Nigel Peterson – lost, alone, mentally unwell – went missing in broad daylight one afternoon nearly a year ago in Rotorua. Steve Braunias reports on a much-loved man who lived and disappeared in mystery.

Nigel is going to make a run for it. Nigel is going to break out. Nigel is going to – a tui rushes overhead, noisily beating its wings.

A pair roost in the branches of an enormous gum tree further along the road. He can see it from the passenger seat but he's not really looking, he has other things on his mind, he has one thing on his mind. The driver told him that everyone – there were five guys who lived there - had to move out of the house.

The hot water cylinder burst that morning, and flooded. It was going to be a job to fix it. They had to find somewhere else to stay. He receives the information and a single, brilliant impulse takes hold of his mind, seizes it, but he doesn't let on, he doesn't say anything. For a secret to exist, it must be concealed.

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The car turns into a steep driveway, and stops at the top outside a house. It's not his house. It's not where he lives. He swings open the car door, leaps out, and walks fast, very fast, back down the driveway before anyone even has the chance to react. Nigel is making a run for it. Nigel is breaking out. Nigel is going to fly.

Nigel Peterson was 33 years old when he disappeared on a swelteringly hot afternoon in Rotorua on November 17 last year. He turned 34 last Thursday. Or would have turned 34; he's not officially dead, there hasn't been an inquest, but it's a sad duty to talk about him – nine months since he was last positively identified, in broad daylight on a busy street, alone, lost, mentally unstable - in the past tense.

Chris Peterson (left) and Eileen Goldsmith in front of a display of posters they had made up after the disappearence of their son Nigel. Photo / Alan Gibson
Chris Peterson (left) and Eileen Goldsmith in front of a display of posters they had made up after the disappearence of their son Nigel. Photo / Alan Gibson

His family got together this week in Nigel's honour. On his last birthday, they took him to Valentines on Fenton St in Rotorua; the boy loved his meat, and loaded up on chicken wings.

Chris Peterson, 61, is a vet. He remarried and has two daughters, 12 and 9; their artwork was on the walls, including one of a dancing giraffe. His ex-wife Eileen Goldsmith, 58, works with her second husband at PG Wrightson. Nigel's younger sister Michelle, 32, teaches secondary school in Whanganui.

She drove north to Whakatāne on Thursday, to her dad's property, with its chickens and goats out the back, and the sleepout where Nigel would stay at Easter and Christmas. It's now filled with the things from his home in Rotorua – mattress, suitcases, model tanks. Geneva Healthcare, which provided Nigel with an independent living programme and 24-hour care, asked the family to empty his room a few weeks after he vanished.

It was a vanishing act so complete and so baffling that to look for him was to look for a ghost. Rotorua constable John Fredericksen, 44, who led the police search, described it as working in a kind of void.

ROTORUA DAILY POST
6 May, 2018 1:16pm
2 minutes to read

"It's relatively easy, getting information," he said. "But I would say this case has had the least amount of information. It was a whole lot of nothing. Everything was just nothing. Just nothing."

Nigel lived in his own world. He drew the search party into it, crossing over from their world, with its fixed expectations and defined behaviour, as they tried to guess his movements and whereabouts. What would Nigel have done? But not even Nigel knew.

His own world was in constant uproar. Of course there are probabilities, likely scenarios, sound theories, and the best of them may well be a patient, beautifully thought-out analytical deduction, reached by the police behavioural science unit, and that is that the end came quickly, maybe even the same afternoon he went missing.

Nigel's parents separated when he was a teenager, and his life began to spiral and fall into a hell of mental illness; Chris and Eileen laughed that Nigel's disappearance led to them spending the most time together since they split. It was a rare laugh.

A two-hour interview, which would be fair to describe as often pretty harrowing, was held around the dining room at Chris's house in Whakatāne. They wept, they fell silent; they were in an agony of unknowing. Where did their boy go?

Eileen wore her powder-blue PG Wrightson work shirt. There were lines on Chris' face from years of worry. They sat next to each other, and were asked that, if Nigel's life ended quickly, if at least he didn't endure days or weeks of being lost and afraid, was there any comfort in that, was that a good thing to think?

Eileen said, "But we don't know what's happened."

Chris said, "If it had happened, then we could think that. But we don't know."

Eileen said, "We have no idea."

No one knows what happened. But what did they think happened?

"Aaah," Chris sighed. "In the early days, what I was always putting my hope on is that he could survive. Now I think he has come to some misadventure and succumbed. And whether that was the first night, or in the first week, I don't know. There's certainly a real possibility that it was very quick. It could have been longer. But I think that's the only sort of credible option, that he's come to a misadventure. How that exactly happened and where and what time-frame," he said, "we'd dearly love to know."

