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Kurt Bayer is a Herald reporter based in Christchurch

Cold case twist: Winz double-killer Russell John Tully linked to Kirsty Bentley murder

Work and Income double-killer Russell John Tully has been linked to the unsolved 1998 murder of Ashburton schoolgirl Kirsty Bentley, one of New Zealand's most notorious cold case murders.

This morning the murdered schoolgirl's mother Jill Peachey told Fairfax that Tully as a possible suspect meant little to her and she was doubtful the case would be solved.

"They say 'never say never' and it would be great for Kirsty's killer be brought to justice," she said.

"However, after all these years I'm not holding my breath on it."

Tully, who is serving life imprisonment with a minimum non-parole period of 27 years for the Winz slayings, is a person of interest to police looking at the Bentley case, the Herald has learned.

Bentley, 15, disappeared on December 31, 1998, while walking the family dog on the Ashburton riverbank.

The dog was found tied to a tree near the river the next day, and Bentley's underwear was nearby.

Her badly decomposed body was discovered two weeks later in the Rakaia Gorge, more than 40km away, in a killing that stunned the nation.

Several senior detectives have handled the inquiry over the years. But to this day, it remains an open homicide investigation.

More than 300 persons of interest have been looked at, including Kirsty's father Sid Bentley, who denied any involvement in her disappearance or murder until he died of cancer in 2015, aged 64.

Now, Detective Inspector Greg Murton, who took charge of the cold case in 2014, has confirmed that 51-year-old Tully, who escaped along the Ashburton riverbank after the shootings, has been named as one of the "persons of interest".

"He'd fall into that category," Murton said today.

"There's probably 20 or 30 reasons why someone could be of interest to us in relation to the case, either being there or previous history, or connections, and there are lots of people in that category.

"And until they are eliminated, and sometimes that's impossible, then they remain a person of interest, without being a suspect, so to speak."

Tully was found guilty last March of storming the Ashburton Winz centre at 9.51am on September 1, 2014, and shooting dead receptionist Peggy Noble, 67, from pointblank range and shooting case manager Susan Leigh Cleveland, 55, three times as she pleaded for her life.

Justice Cameron Mander described the shootings as "cold-blooded executions" by a "very dangerous person" capable of extremely violent actions.

Tully has appealed his conviction and sentence.

Russell John Tully on trial for the murder of two Work and Income workers in Ashburton in 2014. Photo / Joseph Johnson
Russell John Tully on trial for the murder of two Work and Income workers in Ashburton in 2014. Photo / Joseph Johnson

Born in Ashburton in 1966, Tully was well known in the Mid-Canterbury town. He esd schooled there before completing his diesel mechanic's apprenticeship locally.

In his mid-late 20s, he worked in the mines of Western Australia but came home often.

Retired Detective Senior Sergeant Lance Corcoran, who led the original Ashburton CIB investigation, knew Tully as a member of the community.

But he doesn't recall Tully being either a suspect or person of interest in the early days of the Bentley murder probe.

"I was aware of Mr Tully before he did what he did. It's possible that he came up after my time," said Corcoran, who compulsorily retired from the police at the age of 55 less than a year after Bentley's death.

"We never had a list of suspects, as such. Where it's a whodunnit investigation, they are all persons of interest to me. You try and eliminate them, although some remain on that list to this day."

Corcoran wonders whether the case will ever be solved.

Kirsty Bentley died from a massive blow to her head on the day she went missing on New Years Eve, 1998. Photo / Supplied
Kirsty Bentley died from a massive blow to her head on the day she went missing on New Years Eve, 1998. Photo / Supplied

He is frustrated that some people didn't come forward with information earlier.

"With that particular investigation, I tried hard to encourage people, no matter what it was, to let us decide whether it was important or not," Corcoran said.

"But after I had to retire, there were still names coming up after that, where people had that information right from the outset.

"Sometimes information comes in years later, and sometimes cases are solved through that, because of guilt or people changing their loyalties.

