Kurt Bayer is a Herald reporter based in Christchurch

Inquests a step closer to closure

Five families, some of whom have been waiting for 20 years, will get hearing today on fate of missing loved ones

Jack and Barbara Beresford want closure. Photo / Natalie Slade
Jack and Barbara Beresford want closure. Photo / Natalie Slade

Five families whose loved ones vanished without trace will today hear what a coroner thinks happened to them.

Some of them have been waiting more than 20 years for resolution and today they hope to get that when two coroners hold inquests in Auckland for five missing people.

"It's been a long time coming. It would have been nicer for this to have happened sooner," said Barbara Beresford, whose 48-year-old son Michael went fishing at one of his favourite Bethells Beach spots on June 30, 2006, and was never seen again. "We accepted the fact that Michael wasn't coming home within the first week."

Others still hold out hope.

Sarah Godwin, whose son Quentin, 18, was last seen leaving the family home in Titirangi about 4.30pm on May 20, 1992, has been a vocal campaigner for the rights of the families of missing people.

"You're driving down the road and you're looking at people walking up the street to see if you can see their faces," she told the Herald two years ago.

Mr Godwin's case was also to be heard today but will be reviewed finally at a future inquest.

Quentin Godwin
Quentin Godwin

Between 8,000 and 9,000 people are reported missing in New Zealand every year, police say. The Missing Persons Unit has about 350-500 cases to look into at any one time.

On its website, which highlights individual cases and where people can be reported as missing, some cases date back to 1978.

Such longstanding cases leave families wondering and, in some cases, still battling to receive insurance payouts without a final cause of death and death certificate.

The Chief Coroner, Judge Neil MacLean, has now issued a directive to "clear up the historical" cases and to process clear-cut observed disappearances more quickly.

"Family members need that closure," Judge MacLean said. "They often hang onto a glimmer of hope that one day they will walk through the door. We had that after the (February 22, 2011) earthquake. People just couldn't accept their loved one was dead without any trace being found - perhaps they had a knock on the head and wandered off somewhere else and started a new life."

A misconception about missing people was that families had to wait seven years before cases could be closed. "That's simply not true."

If there is enough evidence to prove a missing person has died, the coroner can move quickly.

After the Pike River mining disaster, Judge MacLean carried out inquests into the deaths of the 29 miners within two months.

"It hopefully gives some closure to the families, but also enables the coroner to arrange for a death certificate to be issued, and that magical document is often the key to unlocking things like insurance proceeds.

"When someone dies it's all very straightforward. But when someone disappears completely with no trace, often the widow or the family can strike all sorts of problems about persuading a government department or insurance company that, 'Look, my husband really is dead, and can't we sort that out'.

"So now we are making a concerted effort to try and clean up some historic stuff, but also cases of observed disappearance."

Coronial Services is working more closely with police to ensure they can both bring a swifter conclusion to open-and-shut cases.

Coroner Sarn Herdson is liaising directly and regularly with Detective Sergeant Linda Simpson, head of the Missing Persons Unit.

The disappearance of Marlborough winegrower Craig Partridge, 45, who was seen falling off a launch in Queen Charlotte Sound early on September 3, was a case in point, Judge MacLean said. It is set to go to an inquest, and he said it was a "relatively straightforward" case.

But it was the more mysterious cases where people appeared to have "fallen off the face of the earth" that were more problematic for police, the coroner and families, he said.

"It's not unknown for people to just wander off and start a new life, jump on a boat. It's harder now than it used to be, but it still happens.

"It can be someone who lives alone, and then suddenly someone thinks, 'Gee, we haven't seen Uncle Ted for ages, I wonder what's happened.' And after some inquiries, there is no trace of Uncle Ted, his benefit has not been collected, etc. Those cases are much harder.

"Often our decision is based on the best evidence we can get. There's all the routine things, like no activity on the bank accounts, no one has seen hide nor hair of them, and we get as much information as we can.

"The key thing under the act is that the coroner must be satisfied that the person is dead and that their body is destroyed, irrecoverable or lost, but was in New Zealand immediately before that happened."

Barbara and Jack Beresford, of Henderson, will be at their son's inquest today in the hope of some "finality" after more than seven years.

They know it won't be an easy thing to sit through today, but 81-year-old Mrs Beresford says: "It's not the end of the memories, but it's the final part of that story, I suppose."

Without a trace

Michael Charles Beresford, Massey, Auckland - Mr Beresford, an experienced fisherman, was 48 when he went fishing at Bethells Beach on June 30, 2006. He was reported missing by his family three days later. They searched the coastline, but found only his jacket at nearby Muriwai.

Andrew John Dawson, Warkworth, Auckland - Police believe that Mr Dawson, who was 21 when he disappeared, went hunting in the Waiwhiu Valley and has never been seen since. He was reported missing by his family on April 1, 1987. His motorcycle and helmet, gloves and leather rifle case were found in the forest.

Peter Robert Austyn, Titirangi, Auckland - The 64-year-old was last seen by his landlady riding a bicycle on February 25, 1993. His landlady reported him missing on March 2, 1993. His bike was located 12 days later a short distance from where he was last seen.

Ang Ja Lee, Avondale Auckland - On January 19, 1991, the 35-year-old went fishing at Piha Beach. His wife reported him missing a month later and his vehicle was located parked at Marine Parade, Piha.

Heather Carroll - Details could not be released before the hearing.

Church salvation for separated families

Families desperate to find missing loved ones often don't know where to begin their search. While using police and official channels, dozens of people also go to the Salvation Army's Family Tracing Service every year for help.

Major Pam Waugh, territorial community ministries secretary, says they have a dedicated team of two who search the globe tracking down family members for a variety of reasons including adoption, family rifts or separations, or those who have simply lost contact.

Last year, they opened almost 150 cases. A further 242 were closed, with 33 unsuccessful hunts, 129 successful traces, and 80 which were withdrawn - usually after a quick result when no file was required.

They have a 70 per cent success rate but don't always return with good news. "We've had cases where, very sadly, we've found that someone has passed away, and having to bring that news to a family member is distressing, but it gives them closure," said Major Waugh.

• The Salvation Army has launched its Christmas Appeal for thousands of New Zealanders struggling to meet basic needs. Donate online, or phone 0800 53 00 00 to donate by credit card.

Post cheques to The Salvation Army, PO Box 27001 Marion Square, Wellington 6141, specifying Christmas Appeal. More details at salvationarmy.org.nz.


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