Twenty years ago, Claire Hills didn't make it to work. The 30-year-old was murdered, burned alive in her own car. Today, senior crime reporter Anna Leask revisits the grisly crime and the two-decade hunt for a killer.

The car went up in flames, lighting up Mangere Mountain and the surrounding domain like it was the middle of the day.

A man in dark clothing sprinted away from the fire as it intensified, desperate to get away.

His feet found the roadway that leads out of the domain and he thought he was home free.

Advertisement
A police sketch of the man believed to have murdered Claire Hills in April 1998. Photograph supplied
A police sketch of the man believed to have murdered Claire Hills in April 1998. Photograph supplied

Then he saw the woman.

She'd watched it all unfold in front of her - and now she could see him.

He stopped just metres from her, stood dead still, looking straight at her.

And then he was off again, scarpering into the early morning, never to be found.

It was 7299 days ago, but the woman remembers it like it happened today rather than a crisp autumn Tuesday morning in 1998.

It was the day she came face to face with the man who murdered Claire Hills.

READ MORE:
Cold case: police look to search overseas in hunt for Claire Hills' killer

"I won't forget it," said the woman, who is speaking publicly about the incident for the first time.

"I was going up the mountain at about 5.45am and as I got closer, I saw a man moving around a car at the soccer club.

"The next thing I saw was the thing go up in flames."

She said that between dawn breaking and the light of the fire, the domain was as light as it would have been at midday.

"I just stood there and watched it… it was like an inferno.

"I remember thinking as I stood there, If someone was in that car, there'd be no way anyone could get near it to help them - the whole thing was engulfed in flames… like a furnace.

The car was engulfed in flames...like a furnace, according to an eyewitness, who saw the suspect flee the scene. Photo / Supplied
The car was engulfed in flames...like a furnace, according to an eyewitness, who saw the suspect flee the scene. Photo / Supplied

"The person ran away, he didn't know I was there, he ran straight towards me.

"Then he realised I was there, he just stopped and we eyeballed each other for a minute - then he turned and ran back the same way he'd come.

"He definitely got a fright to see me."

The woman ran to a nearby property and asked a man there to call 111.

At 3pm, the man called her at work and said "there was a body in that car".

"When he told me that, I felt sick," she said. "It wasn't nice.

"I tried to keep the vision of that man in my mind, just in case."

Three other people reported seeing a man of similar description shortly after Hill's car went up in flames.

The remains of Claire Hills black Mazda. She was killed in the vehicle at Mangere Mountain. Photograph supplied
The remains of Claire Hills black Mazda. She was killed in the vehicle at Mangere Mountain. Photograph supplied

A jogger at the domain saw him running away, a taxi driver on the motorway said a man ran out in front of his car and another motorist saw a man walking towards the Mangere Bridge shops.

Their descriptions helped police create a sketch of the killer.

But 20 years on, he has never been found.

A RUNAWAY SETTLES IN AUCKLAND

Claire Elizabeth Green was born in England and emigrated to Australia with her parents and siblings when she was 2.

The family lived in a hostel for four or five months before buying a house and settling at Wollongong, a coastal city south of Sydney.

Hills, the third of six children, would leave the family home at 15, taking off with a boyfriend her father did not like.

She spent time working on fishing boats in Melbourne, then in 1985 hightailed it to Auckland under a fake passport in the name of Lisa.

Her sisters Lynda Hyson and Allyson Harris told the Herald on Sunday Hills wasestranged from the family, but she eventually reconciled with them and was in "sporadic" contact.

They know little of Hills' life in Auckland - she wasn't one to share details - other than she became a Jehovah's Witness at 21, married a man named Peter Hills and worked in "various jobs".

"She seemed to have a happy life in New Zealand, she quite liked it," Harris said.

"She didn't think she'd ever come back, she'd really settled."

About 18 months before she died, Hills' marriage collapsed.

She moved into a small flat on Sarsfield St in Herne Bay and was working as a manager at McDonalds - moving from the Grey Lynn restaurant to the airport weeks before she was murdered.

Hills was the manager on the day shift, which started at 3.30am.

She'd usually set her alarm for 2.30am, get up, dress, and drive her black Mazda Familia hatchback the 28km to the airport.

THE MURDER OF CLAIRE HILLS

The day she was killed she was due back at work after having two rostered days off.

Flaui Muaulu was duty manager the night before, and called Hills to discuss stock.

He is the last known person to speak to Hills.

"I called her at about 9.45pm, I forgot that she was supposed to be starting work at 3.30am," he said.

"I needed her permission to give this other store our stock, we had a quick conversation and that was it.

"Everything seemed normal."

Muaulu was just 18 when Hills died, and had known her only a matter of weeks, but she's had a lasting impact on him over the past 20 years.

"I knew her as Lisa," he said.

"She wasn't there long before the incident happened… I remember that day very clearly."

Hills, 30, was murdered as she made her way to work at McDonalds at Auckland Airport. Photograph supplied
Hills, 30, was murdered as she made her way to work at McDonalds at Auckland Airport. Photograph supplied

At 3.30am on April 28 1998 Muaulu was woken by a phone call.

