More than two weeks on from the last sighting of Christchurch real estate agent Yanfei Bao, police continue to search the water for clues related to her disappearance. Herald senior crime journalist Sam Sherwood takes a look inside the search.
Side by side, shoulder to shoulder, four members of the police’s national dive squad are sweeping the bottom of the Halswell River with their hands, searching for something, anything that may be connected to the disappearance of Yanfei Bao.
It’s been 15 days since the 44-year-old real estate agent was last seen alive, when she arrived at a house for sale on Trevor St, Hornby set to show a potential buyer through it.
A week later, her disappearance was upgraded to a homicide investigation. Since then, police have appeared to focus their efforts on the Halswell River and Lake Ellesmere using Police Search and Rescue, LandSar volunteers, Coastguard, Surf Life Saving members, the Police Specialist Search Group, police dog teams, Garden City Helicopters and Amateur Radio Emergency Communications (Arec) hunting on the ground, water and in the sky.
On Thursday, the search team also began searching an effluent pond of about 120 square metres on a farmer’s property.
The officer in charge of the search for Operation Helo, Detective Brent Menzies, told the Herald a “significant amount of time and resource” has been put into the search.
“Everyone recognises the importance and everyone is sticking their hands up to help.
“At the end of the day, we just want some answers and something to give back to Yanfei’s family so they can have some closure.”
To date, the team, which has been as large as 50, has searched the Halswell River south down to Lake Ellesmere, including portions of the lake and nearby riverbanks, along with staff on the ground.
By the end of Thursday the dive squad, who have been assisted by high-end hand-held sonar that can detect things as small as 30-centimetre-long sticks in a murky river, will have searched about 2.5 kilometres of waterways.
Menzies says planning such a search relies on what information is provided by the investigation team in terms of locations of interest that have been identified. The team in charge of the search then gets together to look at the terrain, what resources they’ve got available and how best to use them.
“You’ve got to be practical about what you’re doing. You can’t expect the dive squad to search the whole river - there is a practicality aspect to it.
“But at the end of the day, we want to be able to stand up and say we are confident in what we have or haven’t found.”
Such searches always provide their own obstacles, with the weather an issue early on in the investigation.
“This one has been really difficult in that we have our key location of interest identified early on, but with the heavy rain over that first weekend and the floodwaters, it significantly increased the size of that search area.
“It made things difficult, and obviously, [it] requires a lot more resources to cover that area.”
Drone photographs taken by the Herald along the Halswell River and Lake Ellesmere reveal the vast area police have been focusing on.
Menzies says Lake Ellesmere, which is in excess of 150 square kilometres, is “deceptively big”, but the water they’re searching is “actually quite a good environment” from a search perspective and made things easier in some respects.
“Even though it is a massive area, it’s actually quite a unique environment in that the Halswell River feeds into Lake Ellesmere, which is normally closed off to the sea. There’s very little current flow in that lake. The biggest effect on anything that may have been floating is the wind.”
On Friday, police will be searching roadsides and tree lines on Hudsons Road and Clark Road, Greenpark.
The Police National Dive Squad will be searching along Lake Terrace Rd, Burwood.
On Wednesday, Bao’s family issued a statement thanking family, friends and the general public for the “outpouring of kind words and unwavering support following the disappearance of their beloved wife and mother”.
“The love and compassion displayed by fellow New Zealanders has been truly humbling, and the Bao family cannot express how grateful they are for all the generous donations made through Givealittle.”
The family also expressed their “sincere appreciation” to the police for their “invaluable support and relentless dedication” in the search for Bao.
“The family urges anyone with information that could assist the police in locating Yanfei to come forward as soon as possible.
“Their only desire is to have her returned to them, so they can find closure and begin the grieving process.”
The family also encouraged everyone to cherish their loved ones and express their feelings openly.
“Go home tonight and tell all those you hold dear that you love and cherish them,” Bao’s husband Paul Gooch said.
Detective Inspector Nicola Reeves, who is in charge of Operation Helo, said staff were “dedicated” to piecing together the circumstances of the investigation.
Police remained interested in any information relating to sightings of a silver Mitsubishi sedan with the registration DPH101, particularly on July 20, the day after Bao was reported missing.
The investigation team has received more than 200 tips from the public.
Bao’s family is also expected to travel to New Zealand from China, police confirmed.
A Givealittle page has been set up by one of her friends, Vani Liu.
“With heavy hearts, we ask to extend our support and help ease the burden faced by the family of Yanfei Bao, a dedicated real estate agent who has tragically disappeared while showing a house in Hornby.”
Bao’s disappearance had left her family “devastated and in deep sorrow”.
“Yanfei was not only a skilled professional but also a beloved partner to Paul, a cherished daughter and a loving mother to her young child, Momo. As her family, friends and community, we cannot fathom the pain they are enduring, and we want to offer our assistance during this unimaginably difficult time.”
Bao was last seen about 10am on Trevor St in Hornby, where she was due to show a potential buyer through a home.
The 52-year-old man charged with kidnapping Bao appeared in court last week.
The Herald revealed the man had only been living in New Zealand for several months.
Police were tight-lipped over what the man had told them. Reeves confirmed further charges are being considered.
Anyone who saw Bao’s silver Nissan Dualis after 12.30pm and before 10.45pm on the day she disappeared is urged to contact police, she said. The car was seen on CCTV footage in Hornby’s Trevor St, where police forensic scene experts have been examining a house.
Anyone who had seen Yanfei Bao, or had any information about where she could be, is urged to call 111 immediately and quote event number P055385539.
Sam Sherwood is a Christchurch-based reporter who covers crime. He is a senior journalist who joined the Herald in 2022, and has worked as a journalist for 10 years.