Three years after the mysterious disappearance of South Island schoolboy Mike Zhao-Beckenridge, his heartbroken mum has broken her silence to say she believes he is still alive.

Tuesday marks three years since John Beckenridge picked up his 11-year-old stepson from an Invercargill school, breaking a court order, and vanished.

Beckenridge's vehicle was later found in the surf off the Southland coast, but there was no sign of their bodies in the 4WD, and speculation has been rife that the pair managed to evade capture in New Zealand to live in hiding overseas.

In an exclusive interview with the Herald on Sunday at her Invercargill home, Mike's mother, Fiona Lu, spoke for the first time since the disappearance, tearfully saying: "I know my son is alive. There is not a single day I don't think of him.

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"I love him deeply. And for my part I am very sorry for what has happened."

Five days after the pair's disappearance, a farmer says he spotted Mike — who would now be 15 — and Beckenridge sleeping in a vehicle. A day earlier there was a confirmed sighting of the pair at a service station in Tokanui, 55km east of Invercargill. And three months after they disappeared, there was a possible sighting in Indonesia.

Police say the investigation remains active, and the Herald on Sunday has learned their inquiries include monitoring international gaming sites for any clues to the teenager's whereabouts, as he was a keen online gamer.

Fiona Lu, the mother of Mike Zhao-Beckenridge.
Fiona Lu, the mother of Mike Zhao-Beckenridge.

And now, a Herald on Sunday investigation into their disappearance has unearthed the heartbreaking last texts and video of the boy, who can be seen pleading with his father before he went missing: "Dad, can you please come help me? I miss you ... please."

For the past three years Lu and her partner, Peter Russell, have held out hope Mike is still alive.

The family's extensive search for answers led them to employ private investigator Mark Templeman. Russell revealed they had spent more than $150,000 on the search, including checking out a possible sighting of the pair on Gili Air Island, Indonesia.

Russell told the Herald on Sunday he believed Beckenridge had "poisoned his stepson against his mum" and the pair plotted an elaborate disappearance.

"Fiona knows damn well he wouldn't kill himself or Mike. He is doing this to punish Fiona. He used to say to her, 'You have f***ed up, you will pay'."

Russell believes Beckenridge's disappearance was meticulously executed. That included just where he would crash his car off Curio Bay, in the Catlins.

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Peter Russell, current partner of Fiona Lu. Photo / Mike Scott
Peter Russell, current partner of Fiona Lu. Photo / Mike Scott

"The police said they found the Catlins location on his computer," he said.

"He thought about the recovery, the difficulty of recovery, the currents — he had it all planned, he knew exactly what he was doing."

Templeman was employed by Lu and Russell after they exhausted other avenues to find Mike.

That included Russell travelling to Queensland where Beckenridge — a qualified commercial pilot and a professional scuba diver — had previously lived, and handing out photos of Mike at police stations, supermarkets and carparks.

Templeman believed the pair had fled to Asia by sea, stating his inquiries had highlighted Beckenridge was "intelligent, very resilient and adaptable".

He said the police told him the divers who found Beckenridge's vehicle in the water said both front seatbelts were engaged and the seats were pushed back due to the roof being compressed.

"It seems unlikely to me you would both put seatbelts on to drive over a cliff," he said.

Private Investigator Mark Templeman in his Auckland office.
Private Investigator Mark Templeman in his Auckland office.

Neighbours also told the private investigator they had seen a satellite phone at Beckenridge's Queenstown home, which has never been located.

The 64-year-old had four known aliases: John Locke, John Robert Lundh, Knut Goran Roland Lundh and John Bradford.

Templeman says the only way for the pair to have left New Zealand was "with fake passports or by getting a ride on an ocean sea vessel".

"Either way it would have taken considerable planning and preparation."

Templeman said anyone who knew Beckenridge would say "he's not the sort of person who would take his own life. He loved Michael too much to cause him harm or death."

And Templeman's investigation revealed Swedish-born Beckenridge had disappeared before; about 30 years ago abandoning his then partner and children in Queensland.

