Kurt Bayer is a Herald reporter based in Christchurch

Whatever happened to Mike?

Missing 11 year old Mike Zhao-Beckenridge. Photo / Supplied
Missing 11 year old Mike Zhao-Beckenridge. Photo / Supplied

Mike Zhao-Beckenridge would now be 12 years old. He should be thinking about starting high school next year. A new season of winter sports. Playing with his mates.

Instead, he's dead at sea, or hiding underground with his mysterious Swedish-born step-father.

The last time anyone saw him alive was on March 17 last year, four days after he was taken by 64-year-old John Beckenridge from James Hargest College's junior school in Invercargill during the lunch break, in breach of a parenting order.

A few days later, they got gas at the Tokanui garage, 55km east of Invercargill, in an exchange captured on CCTV. They bought supplies next door. Tokanui general store's Kevin Millard recalls the boy being happy, and seemingly bigger, taller, less of a child, than the images would suggest that appeared in local and ¬national media over the next days, weeks, months and now a year.

Three days after that exchange, a text message was sent by Beckenridge to his friends, lawyer and ex-wife - Mike's mother - Fiona Lu.

The tenor of those messages was one of "goodbye", the Herald on Sunday has been told.
Cellphone data pinpoints it being sent from the Catlins area at the bottom of New Zealand.

Hours later, the dark-blue 4WD Volkswagen Touareg belonging to Beckenridge - a helicopter pilot who worked in some of the world's most troubled countries, including Afghanistan and Papua New Guinea, using a number of aliases - went off a 90m cliff near Curio Bay.

It took police six weeks to recover the battered wreck from the treacherous waters. There was no sign of any bodies.

Today marks a year since they took off and police say a criminal investigation is ongoing. Many Catlins locals and friends and neighbours of Beckenridge believe the resourceful, intelligent and connected man staged their deaths and are hiding out either in New Zealand or overseas.

If they are alive, it won't be a normal life for a 12-year-old boy.

If he is allowed out in public, he could be masquerading under an assumed name, not sharing details of his life.

There have been many possible sightings over the past year from within New Zealand and "all over the world", the officer in charge of the case, acting Detective Senior Sergeant Stu Harvey, said on Friday.

The police national dive team uses an underwater camera suspended from a helicopter to look underwater in a dangerous bay near Curio Bay for Mike Zhao-Beckenridge
The police national dive team uses an underwater camera suspended from a helicopter to look underwater in a dangerous bay near Curio Bay for Mike Zhao-Beckenridge

They have all been investigated. Overseas agencies, including Interpol, are helping New Zealand police to try to track them down.

But Harvey said the "major time lapse" on getting information back from the overseas agencies is slowing the police probe.

The remains of a Volkswagen Touareg car are lifted onto a boat in Curio Bay on the Catlins Coast.
The remains of a Volkswagen Touareg car are lifted onto a boat in Curio Bay on the Catlins Coast.

It is also heartbreakingly slow for the boy's mother, with whom police are in constant contact.

She has never spoken publicly. She again declined to comment this week. But she still holds out hope that Mike is alive - out there somewhere.

She has "a lot of frustrations," Harvey said, given there have been no confirmed sightings of her child, who friends and neighbours called a "quiet, happy" boy who loved his stepfather, since March 17 last year.

"These frustrations are also held by our staff," Harvey said.

Acting Detective Sergeant Stu Harvey fronted media to discuss the ongoing investigation into the disappearance of Mike. Photo / Supplied
Acting Detective Sergeant Stu Harvey fronted media to discuss the ongoing investigation into the disappearance of Mike. Photo / Supplied

"Police's ultimate goal continues to be to bring closure to the family, whether that be bringing Mike home or finding definitive answers to their questions."

Beckenridge and Lu split up in April 2013 and she moved in with a new partner in Invercargill.

Beckenridge lived with his stepson at their large house in an upmarket Queenstown estate for about a year, before losing custody after a bitter court battle.

Beckenridge's friends say Mike and his stepdad were upset about the move. Despite a parenting -order preventing contact, they kept in touch. It is understood they texted each other constantly.

Mike had only been at James Hargest College less than a fortnight.

Principal Andrew Wood said the school did not think it was appropriate to mark the one-year -anniversary of the disappearance but he confirmed the school has tightened its procedures around roll counts after lunch when there are sporting or extracurricular activities - as there was on the day Mike was picked up by Beckenridge.

Police recovery of a car near Curio Bay
Police recovery of a car near Curio Bay

Border alerts set up within 24 hours of Mike's disappearance are still in place today.

Beckenridge, a well-known, experienced commercial helicopter pilot, is believed to have several aliases, including John Locke, John Robert Lundh, Knut Goran Roland Lundh and John Bradford.

Pacific Helicopters PNG chief executive Mal Smith, his former boss who has been interviewed by New Zealand police, knew Beckenridge had been having "problems getting access to his kid but we didn't know it was to that extreme".

He hasn't heard from Beckenridge since he quit in September 2014.

Last year, PNG immigration authorities told the Herald a man with the same name as one of Beckenridge's known aliases entered the country on a cruise ship in the weeks before Mike disappeared. There was no record of his leaving again.

The man was identified by police, but Harvey confirmed he had been ruled out.

"That person has been spoken to and is not John Beckenridge," Harvey said.
The Herald on Sunday understands police have proof that
Beckenridge was in Queenstown at the time the PNG mystery man entered the country.

Aviation expert Peter Clark says it would be "improbable but not impossible" to flee New Zealand by helicopter.

Criminologist Greg Newbold says it is "definitely possible" to slip out of the country, citing the -disappearance of Bassett Rd machine-gun murderer Ron Jorgensen, who is believed to have faked his own death by driving a car off a Kaikoura cliff and fleeing to Australia.

Police on Friday said they were still pursuing leads in the live criminal investigation.
They won't hand over the missing persons file to the coroner until all inquiries are exhausted.

Christchurch Coroner Marcus Elliott has been assigned to the case.

A coronial spokesman told the Herald on Sunday police have told Elliott the file will "be handed over very soon".

Once the coroner reviews the police material, he will decide what further investigations are required, including whether there will be an inquest.

All the evidence police have suggest the pair never left the Catlins area. And there is no suggestion anyone has helped them evade capture, according to police.

Whatever happened to them, it remains a mystery.

And one that police are determined to continue ¬trying to get to the bottom of.

Beckenridge timeline

March 13, 2015: John Beckenridge, 64, takes 11-year-old stepson
Mike Zhao-Beckenridge from an Invercargill school, in breach of a parenting order.
March 18: Police seek help to find the pair, thought to be travelling
in a dark-blue VW Touareg.
March 21: Confirmed sighting of the pair in bush in the Slope Point area in the Catlins.
March 22: Items of interest found in the Curio Bay area.
March 23: Police divers join search at Blue Cod Bay, but conditions too rough to continue.
March 24: Police find vehicle wreckage in sea at Blue Cod Bay; "grave fears" for Mike.
March 25: Wreckage confirmed as VW Touareg.
March 30: Police divers confirm the vehicle is Beckenridge's.
April 8: Detective Sergeant Mark McCloy says "all the evidence" points to the pair being inside Beckenridge's vehicle when it plunged off a cliff.
April 10: Police say Beckenridge took Mike camping before the vehicle went off the cliff.
April 23: Rough seas continue to prevent recovery of the vehicle.
May 8: Divers and helicopter recover the vehicle. The vehicle is taken by boat to Bluff.
May 18: Police forensic examinations find "no signs of human remains" in the car.
March 11, 2016: Police say the case remains a live criminal investigation and leads are still being followed.

- NZ Herald

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