Cold-blooded, calculated murder-suicide? Or perfectly executed faked deaths?
It is 72 days since Swedish-born helicopter pilot John Beckenridge broke a court order and picked up his 11-year-old stepson Mike Zhao-Beckenridge from school.
They went camping, something they loved doing together. Eight days later, Beckenridge's blue Volkswagen Touareg was gunned off a windswept clifftop at the foot of New Zealand into the frothing sea and jagged Jurassic rocks 88m below.
But no bodies have been found — and close friends and neighbours of the 64-year-old, a mysterious character with multiple aliases who had worked in some of the world's most dangerous countries, are adamant it was part of an elaborate escape plan.
"If I had a thousand bucks, I'd bet a thousand bucks he didn't do it. John is a very clever bugger," one mate said this week.
Another friend, a neighbour of Beckenridge's sprawling million-dollar Queenstown home, was equally sure: "I don't believe for a minute they were in the car. John's too smart and would never do anything to hurt Mike."
An aviation expert says it would be "improbable but not impossible" to flee New Zealand by helicopter, and criminologist and ex-con Greg Newbold believes it is "definitely possible" to disappear.
Early in the investigation, police said all evidence pointed to the pair being inside the car when it plunged over the Curio Bay clifftop.
But it has remained a missing persons case, not a homicide probe.
"If [Beckenridge] wanted to create a mystery, he has gone the right way about it," said Paul Watson, whose farmland was used for the car's launching point.
John Robert Beckenridge, also variously known as John Robert Lundh, Knut Goran Roland Lundh, and John Bradford, was born in Sweden in 1951.
A lifelong commercial helicopter pilot, he worked in Europe, Australia, Alaska, Papua New Guinea, and Afghanistan.
He was well-known in PNG helicopter circles where news of his disappearance has spread.
He was a long-term fulltime pilot for Pacific Helicopters PNG — an aviation firm based in Eastern Highlands province capital Goroka that flies for the oil, gas, mining, drilling and construction sectors.
Pacific Helicopters PNG chief executive Mal Smith said Beckenridge had worked for them until last September, when he quit.
"We knew he had problems with his wife, and problems getting access to his kid, but we didn't know it was to that extreme," the Australian said.
Smith described Beckenridge as a "very capable" experienced pilot who met all "check and training" requirements.
He recently worked in Afghanistan on a two-year construction company contract for Pacific.
But Beckenridge was pulled out of the war-torn country after two Pacific choppers were shot down, and a fellow pilot killed.
About seven years ago, he moved with his Chinese wife and stepson Mike to the world's adventure capital, Queenstown.
He helped build a large house in the upmarket Lake Hayes estate at the foot of the Remarkables.
The property, recently transferred into a trust for Mike, has laid empty for the past two months. The vast lawns need mowing. An apple tree sags with bird-pecked fruit. A meter reader's card is wedged in the front door, beside a window covered in Spider-Man and Transformers stickers.
Mike was a "quiet, happy" pupil at nearby Remarkables Primary School.
The Beckenridges were a "happy family unit", according to a friend, who only wanted to be known by his first name, Ant. "They seemed pretty tight."
Beckenridge was popular with his neighbours. He always stopped to chat and offered beers on balmy Central Otago summer evenings.
Neighbours this week described him as a "quiet, unassuming character" and a "resourceful and gifted" craftsman.
"He was always building something, creating something," Ant said.
Ant's family cared for Mike occasionally when Beckenridge was overseas on his month-on, month-off flying job and his wife was in Invercargill studying to become a hair stylist.
The happy family life was rocked about 18 months ago when Beckenridge's wife left him.
She moved in with a new partner in Invercargill, Beckenridge's friends say. Mike wanted to stay with his stepfather and his schoolmates.
"John was gutted, like anybody would be. His focus turned 100 per cent to Mike," Ant said.
After the stepfather and stepson had lived together for about 12 months, a custody battle began.
Beckenridge did not take part in the court process, which ruled in the mother's favour.
Judge Christina Cook declined an application to view her decision.
But she released a judgment explaining she had to balance the "welfare and best interests" of Mike and his mother. The judge stressed there had been no question of domestic violence.
The decision to put Mike in the custody of his mother came after findings the boy had been "alienated" in the care of Beckenridge.
A Family Court parenting order prevented Beckenridge from having any contact with the youngster.
Mike was taken to live with his mother in Invercargill, two hours away.
Beckenridge reacted badly.
"He was pretty bloody mad. Absolutely gutted. He didn't sleep for weeks," Ant said.
"Everything John did was for Michael. They did everything together, camping, biking, mucking around. He didn't have another life apart from Michael."
Despite the court order, Mike continued to contact his stepdad. He did not agree with the ruling and wanted to stay with Beckenridge, friends say.
"Mike wanted John to go and get him," Ant said.
On Friday, March 13, Beckenridge drove south to Invercargill and abducted Mike from his new junior school, James Hargest College, during the lunch break.
A missing persons report was filed later that day by the distraught mother.
