It took more than two months after Delu Desai went missing from an isolated coastal village before the police found one of the few traces of him ever to emerge.

An Indian aged about 42, Desai had lived at Taharoa, west of Otorohanga and southwest of Kawhia, for about 13 months when he disappeared on May 7, 1938.

Locals were certain he hadn't left the district and that he had not killed himself. The police later asserted that he had been murdered.

Known locally as "Jimmy", Desai worked in the general store run by Bhagvanji Desai, who was not a relative. Before moving to Taharoa, Delu Desai had lived in Auckland for around 20 years.

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Taharoa is southwest of Kawhia and west of Otorohanga. Map / topomap.co.nz
Taharoa is southwest of Kawhia and west of Otorohanga. Map / topomap.co.nz

He was popular among the mainly Māori residents of the settlement and it was thought strange he could leave without telling anyone. His absence was reported to the constable at Kawhia on Monday, May 16, nine days after he was last seen.

This was picked up by newspapers later in the week. It gradually grew into a sensational story as reporters made the arduous journey, five and a half hours from Hamilton, by car, boat and foot to the sand dunes of Taharoa.

The area came to prominence again last year after surfers, boaties and others were chased away. In one case shots were said to have been fired.

Taharoa, a settlement near the North Island's west coast, where storekeeper Delu Desai disappeared without trace in 1938. Photo / Google
Taharoa, a settlement near the North Island's west coast, where storekeeper Delu Desai disappeared without trace in 1938. Photo / Google

In 1938, Taharoa was "stricken with terror and fear" that a killer was lurking in the community, according to the Bay of Plenty Times.

The search for Desai drew in so many resources that even Police Commissioner Denis Cummings and the head of the Hamilton police district, Inspector C. W. Lopdell, visited Taharoa.

Items of Desai's clothing were found in the sand dunes but the hunt around the settlement and the dragging of the bed of Lake Taharoa, yielded nothing - until papers reported in early August what the Northern Advocate headlined as a "Sensational Turn in Taharoa Mystery."

"The discovery in a hedge at Taharoa," the Press Association reported, "of a complete set of false teeth and a complete upper denture about 10 days ago is a sensational turn in the mystery of the missing Hindu, Delu Desai ..."

"The teeth were found by members of the police party, who have been searching daily since May 18, about the time when it was first suspected that the Hindu had been the victim of foul play."

Police interviewed numerous Auckland dentists before finding that the dentures were probably made by C. Munro Emanuel, of Endean's Buildings, Queen St.

He at first told a detective he believed the dentures were Desai's, but later said positive identification wasn't possible because his patients' files were periodically thrown out, and Desai's had gone.

"However, I do know that in 1932 I made a set of false teeth for a Hindu named Delu Desai," Emanuel told a reporter.

The numbers stamped on the dentures found at Taharoa were similar to those he used. Another fact indicating the dentures were Desai's was that Emanuel's lawyer had written to his patient about payment, at an address where Desai was known to have lived in 1932.

But despite the excitement at the find, nothing further turned up and the case went cold.

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In November 1938, the Otago Daily Times reported that while Australian police were offering a £1000 (around $100,000 today) reward for information to solve the murder of the "Pyjama Girl" - 28-year-old Linda Agostini, who was found dead in silk pyjamas - a smaller sum, £250, was offered for information that led to the discovery of Desai's body.

"The notice states that it is believed that Desai was murdered," the paper noted.