Beckenridge met Lu while they were working in Afghanistan in 2006, Beckenridge as a pilot and Lu as a waitress. Lu had married a businessman in her native China and fell pregnant with Mike. But when the boy was a toddler his father was convicted of fraud and imprisoned.

Desperate for work, Lu went to Afghanistan and her parents continued raising Mike.

After meeting, the couple left Afghanistan, collected Mike from China and moved to Lake Hayes in Queenstown. But Russell believes cracks appeared early in their relationship, saying Lu told him "he had control of her right from the start".

Barbara Smith used to be a neighbour to John Beckenridge in Queenstown and also knew Fiona Lu and Mike Zhao-Beckenridge. Photo / Mike Scott
Barbara Smith used to be a neighbour to John Beckenridge in Queenstown and also knew Fiona Lu and Mike Zhao-Beckenridge. Photo / Mike Scott

Lu and Beckenridge's former neighbour in Queenstown, Barbara Smith, who was also Mike's babysitter, told the Herald on Sunday "John loved Mike like his own".

But the relationship between Beckenridge and Lu broke down when she began a hairdressing course in Invercargill in 2014, the same time Lu met Russell.

"It completely threw John and Mike. They had no idea. They were absolutely devastated.

"Fiona and Mike were John's life. This was the start of everything going bad for them," Smith said.

Smith met Lu picking walnuts at Lake Hayes Estate.

"She was a friendly girl, very pretty. John was a lot older than Fiona. But it was really important for her to get ahead and maybe she saw the new relationship as bettering herself."

Michael 'Mike' Zhao-Beckenridge's mother has broken her silence and says she believes her missing boy is still alive.
Michael 'Mike' Zhao-Beckenridge's mother has broken her silence and says she believes her missing boy is still alive.

Smith and her husband, Jack, cared for Mike when Beckenridge was working in Papua New Guinea and Lu started working at the local dairy to improve her English.

The Smiths remain fond of Mike and think of him often. "He was a quiet and obedient wee fella. He was a gorgeous kid."

Smith said John was a devoted father to Michael.

"He would phone Michael every night to see how his day went at school and whether he had done his homework. He had met Mike's needs absolutely and took a real interest in him."

When Beckenridge took his monthly break from Papua New Guinea he and Mike would go ten-pin bowling and ice skating. They also shared a love of gaming.

"He was a very good father," Smith said. "John said Mike was his life. He loved him like his own son. He really did."

By the end of 2014, Lu had moved into Russell's home in Invercargill. The pair had met at a restaurant and Russell said he was struck by her exotic looks.

"She was a beautiful girl," he said. "She looked lost and lonely and I was feeling lost and lonely, too.

John Beckenridge.
John Beckenridge.

"All Fiona ever wanted was a better life for her and Mike. She said how lucky she would be if she got together with me and how their life would change."

But Mike did not want to leave Queenstown to be with his mum, instead wanting to stay with Beckenridge.

Even before they disappeared in March 2015, Beckenridge and his stepson had disappeared into their own secretive world.

When Mike moved into Russell's home, Russell said he was told by the boy: "I want you to know we have got a plan."

"He was 11 years old," Russell said. "I thought it was an unusual thing for him to say. He was a quiet boy but he became more antisocial and sullen.

"I had a relationship with Mike that was about to open up but that was destroyed. He got the boy's brain into such a state he couldn't operate."

Smith also said she noticed Beckenridge regressing after Mike moved away.

The 4WD pulled from the sea near Curio Bay in the Catlins. Photo / Otago Daily Times
The 4WD pulled from the sea near Curio Bay in the Catlins. Photo / Otago Daily Times

"He was upset because Mike was taken away from him," she said.

"And also Mike was constantly letting him know how unhappy he was and he couldn't do anything about it."

Last week, Smith showed the Herald on Sunday a video and texts Mike sent Beckenridge before they disappeared, telling him how unhappy he was, and wishing he could be with him.

