Dive teams, helicopter, to join search for Emma Agnew (+video)

By Jarrod Booker

Police dive teams and a helicopter equipped with a heat-seeking device are expected to join the search for missing deaf Christchurch woman Emma Agnew from tomorrow.

The chopper will be used to sweep forest and bush in the Brooklands area, north of Christchurch, after ground searchers working in temperatures of nearly 30degC today hunted unsuccessfully for any clues to the whereabouts of the missing 20-year-old.

Forty-four police officers - including search and rescue and specialist teams - have been scouring a forest block north of the city for Ms Agnew, who has been missing for a week.

Searchers have been battling thick scrub and gorse as they conduct the search, and are using police dogs.

Police won't concede they are now looking for a body and refuse to say why they are concentrating their searches in the Spencer Park area - a 47 hectare recreation area adjoining Brooklands Lagoon, a popular beachside holiday camping spot some 16km north of Christchurch.

The focus suggests the search has narrowed and intensified, although police are keeping mum on the new turn of events.

Police now believe Ms Agnew's car was driven around the northern suburbs of Christchurch during the day she disappeared and may have been left in Bromley Park well before it was found.

Detective Inspector Tom Fitzgerald, heading the official missing persons inquiry, said today it was possible someone unconnected with Ms Agnew's disappearance had set fire to the car.

He said the case was still being treated as a missing persons investigation.

He said anyone in that situation could approach police with information without fear of prosecution.

Mr Fitzgerald said searching would continue tomorrow and a helicopter equipped with a heat-seeking device would sweep the area in the cool of the early morning.

"We'll do an intensive search again tomorrow through a number of areas in the greater Spencerville area," he said.

Searchers today had turned up nothing of interest to the inquiry, Mr Fitzgerald said.

Conditions, with temperatures in the high 20s were difficult.

"Obviously it's been a fairly hot day out there and we've got a lot of tired searchers," he said.

Mr Fitzgerald said police were still fielding calls from the public offering possible sightings of Ms Agnew's car. These were being checked.

People who communicated with Ms Agnew on the morning she went missing were still helping police.

"No one's been ruled out (of the investigation)," he said.

"We've spoken to a number of people and it's been a week of refining down those inquiries, corroborating what those people have told us, and that will continue.

"Clearly the people of interest to us are people who have communicated with Emma both on Thursday and prior to that," he said.

Ms Agnew's family are trying to remain positive seven days after she was last heard from, and still believe she may be alive.

But Mr Fitzgerald earlier said the shift in the police inquiry was troubling for the family.

"Obviously it puts a lot of things in their minds, so it's difficult for them."

Mr Fitzgerald said the search areas were dictated by a number of things police had worked on over the past week.

Spencer Park is a semi-rural 47ha park adjoining the Brooklands Lagoon - a popular beachside holiday camping spot.

Some households, linked to "people of interest", had been searched.

"Obviously we are looking for anything that could lead us to Emma."

Ms Agnew, who was profoundly deaf, was last heard from on Thursday morning via the two cellphones she used for texting. Her red Mazda Familia car was also seen then being driven in the northern suburbs.

The car was set alight that night in the city's Bromley Park.

It is believed Ms Agnew had been in contact with someone wishing to buy her car before she disappeared.

None of her missing belongings, including the cellphones, have been found.

Ms Agnew's aunt Evelyn Pateman said her family remained "hopeful" of a positive outcome. "We don't want to be any other way."

She strongly discounted any suggestion Ms Agnew might have wanted some "time out" and had engineered her own disappearance.

"No way. Definitely not. She would never just take off and not let people know where she was going or what she was doing. She was always in touch with her family though texting."

Ms Pateman said it would be "very unusual" for Ms Agnew's family not to hear from her at least two or three times a day. "She was always popping around to the family home."

The family had no theories about what might have happened to a young woman described as bubbly, vivacious and intelligent and who was enjoying life to the fullest.

"We just can't fathom what's happened to her, why it's happened to her, who would do this if somebody is involved and why somebody hasn't come forward," Ms Pateman said.

"We want her home."

Mr Fitzgerald said police were still treating Ms Agnew's disappearance as a missing person inquiry rather than a homicide case.

VIGIL TO HELP ANXIOUS FAMILY

Maureen Meanwell has never met Emma Agnew.

But like many New Zealanders she was deeply moved by the plight of the deaf woman's distraught family, so decided she had to do something.

She approached Christchurch's anxious deaf community and, with their approval, organised a prayer vigil attended by more than 100 people yesterday at New Brighton beach.

"It was really loving. That's what I could feel," Mrs Meanwell told the Herald.

"It was the love for Emma and her family. It was really quite something to witness."

Mrs Meanwell said even if people didn't believe in the power of prayer, the law of attraction meant the gathering of people "has to have a big impact".

"I'm a mother myself, so I couldn't begin to imagine what it would be like to be in this situation.

"At a time like this, the wider community wants to do something to help, but if you don't know the family you don't feel you can do anything to help."

Meanwhile, police say they have been approached by several people claiming to be psychics with information about Ms Agnew's disappearance.

Detective Inspector Tom Fitzgerald said staff were recording the information "but when we run an inquiry we deal in facts".

- with NZPA

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