By ELIZABETH BINNING
The man who last saw Sara Niethe alive says he knows there will be people who blame him for the 30-year-old's disappearance, but he says he had nothing to do with it.
Speaking from his small Kaihere home, Mark Pakenham says he has been reluctant to talk about her for fear people will think he is trying to cover up something.
While police have not named anyone as a suspect, Mr Pakenham is aware of the rumours about him.
He says he met Ms Niethe about six months ago at a party in Auckland. They started talking and discovered they lived within 15km of each other, in two small towns just south of Ngatea.
Ms Niethe's friends and family have told the police the couple dated for several months, but Mr Pakenham says it was more of a close friendship.
"We used to spend quite a lot of time together. We did go out and we saw each other, but it wasn't a relationship."
He says Ms Niethe rang him on the weekend of March 30 about some shopping she was going to do for him.
He had previously given her some money, but when she rang he told her not to worry about the food because he needed the money to pay a bill.
During the call a social drink was suggested and Ms Niethe arrived at his home that afternoon after stopping in Ngatea to buy some bourbon.
He says Ms Niethe was her normal happy self as she parked her mother's light blue-green Honda Civic in the driveway. The pair then sat on his deck, which overlooks a well-tended rock garden, ponga fence and dozens of thriving succulents.
"We just had a few drinks out there then came in here [to the dining room] and had a few more drinks."
Around midnight, Mr Pakenham says, Ms Niethe decided to go home. Knowing that she had been drinking, he encouraged her to stay, as she had done many times in the past.
But she wanted to go home, so he walked her to the door and that's the last he saw of her: "She got in the car and I was at the front door when I heard it start. Then I went to bed."
He is reluctant to speculate about what happened after she left his home for fear it will look like he is trying to divert attention from himself.
But he says one possibility is that she turned left on to State Highway 27, drove a short way then stopped, possibly because she was tired, or had had too much to drink.
"I think that somebody's abducted her from there. I don't know if it's anywhere near the truth. She may have driven for miles."
He agrees with friends and family who say she would not simply up and leave her three young children, who were waiting for her at home with their grandmother.
"It's not in her nature. She loves her kids and was very into the community."
The day after she left, he woke up to find her sunglasses, cigarettes, lighter and cellphone on the kitchen table.
He took them over to her place that evening, unaware that she had never made it home the previous night.
Since then, Mr Pakenham says, he has had little contact with her family. He feels sympathetic towards them but has not spoken out for fear of treading on their toes.
He says the weeks since Ms Niethe's disappearance have been difficult.
"It's taken its toll on me. I'm the last person to have seen her and people think I have done something to her."
Mr Pakenham says he has tried to put himself in the place of those people and he can understand their suspicions.
However, he says he does not know where Ms Niethe is, or what happened to her on that night. He wants her found as much as anyone else.
"I have even been to church and prayed for her and I'm not even a church person."
Mr Pakenham says he feels guilty that he did not try harder to keep Ms Niethe from leaving that night.
"I feel like I'm responsible in some way because I let her go.
"I've been a nervous wreck. I have got to live the rest of my life knowing that Sara left my place and never made it home to her family. That's hard to live with."
Since Ms Niethe's disappearance, police have conducted extensive searches of the routes she should have taken home that night.
They have also searched Mr Pakenham's three-bedroom home and the farmland that surrounds it, with his consent. "I have opened my doors up to the coppers. I have been co-operating ... fully because I have got nothing to hide. I want her found as much as anybody."
Police have found no trace of Ms Niethe or the Honda Civic.
Detective Senior Sergeant Glenn Dunbier says there is nothing to indicate foul play and Ms Niethe's case will remain a missing person investigation until there is evidence to suggest otherwise.
In the meantime, Mr Pakenham says people are free to think what they want of him. His only concern is for Ms Niethe's wellbeing and that of her family.
"People are going to judge me anyway, but I know in my heart how the truth is. I have nothing to hide."
By ELIZABETH BINNING