A report prepared by the mechanic who discovered alarming defects in the car of China researcher Anne-Marie Brady has added further weight to suspicions the case represents intentional sabotage.
The report from Christchurch's A1 Auto 4 Services' Brent Jeffries, written before the mechanic became aware of a sprawling investigation by authorities into burglaries of Brady's home and office, raised serious concerns:
"Found both left front tyres were half flat and valve caps both missing, indicating that possibly car has been tampered with."
The Herald understands pressure in the front two tyres had been lowered to around 14 psi, a level at which the low pressure is not obviously visible but that significantly increases the risk of an accident when cornering at speed.
Crash investigation consultant Hamish Piercy, who worked with the Serious Crash Unit during his 16-year career with the police, said tyres at 14 psi compromised handling and while it wouldn't be especially concerning in an urban setting, it posed real risks at higher speeds.
"It'd feel weird at lower speeds, but at higher speeds you could have some nasty outcomes," he said.
Piercy said the Brady case raised his eyebrows. "It does strike me as odd. To use the old English saying, 'there's nowt so queer as folk.' What drives people to do that?"
University of Canterbury professor Brady has gained international profile over the past 18 months for her work exposing China's influence campaigns, notably a landmark paper in September Magic Weapons: China's political influence activities under Xi Jinping using New Zealand as a case study.
She told an Australian parliamentary committee in February she believed she was being targeted by a campaign of criminal harassment in direct response to her work investigating China's foreign policy.
On RNZ yesterday morning, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the apparent car sabotage - news of which broke while she was overseas travelling to the Apec summit in Port Moresby - was a matter for police.
"I would see that first and foremost as something the police should investigative," she said.
Police yesterday said they had no update on their ongoing investigation.
Asked about Security Intelligence Service (SIS) involvement in the case, Ardern told RNZ she had a policy of not discussing intelligence briefings.
The Herald has previously reported the SIS has taken an active interest in the Brady case, and has swept the professor's home and office for bugs.
A spokesperson for the SIS reiterated its earlier comments on the affair, saying the spy agency had a "long-standing practice of not commenting on what may or may not be operational issues".
A Herald request filed in May to discuss the Government's China policy with Ardern was this week again rejected, with possible windows for an interview now pushed into early next year.
A long-signalled plan for the Prime Minister to visit China this year - for which negotiations with Beijing have been ongoing for months - is also understood to have been shelved and will not occur until after the New Year.
The Brady case has sparked furious debate, both within the foreign policy establishment and the New Zealand Chinese community.
Auckland councillor Mike Lee suggested on Facebook over the weekend that Brady was inventing her complaints to advance American interests.
"Where is the proof? Or are these smear tactics by an academic who receives funding from hawkish American think tanks?" Lee said.
Contacted yesterday Lee said he didn't wish to appear in the media and was merely asking questions. "It was not a comment, it was a question in response to an upset Chinese Facebook friend."
Lee is not the only elected representative to use social media to controversially weigh in on the Brady affair.
When the Herald revealed in September that police, Interpol and the SIS had been investigating the Brady burglaries for seven months, Defence Minister and New Zealand First MP Ron Mark shared the news with the comment: "We live in interesting times."
The comment is a paraphrase of "May you live in interesting time," popularly attributed as an ancient Chinese curse. (Recent research suggests the popular origin of the quote is apocryphal and is more likely from English politician Joseph Chamberlain).
In July Mark launched the Strategic Defence Policy Statement, outlining the new Government's position on defence matters, which was unusually explicit in criticising China's militarisation of the South China Sea.
The policy statement attracted formal protest from Madam Wu Xi, China's ambassador in Wellington.