Kirstly Bentley's unsolved murder leaves scar on town

Five years ago, Ashburton teenager Kirsty Bentley disappeared and was later found murdered - a murder that shook the town and remains unsolved.

Kirsty vanished on New Year's Eve 1998 while walking her dog beside the Ashburton River near her home.

Searchers found her battered body two weeks later in the Rakaia Gorge.

One of Kirsty's closest friends, Heath Walters, said every New Year since had been an emotional time.

"New Year is a time when I think about Kirsty. I remember what I was doing when I found out [she'd gone missing]," he said.

"Life goes on. I guess the passing of the years makes it more distant but there's always the feeling each New Year, 'what would she be doing'?"

Mr Walters, 21, got to know Kirsty - who would have turned 21 next month - through a drama class they attended at Ashburton College.

They became good friends.

He did not met Kirsty's parents, Jill and Syd Bentley, until several weeks after her murder, when he visited them to lend his support.

They asked him to speak at Kirsty's funeral. "It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do," he said.

A group of "about nine or 10" of Kirsty's friends had spent a lot time together after her murder, supporting one another.

"It brought us together as a group," Mr Walters said.

They had deliberately avoided speculating about who the murderer might be.

"There was so much speculation in the wider community, and so much gossip and rumour surrounding the family, that we decided it was something we wouldn't talk about," he said.

One of the most difficult things to accept, not just for Kirsty's friends but for the whole Ashburton community, had been that such an awful murder could happen in the town, which they had always considered safe.

"We thought it was the kind of thing that happened in other places, not in Ashburton," Mr Walters said.

Their view of the town had changed forever.

"Even now I'm reluctant to let my friends walk home alone at night."

Police are still keen to hear from anyone who may have information regarding Kirsty's murder.

- NZPA

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