Lee Sheppard disappeared five days after his wife told him she was pregnant with the couple's first child.
The pair were on a working holiday in London and had planned to return to their home town of Paparoa, in Northland.
Sheppard, 26, was last seen at the EMR recycling plant in North London, where he worked as a supervisor, on January 30, 2003.
His body has never been found.
The case was reopened by London police after New Zealand private investigator Ron McQuilter, who was hired by the family, concluded Sheppard had been crushed by the plant's recycling machine and suggested the company may have tried to cover it up.
Eight years after the disappearance, an inquest concluded he died from asphyxiation while working at the plant.
In this extract from his new book, Busted, McQuilter shares his involvement with the case.
Over a 40-plus year career as a private investigator in which I've resolved hundreds, if not thousands of cases, there are one or two that have continued to haunt me. None more so than the mystery of New Zealander Lee Sheppard's disappearance while on a working holiday in London in January 2003. The investigation I undertook after the Metropolitan Police had reached a dead end in their inquiry, became the case in my career in which I take the greatest pride in contributing to resolving.
This case grabbed me by the throat and would not let me rest, to the extent that I poured many, many thousands of dollars of my own money and many hundreds of hours of unbillable time into it over the course of six years. During that time I felt as if I became part of the Sheppard family. Their concerns about Lee's fate became my concerns.
I believe that the lead investigator, the detective inspector, failed to adhere to accepted investigative processes. His actions resulted in the Metropolitan Police expending considerable amounts of money and resources following false leads and making unnecessary enquiries when the evidence to solve the matter within two days of Lee's disappearance was readily available. A DNA test of the sludge [at the factory] would have proven a workplace accident immediately.
The family would not have had to suffer for six years wondering if Lee had been of unsound mind at the time of his disappearance. And they would not have had to wait eight years for a Coroner's Inquest.
My month in the UK was coming to an end. I had told the Sheppard family in New Zealand that I would work on the file for a month, call them around December 17 and have a phone conference call in which I would give them a full update.
The timing of my trip was deliberate, in the hope that the family would have some form of closure for Christmas 2008. The family all agreed that if my investigation resulted in no outcome and Lee was still missing, they would ask the court to declare Lee dead and they would move on with their lives. They needed closure.
It was December 12, 2008. My family in Scotland were preparing for me to arrive within a week to spend Christmas and New Year with them before heading back to New Zealand.
My intention was to return to New Zealand in early 2009, sit down with the entire Sheppard family and go through every aspect of the investigation in detail.
The truth is that, just like my private investigator mate, we had all assumed that the case would remain unsolved. My mates gave me zero per cent chance, but the Sheppard family was still hoping for a miracle.
I had promised Lee's family that I would provide them with a full update and outcome before I packed up in London and headed north to Scotland. The entire Sheppard family were expecting news one way or the other before Christmas day. They had been waiting for nearly six years and this was a promise that could not be broken or delayed.
I met with Andy Goodwin, a detective sergeant at the Barnet Police Station in North London, and the borough superintendent. We all agreed that the family had to be informed, in person, of our findings before anyone else found out. You see, in television crime shows, two police officers arriving at a door with solemn faces and the spouse or parent collapsing when confronted with news of their loved one's death. The task is always considered carefully and delivered in person. By rights, this message to the family should come from a police officer.
In an ideal world, Andy would have travelled to New Zealand and delivered the message as the officer in charge of the file. We also discussed asking the New Zealand Police to assist, but in the end, it was agreed that I would do it in person. I had delivered death messages when I had been a police officer and I was the Sheppard family's New Zealand-appointed investigator.
Another factor was that there was still a lot of work to be done in London, because Andy would have to convince the police hierarchy and the coroner of our findings. The coroner is only involved in cases when there has been a death. In this case we felt confident we knew what had occurred and that Lee was dead but there was no chance of recovering any human remains. Andy had to keep the momentum up via the police and the coroner. The Sheppard family had to instruct lawyers, to have our findings legally proven in law.
