga premises in June this year.

Chatfield met Jordan when she came to the shop to visit her father. She’d done some part-time work for Jordan, putting flyers for the bookshop under car windscreen wipers.

“The last conversation I had with her, she told me how she’d been at some party and had walked home at one in the morning. I said, ‘That’s mad.’ She said something like, ‘I’m a staunch woman and I have the right to do that.’ I said she absolutely had that right – but I wouldn’t do it and it’s just not safe.

“She felt she was entitled to do it and absolutely she did, but it doesn’t make it sensible.”

Although Joe Chatfield had entertained thoughts of becoming a journalist, she’d signed up for the dole a month before she left school, so the payments would start the week she finished. The inquest revealed that at the time she vanished, there was $1672.70 in her bank account – more evidence that she hadn’t simply run away.

Leleni says Chatfield was obviously looking forward to getting into her flat and making a life for herself, but the fact her new home was going to be in Onehunga – close to where her mother lived in Mangere Bridge – also typified the conflicted teen.

“She wanted to be out there, but she still had this really strong connection to her mother and wanted to be close to her.”

Friends Joe Chatfield (left), Jenny Stone and Lisa Heath shared a passion for animal rights. This photograph was taken in central Auckland on March 1988, eight months before Joe disappeared, as they collected signatures on Queen St for a petition opposing vivisection
Close friend Jenny Stone, who’s still passionate about animal rights and is involved with the Invercargill Vegan Society, describes Chatfield as “a bit of an outsider. I think some people for whatever reason found it difficult to accept her as part of the punk community. They saw her as what you would call a try-hard, where you dress up to look like something but you’re not really that 100%. But she was 100%.”

Stone and Chatfield were in a sixth-form journalism class at Onehunga High. “We were told we could write an article about whatever we wanted, and Joe and I did an article about our visit to a slaughterhouse in south Auckland. It was pretty horrific for both of us. We were taunted by the workers and had bits of animal thrown at us as a joke. We saw the cattle being stunned and strung up on the conveyor belt and having their throats slit and their insides cut out and chopped up. We both knew that’s what happened, but we were more traumatised by the attitude of the workers and how they didn’t get how horrific it was. Of course, if they did, they wouldn’t work there.”

The girls were regulars in Queen St on Friday nights, collecting signatures for an anti-vivisection petition, and it’s there Chatfield came into contact with the Church of Scientology, with whom she completed a questionnaire. After she disappeared, a letter from the church arrived for her, asking her to come and retrieve the results of the test, followed by another offering her a job. Police said the test had been done in 1987.

Chatfield and several of her friends were also in contact with the Anarchists’ Alliance of Aotearoa, run by Bruce Grenville. He was in the printing trade and published The State Adversary, the alliance’s magazine. Chatfield wrote an article for the December 1988 issue, condemning the then-Department of Social Welfare.

Grenville was at the Saturday night gig and was among those interviewed by police in 2005. Warwick Jordan says he also knew Grenville, who flatted in West Auckland with some Head Hunters gang members, although he was not a member himself. Jordan says there was a suggestion Chatfield had visited him there some weeks before she disappeared, apparently to talk about an anti-McDonald’s campaign. Grenville posted on a punk blog about the reinvestigation, warning of the possibility “the pigs” were conducting an “anti- punk campaign”.

Claire Chatfield says the weekend Joe disappeared, she’d bought her some groceries for the new flat – a sign she’d reluctantly accepted her moving out. She last saw her daughter about 7pm on the Saturday night, when Joe hugged her goodbye and left to bus into town for the gig, wearing a black mini-dress, black crocheted top, a long coat and her trademark black leather choker.

Jordan says during the reinvestigation in 2006, police seemed to take an interest in an orange car parked at the back of his bookshop, and in a couple who also flatted there; he got the impression they were interested in a party they and Bruce Chatfield had held there the previous week, when Jordan was staying on Waiheke Island. But, like all the other leads, this came to nothing. Jordan believes he became a police suspect. During a six-hour interview in 2006, he was repeatedly asked about his own alibi for the time Chatfield went missing.

The Chatfield investigation threw up many such time-consuming red herrings. Among them were reported sightings in Titirangi – a householder said he’d found a frightened and distressed girl resembling Chatfield in bush near his Huia Rd home, but she’d run off – and King’s Cross, Sydney. The West Auckland report interested police because Joe, Claire Chatfield and Claire’s partner Andy had attended a party at the house several weeks before where the former owner, a friend of Claire’s, was celebrating the property’s sale. The Sydney “sighting”, in February 1989, was from a former teacher of Joe’s at Onehunga High, who said she was sure she saw Joe crossing the road in front of her with a group of girls. “I knew she’d been missing but I saw her there and just assumed she must have turned up and was now in Sydney,” she told More magazine writer Lyn Loates.

