Voyager 2021 media awards
WEBSITE OF THE YEAR
APP OF THE YEAR
New Zealand

The shearer who vanished 13 years ago without a trace

RNZ

By Jimmy Ellingham for RNZ

Always a hard worker, but never one to be tied down, Bevan Wright was back in New Zealand and looking to grow closer to his family.

He was living in Australia until 2007, the year his brother Troy died. That hit Wright hard and he decided to return to Manawatū.

He secured a job as a shearer and lived with his sister Janelle and her daughters at a Beattie St house in Feilding.

It's a wooden early 20th century home, painted yellow, a stone's throw from the Main Trunk railway line and a couple of minutes' walk from the heart of the town.

But it's quiet enough and close enough to the freedom Wright felt from rural living.

He was an outdoorsman who loved fishing and, occasionally, hunting. He also had a way with animals, particularly horses and dogs.

Troy (left), the late brother of Bevan (right). Photo / Jimmy Ellingham, RNZ
Troy (left), the late brother of Bevan (right). Photo / Jimmy Ellingham, RNZ

On January 9, 2008, Wright was dropped by his shearing gang about 1.30pm at the busy BP petrol station across the railway tracks from home.

The 43-year-old was never seen again.

Foul play suspected

It wasn't uncommon for Wright to go off the grid. He would flitter in and out of his family's lives. That was his way.

But he would always come back, until early 2008, when he didn't.

His late mother Gwen Power reported him missing on February 7 that year.

Descriptions were circulated to the press of "a 43-year-old Māori" with short hair, of medium build, about 174 centimetres tall.

Within weeks the police investigation was upgraded to a homicide inquiry. There were public appeals for information, searches, including of the Ōroua River and its banks, and dead ends.

Gradually, the case fell off the public radar, although every now and again new information would come in, which police would follow.

Meanwhile, his family wait for answers about what happened.

Wright's sister Lea Braddick and aunt Gaylene Hart speak to RNZ in case publicity jolts someone's memory or conscience.

Bevan's house on Beattie Street, Feilding. Photo / Sam Rillstone
Bevan's house on Beattie Street, Feilding. Photo / Sam Rillstone

Braddick says she'll always hold out hope the case can be solved, but she worries that as time marches on people involved in her brother's death, or those who know what happened, will die.

"The ones who did this, once they're gone there really is no way of finding him, and then once we're gone how are we going to do something for him?" she asks.

"I just want to get him home.

"He hasn't been declared dead. I thought that automatically happened after a period of time, but that's not the case. The case is still open so we haven't been able to put up a stone, a memorial or anything like that."

Wright would never miss a day of work and not turning up for his next shift with the shearing gang would have sounded alarm bells. A breakdown in communication meant Braddick didn't immediately find out her brother's boss had rung to look for him.

Wright would always be there for the family Christmas, but otherwise he wasn't a constant presence.

"He'd just turn up out of the blue. You wouldn't know he's coming, sometimes didn't even know he was there.

"I've woken up and could smell the breakfast that he was cooking. It could be a long time in between too, then it could be this week and three weeks later."

Hart echoes these thoughts. She had less recent contact with Wright, because when he'd visit from Australia he would often only have time to see immediate family.

"But he would unfailingly turn up somewhere along the line."

This past behaviour meant Wright's family wasn't initially concerned.

Bevan's sister Lea Braddick (left) and aunt Gaylene Hart (right). Photo / Jimmy Ellingham, RNZ
Bevan's sister Lea Braddick (left) and aunt Gaylene Hart (right). Photo / Jimmy Ellingham, RNZ

"You sort of think, 'Okay, I know what's happened here. He's gone walkabout again. That's what it is.' And it wasn't until quite some time [later] you think, 'Oh no, it's a bit more serious,'" Hart says.

Braddick says: "And then you felt really guilty because, hey, we should have been looking sooner than this. But it was exactly that. It wasn't until I found out he was expected at work."

Cold case

A decade since the last press reports about the case it featured on a television Cold Case documentary in November 2020, as police made a public push for information. The show revealed new information.

At 5.49pm on the day he was last seen his cellphone, from which he was inseparable, rang in his bedroom.

Sister Janelle answered it and spoke to Wright's supervisor, who confirmed Wright didn't have work the next day.

That placed Wright's disappearance between 1.30 and 5.49.

Shortly after this date Janelle and her daughters spent time in Dannevirke.

By the time police searched Wright's room in February 2008, the phone, his car keys and wallet were missing.

Bevan's Nokia cellphone. Photo / NZ Police
Bevan's Nokia cellphone. Photo / NZ Police

Police found a fresh pouch of tobacco and a bag containing syringes, some with traces of methamphetamine, and white power.

It was revealed that there was tension between Wright and his nephew Jesse, Janelle's son.

Jesse was trespassed from the Beattie St house, but on the morning Wright was last seen Jesse arrived there to pick up clothes, had an argument with his mum, and threw a shoe at the window, before turning himself in to police.

