Man will never be found: Coroner

By Rosaleen Macbrayne

Philip John Cowan disappeared in 2001. Photo / File
Philip John Cowan disappeared in 2001. Photo / File

The grieving parents of a Hawkes Bay man missing for close to 11 years have no body, no grave to visit, and no one to hold accountable for the death of their son.

Now, they say, the outcome of a coroner's hearing has offered them little comfort. But they cling to the hope that his remains will eventually be recovered.

Napier accountant Simon Cowan and his wife Cathy, along with their other sons Stewart and Hamish, have been told their middle child, Philip Cowan, died on or about March 5, 2001, at the hands of a person or persons unknown.

Wellington coroner Garry Evans, who held an inquest earlier this month, has issued a written ruling that the then 26-year-old's body was destroyed, irrecoverable or lost, and that the place and cause of his death are undetermined.

Police believe the cannabis grower and distributor - whose family became aware of his drug links only after he disappeared - was murdered by criminal drug associates about the time his cannabis plantation was ready to be harvested.

After the years of uncertainty and the emotional inquest, the Coroner's Court fixture in Wellington "basically didn't change anything much," Simon Cowan told APNZ tonight.

"In one sense it doesn't leave us in any position we weren't in before. It's just staggering it has taken 10 years. We shouldn't have had to wait that long (for a ruling)."

Philip was particularly close to his mother, who kept a "glimmer of hope" that he was still alive.

"But that's a bit of a tease really," said Mr Cowan who, having studied the police evidence and done some research of his own over the years, is "as sure as you can be that he is dead."

He believes Philip was murdered but that there is a "pretty faint chance" anyone will be brought to justice.

In 2003, three men went on trial for Philip Cowan's murder. The Crown called 124 witnesses over 10 weeks but the jury never got to decide guilt or innocence. The judge ruled that unsound evidence was "contaminated and unsafe," prejudicing the trio's rights to a fair hearing.

They were discharged. Effectively it was an acquittal and the men cannot be recharged.

"There is no path to go down now," Mr Cowan said.

He recalled the young Philip - always a thinker who fancied himself as a philosopher - going off to Victoria University to study design. More "arty and earthy" than his brothers, Philip was getting restless by the time he went back for a second year of study and soon told his parents that he was dropping out.

From then on, he developed a transient lifestyle but kept in regular touch and always came home for family events.

He was unemployed, travelled around New Zealand frequently but kept a flat in Hastings which he shared with a girlfriend. There was no indication to his parents that he was either using or distributing drugs.

His family was surprised when police, looking for Philip after he disappeared during a visit to Wellington, found a detailed business plan documenting what he wanted to do with his possible stash of cannabis money.

A week after he was last seen, Philip's car was found dumped in the Manawatu town of Bulls - a place where he did not appear to have any contacts.

There was talk that his body may have been buried in the Tangimoana Forest near Bulls but it has never been found.

Philip Cowan's family - who still feel "fairly empty and frustrated" - has built a memorial seat on Sugarloaf Hill at Taradale. It looks over the house where the three brothers grew up and also has sweeping views of Napier's scenic sea and landscape.

They held a service there on the 10th anniversary of Philip's disappearance in March this year.

And the Cowans have established the White Heart Remembrance Trust for other victims who, like them, never had a chance to say goodbye.

- APNZ

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf02 at 27 Nov 2014 13:54:06 Processing Time: 1002ms