She also shared a text Beckenridge sent her on March 20, 2015 — the day the vehicle went off the cliff at Curio Bay — where he wrote the pair was being "chased by the Gestapo. Fiona f***ed up. No going back. My estate will pay back you[r] money. Do not contact anyone please. Regards JB and MB."

Templeman does not believe that final text points to a suicide plan. Instead, he believes the duo are still alive and the cliff crash was a ruse to aid their escape from New Zealand.

Templeman said that leading up to the disappearance Beckenridge had borrowed money from several people — including asking some for $20 for fuel.

But Russell saw a 40-gallon drum of fuel in Beckenridge's garage that was "significantly full".

The cliff near Curio Bay, Southland, where Beckenridge's car was found. Photo / Mike Scott
The cliff near Curio Bay, Southland, where Beckenridge's car was found. Photo / Mike Scott

Templeman said: "I believe he was trying to create the impression he had no funds which would later support his apparent suicide and show he did not have the financial capability to make their escape out of New Zealand."

His belief the pair evaded police in New Zealand and escaped offshore is given credence by the possible sighting in Indonesia.

A witness — who did not want to be named — claims she saw Mike and Beckenridge on Gili Air Island, Bali, on June 30, 2015 — more than three months after they disappeared. Gili Air Island is small and a popular destination for tourists who like scuba diving.

"I was walking towards a European man and an Asian boy on a narrow path," read a statement from the witness, obtained by the Herald on Sunday.

"As I got closer to them I recognised the man and boy as people I had seen in a media report. I knew they had gone missing so the images of them were still fresh in my mind."

She said the pair were in a "happy conversation". The man appeared about 60-63 and was wearing a brimmed light-brown suede hat. "He had a light grey, straggly beard. The boy looked a little bit more solid — he had put on weight."

The witness rang her father in New Zealand who advised her to call the police.

Sunset on the Southland coast. Photo / Mike Scott
Sunset on the Southland coast. Photo / Mike Scott

Templeman said police investigating the disappearance had yet to formally interview her.

But the witness later met Templeman, Lu and Russell in December 2016, and Lu recognised Beckenridge's hat from a missing person's poster created by the private investigator. The witness also noted a physical characteristic of Beckenridge only Lu would have known about — Templeman would not reveal what that was.

Police investigating the case declined to be interviewed. But in a written statement they said inquiries were "ongoing and this remains an active investigation".

"During the course of this investigation a variety of information has been received from the public and this information has been thoroughly assessed and investigated by the inquiry team," the statement said.

"As this inquiry remains an active police investigation the coroner's inquiry is on hold."

If the pair are living overseas, neighbour Barbara Smith has a message for them: "Come home and face the consequence."

Russell is not hopeful he and Lu will see Mike any time soon. But they refuse to give up hope.

"We don't believe we won't ever see Mike again. Hopefully, as Mike grows up he will recognise and understand some of the things that went on weren't true — he was just brainwashed into believing they were.

"He [Beckenridge] abducted Mike, took him away from his mother and destroyed him in the world he had. But I want Mike to know his mother loves him. She has never given up on him so when he is ready she will be waiting for him with open arms."

Timeline

2015

March 18

Farmer sees the pair sleeping in a vehicle and notifies police. Police seek help to find the pair, thought to be travelling in a dark blue Volkswagen Touareg

March 20

Final texts sent by Beckenridge to Mike's mother Fiona Lu, lawyers and friends

March 24

Police find car in Blue Cod Bay, south-east of Invercargill, six days later confirm it belongs to Beckenridge

April 8

Detective says "all the evidence" points to the pair being inside the car when it plunged off the cliff

May 8

Divers and helicopter recover car. Ten days later, police say forensic examinations find "no signs of human remains" in car

June

Possible sighting of Beckenridge and Mike in Indonesia

2016
March
Police still treating the disappearance as a missing person's case
April
John Beckenridge's Queenstown home sells for $860,000. The funds are expected to be held in a trust until he is declared dead

2017
July
International child abduction expert Col Chapman says after considering evidence he believes the pair have left New Zealand