Cherie Howie is a reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Recycling death: The lonely life of Daniel Bindner

He walked the streets and slept where he could shelter. Public spaces were his home and lots of people looked at him - but few actually saw him. Cherie Howie traces the last journey of Daniel Bindner, the man who tragically died in a recycling bin.

When you don't have a home or a job, and you're all alone, dreams may come only when you sleep.

Daniel Bindner had a home and a job. The 40-year-old had a family too - three children called him Dad and he helped raise a fourth.

He lived with his partner on a farm between the Waikato towns of Te Awamutu and Ohaupo. He worked hard - his former boss remembered him as someone who wasn't afraid to pitch in on whatever needed doing - but a low dairy payout started a chain of events that culminated in an achingly sad end for Bindner.

Hard financial times forced his employers to lay him off. Other jobs fell through. His relationship broke up and his treasured motorbike was pinched.

What dreams he once had disappeared, along with everything else in his life.

Friends say he may have slipped into depression and returned to a teenage drug habit.

His last day of work was June 1. Sometime after that, Bindner started sleeping rough in Te Awamutu. On June 30 body parts, later identified as those of Bindner, who had been reported missing a day before, were found in a cardboard bale in a Hamilton recycling plant.

Police launched an investigation but later announced this was not a case of foul play. Detective Inspector Hywel Jones said Bindner most likely climbed into a waste bin in Te Awamutu seeking shelter, a recycling truck collected the bin the following morning and Bindner died "at some point in the recycling process".

A tragic accident, the detective called it, but added police still wanted to hear from anyone who saw Binder after 11.04pm on June 21.

The last image of Daniel Bindner. Photo / NZ Police
The last image of Daniel Bindner. Photo / NZ Police

That's when he was pictured leaving McDonald's, satchel over his shoulder and what appears to be a hot drink in his right hand. In the final image, captured on the fast-food giant's CCTV, he stands straight and tall, seemingly looking up at the camera.

But was anyone looking at him? Did anyone see Daniel Bindner? And even if they did, would they have noticed?

Police will say only that their investigation, which will probably be referred to the coroner once complete, is continuing. After scouring CCTV footage around the service town of 12,000, it is likely they will know more about Bindner's last night. But - if not for the Big Brother world we now live in - would they?

Bindner didn't have a home to retreat to. There was no cocoon where he could escape the pressures of life, pick himself up and face the world again. Public spaces were his home, but it seems few people saw him.

Almost three weeks after his life ended, almost no one in Te Awamutu remembered him. Daniel Bindner was a man hidden in plain sight.

It's just before 11pm at Te Awamutu's McDonald's in Sloane St. Inside, there's a rush of warm air. Outside, it's 5C. The restaurant is open 24 hours but the only other customer is a young woman staring at a screen in the corner.

The duty manager remembers Bindner, although he's not one of their regular homeless customers. She quickly adds that she doesn't know where he slept that night. She is, however, one of the few people in Te Awamutu who had noticed Bindner.

"Have a good night," she says absently. Were these the last words Bindner heard? A boilerplate retail greeting, yes, but kind words nonetheless.

It's 11.04pm. The town centre - so bustling a few hours earlier - has turned quiet. Footsteps are loud.

Did Bindner track back towards the warmth of McDonald's? CCTV showed he had already done a couple of loops around town. Photo / Alan Gibson
Did Bindner track back towards the warmth of McDonald's? CCTV showed he had already done a couple of loops around town. Photo / Alan Gibson

Few vehicles are around, save for the rumble of a muscle car a couple of streets away. A bar worker says police checked their CCTV footage and told them that, after making a couple of loops around town, Bindner walked along Alexandra St before turning right into Market St and disappearing from view.

Of course it's impossible to know what Bindner was thinking. Maybe he was just trying to warm up, maybe he was looking for a comfortable place to sleep. Maybe he liked to window-shop.

At Showcase Jewellers, several cases lie empty, but a few cheaper pieces remain in the window. Bindner has two young daughters, and he'd have been far from the only father aware little girls sometimes dream about sparkly necklaces and bracelets. A couple of doors down is the First National Real Estate office. A 300ha grazing property is on the market for $3.2 million.

This doesn't have to be a place where dreams come to die. There are more affordable options, too. A tidy-looking ex-state house has just sold after being listed for $249,000. It could be a fine family home, a place to build a good life, one where you sleep in a safe place each night and where dreams can come true. Did Bindner see it?

Around the corner, on Market St, is a hair salon with a neat row of black chairs, an interior design shop close to another selling picture frames, and a dental surgery. Across the road is The Garden Shop, where flowering pink camellias poke through a grille fence. Camellias are hardy and can go into the ground any time of year - even the depths of winter. But only if you have somewhere to plant them.

This is about the point where Bindner was last seen. Where did he go next?

