Friday, June 17, 2005

Back in 2000, I bought a book by Tony Williams titled “Unsolved Murders In New Zealand”. Out for dinner sometime soon after, my then 16 year old sister was talking about an assignment she needed to complete called a “History Mystery”, which, as the title suggests, is reporting and analysing a mystery from the past. I suggested one of the stories I had just learnt about from Williams’ book, that of the 1969 murder of Jennifer Beard, one that was never solved. It then came to pass that Dad, having worked in the CIB, had worked with Emmett Mitten, the Det Insp in charge of the inquiry at the time. For the purposes of a 6th form assignment, there was not a lot of information readily available. Philippa, therefore, decided to research another mystery, but my interest in the Jennifer Beard inquiry was piqued.

The only information readily available about Beard’s murder was to be found in ancient copies of the Press and the Christchurch Star on microfiche at the library, as well as a chapter in George Joseph’s “By person or persons unknown,” and the aforementioned Williams book. In the intervening year, my journalistic ambitions grew stronger, and I ended up contributing some bits and pieces to a crime website. It was early in 2001 that I contacted Mr Mitten about interviewing him in regards to the inquiry that he has lived with since early 1970.

It was a good interview, and being the first one I really had conducted, I probably didn't ask all the questions I should have. I collated what I had learnt from the Mitten interview plus a few pieces from newspapers of the time, and wrote an article about the murder. And that was that.

This year, a book has been released about the murder, written by Dunedin journalist Mark Price. He obviously finds the whole thing as eminently fascinating as I do. If the facts of the case had been a little different, if the dice of fate had fallen in a different place, and a person had been made to answer for the girl’s death, then there wouldn’t be half the story there is now.

So what happened? One of the first New Zealand “whodunits”. A British backpacker, travelling round the South Island over the Xmas-New Years period in 1969-70 goes missing. She was meeting her boyfriend, Reg Williams, down in Milford on the 8th January and simply didn’t turn up as agreed. Williams was duly worried, and contacted the police. A few people had noticed her on the West Coast while she was travelling; a tall attractive blonde; English accent, sweet-natured, carrying a heavy pack and camera…a few people also noticed her in the company of a middle aged man on or about New Years Eve. She was seen in his Vauxhall between Franz Joseph and Haast on New Years' Eve day. So when Reg reported her as missing, the police instigated a search for her between the gates of the Haast and Franz Joseph Glacier. Sparsely populated, with gravel roads, swamps, dense bush and fast flowing rivers, the police were not optimistic about finding her.

But find her they did, after an interview with a motorist, on the evening January 19. Her body was lying near the Haast River, underneath the northern span of the Haast River Bridge. The heat, ravenous insects and probable rise and fall of the river had done little to halt the decomposition of her body; by the time she was found, there wasn’t enough flesh on her fingers for fingerprint identification. From the position her clothes were in, it appeared she has been in the middle of relieving herself in the privacy of the area, when she had been interrupted by another party who had attempted to rip the top part of her clothes off, and that she had died during the attack and left there. Police were of the opinion that the last person she had been seen with was the person responsible. As Mitten theorised, “this is a guy who has done something on the spur of the moment… it would be a feeling of total panic. Not your cold calculating killer.”

The person who was widely reported to be the prime suspect was a truck driver form Timaru who fitted the description of the person she had been seen with, and whose car was similar to that described. His name was also found on a receipt, that was tightly scrunched up in the pocket of pair of trousers found 100 metres from Beard’s body. For reasons that I won’t go into, it was decided by the police that this man would not be charged. So this person was never made to answer this case in court, and the case remains officially unsolved.

Few things trouble me about Price’s book. It is skilfully written and examined, and he has clearly conducted much more research into the whole story than I would ever hope or want to do myself. What disappointments me a little, is that the focus is on the very end of Beard’s life. There is very little in it to paint any sort of portrait of this woman whose life was so sadly snuffed out it its prime, which to me is the real tragedy.
Here are some links anyway...

Welsh webpage
NZ Herald

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