Nigel disappeared on a Friday afternoon. The last absolutely reliable and verified sighting of him was at 3pm, outside 385 Old Taupō Rd, when one of his caregivers saw him from her rear vision mirror; he was walking fast, very fast, on the side of the road, heading towards downtown Rotorua.

Old Taupō Rd runs more or less parallel to the main drag of Fenton St. Nigel was at the south end of town, near the famous tourist attractions of Whakarewarewa and Te Puia.

The geysers are spectacular to behold and always worth the price of admission, but you can see burning, bubbling infernos throughout Rotorua, free of charge, steaming out of the side of the road and from streams and mudpools in parks; to vanish into thin air in Rotorua is to vanish into mist.

His whole life was a kind of mystery. He was born Nigel Jeffrey Peterson, on August 16, 1984, eight pounds 15 ounces, in Ōpōtiki maternity hospital.

"They had to call the anaesthetist from his squash tournament," said Eileen. Nigel was taken home to their beautiful spread on the estuary where they farmed beef cattle. "He was perfectly healthy from a baby, and then..." Eileen cried for the first time but by no means the last during the next two hours.

She continued, "He had an illness at eight months old which left him with a brain injury and like a stroke victim."

What happened?

"We have no idea really what happened," she said. She meant they had no idea how, exactly, he caught a virus – encephalitis, an infection which attacks and inflames the brain. "We don't know for sure. Everyone's got ideas. But we can't be certain.

"It was totally sudden. The day that it started happening, he had a wee bit of a runny nose, the snuffles, and then he had a fit. He started to get a temperature that morning, and fitted, and from that time on, he kept on fitting. We took him to Ōpōtiki [hospital], kept fitting there and turned blue, then an ambulance to Whakatāne, fitting there – couldn't control the fitting. That was pretty terrible."

"Mmm," said Chris.

"And then to Starship, and on the tenth day it stopped as quickly as it started. But he'd been left like a stroke victim. One side of him was paralysed, and there was quite a lot of different damage in his brain, so he had a lot of learning disabilities....It's a complicated case."

When he went missing, and the first, anxious stories appeared in the Rotorua Daily Post, Nigel was described as "autistic". Eileen: "We said that because that's the easiest way for everyone to understand his behaviour."

Was he autistic?

Chris: "Nigel displays a lot of autistic characteristics."

Eileen: "If he hadn't had that illness as a child, you wouldn't know how autistic he would have been."

If at all?

Chris: "If at all, yeah. I can't believe that it's not related to his illness; it has to be. And then he also became psychotic at about 16...." The accurate label for Nigel, he said, was brain-injured with psychosis.

The encephalitis came and left as mysteriously as Nigel himself left without a trace 33 years later, in a swirl of the same confusion – "No idea", "We can't be certain", "We don't know what happened." But there was something else about his strange exit that afternoon last August which reached back to his infancy.

Nigel survived the encephalitis, and the constant, convulsive fitting, and even the paralysis – his right side would always be weak, but he regained mobility; it certainly didn't hold him back when he shot through the streets of Rotorua and raced towards some oblivion. There was the conviction that he would also survive being lost, whether it was on unfamiliar streets or on the edge of a black forest. A lot of that belief was based on a quality Nigel had in spades: courage.

"Brave as brave, tough as tough," said Chris, with a fierce pride. His son couldn't catch a ball and was no good at athletics, but he excelled at horse-riding: "That was his sport."

Eileen brought out photo albums of Nigel winning ribbons at show, sitting confidently on ponies, looking relaxed, happy. Chris said, "He rode real loose and real kind." He found a photo of Nigel on a horse called Thunderbolt. "See," he said. "He's not tense, his body's not reacting – horses love that. He had a real affinity with horses. He'd kick 'em down to a fence and they'd go for him. He was fearless like that."

"He had his own style, all his reins flapping. Gung-ho," said Michelle, who grew up as his adored and adoring baby sister, younger by 18 months. They played for hours at a secluded spot on the estuary that they called the hot pools.

"He was always the one looking after me," she said. It was a happy childhood, years and years of it suspended in a New Zealand bliss of family, animals, tides, the farm, golden weather. Chris said, in a voice that started off soft and got more and more faraway, "He was a lovely little boy."

He did well at school. Eileen found some old report cards; he got good marks in Year 12 for English, physics, chemistry, biology. There was talk of becoming a scientist, maybe a helicopter pilot. But psychosis stormed in and took Nigel away. He heard voices. Eileen: "It's like he didn't know what he was doing. Uncontrollable."

There were hallucinations.

Chris: "It started to unravel for him." He had psychotic episodes. Eileen: "It was like a breakdown." The marriage ended around this time and it was just Chris on the farm with his son, who was losing the ability to function, not coping, essentially going mad. "They were heartbreaking times," said Chris.