Janelle's red Toyota Corolla was also under the spotlight, and a person made a statement to police saying they heard knocking sounds from inside it. Another person told the witness they'd used the car to transport a body.

Jesse told police he'd crashed the car and set fire to it, but that wasn't true. The car was eventually found outside a wrecker's yard.

A witness, chillingly, reported to police they'd seen Wright mouth "help me" when in a car driving through the Manawatū Gorge, although the timing of this didn't match for when Wright went missing.

More leads, but no answers

Down the years police also received tips about where Wright was buried, including at the Ballance Reserve near the Manawatū Gorge, after he was killed over a disputed drug debt. Searches of these areas found nothing.

Braddick and Hart say some of the information released last year was new to them.

They didn't wish to speculate on theories, saying they'd rather concentrate on sticking to facts and finding out what happened.

Red car possibly connected to case. Photo / NZ Police
Red car possibly connected to case. Photo / NZ Police

"You have all sorts of theories and you follow that theory out for a while, but at the end of the day it really is just speculation. I don't know, and unless you know you can't progress," Hart says.

Inquiries continue

Detective Inspector Craig Sheridan has seen it all in his more than 30 years with police. In charge of the Wright investigation, Operation Bright, he remains confident the case will be cracked.

Last year's publicity resulted in 21 calls to police.

"It is a really interesting and intriguing case. Our No 1 priority is finding Bevan and returning him to his whānau," Sheridan tells RNZ.

"The reason I'm confident is that a significant investigative resource was put into this initial missing person and then homicide investigation, some 13 years ago, and that's given us a real solid foundation of information.

"We now have fresh pieces of information, which we're advancing. I am confident that will lead us to Bevan eventually."

Some of the 21 calls were anonymous, some were cases of mistaken identity. Importantly, Sheridan says, some are potentially valuable and are being looked into.

"What I can say is we advanced each and every one of them to their natural conclusion no matter how outrageous they might have seemed initially.

"For example, some of them were rumour based, some of them were opinion based, but even so we took those to their natural conclusion, which left us with some calls that we're a bit excited about and we're still advancing."

When cases are unsolved they're never put to bed, he says. A Manawatū-based investigator is assigned to the case and more officers are available when required.

Sheridan says Wright was known for working hard, playing hard and going for long periods without speaking to his family.

It quickly became clear to investigators that Wright was dead.

Sheridan says police still want to hear from anyone with information.

"I am grateful for the people that came forward as a result of the [TV] programme.

"We see this time and time again where people's situation in life may change and they feel much more comfortable talking with police about certain matters."

Braddick says it's great so many people have come forward with information in the past year.

Detective Inspector Craig Sheridan. Photo / Jimmy Ellingham, RNZ
Detective Inspector Craig Sheridan. Photo / Jimmy Ellingham, RNZ

"I know a lot of it isn't a lot of use. I believe [police are] still following a handful, which is good - anything that might get us there."

Occasionally people contact Braddick with information.

"They've often been quite insistent on remaining anonymous, which is fine, and we stick to that, because hearing anything is great."

Hart says she's not been told any information about the case, but has received plenty of support since the renewed publicity, including from people she doesn't know.

A family's plea

Hart and Braddick can't help but smile and laugh when they recall Wright. He had a cheeky side and lived a simple, straightforward life.

Initially raised in Pongaroa, he and his family, including five siblings, moved around a bit and as a younger man Wright spent time up north.

He worked on shearing gangs, at a wool spinner and as a fisherman. In Australia he built sheds, and also made outdoor furniture.

Again, the pair keep returning to his love of animals. "You should have seen him on a horse. He was part of it," Braddick says.

The smiles continue when they describe Wright's character.

"Bevan was always strong minded and independent," Hart says.

"He was very proud, probably too proud in the fact that it was this way and he had this straight path that he followed. There was no bending or flexing in Bevan. It was pretty much a straight line."

Bevan Wright has been missing since 2008. Photo / Supplied
Bevan Wright has been missing since 2008. Photo / Supplied

That's Bevan to a tee, Braddick says. She adds he would never fail to pay upfront for anything.

Sadly, his mother and father, Trevor Wright, died without finding out what happened to their son.

Braddick says the family want to lay Wright to rest at their urupā at Aohanga, on the northern Wairarapa coast, next to his mother and brother Troy.

If Wright were still alive he'd be in his mid-50s and a grandfather, something he would have loved.

"We'd dearly dearly love to take Bevan home," Braddick says when asked if she had a message for anyone who knows what happened.

"I personally don't care how he died. I'm not looking for the people who did this. I'm looking for my brother to take him home, so if you could find a way to tell us that would be awesome, just awesome."

Hart agrees.

"That pretty much says it all.

"We're just back to where we started really. We've sort of come complete circle and you build up hopes and they start crumbling again.

"It's a last-ditch effort to get it out there. I know the police are still working behind the scenes and following up leads etc. It's hard to stay positive, it really is."

Anyone with information can contact police on 105