Almost 50 years ago, Jefferie Hill disappeared while playing with a young friend next to a creek. Clues to what happened were elusive, and are still. Chelsea Boyle reports.

Jefferie Hill was nearly 3 when he disappeared, presumed drowned.

All he left behind was a red plastic toy spade that floated on top of the winding, slow-moving Matarawa Creek, in Tokoroa.

Almost five decades on, his mother Jo Reynolds, nee Hill, is still desperate for closure; for answers on what happened to her beloved wee boy.

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Jefferie went missing on a cold day in September 1968.

He had gone outside to play in the neighbour's sandbox with his little friend, Reynolds said.

It was 2-year-old Karen Stubbs who raised the alarm that Jefferie was missing.

She told her mother Colleen Stubbs and Jefferie's older brother Robert Hill, who was playing on his tricycle, that Jefferie had fallen into the creek.

Karen would be the last person to see Jefferie alive.

"He [Robert] was only 6 years old and he was screaming," Reynolds recalled.

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"I thought, 'oh my God, he's put his foot through the spokes'."

He was beside himself, she said.

Reynolds rushed down to the creek and got in the water, falling through a rusted car bonnet.

She combed through the debris in the water, desperately searching for her little boy.

"For years it [the river] had been used as a local rubbish dump apparently, and there is no way in hell he could have got through all that rubbish if he had been in there."

Reynolds recalls being pulled out of the water covered in cuts, and taken back to her home.

"I wasn't allowed outside after that," she said.

Word of the toddler's disappearance travelled quickly and people turned up in droves to search for Jefferie - "it went on for weeks".

Over time people came from across the country to help, she said.

"It was amazing, the people were absolutely amazing."

The creek was drained to ankle depth, so they should have found something, she said.

Jo Reynolds pictured beside the creek in Tokoroa where Jefferie Hill went missing. Photo / Alan Gibson
Jo Reynolds pictured beside the creek in Tokoroa where Jefferie Hill went missing. Photo / Alan Gibson

Police were called in from Rotorua and three days later the police dogs were called in.

"That was ridiculous. The dogs didn't know which way they were going."

Fifty years on from the frantic search, Reynolds still does not know what to believe.

Was her son snatched or was he trapped in an underwater tomo?

All they had to go on at the time was the word of a 2-year-old, Reynolds said.

"They searched everything as thoroughly as they could for quite a distance down the creek, not just in that one area."

It was believed the tomos had all been explored but nothing was found, she said.

There was also a theory that a suspicious car had been seen in the area, but nobody could agree on what colour it was, she said.

"I think it was just all a lot of wishful thinking at the time."

Almost 50 years on from the heart-wrenching disappearance of her son, Reynolds said the hardest thing was not knowing what had happened.

"I don't know what to believe. I'd love some closure.

"You see things on TV and you think, 'God, I hope that never happened to Jefferie'."

Reynolds' eldest son never forgot that day, and later in life named his own son after Jefferie.

"Even now when I talk to him on the phone he talks about the day his little brother went missing."

Reynolds too has not forgotten her gorgeous wee boy.

For author Scott Bainbridge - who this month releases a new book The Missing Files, which examines a series of unsolved New Zealand missing persons cases - Jefferie's disappearance is a mystery that he continues to wrestle with in his mind.

Bainbridge was approached by the family to investigate what happened more than 40 years after a coroner determined Jefferie had drowned.

"I think about that one all the time," Bainbridge said.

Bainbridge said that back in the 1960s it was treated as an "open and shut case" because Jefferie had disappeared in such close proximity to the stream.

Jo Reynolds at home in Tokoroa with a picture of her 2 year old son. Photo / Alan Gibson
Jo Reynolds at home in Tokoroa with a picture of her 2 year old son. Photo / Alan Gibson

"The coroner concluded that he drowned in the creek. Well, the progress we have made seems to indicate that possibly isn't the case."

It was difficult to see how the stream could have carried him, or how after all this time his body had not been discovered at the scene, Bainbridge said.