He never gave up hope. Chris arranged for Nigel to pre-train a neighbour's racehorse. Nigel fed it, rode it for hours every day. Chris: "It was a real difficult horse to handle, it'd try and bite and all sorts of things, but Nigel had such a lovely, calm way with it. I said, 'You've got this role with animals, you could work with this.' But he had to be taken away, and he never rode a horse again."

Nigel is flying. Nigel is out of the car, down the driveway, past the three letterboxes and a pink camellia bush, and turns left onto Otonga Rd. It's ten to three on a hot, beautiful afternoon – looking straight ahead, there are sheep on a distant hill, the grass bright and smooth in the sunshine. Smoke reaches up into the sky from Whakarewarewa and Te Puia.

He walks past a vast magnolia, a trailer balanced on top of a barrel marked POISON, a garden statue of Pania of the Reef. He's on his own, he's not stopping for anybody. When he's in the mood, no one can catch him. He's a slim man, tall (180cm, or 5'11"), very fit.

He covers 400 metres in less than five minutes and comes to the intersection of Otonga and Springfield Roads. The easiest thing to do is turn left. Nigel turns left. He's on a mission, he's executed it perfectly, and has no need to consider the question: where to?

One of Geneva's caregivers drove after Nigel. She caught up with him on Springfield Rd, and drove alongside, trying to talk him into getting in the car, but he wasn't having a bar of it. He turned left onto Old Taupō Rd, heading north, and she kept at it, telling him it was all going to be okay, and then she got out of the car and talked to him.

This time he stopped. For a moment, maybe longer, he considered getting in the car. But the moment passed, and he pushed past her. The caregiver decided she needed help. She didn't have her cellphone on her, and drove back to the house on Otonga Rd. She and another caregiver got in their cars and went back to where she last saw him – but it's at this point that Nigel becomes the man who wasn't there.

He even managed to give CCTV the slip. Two cameras record someone in the nearby vicinity that afternoon, and they could be Nigel, or they could be a whole lot of nothing. Constable Fredericksen collected four credible but unconfirmed sightings over the next week and they were all further south along Old Taupō Rd.

The theory is that Nigel turned around as soon as the caregiver drove off, maybe lost his bravado now that he was suddenly alone - he'd been in protective care since he was 20, he'd never faced this situation before. Perhaps he retraced his steps, intending to get back to Otonga Rd. But he missed the Springfield Rd turn-off and just kept walking south on Old Taupō Rd, past the Hemo Gorge roundabout, past Te Puia, then downhill on State Highway 5 towards Taupō, with deep, dark forests on either side of the road.

There are two sightings of a man who may or may not have been Nigel on State Highway 5 that afternoon. A woman returning to Rotorua with her partner reports seeing someone just past the Hemo Gorge roundabout at about 4:10pm. Another motorist identifies a man a little further south at 6.30pm, near a floral display of daffodils on the side of the road, placed in memory of a woman who was killed in a car accident.

Both sightings seem to be a good match for Nigel – what he was wearing, and the unsteady, shambling way he walked.

Two more sightings come in during the week. A woman sees someone on the Monday, at about midday. She'd driven from Napier and was on her way to Rotorua to see her father before he went into surgery.

"She used to live here," said Fredericksen, "so when she sees someone she thinks is drunk walking down State Highway 5, she thinks to herself, 'Here we go. Rotorua special'. But she said to me, 'When I thought about it, it actually struck me as someone who'd had a stroke.' So some really good detail there.

"And then a woman going into town to buy cigarettes on the Wednesday says she sees someone directly opposite the Tamaki Maori Village, which was the previous sighting, again at midday.

"Okay. How to explain the two days between sightings? He's hiding. He's avoiding people. The profile for Nigel was we expected him to try to seclude himself, remove himself from the public eye."

Police conducted massive searches near the four sightings. Nigel's family, and their friends, searched even wider and more intensively, for weeks, all through summer. His grandfather Ian Jeffrey, 84, hit the road on his bicycle, never gave up. "Nigel wasn't going to stay where they wanted him to stay," he said. "You can't change his mind easily. Once he gets an idea in his head….But I don't know what the idea was. We just don't know."

The search included the Redwood Forest (word came through just last week of a man seen walking in circles around about the time of Nigel's disappearance), the shores of Lake Rotomahana and Lake Rerewhakaaitu, at Kaingaroa, behind Rainbow Mountain, at an abandoned sawmill on State Highway 38 – a notice in an empty office advertises a job vacancy for a general hand in 2007, there are couches and office desks and a bicycle and crates of fungicide inside vast, dry, spooky sheds. They were looking for a ghost in a kind of ghost town.