"It was the store calling to say Lisa hadn't shown up, I was getting in trouble because they thought she must have called in sick and I'd forgotten to leave a message," he said.

"Later that morning the cops arrived at my house and wanted to speak to me.

"At the time they said they had found Lisa's car burned out at Mangere Mountain; they were trying to find out what conversation I'd had with her the night before."

Police updated Muaulu during the day, first saying they had found "something" of interest in the burned-out car.

Later, they confirmed that the "something" was Hills' body.

"I was really upset, I just couldn't believe it," Muaulu said.

THE BODY IN THE CAR

Firefighters arrived at the Mangere Mountain blaze at 6.31am - delayed by the police officer who took the initial 111 call failing to action it.

Crews attacked the flames with a high pressure hose and managed to extinguish it after about five minutes.

Then a senior officer approached the charred wreck and saw a badly burned body in the back seat.

Police were called and a homicide investigation - later dubbed Operation HIlls after the victim was identified through dental records and her McDonalds staff name tag pinned to her shirt that survived the blaze - was launched.

The burnt out car of murder victim Claire Hills where it was found on Mangere Mountain on April 28 1998. New Zealand Herald photograph
The burnt out car of murder victim Claire Hills where it was found on Mangere Mountain on April 28 1998. New Zealand Herald photograph

A post mortem examination revealed HIlls had been alive when she died - but "most probably" unconscious.

Her lungs were heat damaged and full of soot and she had a number of fractures to her skull and bones around her throat - but the pathologist was unable to establish whether those injuries were caused by the heat of the fire or as a result of an earlier assault.

Hills' cause of death was listed as carbon monoxide poisoning.

There was also evidence she had been sexually assaulted.

"Claire met her death in a terrible way and I would urge anyone with information which may help out inquiry to come forward, so we can identify the person who committed such a shocking crime," said Detective Senior Sergeant Dayle Candy in May 1998.

"Police are keeping an open mind on the possibility that Claire was the victim of a rape or robbery on her way to work."

Police appealed for sightings of Hills' car between 3am and 6am and also revealed that the fuel used to ignite the fire would have been sourced by the killer.

"There was nothing found in or around the car which could have been used to set the car on fire," she said.

That meant the killer likely visited a service station to buy an amount of fuel in a container, or stole it from somewhere.

A steering wheel lock Hills used regularly to secure her car was also missing and police said whoever had it could lead them to the killer.

To date, the lock has never been found and police have no idea who lit the fire, how or why.

OPERATION HILLS - A REAL WHODUNNIT

These days the Operation Hills file is run by Detective Superintendent Dave Lynch.

He worked on the case back in 1998, and now oversees all major criminal investigations in the Auckland and Northland regions.

He said the case is a "real whodunnit".

Suspects have been named and investigated over the years, including Hills' estranged husband, and the recidivist rapist William Mokaraka, who repeatedly attacked South Auckland women in their homes at night while brandishing a knife.

Both men were eliminated as suspects after their DNA failed to match a sample taken from Hills' body believed to have come from her killer.

Lynch can't - won't - disclose more about that sample, saying it's something only police and the offender will know about.

He wants to keep that card close to his chest, along with a couple of other aspects of the investigation.

Detective Superintendent Dave Lynch has been involved with Operation Hills for 20 years. New Zealand Herald photograph by Brett Phibbs
Detective Superintendent Dave Lynch has been involved with Operation Hills for 20 years. New Zealand Herald photograph by Brett Phibbs

But, everything else the police know about Hills' murder has been shared publicly - numerous times over the years - in a bid to flush out the person responsible.

"From the time that Claire got up around 2.30am and from the time her car caught fire up at the mountain there, those two to three hours are really an unknown for us and a key to advancing the investigation is filling in that window of time," he said.

"That sighting by the witness is really the only solid piece of information we have around any person who is directly connected with Claire's murder.

"There's a range of scenarios, one is that Claire was known to her killer - and the other scenario is that she was the subject of a random attack and how that random attack occurred and where is obviously very much a focus of the investigation."

A member of the public reported seeing a car matching Hill's and a woman inside matching her description in Hillsborough near the motorway on ramp before she was killed.

"We can't say that that was Claire and that was the car, but I think what we need to do is be quite open minded in terms of where Claire was ultimately taken from," said Lynch.

"I think in terms of the investigation today, we're really looking at between her house and South Auckland as potential areas of activity."

NZ Army personnel using metal detectors search a field on Mangere Mountain for clues to the murder of Claire Hills. New Zealand Herald photograph
NZ Army personnel using metal detectors search a field on Mangere Mountain for clues to the murder of Claire Hills. New Zealand Herald photograph

Lynch said he was "still committed" to finding Hills' killer, despite two decades of dead ends and the drying up of leads.

"I'm still convinced there's a person or a small group of people out there that know or have some very strong suspicions around what happened," he said.

"I always hold out hope that one day someone will pick up the phone.

"We don't need much, all we need is names - we do have the DNA profile to work with and we are able to give assurance of confidentiality around any information that people are prepared to give us."

