Tony Kokshoorn was 14 and on a camping holiday around the South Island when Jennifer Beard was murdered under the Haast River Bridge on New Year's Eve, 1969.

No-one has ever been charged with the Welsh hitchhiker's brutal death, but the Weekend Herald revealed a new suspect who confessed to the crime just days before taking his own life.

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Kokshoorn, a former Grey District mayor, remembers the cold case vividly because he believes he almost certainly would have stumbled across Beard's body if not for a split-second decision that put him and his two mates at another bridge for the night.

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The 50-year secret: A photo form the NZ Herald archive relating to the unsolved murder of Jennifer Beard. Her body was found under the Haast River Bridge in January 1970
The 50-year secret: A photo form the NZ Herald archive relating to the unsolved murder of Jennifer Beard. Her body was found under the Haast River Bridge in January 1970

"At the time, we came past when she would have been under that bridge," Kokshoorn said.

"We were looking for a campsite in Haast and we looked down off the Haast Bridge and we couldn't really find a decent site, so we went to the next bridge along.

"We set up our camp and we were going to light a fire. I looked under the [second] bridge and got some wood. Then they found her [at the Haast Bridge] a week or two later.

"I've always thought to myself I could have been the person that went under that bridge and found her."

Kokshoorn said the trio were at Haast River Bridge only a few days after New Year's Eve, well before Beard's badly decomposed remains were found on January 19, 1970.

He said Beard's disappearance sparked a massive manhunt and ensuing investigation that has fuelled the mystery of who killed her for 50 years.

On Saturday the Herald revealed Otematata resident Reginald Wildbore confessed the killing to a close friend in 2003, days before he committed suicide.

He died the same day police were due to arrest him for historical sex crimes against a child, unrelated to the Beard case.

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Jennifer Mary Beard was travelling solo through the South Island when she failed to meet up with her fiance Reg Williams on January 5, 1970. Photo / File
Jennifer Mary Beard was travelling solo through the South Island when she failed to meet up with her fiance Reg Williams on January 5, 1970. Photo / File

According to Wildbore's daughter Pam Routhan, he had been reported to police in the early 1970s by his ex-wife over the death of Beard but police say they have no record of that report.

Kokshoorn, now 64, said it was hard to know if the confession was legitimate.

"Whether it's this guy you'll never know but it seems strange he actually said it was him."

About six years ago Kokshoorn was approached by another man over the case.

"When I was the mayor I had a person come to me from the West Coast and confide in me that he was a suspect.

"He said he was a major suspect and he's had to live with that."

Kokshoorn, who lives in Greymouth, would not reveal who the man was but said he was still alive and living locally in another West Coast town.

He said the man was not Wildbore, whom he did not know, nor Timaru truck driver Gordon Bray, who was also a suspect.

"He confided in me about it and I said 'Well did ya or didn't ya?' and he said 'No'.

"He just said for some reason they think he'd done it and he reckoned he'd been followed [by police] and that sort of thing."

In the Who Killed Jennifer Beard documentary police are seen searching green Vauxhall cars like the one Beard was seen getting into on New Year's Eve. Photo / Greenstone TV
In the Who Killed Jennifer Beard documentary police are seen searching green Vauxhall cars like the one Beard was seen getting into on New Year's Eve. Photo / Greenstone TV

Kokshoorn believed the police had never given up finding Beard's killer and bringing him to justice.

He said West Coasters remembered the chilling case well.

Beard, a schoolteacher who immigrated to Australia the year before, was hitchhiking down to Milford to meet up with her fiance Reg Williams.

The last sighting of her was around lunchtime on New Year's Eve when she was seen getting into a 1954 green Vauxhall with an elderly man driver.

Police believe her attack was sexually motivated.

"In that era it was unusual for someone to be taken like that and killed," Kokshoorn said.

"It was one of those things in that era that shocked New Zealand. It just didn't happen here. It is sad that they haven't caught anyone."

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