"Some of the people involved have died since, and you're never going to bring them to justice, are you?"

Corcoran says he doesn't let the case haunt him in his retirement, but says he thinks about it "from time to time".

The fact that a local schoolgirl was murdered in his community, made it more personal to him than some other cases.

"The Bentley family only lived about 300m from me as the crow flies. I knew the young girl and I knew of the parents, although I wasn't acquainted with them," he said.

"It was a bit harder in a small community. That's one of the disadvantages of working in a small community, but there are a lot of advantages, I might say."

A coroner last year ruled that Bentley died from a massive blow to her head on the day she went missing.

DNA investigations were completed early in the inquiry, Murton said.

Information and names still trickle in from the public, and any leads are followed up by police.

"It will remain open until it is completed, one way or another," Murton said.

Unsolved cold cases

Jim Donnelly, 43, disappeared on June 21, 2004. He was last seen at his workplace, the Glenbrook Steel Mill, south of Auckland. The contents of Donnelly's wallet and his keys were found inside a vat containing hydrochloric acid. His body was never found.

Amber-Lee Cruickshank, 2, disappeared at Kingston, near Lake Wakatipu, in October 1992. One theory is she was abducted and killed, possibly by a man who knew her family and was seeking revenge over a drugs dispute.

Leo Lipp-Neighbours, 19, was last seen at a nightclub in Nelson in January 2010. Police believe he vanished as a result of "another person's actions".

Jane Furlong, 17, was last seen on Karangahape Rd in Auckland in May 1993. Her skeletal remains were found buried 100km away in the sand dunes at Sunset Beach, Port Waikato, in 2012.

Claire Hills, 30, was murdered on April 28, 1998. She was abducted at traffic lights in Auckland in the early hours of the morning and taken to the top of Mangere Mountain, tied up, doused in petrol and set alight. It is thought the murderer was familiar with the Mangere area because he fled across the park towards the only exit when he was spotted setting fire to the car by a woman exercising.

Kayo Matsuzawa, 29, was murdered on September 11, 1998 just hours after she arrived in Auckland. Her naked body was found 10 days later dumped in an obscure utility cupboard in a warren-like CBD building.

Kirsa Jensen, 14, disappeared while riding her horse in September 1983. Police believe Kirsa was abducted and murdered.

Mona Blades, 18, disappeared on May 31, 1975. She had hitched a ride in an orange Datsun in Taupo.

Jennifer Beard, 25, disappeared while hitchhiking down the West Coast on New Year's Eve in 1969. Her body was found under the Haast River bridge 19 days later. It is believed she was strangled in a sexually motivated attack.

Harvey Crewe, 28, and Jeanette Crewe, 30, were shot dead around June 17, 1970, in their farmhouse at Pukekawa, Lower Waikato, and their bodies were dumped in the Waikato River. Local farmer Arthur Allan Thomas was twice convicted of their murders. He was given a Royal Pardon on December 17, 1979, after nine years in prison. In November 1980, it was revealed a cartridge case had been planted by police. Thomas was paid $1 million compensation a month later.

Robin and Margaret Bain, and their children Arawa, Laniet and Stephen, were found shot dead in their Dunedin home on June 20, 1994. Their eldest son David, who was 22 at the time, was convicted of the murders in May 1995. The Privy Council quashed his convictions and ordered a retrial in May 2007. He was aquitted of all charges in June 2009.

Olive Walker, 18, disappeared from the Rotorua township on May 15, 1970. She had planned to walk to her sister's house to babysit her children but she never arrived. Her bloodied and beaten body was found on the outskirts of Rotorua the next day.

Howard Percy, 65, died on the way to hospital after being shot twice during a robbery at the ANZ bank on Old Taupo Rd, in Rotorua, on November 5, 1976. The security guard was shot after tackling the robber during the heist. The offender escaped and police never caught him.

Alicia May O'Reilly, 6, murdered and raped in August 1980. She was suffocated in bed in her Avondale home by an intruder.

- NZ Herald

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