An alleyway falls off to the right. Only a few metres along is a skip, flattened cardboard sticking from its sides.

The body of Daniel Bindner, who had recently started sleeping rough in the town, was found in a bale of recycled cardboard at a Hamilton processing plant. Photo / Alan Gibson
The body of Daniel Bindner, who had recently started sleeping rough in the town, was found in a bale of recycled cardboard at a Hamilton processing plant. Photo / Alan Gibson

Further along, at the rear entrance of several Alexandra St and Arawata St shops, are three more, including two with lids. Did Bindner find them too?

Heathcote Appliances is one of the shops backing on to the alleyway. Manager Nicki Paul says the police had been around, asking about their skips and taking photos.

"The police checked the bins, asked how frequently they were emptied. For us it's usually Tuesday night, between 5pm and 5am."

She didn't recognise Bindner and, like many, shakes her head at the sad situation he found himself in. "Where did he come from? Who was he?" She doubts Bindner chose their skip - it's open and exposed.

The temperature has already dropped another degree. It's bloody cold. On June 21, it was warmer. The closest weather station to Te Awamutu is 19km away at Hamilton Airport. Data from that station and from weather radar and satellite imagery over Te Awamutu, it was cloudy the night Bindner died, with the odd spot of rain, MetService meteorologist Emma Blades says.

The temperature was mild for the time of year - 14C at 11pm - but a northeasterly breeze would have made it feel colder.

Maybe he was just trying to warm up, maybe he was looking for a comfortable place to sleep.

The previous night had been much colder, with temperatures ranging between 3C and 7C. Earlier in the month they fell below freezing, she says. "So experience may have been a factor." Was Bindner remembering previous cold nights on the street? Life in the margins means learning quickly. How do I get through today? Where can I get food and water? Where is it safe and warm to sleep?

One mistake and you could be dead.

Market St is deserted now. But earlier another person there spoke about Bindner. He didn't want to be named, but works on the street and has a good view of comings and goings. He regularly saw homeless people, including Bindner, walk past. But though he remembered Bindner, he says had never spoken to him. "He was a bit of a shadow."

The homeless people usually continue down the street and cut across the Toyworld carpark to reach Mobil's 24 hour service station, he says. But no one at Mobil remembers Bindner.

Directly across the road is St John's Anglican Parish of Te Awamutu. The church office's covered foyer is a haven for the homeless, locals say. A narrow wooden pew with a thin blue cushion sits outside the entrance. It's not comfortable. But there's also no chance of a truck with two forks picking up your bed and tossing it into a compacter as you sleep.

But Bindner didn't sleep here.

A motelier says the homeless also sleep at the Memorial Park or under the Mangaohoi Stream bridge. Bindner stayed away from both.

He may have walked left along Arawata St to the northern entrance to Te Awamutu, where options at a large roundabout include turning north towards his old home on the road to Ohaupo, or heading south to the dream-like Waitomo Caves. It's a long journey on foot.

More shops circle the roundabout - a liquor store, a dairy and a Repco store. There are probably recycling skips behind all of them.

General view looking down the mainstreet of the Waikato township of Te Awamutu, the town where Bindner was forced to live rough in the last days of his life. Photo / Alan Gibson
General view looking down the mainstreet of the Waikato township of Te Awamutu, the town where Bindner was forced to live rough in the last days of his life. Photo / Alan Gibson

Or Bindner could have continued straight ahead, down George St towards The Warehouse and the row of shops behind McDonald's. But Te Awamutu Country Fresh owner Taran Nirh says Bindner didn't seek shelter in the skips behind the shops. The storekeeper is haunted by memories of a friendly man matching Bindner's description coming into the store with children.

As soon as he heard what happened he rushed to watch his CCTV, hoping the footage would not show Bindner. It did not. "That's what hurts. Everyone would be thinking 'is it my bin?'"

So, perhaps Bindner turned right, tracking back towards McDonald's. After all, he had already done a couple of loops, according to the bar worker.

Three young men, laughing and joking, appear. McDonald's golden arches are just around the corner. It's almost 11.30pm. In 26 minutes covering 750 metres, I've seen three people and four cars, the noise of a muscle car twice and a train once.

It's easy to go unnoticed. Where did you go on that dark night three weeks ago, Daniel?

It's really cold now, down to 3C according to the iPhone weather app.

The culprit is obvious - a clear night sky. It's almost a full moon, but Mars' orange glow and a sprinkling of stars set against a jet-black canvas break through the light pollution.

It should be a nice winter's day tomorrow. Maybe even a bluebird day.

Eleven days ago a friend posted a heartfelt tribute online to Bindner, lovingly referring to him as "dear Beanie".

"You were the blue crayon we never had enough of, the one that colours the sky."

- Herald on Sunday

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