This New Year's Eve marks the 50th anniversary of one of New Zealand's longest unsolved murders. A Herald investigation has uncovered new evidence of a confession to the killing.
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As Kiwis around the country prepared to usher in the 70s, Jennifer Mary Beard was dying.
It was December 31, 1969, and the Tasmanian schoolteacher was travelling solo through the South Island on her way to meet fiance Reg Williams.
But Beard would never make their rendezvous point. Nearly two weeks after she was due to meet Williams in Milford, her body would be found severely decomposed under the Haast River Bridge.
Nobody was ever charged for her murder, but the Herald can reveal an accused sex offender told friends 16 years ago he committed the crime. Days later, he took his own life.
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A missing hitchhiker and a man with a secret
Beard's disappearance and death sparked a massive manhunt in the early days of 1970. Police statements say between 50,000 and 60,000 people were "interviewed" in relation to the investigation.
The huge number can largely be attributed to the search for owners of Vauxhall cars, after Beard was last seen hitchhiking in a green 1954 Vauxhall with a middle-aged man.
By the time her body was found it was too decomposed to determine a cause of death, but it's suspected she was strangled in a sexually motivated attack. Beard was found with her pants neatly rolled down to her ankles, suggesting she was relieving herself under the bridge when the attack happened.
The months and years dragged on, and nobody was ever found or charged – though it came close.
About 100m from the spot where the body lay, a pair of trousers and man's singlet were found. In the pocket was a screwed-up receipt issued by Timaru Motors in the name of Gordon Bray.
But when police bosses met Crown solicitors to assess the case against the Timaru truck driver, 16 months after the murder, a decision was made not to act, due to the lack of evidence.
Bray died in November 2003. Many believe the secret of Beard's murder died with him.
But what if it was lost earlier?
Just a few months before Bray's death, Otematata man Reginald Wildbore took his own life at his Rata Drive home.
On his calendar he'd marked the date with an X – friends had seen it on the wall when he invited them over for dinner the night before his suicide. The X didn't just mark the day Wildbore planned to kill himself. It was also the day the police were coming.
The coronial file into his death reveals officers had arranged that day for Wildbore to come into the police station, where he would be arrested on historical sex crimes against a child, which were unrelated to the Beard case.
The dates of the alleged offending are not known, but the complainant was an adult by the time she came forward to police.
Friends told the coroner Wildbore had referred to the date as "D-day", though he hadn't explained to them what that meant.
He just looked at me and then he just broke down crying his eyes out . . .
When Wildbore failed to show up at the police station, officers drove to his house, where they found him dead.
In the days before his death, Wildbore had divulged a long-kept secret that friends believe had been tormenting him for years – that he had killed Jennifer Beard.
Ian Molloy had been friends with Wildbore for at least 10 years when the truth reared its ugly head.
"Quite often he'd come around in the morning," Molloy told the Herald.
"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. And 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.
"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.
The confession rang true. Wildbore had worked as a roadman for the Westland County, covering the area between Fox Glacier and Haast. He would have had ample opportunity to pick up a hitchhiker, Molloy said.
An electoral roll from 1969 and a witness statement Wildbore gave to police at the time of Beard's death confirm he was a roadman, living in Fox Glacier.
"I never told anybody for most probably two years. I just kept it to myself," Molloy said.
He could not offer much reason as to why he didn't go to police, other than he wasn't sure if it was true or not.
It's a confession Wildbore's ex-wife was also aware of, according to his daughter, Pam Routhan.
"I knew about it a long time ago," said Routhan, who said Wildbore's ex-wife reported him to the police in the early 70s. No record of this report was found after an information request to police.
The first time Molloy mentioned the confession to anybody was when he was sitting in the bar with mutual friend Peter Johnston.
"We're just sitting there talking and Reg's name came up," Molloy said.
The pair realised they each knew Wildbore's secret – but there was more to the story.
Johnston described himself as Wildbore's "best mate". The two became friends about 1980, shared a love of betting on the horses, and saw each other almost daily.
While Johnston found him likeable enough, he acknowledged many people didn't, saying women were always wary of Wildbore.
Several people interviewed by the Herald said he gave off a "vibe" that made women uncomfortable.
"If somebody wanted a ride to town or anything like that, it would be very few people who would get in the car with Reg and head to town with him. No woman would on her own. There was just something about him. [It's] hard to explain."
Johnston recalls strange behaviour from his friend over the years, including one day when he went out to find Wildbore parked in his front yard, on a day he believes may have been the 20th anniversary of Jennifer's murder.
"Reg was sitting in his car in my yard and he was weeping like nothing on Earth and he was just beside himself," he said.
Johnston didn't have time to speak to him, and said they could talk later.