Jordan says Chatfield had been obsessed with Nancy Spungen, the American girlfriend of the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious in the 1970s. Spungen had become a stripper and prostitute in New York in her teens. After the teacher’s sighting, Jordan flew to Sydney to search for the girl the teacher had seen.

“I went to every strip club and sat there for hours. It was amusing for the first 10 minutes but so boring after that. Eventually I found someone who looked a hell of a lot like Joe from 20m away. But I talked to her for a few minutes and she had a very strong Australian accent and it definitely wasn’t Joe. She wasn’t evasive, she just wondered what the hell was I talking about.”

A Crimewatch reconstruction that screened on television in April 1989 produced a flurry of phone calls, including one from a taxi driver who said he’d picked up Chatfield from a rank in Victoria St between midnight and 1am on either the Saturday or Sunday morning on the weekend she went missing. He said she was distressed, had only $4, and asked him to take her to Upper Symonds St, where he dropped her off. “I didn’t think it was a safe or savoury place to drop a young girl at that time and I told her so,” he told Loates. “I told her I’d take her home and her parents could fix me up with the fare.” But the girl was adamant to be let out because she had to make a call. He last saw her heading towards a phone booth close by.

Leleni says police can’t discount the driver’s story, but are unconvinced. “If she’s only got $4, Joe doesn’t strike me as the kind who’s going to waste it on a taxi drive a couple of hundred metres up the road. She’d rather walk all the way to Mangere than ask for help.”

A number of the post-Crimewatch reports had Chatfield hitchhiking towards the South Island, but Leleni says those sightings were astray too, though well-intentioned. He believes they’d confused Chatfield with her friend Jenny Stone, who was in the re-enactment and had hitchhiked south.

Then there was the troubling phone call from an unknown man to Claire Chatfield a week after Joe was last seen. The man told her Chatfield was staying with him for about three weeks, that she didn’t want to see her mother and “would see her when he’d sorted out the problem”. A woman in the background was urging him to hang up, apparently in case the phone was bugged. “They [police] tapped my phone after that call,” Claire Chatfield says, “but they could have traced it if they’d tapped it before.”

Former community constables Anne Marie Harvey and Alf Filipaina, who were in charge of the missing persons file in the weeks and months after Chatfield’s disappearance. Photo/Ken Downie/North & South
Joe Chatfield was not only in the wrong place at the wrong time – she was in the wrong era. If she’d disappeared in November 2018 rather than November 1988, it’s unlikely her fate would still be a mystery.

As soon as she left the gig, CCTV cameras on almost every building would have tracked her movements towards Symonds St and through the streets beyond. Smartphone cameras would have captured the concert, and concert-goers and the images spread via Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and elsewhere, allowing police to track who was there, potentially who she was with, and when. Wrist-band scans would have registered when she entered and left the venue.

When fears grew on Sunday about her whereabouts, social media posts on Facebook and Twitter by her family and others would have instantly spread the news to thousands of people, triggering potential sightings earlier. If she had caught a bus or taxi, her movements would have been recorded on Eftpos or Hop cards; any calls or texts she made on her mobile would have been linked to the nearest cellphone tower. In 1988, the first the public knew about  Chatfield’s disappearance was a seven-paragraph story on page four of the Auckland Star on Friday 25 November, under the headline “Fears for teenager”.

New technology has enabled action to be taken a lot more quickly, says Detective Sergeant Lisa Harrington of the Missing Persons Unit at police national headquarters. Chatfield’s friends have criticised police for treating her disappearance as a missing person rather than a potential homicide from the start, and Harrington says today, her case would be classed as high priority because of her age. Calls are made on each file depending on the circumstances, she says, including age and vulnerability. In the past year, more than 2300 teenagers were reported missing.

Warwick Jordan says he repeatedly pushed the police to escalate the inquiry. “I was phoning the cops and saying, ‘Why are you not doing your jobs?’ They said, ‘She is just a missing person.’ I said, ‘I don’t believe it, I don’t believe she wouldn’t get in touch.’ I was rattling their cage as much as I could. They made the assumption she was just off on a bender somewhere and just left it and let the whole thing go cold.

“Police didn’t get a handle on her personality. They thought she was a party animal who could be off being outrageous somewhere. She wasn’t outrageous. I think she liked the outrageous image but she wasn’t a hardcore partying person at all. She played soccer on her mum’s soccer team. By the time they realised she wasn’t a runaway, it was way too late.”

