A shocking lead in one of New Zealand's longest unsolved murder cases has come to light, with new information about a confession to the killing of school teacher Jennifer Beard.

This New Year's Eve marks the 50th anniversary of Beard's death. She was believed to have been strangled in a sexually motivated attack under the Haast River Bridge.

The Welsh woman, who had migrated to Australia the year before, was hitchhiking on the West Coast when she was reported missing in early 1970, sparking what's believed to be New Zealand's largest ever manhunt.

READ MORE: The 50 Year Secret: New evidence in Jennifer Beard cold case murder

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Her body was found about three weeks after she was killed, badly decomposed under the bridge.

Listen to the first episode of The 50 Year Secret here. All episodes are available first to Herald Premium subscribers at nzherald.co.nz/50YearSecret. Episodes will also be released each weekday on podcast apps.

The Herald can reveal an accused sex offender confessed the murder to a close friend in 2003, before taking his own life days later.

The man who made the confession was Otematata resident Reginald Wildbore, who was due to be arrested on the day of his death for historical sex crimes against a child, unrelated to the Beard case.

Close friend Ian Molloy has come forward with news of the confession.

"Quite often he'd come around in the morning. This morning he'd come around and he knocked on the door and I went out to the porch, and he just looked at me and then he just broke down crying his eyes out," Molloy told the Herald.

Jennifer Beard's body was found under the Haast River Bridge 19 days after she went missing. Photo / Michael Craig
Jennifer Beard's body was found under the Haast River Bridge 19 days after she went missing. Photo / Michael Craig

"He said 'I've done something really, really bad.' He said 'I killed Jennifer Beard.' "

Molloy said he was too "gobsmacked" to respond, instead staring at Wildbore in silence as the other man wept.

"He couldn't control himself for crying. He hung around for a little bit then he took control of himself and he just went away," he said.

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"I never saw him again."

Molloy was scheduled to go north for work the following day. The next he heard of Wildbore was the news he'd committed suicide.

Wildbore's daughter Pam Routhan also told the Herald she'd heard of a confession "years ago", saying Wildbore's ex wife Glennis Henderson used to say he'd confessed to her.

Routhan said the ex wife, who is now dead, reported him to the police and he was thoroughly investigated.

Ian Molloy (pictured) said his friend Reg Wildbore confessed to the murder. Photo / Michael Craig
Ian Molloy (pictured) said his friend Reg Wildbore confessed to the murder. Photo / Michael Craig

A Herald Official Information Act request for any documents relating to Wildbore and the Beard case only turned up a witness statement he gave at the time of Beard's death.

Routhan said her father was a "nasty" man, but she did not believe he was capable of murder.

The suspected catalyst for Wildbore's suicide was that he was supposed to be arrested on the day he died.

According to a statement from police on Wildbore's coronial file, a woman had come forward months earlier claiming Wildbore had sexually abused her as a child.

Police had spoken to Wildbore – who denied the offending - and told him he would be arrested and charged. They arranged for him to come into the station for his arrest on June 19, 2003, but he failed to show up.

When police officers arrived at his home, they found him dead.

Lead detective Emmett Mitten, who is now retired, said in his statement to the coroner he believed Beard was picked up by a man in a green Vauxhall on the morning of December 31, 1969 and driven to the rest area near Haast.

When she went to relieve herself under the bridge, she was attacked and killed.

The exact cause of death has never been established. A bone in the throat that is normally found broken in strangulation cases was missing altogether.

A relative of Beard's said the family did not wish to give an interview.

"From my own personal perspective, it happened such a long time ago and we have all grieved and moved on," he said.

"To relive the experience is to open a wound which healed years and years ago, and to do so serves no useful purpose."

Jennifer Beard was murdered while hitchhiking on the West Coast in 1969. Photo / File
Jennifer Beard was murdered while hitchhiking on the West Coast in 1969. Photo / File