"He was out there for half an hour, you know. I think he was probably at his wit's end, you know. At that time I didn't know and I didn't put the Jennifer Beard thing into that situation, not at all."
But he didn't begin making connections until 2003, when a mutual friend, Nancy Williams, came to him saying Wildbore wanted someone to drive him to meet with police in Oamaru.
"She said [something] about him giving DNA and she just presumed that I knew he'd killed Jennifer Beard. Everybody presumed . . . Reg and I had talked about it. But we hadn't."
He recalls Williams saying to him "You know it's Jennifer Beard, right?"
Due to this comment, Johnston mistakenly believed when Wildbore met with police he made a confession about Beard's killing, but a police statement on the coronial file indicates the meeting was more likely about the historical sex crime allegations.
According to the coronial file, a woman had told police Wildbore sexually abused her some time ago when she was younger. He denied the offending.
Johnston said Williams met with him again and asked him to drive Wildbore to meet with police a second time.
But before that time could come, Wildbore took his own life on June 19.
Williams spoke to the Herald and initially denied any knowledge of Wildbore's dealings with police or any involvement driving him to meet with them.
However, a statement given by her to the coroner after Wildbore's suicide confirms she knew he had been in touch with police.
When contacted again by the Herald and told about her statement to the coroner, Williams said she knew the police wanted to talk to Wildbore, but that she thought it was about something insignificant, such as a fine.
When told about the sexual allegations against Wildbore she also said she knew somebody had laid a complaint against him, but that she didn't think much of it.
Routhan told the Herald her father had been "thoroughly investigated" over the Beard murder and an apparent confession he made to his then-wife Glennis Henderson.
She said Henderson reported Wildbore to the police in the 70s, but the police response to an Official Information Act request for documents relating to Wildbore only turned up a statement he gave at the time of Beard's disappearance.
The statement describes Wildbore seeing a young woman at the local shops in Fox Glacier, and hearing her talk to another woman about having managed to catch a ride with a man.
Routhan said Wildbore had an alibi at the time of Beard's murder, but didn't know what it was and "wasn't interested".
Other relatives have told the Herald Wildbore was "volatile" and had a temper, and would violently beat his partners.
Routhan said despite this she did not believe he was capable of murder.
"He was nasty but no, I personally don't believe that he would have.
"I want to say I don't think it's true, because I truly don't."
She questioned why Molloy had waited so long to come forward, if the information was true.
"It's terrible to think that he didn't . . . it's shocking if it's true, but I don't believe it is."
She said Wildbore never had a Vauxhall car, which is what Beard is believed to have been picked up in before her murder.
One person who knew Wildbore told the Herald he was always buying cars. It is possible Routhan didn't know whether he owned or drove one.
Witness descriptions of the suspect ranged widely, with heights estimated between 167cm and 180cm, and witnesses disagreeing over whether he was balding or not. Bray was a towering "giant", as his nephew said, and had a full head of hair. Wildbore does not match all of the descriptions either, but would be about the right age.
Who was Jennifer Beard?
Jennifer Beard was described by her uncle, Dr Trevor Beard, as a "very sensible, quiet" girl, the daughter of a Methodist minister in Flintshire, Wales.
She migrated to Australia in 1968, where she lived with her uncle and his family.
"She has never behaved in an erratic manner in her life," Beard told media after her disappearance, as searchers frantically combed the countryside in hopes of finding her alive.
"She has always let other people know well in advance what her movements would be."
Beard was hitchhiking her way through the South Island, and planned to meet her fiance, Williams, on January 5.
During the search, Williams told media they hadn't argued, and he couldn't think why she would have chosen not to meet up with him.
"Knowing her as well as I do, I can't imagine that anything except a very serious mishap would have prevented her from meeting me as planned at Milford," he said.
At the time of these comments, investigators were working on tips from holidaymakers who claimed they'd seen and spoken to a woman matching Jennifer's description as she caught rides down the coast.
She probably got into a car thinking she was safe. And she wasn't.
Witnesses said Beard "chatted easily" and told everyone who she was. Police were able to trace her movements around the Fox Glacier and Franz Josef areas, but were unable to figure out where she went next after she was last spotted in the Vauxhall with a middle-aged man, about 12.30pm on December 31.
Glenys Scandrett was the last witness to see Jennifer alive.
She told the Herald she and her family met Beard at a campsite the night before and started chatting. The next morning they saw her getting into a car - she does not remember what type.
"I didn't like her getting in that car. I said to my husband, 'I don't want her to get in there,'" she said.
"I just had a bad feeling."
Trevor Beard had flown over from Tasmania when the news came that his niece had gone missing. He was the one to identify her body after it was found under the bridge on January 19, 1970.