In the end I was left with no choice. The message had to be delivered immediately, so I cancelled my Christmas plans with my family in Scotland and rebooked my flights back to New Zealand for the following day.
On December 14, 2008, exactly a month after I had left New Zealand, having told no one I was returning, not even my family, I arrived back in Auckland.
First, I called at Juliet's house, but no one was home. I could hardly leave a message and Pahi being so small, I could not be spotted hanging around, waiting for Juliet to arrive home. Neither could I call anyone to find out where she might be.
Ken and Rose Sheppard, Lee's parents, lived 500m up the road. I spotted Rose, who was pottering around in the back garden. She did a double-take, wondering if her eyes were deceiving her.
"What the hell are you doing here? You're supposed to be in London."
I told her I had decided not to go to Scotland to be with my family and had instead come back early to talk to the family as soon as possible. Just then, Ken appeared. He stopped, literally rooted to the spot, with his mouth open. I asked if they knew where Juliet was and if they could gather the family, as I wanted to tell them all together what I had found out.
I could see it in their faces – they knew I had bad news and they could see the same in my face too. I told them I knew what had happened and that Lee was dead.
Within 10 minutes the entire Sheppard family had gathered, including Juliet. For the next few hours I went over the investigation, answering question after question and laying out all the findings.
I had arranged with Andy in London that after I had informed the family I would call him. He spoke on speakerphone at length to the family as well.
There was not a dry eye in the place. While words could not describe the atmosphere and emotions present, the family took comfort in having closure. However, there was no escaping the fact that this family had endured six years of pain and suffering, hoping beyond hope for a miracle, when in fact Lee's tragic accident could have been discovered within days of the event.
There was a lot of work still to be done. Andy was appointed to assist the coroner's office, but it was two years before the coroner held a formal inquest in front of a jury with Lee's former employers fighting tooth and nail, using a QC trying the whole way to discredit our findings.
Juliet and her family, as well as Rose and Lee's brothers and myself, all travelled to London for the duration of the inquest.
Each day we would all sit listening to the witnesses, disgusted when the workplace manager gave his testimony in a rude and disrespectful manner, while sucking on a gobstopper sweet. The inquest took three long weeks, in the cold of winter in London, with all of the New Zealand contingent living in hotels at our own cost. I was in London for 23 days. During that time I had eaten 21 curries, one fish and chips and a Chinese meal for my dinners. In true Sheppard family tradition, I drank a lot of beer.
The mood was tense as you can expect with a three-week hearing in which there are two opposing factions and a jury present all contained within a very small area.
Coroners hold inquests only to determine the cause and place of a death. Their purpose is not to determine responsibility. Because there were no human remains and all the evidence was circumstantial, the jury in this case was required to make two decisions. The first duty for this jury was to decide if indeed Lee was dead. If they did agree Lee had died, they then had to determine how and where he had died. In doing this, the pro-forma form used for Coroners' inquests had to be amended because the form said "deceased" and that word had to be deleted to allow for the initial finding. I was told that this was another first for the UK.
I was told that the recycling company spent around £500,000 on its QC. They put up a strong fight and they lost. Although the formal inquest took three weeks with the recycling company's QC arguing every single point and dragging things out, the jury though came back very quickly with a decision that totally supported our investigation and findings, recording a verdict of accidental death.
The jury determined that Lee had been gassed and then crushed by a 36-tonne machine in a fridge recycling chamber at his place of work on that fateful night shift.
On hearing the verdict emotions ran high – relief, shock and anger but it was all a blur, because I was booked on a flight back home to New Zealand that night.
Back home, the family held a memorial service for Lee in which I gave a short speech, with tears welling up in my eyes the entire time. I then presented each of the family members with a personalised bound book I had arranged to have made that covered off the investigation in detail, so that they could all look back on what transpired and know that the entire family had done all that they could to solve the case. I thought this would be especially important in the future for the son Lee never got to meet.
by Ron McQuilter
New Holland Publishers
Out in early November