WARNING: This article discusses suicide and may be distressing.
John Beckenridge and his stepson were never in the vehicle when it plunged off an 80m cliff, a private investigator claims.
Instead, they avoided police by camping out in the Curio Bay area before fleeing in another vehicle.
Today, private investigator Mark Templeman questioned the police search of the area and stated “there was nothing to stop a vehicle leaving that area with the Beckenridges in it.”
Swedish-born helicopter pilot Beckenridge broke a court order by collecting his 11-year-old stepson Mike Zhao-Beckenridge from his Invercargill school on March 13, 2015.
A week later, Beckenridge’s 4WD Volkswagen Touareg went off the cliff near Curio Bay, in Southland. But when police recovered the vehicle there were no signs of any bodies and the two have been missing since.
However, Mike’s mother Fiona Lu is convinced her son is alive and that her former partner, Beckenridge, staged the pair’s death after she moved Mike from Beckenridge’s Queenstown home to Invercargill with her new partner, Peter Russell.
Now, Coroner Marcus Elliot is looking into the case at the Christchurch District Court to consider whether it is likely the pair are dead.
Nothing to stop them leaving
Today Sergeant Ian Martin, who was involved in the search for the pair, said it would have been “possible” for them to leave the area after their vehicle went off the cliff.
“It could be done maybe at night if there was enough planning put into it. It is a large area, there are a lot of roads that would make it difficult to track [a person],” Martin said.
Martin said police conducted a “thorough” search of the area after discovering the tyre marks leading off the cliff on March 22, 2015, and were “open-minded” about what they would find.
Templeman, who has been working for Lu and Russell, asked Martin why a police dog wasn’t deployed in the area.
Martin explained deploying a dog could disturb the scene for examination. The dog also worked better if the person they were tracking had been in the area within an hour or so.
Templeman said he believed Beckenridge and Mike camped out in the area before being picked up in a vehicle on Mair Rd.
He said although there were people out searching the area, it was possible a vehicle with the pair in it could have slipped through without anyone noticing.
“There is nothing that could stop someone from picking up the Beckenridges and leaving the area is there?” He asked Martin, who responded: “Not to my knowledge.”
When asked by Lisa Preston KC what the conditions would have been like for someone to leave the cliff top area on foot, Martin said: “Not impossible but uncomfortable unless you’re well prepared.
“If it was me trying to get away, I’d have a second vehicle there. I’d be sticking to the road as much as I could, perhaps seeking shelter in some farm sheds.”
Martin believed the quickest and safest way to leave the area was by travelling back along Mair Rd, avoiding the paddocks and estuaries which would be physically demanding to cross.
Earlier in the day Detective Dougall Henderson described the clifftop scene on a Mair Rd farm from which Beckenridge’s vehicle plummeted.
The paddock, which is accessed by a farm gate, has a steep drop-off some 80m above the shoreline.
Two used tea bags and a toothbrush were found in the flattened area as well as a set of tyre tracks leading toward the cliff’s verge.
But what was perhaps the most bizarre discovery was two pieces of wood tied together with rope and stuck in the ground roughly 3m from the edge.
Scene investigators consider it likely the stakes had been placed in the ground to give a sightline to the cliff edge, ensuring the vehicle would land in water, avoiding a rock shelf at the base of the cliff on one side, and shoreline to the other.
“To me, it appeared that being back in that flattened area at the start, you wouldn’t know what the best area is to go off the cliff,” Henderson told the Coroner’s court.
Templeman asked Henderson if he thought the stake could have indicated where someone was to jump out of the vehicle before it went off the edge. Henderson said he was unsure.
Clothing belonging to Beckenridge and Mike, as well as car debris, washed ashore in the Curio Bay area and was gathered by police for examination.
Of the items found was Mike’s schoolbag with his black school shoes, school uniform, a rugby jersey and a ziplock bag with plasters. A single Nike gym shoe was also found.
A distinctive Kangbo brand vest, a Blundstone boot and a white T-shirt were also recovered, clothing that Beckenridge was captured wearing on CCTV footage at the Tokanui garage on March 16, 2015.
The court also heard from Senior Constable st the time of the incident, Robert Camden, who was contacted by a farmer on March 18 of that year. The farmer told Camden he had seen Beckenridge’s vehicle near his farm off Pope Rd, near Slope Point.
Camden examined the scene, locating “recent” tyre prints. He said the car had obviously been parked overnight and the grass was flattened as if people had been lying on it.
He also found eggshells from what he thought were hard-boiled eggs, an apple sticker, a nut bar wrapper, a piece of “fresh” lettuce, a bread tag and toilet tissue near a tree.
Templeman asked Camden if dog tracking units were called to search the clifftop area on foot, but Camden could not recall.
Heartbreaking texts sent from Mike to his mother before his disappearance read: “You do not deserve to be my mum. You certainly do not deserve my love.”
As police continued their search, they were alerted to a reported sighting of the pair on March 19 at a campsite off Weir Rd on the Haldane estuary, about 14km from the cliff Beckenridge’s vehicle went off.
Swab testing and further examinations of the site revealed a plaster with Mike’s fingerprints on it as well as prints of a shoe belonging to Beckenridge, which would later wash ashore in the Curio Bay area.
On Monday, Preston outlined the case to the Coroner’s court. She said Beckenridge met Mike’s mother, who is from China, in 2006. Lu’s parents were raising Mike at the time.
The pair later moved with Mike to Queenstown. Their relationship ended in 2014. Shortly after that, Lu moved to Invercargill.
In February 2015, the Queenstown Family Court made an order that Lu should have care of Mike.
Mike was unhappy to be taken away from his stepfather and was secretly communicating with him by email.
He told Beckenridge he was intentionally misbehaving so he could return to his care and that he had also called the police, claiming his mother had assaulted him in the hope he would be sent back to Queenstown.
On March 20, Beckenridge’s friends began receiving “concerning” texts from him, stating the “Gestapo” was after him and Mike, and they would soon be getting on the “Midnight Express” for departure.
On March 22 items belonging to the pair, such as clothes and car parts, washed ashore in the Curio Bay area. Soon after, Beckenridge’s vehicle was found at the bottom of the cliff.
The police national dive squad was able to investigate the wreckage on March 29 but it wasn’t until May 6 that it was completely recovered.
To date, police have had 60 suspected sightings of the Beckenridges or their vehicle, some of which have been deemed unlikely or eliminated.
Information about possible sightings continue to be reported from within New Zealand and from Kiwis abroad.
The hearing continues.