According to lead detective Emmett Mitten's reconstruction of events, given to the coroner, Beard was picked up by the man in the Vauxhall some time in the morning on New Year's Eve. He believes the car reached the Haast River Bridge about 1pm.
"I consider that Miss Beard would have excused herself from her male companion and made her way to the point under the bridge, where she was later found," Mitten wrote.
"I consider that Miss Beard had been in the act of attending to her toilet when she was attacked by the man who had driven the Vauxhall car."
Mitten told the Herald her death was the only major case he dealt with that was not resolved.
"I was philosophical then and I'm philosophical now, you can't win them all. The difficulty in the Beard case was right from the start we were in an isolated area, we didn't have the modern means of communication."
He described having to use a party line to share information about the search and murder.
"Every time I used the phone I could tell that all the other party line users were picking up because the signal would go weaker.
"With the weather, the terrain, and whatever, I think we were very, very lucky to find Jennifer's body, and with the remoteness and all that time of the year, we were very, very lucky to get what evidence we did."
He went for three weeks without a shower as the search for Beard continued through an area of dense, untamed bush.
Mitten said the case was the biggest that had ever struck New Zealand at that time.
"The Beard case was the first of the, how can I put it, unsolved murders.
"She probably got into a car thinking she was safe. And she wasn't."
The Crossan family from Dunedin told police they stopped at the Haast rest area about 1.17pm on the day of the murder to find a lone man apparently having trouble with his Vauxhall. He matched the description of the man given by earlier witnesses, but Beard was not with him.
Peter Crossan, who was 13 at the time, told the Herald he remembered the man being oddly untalkative, and that when the car was fixed he drove away at speed.
"He wasn't sort of, like, panicky, but he was panicky in his driving, you know. Like, he just wanted to get out of there," he said.
"Thinking about it now, we would have been probably about 25m away from where Jennifer's body was.
"I'm just wondering if we had have been there five minutes earlier whether things would have been different."
Mitten believes the killer attacked Beard, scrambled back up to his car and roughly threw it into gear, causing troubles with the gear linkages. Witnesses say a man in a Vauxhall stopped more than once along the route that afternoon seeking help with the linkages.
The Crossans weren't the only ones who felt they could have changed the course of the case.
Beard's body wasn't found until nearly three weeks after her murder, leaving it in an advanced state of decomposition. There was little evidence found at the scene due to the passage of time.
But the Herald has spoken to a man who remembers finding her body under the bridge as a 4-year-old. Had his parents realised what their son had seen, Beard's body could have been found much sooner.
Michael Hines said he was on a holiday with his father at a nearby bach when they stopped at the Haast rest area.
"I was busting to go to the toilet. He said just shoot down under there. Under the abutment as soon as I walked around, fair in the open, was a partially naked woman," he said.
"I turned around and ran back up the track and said I can't go under the bridge dad cause there's a lady sleeping under there."
Hines' father brushed it off as a drunkard taking a nap, and it wasn't until some time later as they headed home via the Fox Glacier service station he heard the news about Beard's disappearance.
"I still remember Dad coming out and just putting his head through the window of the car and saying 'what did that lady look like under the bridge?'"
Hines said his father drove to the police station to make a statement. But he didn't tell his son what he'd actually seen until decades later, when he was near the end of his own life.
"I've got childhood memories and that's one that never went away," Hines said.
Hines' father was good friends with Ian Molloy, and one day as Hines caught up with Molloy, he shared his secret about finding the body. That was when he learned Molloy's secret about Wildbore's confession.
Since then, Hines has been digging around for information on the case, trying to find someone to look into Wildbore's past and bring the confession to light.
He had heard of a private investigator, Cindy Roberts, who had made a film about the case in 2012, and began looking for a contact for her. He was unable to find one, but called a number for another private investigator, listed as working in Oamaru.
"This name came up so I rung it. It was an ex-policeman who'd now turned private investigator . . . He informed me that he knew Emmett Mitten. He will inform him and hopefully he'll get back to me."
The private investigator did not give Hines his name.
"Well three days later I got a phone call, private number. Don't know who it was, didn't give a name. Just told me to 'leave it alone' and hung up.
"He said 'I hear you're interested in Jennifer Beard'. I said 'yeah, who am I talking with?' He said 'doesn't matter, leave it alone', and hung up."
Hines said this call happened earlier this year.
Mitten said he knew nothing about the call, and that it sounded like "fairyland".
It's not the first time someone has run into walls trying to raise the question of Wildbore's involvement with investigators.
Johnston said after mounting pressure from the others who knew about Wildbore, he decided to call Mitten, who is now retired and living in Timaru.
"When I spoke to that man like a year or two ago. I said to him 'look I'm only ringing you because my wife's annoying the hell out of me and reckons I should say something before I die.'
