Lynley Bilby is a reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Tracey Ann Patient killing: The 40-year murder mystery that has haunted NZ

Police have announced a breakthrough in one of New Zealand's biggest unsolved murder mysteries. Tomorrow marks forty years to the day since Tracey Ann Patient went missing while walking home from a friend's house in the Auckland suburb of Henderson.

The 13-year-old was found strangled by pantyhose in the bush of the Waitakere Ranges on January 30, 1976. Her murder remains unsolved.

Former detective Graham Bell said the case, the only unsolved murder he'd ever worked on, still haunted him 40 years later. "These things rankle you, they never leave you really. It has definitely stuck in my mind. It's been a real mystery."

READ MORE: NZ's most high-profile cold cases
Haunted sister lives in hope

Mr Bell said he hoped for the sake of Tracey Ann's family the killer might still be caught all these years later. "Somewhere out there one hopes the killer is out there and alive and able to be brought to justice."


He said despite promising new information coming to nothing in the past, he was hopeful that this time police had what they needed to find Tracey Ann's killer.

"You've got to be optimistic don't you," he told the Herald.

"I'm always encouraged to hear news like this, it's been a long time but it's always in the back of your mind when you've worked on a murder that remains unsolved."

Mr Bell was part of the original team working on the case in 1976, working on the suspects elements of the inquiry.

He was later moved off the case when he was transferred out of Auckland and is now retired.

Meanwhile a team of detectives have been working on the cold case since November and following fresh lines of inquiry, including interviewing people in Australia in a bid to find her killer.

The day she went missing


In video footage released by police, Tracey's family remembered the day she went missing.

Tracey's sister Debbie said: "I can remember it clearly. I can remember coming back. She was about half an hour later than she was meant to be Dad and I were in the car; we just went around in Henderson in the town, and we couldn't find her."

Debbie said going to The Doobie Brothers was the "regret of her life".

The murder happened on a summer night during school holidays. The Doobie Brothers were playing a concert at Western Springs so there were a lot of people around.

Debbie had been allowed to go to the concert so Tracey wanted to do something as well. Tracey went to a friend's house but never came home.

Despite police looking at over 850 suspects in the past 40 years, the offender has never been identified.

Debbie said going to The Doobie Brothers was the "regret of her life".

"She was walking up the road slightly behind me and I never turned around, I just went: 'Oh, okay bye, see you later' and went off.

"I just so so regret not turning around. Looking back how are you supposed to know that's the last time you're going to see somebody."

Detective Senior Sergeant Murray Free, who has been working on the case for the past 12 years, said Tracey's family felt like the murder only happened yesterday, despite 40 years passing.

"For them it is very real. It was their daughter; their sister, and for her life to be snatched like that ... as I say, it still affects them today."

Tracey Ann Patient and her sister Debbie Patient (now Debbie Sheppard). Photo / Supplied
Tracey Ann Patient and her sister Debbie Patient (now Debbie Sheppard). Photo / Supplied

Debbie remembered her father coming home the next morning and saying Tracey wasn't going to come home. He said "someone killed her" and burst in to tears.

"I remember my sister [Denise], she was only 8, going 'noooo, noooo'. She says she remembers me taking her into the bedroom. I don't really remember much after that."

Debbie said Tracey was "a bit of a practical joker".

"I just kept thinking she was going to come walking up and go, 'ah, fooled you, it's a joke'.

"Then every night-time you go to sleep, wake up in the morning, and it's about two seconds before you realise, and it's like ah, you think you've had a dream or something. [It's] just awful; so so hard to cope with."

Debbie said she didn't forgive the murderer. "I hope that person's had an awful, awful life ...

"I hope they've thought about it, if not every day, I hope it's been on their mind and I'd love for them to give themselves up."

Mr Free believed someone knew who was responsible for the murder.

"Loyalties change over time. We want that key information to come through to us."

Debbie then reads a letter written by her younger sister Denise, who was 8 when Tracey was killed.

'I can't remember my sister'


Denise, now Denise Margerum, wrote: "The saddest thing for me is that I can't remember my sister.

"Whether that was due to my age when it happened, or my memory blocking out the part of New Zealand I don't know, and to put that down on paper really hurts because I feel so guilty I can't remember.

"I do have memories of the night that she went missing and my dad coming in crying, telling us what happened.

"Since it happened, I've always been frightened of the dark. I vaguely remember going out with my family one time in the dark one night after it happened and shaking terribly.

"Over the years I've had terrible nightmares of someone trying to get me and always waking up just as they catch me.

"Because of what's happened to our family and how it's affected me, I've tried not to be really overprotective of my children and I'm still fighting a battle with myself when they go out, especially at night-time.

"I hope, as we all do, that something comes of it."

Tracey Ann Patient (L) and her sister Debbie. Photo / Supplied
Tracey Ann Patient (L) and her sister Debbie. Photo / Supplied

The investigation into Tracey's death has resumed full-time, with eight police staff working on it since November. Police are following up on new information and reviewing new information from the original inquiry.