But former community constables Anne Marie Harvey and Alf Filipaina, who were in charge of the missing persons file in the weeks and months after Chatfield’s disappearance, believe it was taken seriously from the start. They called on halfway houses, Salvation Army and church hostels, and flats where punk rockers lived together. “Nothing was ever put in front of us to say it was anything other than a missing person, and every inquiry we got we followed up,” says Harvey. “No one said anything that would make you alarmed. She was never seen walking off with someone at the gig who might have looked untoward; she was never seen pushed into a car. The moment she left the gig, that was it.”

She says every time a body is found, she thinks of Chatfield. “I just hope she wanted to get out of here, and is in Timbuktu or Australia. But I don’t think I could go all that time without making contact with my mother.” Harvey handled two or three reports of missing people every week. Almost invariably, they turned up again after a few days. Joe Chatfield is the only one who did not come home.

Claire Chatfield developed a close relationship with Harvey and Filipaina, but she believes the investigation “fell between the cracks” higher up in CIB. “They didn’t know how to handle it. I don’t think they knew what to do. She was one of the first girls of that age to go missing. If she’d been younger… or a prostitute…. or even older. But she was in that age group that I think she fell between the cracks.”

Claire Chatfield says when police called “out of the blue” to say the inquiry was being reopened in the mid-2000s, they told her it had been “mishandled” and “they had found things that should have been done that weren’t”.

She thinks she was probably in tears at the time. “I felt judgment calls had been made because of how she dressed.”

Not so, say Filipaina and Harvey. “You get people you would look at sometimes and think, ‘Oh, the gothic look. Oh heck, I’m really worried about where they are heading,’ but not for a minute did I get that impression [with Joe],” says Filipaina, who is now an Auckland City councillor. Harvey agrees. “I would say deep down she was a neat kid, a lovely kid who wanted to do things a bit differently, to be a little different. She wasn’t on a downward spiral or anything.”

Coincidentally, Harvey happened to see Chatfield about a week before she disappeared. “I was doing my foot patrol at the Mangere Bridge shops and she was in the chemist. I couldn’t believe it when the file came in, because I’d said to someone [at the time], ‘Who’s that?’ They said, ‘Oh that’s one of the local kids, Joanne Chatfield, she’s a really nice girl.’ She dressed differently, but she was accepted.”

Dylan Bullock met Chatfield when they both attended Manukau (now Royal Oak) Intermediate School. “I was totally in love with her.” Photo/Ken Downie/North & South
Certainly, Chatfield’s many kindnesses to her friends left a lasting impression on them. One is Dylan Bullock, now 46, who in 1985 was hit by a car and nearly killed crossing the road, leaving him with brain damage and impaired speech, and unable to walk. He met Chatfield when they both attended Manukau (now Royal Oak) Intermediate School. “She was the sweetest girl.” They were both into animal rights and punk music.

He was in hospital for six months after he was hurt. When he came home, Chatfield would turn up every Saturday and take him out in his chair, often to the Manukau Harbour foreshore. Fearing his other friends were tiring of visiting him, he had told them he was fine, that they didn’t need to come anymore. Either he never told Chatfield, or she took no notice, because she kept visiting anyway. One day, he says he put his head back and looked up at her as she wheeled him down the street. She bent down and kissed him. “She really kissed me. I was totally in love with her.”

Bullock has had photographs of the most important people in his life framed in a composite image on his bedroom wall. There’s his mum, dad, grandma, grandpa, his dog Ben – and Joe Chatfield.

Chatfield also regularly visited Theresa Steele, an octogenarian Scot she met when selling raffle tickets at a retirement village. Steele last saw her on 17 November – two days before the university gig. Steele told More’s Lyn Loates the pair had stimulating conversations on a wide range of subjects, but that Chatfield seemed a “lonely little girl” who never appeared happy.

Chatfield’s friend Glyn Beaumont, however, saw another side. “Even though she was a punk like the rest of us, she was nice and she was happy and she was friendly. I don’t think Joe was disillusioned with life but she certainly wanted to go against the norm, to rage against the machine. The scene was nasty and self-destructive but that wasn’t her, and that’s why I remember her. Other people would turn on you and act in their self-interest, perhaps because they’re used to being ostracised and ripped off. But she wasn’t like that. She was something bright in a dark miasma.”

When asked to describe her daughter, Claire Chatfield inadvertently slips into past tense. “She was bright, not dark. She was kind and caring. She was a gentle soul.” She holds on to the hope her only child has somehow been brainwashed or kidnapped by a cult and is still alive and well. The alternative is not a prospect she can bear. 

  • Do you know what happened to Joe Chatfield? Please call any police station – referencing Operation Chatfield; contact Crimestoppers on (0800) 555 111; or phone Detective Sergeant Len Leleni on (021) 191 0626.

This article was first published in the December 2018 issue of North & South.

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