"The stream is really low and it's really narrow."

Some locals had cast suspicion towards Karen's father, Tom Stubbs, who had allegedly been aggressive towards neighbourhood children.

An old neighbour claimed to have seen Stubbs bury something in his yard around the time of Jefferie's disappearance.

However, Bainbridge said it was unlikely Stubbs - who died in 1986 - had been involved in the toddler's disappearance as he had been in his family home with his wife Colleen at the time.

"I interviewed her at length, and even though a number of years had passed I don't believe that she was involved or that he was involved either," Bainbridge said.

"I struggle to believe that."

In 2012, Karen, then called Karen Booker, told the Herald she remained convinced that Jefferie had fallen in the river.

A copy of a family photograph of Jefferie Hill, aged 2, who went missing nearly 50 years ago. Photo / Supplied
A copy of a family photograph of Jefferie Hill, aged 2, who went missing nearly 50 years ago. Photo / Supplied

"All I know is that we were at that creek and he went in that water. We were both there and we shouldn't have been - we were only little," she said.

Her father was "very loving" family man and what had been said about him was hurtful, she said.

On February 4, 2012, Bainbridge, alongside the boy's family and police representatives, met a geophysicist outside Edward St to find what Stubbs had buried in the front yard.

Nothing of significance was found.

Bainbridge remembers watching Reynolds during that search.

"[That] really brought it home to me because I had a son the same age at that point."

Nearly 50 years had passed and she still had no idea what happened to her little boy, Bainbridge said.

"I just can't imagine how difficult that would be for anybody."

At that time of the renewed search, the younger sister Jefferie Hill never met - Laura - told the Herald the family had held out great hope he was still alive, unaware of what had happened.

A picture taken in 2012 of Laura Hill holding a portrait of the brother she never met.
A picture taken in 2012 of Laura Hill holding a portrait of the brother she never met.

She had said it was entirely possible he had been abducted.

"We've never believed he went into the creek," she said at the time.

Tragically, Jefferie's father died in 2004 without knowing what happened to his son.

Detective Senior Sergeant Kevan Verry said that in March 1969 a coroner's inquest into the disappearance of Jefferie Hill found that, based on the evidence, he died at Tokoroa on September 28, 1968 and the cause of death was drowning.

"As with any missing-person case, the file has not been closed and police remain open-minded about the circumstances.

"Although recent media coverage didn't result in any new information, we will continue to assess anything new that comes to our attention."

Jefferie is one of 15 missing people whose cases have been put under the spotlight by Bainbridge in his new book, The Missing Files.

The earliest disappearance in his book is that of Jean Martin in Wellington in 1945.

The most recent cold case detailed in the book is that of John Beckenridge and his stepson, Mike, who were last seen in the Catlins in Southland in 2015.

ABOUT THE COLD CASE AUTHOR

Hamilton-based Scott Bainbridge first became interested in missing-persons cases as a teen, when, on a car journey, he overheard his parents talking about the disappearance of Mona Blades.

Blades vanished in 1975 while hitchhiking, sparking one of the country's largest manhunts.

Her body and belongings were never found.

"I looked out the window of the car, just looked out at the vast landscape and I thought, 'gosh, where is this girl? Where on Earth could she be?'"

Every Queen's Birthday weekend for years, warnings would resurface in the media urging people to take care hitchhiking, Bainbridge said.

In the 1970s there were quite a few unsolved murders that always made the front pages of the newspapers, Bainbridge said.

Following missing-persons cases has spiralled into a lifetime's work, with Bainbridge pushing for new leads where he can.

He has spent countless hours investigating the cases of missing people. This is his sixth book.

"People read it, they do think about it, they do remember things."

Bainbridge has twice previously written books dedicated to missing persons, which inspired the TVNZ series The Missing.

The Missing Files, published by Imagination Press, has a RRP of $39.99 and is being sold exclusively through Paper Plus, Paper Plus Select and Take Note.