By EUGENE BINGHAM
When Teresa Cormack's molested body was found on a beach in 1987, Lower Hutt policeman Gary Orr thought of one man as a possible suspect - Jules Mikus.
Mr Orr knew of Mikus' extensive criminal background.
By 1987, Mikus already had five convictions for sex offences - he was arrested for his first sex crime when he was 14 - and had made a string of court appearances on burglary charges.
He had been abused himself as a child - before his arrest he was being counselled as a victim.
Mikus had moved to Napier in 1987, so Mr Orr rang the team investigating Teresa's murder and tipped them off.
At the same time, people who had seen a man matching Mikus' description in the area from where Teresa disappeared were ringing the police.
Yet it would be 15 years before Mikus was arrested and eventually convicted of abducting, raping and murdering the 6-year-old.
Why did it take so long to catch him, and why didn't the police take more notice of him at the time? Would it have led to his capture any earlier?
They are questions even Detective Sergeant Brian Schaab, the officer who arrested Mikus, believes need asking.
"It's frustrating for me to look through and see the information that was there about him which, for whatever reason, was overlooked or the significance of which was not realised at the time," says Mr Schaab.
Central to Mikus being dismissed as a prime suspect early in the inquiry was a police belief that Teresa disappeared soon after 9am.
"It has always been the assumption," says Mr Schaab. "It wasn't until we got the evidence we do have [Mikus' DNA profile] that you could relook at the whole thing in this new light."
Detective Inspector Ron Cooper, who was the first officer in charge of the Cormack inquiry, says there are reasons he is not prepared to go into which meant it was believed Teresa was abducted about 9am.
"It seemed the most likely scenario ... You've got to make some decisions based on what you know," says Mr Cooper.
"You've got to bear in mind that we had sightings by the carload all over the city, and you had to try to winnow them down and decide which of those you thought you could rely on.
"We always had something like a two-hour block that we couldn't account for her. We just didn't have an answer for that.
"We did a huge amount of work in the immediate area to see if she could have gone into a house or been taken into a house in the immediate area, kept there for a while and then taken away.
"We did inquiries with places that you might stop on your journey between Maraenui [where she disappeared] and Whirinaki [14km north of Napier, where her body was discovered].
"We checked all traffic tickets issued, any erratic behaviour - right down to the finest detail to try and substantiate where she might have been at that time because the 9am sighting was that she was headed back home."
In the murder trial, the Crown produced evidence from witnesses who described seeing a man fitting Mikus' description.
All those witnesses gave their statements to police at the time.
Brianna Smith even saw a little girl in a red raincoat (Teresa was wearing a red raincoat) with a scruffy, long-haired man.
But that was about 10.30am, and police did not believe Teresa could have been on the streets as late as that.
Mikus' luckiest break was that he had been at the Social Welfare office that morning to arrange an emergency benefit.
It gave him a concrete alibi for the time police were most interested in.
After Mr Orr's tip-off and within weeks of Teresa's disappearance, Detective Sergeant Barry Searle questioned Mikus.
He took a blood sample from him, photographed him and took his car away to be examined for clues.
Mr Searle asked Mikus why he had painted his car in the days after Teresa's disappearance.
But once it was established that he was telling the truth when he said he had been at Social Welfare between 9.30am and 10am, he slipped well down the list of suspects.
A "suspect check sheet" written about Mikus at the time says his alibi "tends to eliminate" him from the inquiry.
Mr Schaab now says of Mikus' alibi: "Looking at it now, it shouldn't have been accepted at that time. He was such a really good suspect."
He says Mrs Smith's sighting was important. "It wouldn't have been back then, of course.
"It was very significant but of course it was half past 10 and so far away from where [Teresa] should have been.
"But other information about Mikus was all there too.
"You'd think someone should well have been able to put it together because there were other sightings - a car which, looking at it, was probably his car."
When Mr Schaab says there was "other information" about Mikus, he is including his extensive criminal background, about which Napier police knew.
Mr Orr, who tipped the inquiry team off about Mikus, told them of his history of sex crimes, burglary and dishonesty offences. The cases included a vicious rape attempt on a schoolgirl in Lower Hutt about three years before Teresa disappeared.
Mikus should surely have screamed out for intense attention.
But Mr Orr says that although he nominated Mikus as a suspect he was never sure he was responsible.
"He was somebody I knew had the right sort of background to be considered a suspect," says Mr Orr, who retired from the police in 1998.
Mr Orr says he did not ponder all these years if it was Mikus.
"I thought he'd been spoken to and eliminated. I knew that there were some who were looking better suspects than others and were ultimately cleared."
One of those other suspects was Wayne Gary Montaperto, a former Napier man publicly identified as a suspect as early as 1989.
Mr Searle, the officer who questioned Mikus, obtained search warrants to raid Montaperto's house.
In affidavits, police said Montaperto lived on the route to school that Teresa would have taken and admitted being in the area at the time, although he denied any involvement with Teresa's disappearance.
Montaperto had at least 20 criminal convictions by the time Teresa was murdered, including one in 1976 for indecencies.
In a December 1987 affidavit in support of an application for a search warrant, a Napier detective said Montaperto's brother, Brent, had told police he saw Wayne Montaperto in his car with a small girl on the morning Teresa disappeared.
Montaperto believes the documents he has gathered about his treatment by police show detectives acted wrongly.
He has accused them of lying about the results of DNA testing in an attempt to get him to confess to Teresa's murder.
Montaperto went to jail in 1999 after being convicted for ramming the cars of policemen he says were harassing him.
Today, he says his life has been ruined by the police attention to him over the Cormack inquiry.
"How many other suspects got this treatment? I have received no apology from the police," he says.
He has formally complained about his treatment and the Police Complaints Authority is reviewing his claims.
Mr Schaab says that by March last year when the DNA evidence was obtained, 23 men could not be eliminated from the inquiry.
Mr Cooper says Mikus did not stand out, despite his criminal background.
"I read every suspect file and quite clearly if there was something about him that warranted closer attention it would have occurred to me. But there were other people that we put many more hours investigation into for other reasons.
"I'm confident that we made ... decisions on the best of what we had available at the time. I'm fully confident about that.
"So I don't have any self-recriminations at all."
Even if police had spent more time looking at Mikus, they might not have been able to charge him until the DNA evidence was obtained last year.
Apart from the DNA testimony presented to the trial, the only other evidence against Mikus was circumstantial or from confessions that came to light after he was arrested.
Mr Schaab believes the inquiry should be reviewed to see if any lessons can be learned, but he is not sure that the original inquiry team - of which he was a member - deserves criticism.
"You can't criticise the guys who were running it at the time because they were doing the best they could with the information they had available.
"It's terrible to read through the file and see that there was all this information there about this guy.
"But of course it only becomes really significant when you realise how important all that information is and now knowing who our offender is."
* additional reporting: Jo-Marie Brown
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By EUGENE BINGHAM