There was thought he might have seen a road sign for Whakatāne and followed the arrows. There was thought he never got very far at all and the very last police search, in May, concentrated on the golf course right beside the Hemo Gorge roundabout. A tree has fallen over a golf course fence on Old Taupō Rd. It's easy to step over it and into thick, low manuka; right behind it are three steaming pools, spitting out mud, devouring the end of another tree which has snapped and sunk into the boiling pit.

Constable Fredericksen said, "I've no doubt poor Nigel is deceased. But I can't for the life of me figure out what's happened. I'm at a loss."

Chris Peterson said, "You can't have no hope. But I'm a rational, science-based person, so I go on evidence, and the evidence ain't giving me any hope. But we're still his parents. What can we do? We miss him. You can look back and say, 'We did everything we could possibly do.' We pursued everything. When a new sighting came in, bang, we'd be down there like a flash...But we never came up with anything."

Eileen had come and gone from the room quite a few times. She returned when Chris was talking, and when he finished, she said, "I just think that Nigel was on his own journey."

Chris said, "He wrote his own agenda. You'd have to say that. All the way through, Nigel did things his own way."

Dominic Gielen has never spoken to the media about Nigel. He was a caregiver at Geneva, and privacy laws prevented him from talking as an employee. But he left a few months ago, burned out with the stress of working in mental health; Nigel's disappearance, too, hit him hard. They were close, had a bond. Nigel's parents mentioned his name with tremendous warmth, and gratitude for everything he'd done for Nigel.

Dominic lives on Otonga Rd – it was his Pania of the Reef statue that Nigel sped past that afternoon last August. He was a tall man, extremely handsome, 58 years old, with the ghost of a stutter, and he spoke with intensity.

He said, "Nige was highly intelligent. Loved the outdoors - I'm a keen walker, but Nige was something else. Loved birds. I felt birds represented freedom for him. Because Nige was aware of his situation, and that led to his frustration.

"When he was elevated - yelling, screaming, people talking to him in his head, he'd go, 'No! No! Don't say that anymore!' Those messages would drive him absolutely bananas.

"So you'd give him a drug to try to curb it, and I'd take him away somewhere quiet. And then he'd come down and sleep. I remember one time him saying things like, 'I don't want to be Nigel'.

"I knew exactly what he was saying. He had enough…When he got his chance to run, all I thought was - I said to the police when they interviewed me, 'Do you think you'll find him?' They said, 'Oh yes. Yes.' I thought, 'Hm. They're not Nigel, though, are they.'"

Meaning?

"Meaning, 'You're not going to find me. I'm not going to be sitting under a culvert, or hiding behind a hedge, or behind someone's garage. I'm out of here.'

"He would have felt, 'They're taking me out of my home. This it it. I've had enough.' Because Nige had enough anyway. We used to walk further and further and further. It was like once Nigel gained his confidence, he was like, 'I don't need you anymore. Nigel can do this on his own.'

"I noticed towards the end, the last six months, Nigel would say, 'Nigel can look after Nigel. Nigel doesn't need anybody'."

But Nigel can't do this on his own. There he is on Old Taupō Rd, traffic is streaming past, there are people around, and he needs his medication, he needs Dominic, he needs his family. "He'd switch off a lot," said Michelle.

"Almost impossible to have a conversation with him. But he'd still want to hug you, and be with you. Nige was very loving." That morning, he bought a bottle of Coke Zero and a packet of Eclipse Chew Mints at a dairy on the city end of Old Taupō Rd; but now Nigel is stranded at the other end of town.

"When he was at primary school, the kids all loved him," said Ian Jeffrey, his grandfather.

"Kids can be cruel, especially with someone like him, but they loved him. I remember he did a cross country race, and the teacher decided to show him a shortcut. Well, he came in first! The whole school cheered him when they saw him coming in. That's one of the things I'll always remember."

Nigel doesn't know where he is.

"He'd watch animal programmes for hours," said Chris.

"The funny thing is I've still got – and I can't delete them – all the dinosaur documentaries I recorded for him on Sky. He'd sit down with my older girl, who's 12, and she'd watch them for the fifteenth time...She just loved him." The sun is beating down, and the air is heavily scented with the sharp, fresh tang of thermal smoke.

"Michelle got married in June last year and Nigel came down and was absolutely perfect," said Eileen. "Dom looked after him. There's a little murky clip of Nigel dancing. They were good times."

Nigel's world is closing in. Nigel – sometime, somewhere, somehow – finds a way out. Nigel is free.

Can you help?

Police are still interested to hear from people who were in Rotorua on Friday, November 17, 2017 at around 3pm and the days following. If you think you saw Nigel then your information is important. Call your nearest police station and quote file number 171117/2007.