A police spokesman confirmed this week that border alerts were placed on both Mike Zhao-Beckenridge and John Beckenridge "within 24 hours" of police receiving the missing persons report.
Over the next week, detectives believe the pair camped in a tent and the car.
They received confirmed sightings of them in the Catlins area.
On March 20, Beckenridge sent a text message to Ant, as well as to his lawyer and ex-wife.
Detectives, who used cell-tower data to pinpoint the location of Beckenridge in the Catlins, say the tenor of those messages was, "goodbye".
But Ant says: "I never read into it that he would do anything untoward, or that he would harm Mike. Mike meant too much to him."
Some time over the next 24 hours, Beckenridge's car went over the cliff at Curio Bay.
It is a fortnight since the seas finally calmed enough for police to recover the wreck — nothing but a chassis, motor and three wheels — from the narrow inlet beneath Paul Watson's farm.
All that was left of the 4WD Touareg was a wrecked chassis, battered for weeks by relentless swells that had gathered unbridled momentum for thousands of kilometres from Antarctica.
"There are only three or four days a year where this place is calm enough for the police to do what they had to do," Watson said, whose family has lived on the land for five generations.
"Beckenridge could've driven off anywhere around here, but he has made a concerted effort to get to the top of this cliff - the highest point he could find.
"It's a perfect spot, for whatever he was planning to do, really. Lots of places around here, you would just end up on the rocks. It has obviously been very well-planned."
Detectives and police forensic experts have long since finished their sleuthing in the area.
All that remains are three metal spikes driven into the ground.
Two are within 2m of the cliff's edge mark where the car's tyre tracks ended. The third, a few metres inland, is where a wooden stake had been driven into the clumpy grass, seemingly by Beckenridge, as some sort of directional marker.
The day police searchers found some of the wreckage in the inlet, Watson went to the clifftop.
He found clear tyre tracks running for about 100m in a straight line towards the cliff's edge.
The terrain is largely flat, with slight undulations and bumps from clumped grass.
Police have said it would have been "difficult but not impossible" to rig the car to drive itself off the cliff.
"The easiest option is to tie the [steering wheel] down and shove something on the accelerator," a police spokesman said last month.
Once the wreck was recovered, forensic testing could find no sign any bodies had been in the car.
But given it took about six weeks for it to be recovered — all the while being bashed onto rocks by the raging waves — it was hardly surprising.
The boy's mother declined approaches for comment this week but her lawyer, Michael Mika, said: "The hope is that they are still out there somewhere."
Police are continuing to monitor Beckenridge's phone records and bank accounts.
Border alerts remain in place.
"It has come to a point where we will be collating all of our information and handing it to the coroner," a police spokesman said.
"But any information we do receive, we will be investigating as it comes in."
James Hargest College principal Andrew Wood said although the school wasn't a "fortress or prison" staff have since "reflected on our own processes" to see what they can learn from the case.
Those close to Beckenridge believe he was intelligent and resourceful enough, with the right contacts, to be able to flee the country.
Aviation commentator Peter Clark said flying out of New Zealand undetected by helicopter was "a very big job", involving extra fuel tanks and a "fairly capable machine".
"It is doable, but you would have to know what you are doing. Nothing is impossible for people who have ambition."
However, it would be "impossible" to fly a helicopter direct to Australia or PNG without stopping off to refuel, most probably in Norfolk Island, he said.
That decreased the chances of getting away without "some major questions being asked".
University of Canterbury criminologist Greg Newbold has followed the case with interest.
"I never expected them to find any bodies in that car," he said.
"That guy loved that boy. Why on Earth would he kill him?"
He believes the pair has fled overseas, rather than hiding out in New Zealand.
"It's definitely possible for him to get out of the country."
Missing pair's case echoes Bassett Rd mystery
The Beckenridge case has parallels with the disappearance of Bassett Rd machine-gun murderer Ron Jorgensen, says University of Canterbury criminologist Greg Newbold.
Jorgensen became part of New Zealand criminal folklore history when he was sentenced to life in jail with John Frederick Gillies for his part in the 1963 Mafia-style machinegun murder of Frederick George Walker and Kevin James Speight in Bassett Rd, Remuera, during a sly grog turf war.
When Jorgensen was on parole 21 years later, his car was found at the bottom of a Kaikoura cliff. His body was never recovered and he was eventually declared dead.
But a former girlfriend, Kaikoura locals and even some ex-police officers all believe Jorgensen faked his death and fled to Australia.
There were reported sightings of Jorgensen in Western Australia several times in the 1980s and in Taupo in 1998.
Newbold says the Jorgensen case is "very similar" to the Beckenridge disappearance.
"Jorgensen was a seaman but he was also criminally connected. He showed that it can be done."
There have also been instances of people disappearing inside New Zealand.
Newbold cited convicted murderer Michael Bullock, who escaped from Paremoremo maximum security prison in 1993.
"He was found living in Wellington," he said.
Bullock's fellow prison escaper Brian Curtis — the drug baron known as the "Godfather" of New Zealand crime — was found in the Philippines some eight years later.