Johnston did not tell Mitten about the confession or name any of Wildbore's other friends, but tried to tell Mitten of his own suspicions around Wildbore.
"He just said to me 'you're going to put your head in a noose. You can't say all these things without evidence'. He said 'you realise the police department will take you apart, they'll just absolutely ruin your life by you saying these things. Without evidence without this and without that.'
"He just said 'you've got no proof.' He just stressed the point. He said 'the police will hound you, they will want evidence off you that you haven't got. Then you become a liar. You just don't want to go there.'"
The Herald spoke to Mitten, who said he didn't recall such a conversation, and said there have been many calls over the years from people who believe they know what happened. His advice would always be to go to the police about it, he said.
"That is a surprise," he said.
"If it's as dramatic as you've described . . . this confession - if there was a confession that is a matter of great importance because we closed the books years ago on the evidence that we had, and that is the first person that I know to have confessed."
Mitten did know the name Reg Wildbore, however, saying he was a possible person of interest at the time of the murder.
"All I remember is that name came up while we were at Lake Moeraki and later on," he said. "As far as I was concerned he was eliminated. I didn't eliminate him, but the way the enquiries went I was satisfied that he was not involved."
Mitten did not know or remember the specifics of why Wildbore's name came up, or why he was eliminated.
Johnston was angry at the response he said he got after calling Mitten, but backed off the case – until now.
"Why am I speaking up now? Between Ian Molloy, my wife and a few people, they all say that 'oh you know, perhaps something should have been said.' The truth is here in Otematata and it's never been said, and we're all going to die and carry on and that poor family, they were crucified for no reason at all. Then there's the Beard family who lost their child, and we actually know the truth."
When asked whether it was easy for Johnston to believe such a close friend was a killer, he replied "oh hell yeah".
"He had a twist with him, this guy. He didn't fire up and get angry, anything like that. But there was just something in the back of his eyes. You wouldn't trust him, he just had that look about him."
Wildbore's former boss, Ivars Bekeris, agreed.
While not being privy to the secrets Wildbore's friends held, Bekeris always suspected Wildbore of the murder, and had been heard by others saying as much.
His suspicions date back to a time before Wildbore worked for him and instead worked as a barman at the local pub.
"Myself and this fella were sitting there having a beer. For some reason that topic [Jennifer's murder] came up. There was two or three of us sitting there. Anyway I sort of watched him a wee bit there and he went all weird. He actually just up and left just very, very abruptly.
"He just got quite agitated and then just walked away. I guess he changed colour a bit and just got quite agitated.
"The guy that I was drinking with says 'he's the bugger that murdered Jennifer Beard.' He was very sharp with people."
Bekeris said many people found Wildbore strange, and he personally couldn't stand him.
He recalls one day, not long after Wildbore's wife had died in a car accident, he pulled out a bill for funeral costs.
"He says 'look at this what I have to pay for this bloody old bitch.' And I thought, you don't say things like that. So he had a very, very weird twist to him all the time. He was extremely disliked."
He also noticed Wildbore acted strangely around women, often buying them gifts and making them uncomfortable.
"He would talk to them in a way that no person would really talk to a woman like that," he said.
"You could see that he was either sizing them up or trying to groom them or something like that."
Gordon Bray a "gentle giant", nephew says
The Herald also spoke to Gordon Bray's surviving nephew Sam Leary, who lives in Kaikōura.
"I never at any stage suspected my Uncle Gordon of having anything to do with killing anybody," Leary said, adding his uncle was a "gentle giant" who he spent his childhood with rabbiting and fishing.
"I never ever saw him exhibit a violent attitude towards anybody. He was very quietly spoken. Sort of a big, quiet man."
He said the news of Wildbore's confession didn't make much difference to him, as he always believed Bray was innocent.
"If it was able to positively remove all the doubts about Gordon that would be fine but nothing will change my attitude toward him, that he was always a very kind, quietly spoken person - this is my uncle Gordon - and I would have been absolutely stunned if there had been any truth in the allegations made against him."
But Leary was not surprised about the confession either, saying it was obvious Beard had been a victim of foul play.
"It's just such a remote area over on that West Coast."
The police have been asked for comment on the news of Wildbore's confession. A police spokeswoman would not provide comment other than to say police encouraged anyone with new information to come forward, so that information could be assessed.
She said police were not in a position to respond until an Official Information Act request had been completed.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said the only way for a coronial file to be reopened was through an application to the Solicitor-General.
The Herald has contacted some of Beard's surviving family members, but they declined to speak on this case.
Beard's uncle died some years ago, as did her former fiance, Reg Williams. A relative who lives in Australia said Beard's siblings in Wales had decided not to comment.
"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."