That DNA profile has failed to match with anyone in the New Zealand database - made up of people who have given samples after being arrested for criminal offending.

Police have also searched the Australian database and are currently investigating what other databases overseas might be availble to them in their hunt for Hills' killer.

"Twenty years is a long time… We've got a family living in another country really still looking for answers around what happened to Claire," Lynch said.

"It's not too late - give us a call."

SOMEONE'S GOTTEN AWAY WITH MURDER

Hills' family are not holding their breath for that call to come.

They have all resigned themselves to the fact that the case will never be solved.

Even if it is, it will make little difference to them.

"The chances of it ever getting solved are really slim," Harris said.

"It makes us really upset that someone's walking around who's gotten away with murder - but if we find out who's done it it's not going to make us feel better.

"The impact, you can't even describe - that much violence, and no answers.

"I don't think you ever accept it, you know it's happened and you get on with it but it's always there… Why did you do this? Why did my sister suffer such a horrific death?"

They both believe Hills' was killed in a random attack.

Despite coverage and a police investigation of Hills' murder for 20 years, no one has been arrested. NZ Herald photograph
Despite coverage and a police investigation of Hills' murder for 20 years, no one has been arrested. NZ Herald photograph

"Claire was in the wrong place at the wrong time - otherwise there would be something to hold on to," said Hynson.

Harris added: "She was a good human being, she didn't deserve that."

"But for whatever reason, they decided to murder her… she didn't deserve to die like that.

"It would have been very scary."

Hills' mother Lois Green did not want to speak to the Herald on Sunday about the murder.

She's spoken enough over the years, she has nothing more to offer up.

"She doesn't like to talk about it too much, she doesn't like to rehash it," said Harris.

"She thinks that it's happened, nothing is going to change… she's resigned herself to the fact that she is not going to find out what happened to Claire in her lifetime.

"We've got no hope at all that it's going to be solved."

Harris said her family have never recovered from Hills' death.

"Our family's not complete anymore… There won't ever be any closure… She was 30 years old, she didn't have children, she hadn't even lived yet."

The sisters were thankful the police file remained open - and would until there was an arrest or resolution.

"It helps to think they're still thinking about her., even though there's no one actively working on the file," Harris said.

"Twenty years is a long time… unless somebody confesses, we will never know."

GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN

Hills has been gone for 20 years, but she is far from forgotten.

The people she left behind - her family, friends and strangers connected to her case - think of her often, unable to move on completely from the ghastly act that ended her life.

"We read those things in the newspapers, those things happened to other people, not people with normal families like ours," Harris said.

"It's not something that you think about all the time.

"Anniversary, birthdays, Christmas - I think about her then, the horrificness of the crime is always in the back of my mind."

Hynson said coping with her younger sister's death had become easier, but "it never goes away".

"You go through stages - total shock, denial… you just go through stages of horror," she explained.

Muaulu was just a teenager when he lost his workmate, his friend.

He and his former colleagues have a Facebook chat group and recently they started to reminisce about Hills again.

"It was really hard to deal with… in the short amount of time she'd been with us she'd developed a lot of close relationships with a lot of the crew," he said.

After Hills' funeral in 1998 Muaulu and the rest of the McDonald crew headed up to Mangere Mountain to pay their own tribute to her.

"We did that for three or four years after the incident too, when you went up there you could still see exactly where her car was parked and where it was burned - it was burnt into the concrete.

"We just got together and went up the hill, had a feed and just talked about it."

There's a sadness in Muaulu's otherwise upbeat nature when he speaks about Hills.

The grisliness of what happened to her has affected him, as has losing a mate.

"She was very loved," he said.

"She was a really approachable mother figure because we were all quite young.

"She always called everyone 'lollipop'.. She was never afraid to speak up and we used to make jokes that this little palagi lady wasn't afraid to challenge us - she was the only European member of our team, it was rare back then where we worked to have someone like Lisa.

"But when she joined our team, we felt like she belonged."

The woman who came face-to-face with the killer has also struggled over the years.

For a few weeks after Hills died she was nervous to be out in public, worried she would run into the man again.

"It did affecte me... I was worried, concerned all the time," she said.

"I tried to keep his face in my mind all the time, I just kept looking at people in their cars - men - to see if I could recognise that face.

"I think about it now and then... I think I was supposed to be there, supposed to see him."

Lynch also thinks about Hills regularly.

He's a South Auckland local and he often runs through the Mangere Domain, past the spot where Hills died.

The blistered and burned concrete is long gone and there is no memorial there to mark what happened in 1998.

But Lynch knows.

"Twenty years is a long time," he said.

"But I do hope we can resolve this."

CAN YOU HELP?

If you have any information about the death of Claire Hills or you have concerns around a person's behaviour following her death - please call the police.

Detective Superintendant Dave Lynch said simply offering a name of someone you suspect could be the key to solving this case.

If you have information phone 0800 OP HILLS (0800 674 4557).

To pass on information anonymously, contact Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

Or email anna.leask@nzherald.co.nz