"We would love to be able to solve this case; to catch Tracey's killer; to let the family, after all these years, know what happened to their little girl," Mr Free said.

What happened


On Thursday January 29, 1976, Tracey went to a friend's house in Chilcott Rd, Henderson.

She was due to be back home at her parent's house in Dellwood Avenue at 9.30pm.

Tracey's friend walked her halfway home to the intersection of Great North Rd and Edmonton Rd at around 9.30pm.

The last known sighting of Tracey was outside No 295 Great North Rd, Henderson.

She was only five minutes walk from her home.

The following morning a man walking his dog found Tracey's body in a bush area on Scenic Drive in the Waitakere Ranges.

The teenager had been strangled with a stocking and her body discarded just metres into the bush area.

Debbie said going to The Doobie Brothers concert was the "regret of her life".
Debbie said going to The Doobie Brothers concert was the "regret of her life".

A large-scale investigation was launched and over the following months police looked at hundreds of suspects and exhausted numerous lines of inquiry.

Nearly two years after Tracey's murder in November 1978 police received a phone call from an anonymous person who told them signet ring Tracey owned was in a rubbish bin outside a chemist in Avondale.

Officers went to the rubbish bin and found a ring inside, believed to have been the ring Tracey was wearing when she went missing and given to her by a boyfriend.

Despite more than 850 people profiled over the last 40 years no one has been charged with the teenager's murder.

Police have continued to receive hundreds of pieces of information about the case including theories around the mystery caller and possible suspects.

Police said the team of investigators based at Waitakere Police Station had been working fulltime on the case for the past three months.

Detectives are now following new leads

Detectives were now following new leads and are appealing for anyone with information on the case to call 0800 000 111.

Detective Sergeant Murray Free, who has been on the case for the past 12 years, is leading the investigation team, with oversight from Detective Inspector John Sutton.

"Despite forty years having passed, someone out there knows who did this.

The last known sighting of Tracey was outside No 295 Great North Rd, Henderson.
The last known sighting of Tracey was outside No 295 Great North Rd, Henderson.

To this day we still have people who ring us with information, and I'm pleased to say we are following new leads," said Detective Inspector Sutton.

"For forty years, the Patient family have lived with the absolute trauma of what happened to their daughter and sister, they have never known who took Tracey from them or why.

It is still incredibly fresh to them, as if she was stolen from them only yesterday," he said.

"The West Auckland community remember this well.

It was horrific; a 13 year-old girl with her whole life ahead of her, just minutes away from home and brutally murdered.

Someone out there knows who did this, and we are as determined to solve it now as we were back then."

Mr Free appealed for the person responsible for the crime to come forward and speak to police.

"It's been 40 years, it was a horrendous crime. I don't know how they can live with themselves.

"They need to come forward and get this off their chest."

Tracey's older sister Debbie has filmed an interview with police to help with the public appeal.

Tracey and her sisters.
Tracey and her sisters.

The eight minute video is available on the Waitemata Police Facebook page to give those not familiar with the case some idea of the story and the catastrophic effect the crime had on the family.

'Our hearts still ache in sadness'

In a tribute marking the 39th anniversary of her death, Tracey's parents John and June Patient wrote in a Herald online memory book about the heartache they carried nearly four decades on:


Our hearts still ache in sadness,

And secret tears still flow,

What it meant to lose you,

No one will ever know.

God bless, you are forever in our thoughts.

Mum & Dad. XX.

Case timeline

Jan 29, 1976: Tracey goes to a friend's house on Chilcott Rd, Henderson. The friend walks her halfway home to the intersection of Great North Rd and Edmonton Rd at about 9.30pm.

Tracey is last seen outside No295 Great North Rd, Henderson -- only five minutes walk from her home.

Jan 30, 1976: A man walking his dog finds Tracey's body in a bush area on Scenic Drive. She has been strangled with a stocking.

Next few months, 1976: Police launch large-scale investigation into the murder. Police investigate hundreds of suspects and follow numerous lines of inquiry.

Mar, 1976: Anonymous woman calls Youthline saying she saw a blonde girl, thought to be Tracey, on Great North Rd with a man in a brown suit. Both got into a brown car which drove off just after 9.30 pm. Despite public appeals, the woman caller is never found.

Nov, 1978: Anonymous caller tells police a signet ring Tracey owned is in a rubbish bin outside a chemist in Avondale. Officers find the ring, which Tracey was believed to be wearing when she went missing.

Jan 10, 2006: Airing of Sensing Murder episode in which psychics investigate the case.

Feb 1, 2010: Revelation police have interviewed a man in connection with the case.

Jan 29, 2011: Police say continued interest from media organisations has triggered several new tips from the public.

Nov, 2015: A team of eight police investigators relaunch fulltime investigation into the case.

Jan 28, 2016: Police reveal they are following new leads in the case.

Jan 29, 2016: The 40-year anniversary of Tracey's disappearance.

- Additional reporting Tess Nichol and Catherine Gaffaney

- NZ Herald

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