It's one of New Zealand's oldest cold cases. Now, 62 years later, police are finally investigating the disappearance of a healthy 9-year-old boy. Noreen Hegarty tells the remarkable story.

Peter Boland is not a household name in New Zealand. Yet, if what happened to the 9-year-old back in August 1957 happened to any Kiwi kid today, his name would dominate news headlines and become part of the sad roll-call of missing children.

The young Auckland boy was hundreds of kilometres from home, spending part of the school holidays in the care of a family friend at a farm in the Waioeka Gorge when he mysteriously disappeared while out looking for horses with the farm's manager and two of the manager's friends.

It is one of New Zealand's oldest cold cases, yet police have never investigated Peter's disappearance. Until now, more than 60 years later.

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"The fact no trace of a healthy, intelligent, 9-year-old boy ... was ever found should have been cause for greater concern at the time," the officer in charge of the investigation, Detective Sergeant Rob Lemoto, told the Weekend Herald .

"No footwear, no clothes, apparently no footprints and definitely no body. That's very unusual, particularly given the stories the men reportedly told after Peter went missing – looking for horses in the morning, just a kilometre or so from the farm house."

Media reports at the time say more than 150 police and volunteers searched for the young boy for four days. His parents Nell and Neville continued to visit the farm for many weekends after their son went missing to search for him.

The little boy had been staying with family friends at Oponae, between Opotiki and Gisborne. Photo / Supplied
The little boy had been staying with family friends at Oponae, between Opotiki and Gisborne. Photo / Supplied

But no trace of him has ever been found and they died without ever knowing what happened to their son.

Peter Boland was a bright child who, even at the age of 9, aspired to be a doctor. The St Mary's Convent Primary School student was a keen representative rugby league player.

He was the second son of Avondale couple Nell and Neville Boland.

He had an older brother, Gavin, but never knew his sister Julie, born four years after he disappeared.

Gavin Boland told the Weekend Herald that Peter had been invited to holiday at the farm – now Oponae Station - by family friend Ken Woods, who reportedly drove him from Auckland to the property, which is 35km from Ōpōtiki along the Waioeka Gorge.

Peter was the page boy at family friend Ken Woods' wedding (pictured behind). Woods took him to the farm. Photo / Supplied
Peter was the page boy at family friend Ken Woods' wedding (pictured behind). Woods took him to the farm. Photo / Supplied

Woods was one of four men at the farm when Peter went missing. The others were the farm owner's son, Peter Innes-Smith, Woods' brother-in-law Arthur Brasting, and Les Smith, who was a friend of Brasting's. Woods had recently married Arthur's sister Noeleen, and Peter had been the page boy at their wedding.

Accounts of exactly what happened that day vary.

According to Whangārei businessman Brasting, when interviewed on a 2017 Sensing Murder episode about Peter Boland's disappearance, three of the four men and young Peter went out to find horses on the morning of August 31, 1957, but split into two groups.

Peter's brother Gavin Boland wants answers. Doug Sherring
Peter's brother Gavin Boland wants answers. Doug Sherring

"Les, little Peter and myself went down from the farmhouse towards the river while Ken went up the hill. When we found the horses, I sent Peter Boland off to tell Ken. He was never seen again."

He recalled the alarm was raised when all three men realised Peter was lost, but he doesn't remember who raised the alarm, at exactly what time or how.

Former farm workers and volunteer searchers described the property as rugged, a mix of steep hills and deep valleys with a generous cover of bracken and bush. There is a stream running through it but, as depicted in published photographs taken at the time, the flow was low and there were plenty of stepping stones and boulders above the shallow water line.

Media reports at the time say police from Gisborne, Ōpōtiki, Kawerau, Whakatāne and Matawai, along with up to 150 farm workers, family members, bushmen, volunteers and returned servicemen searched for the boy for four days.

Gavin, left, pictured with Peter in the 1950s. Photo / Supplied
Gavin, left, pictured with Peter in the 1950s. Photo / Supplied

Family, including Peter's father Neville, 37 at the time, joined the search. Neville was a returned serviceman who'd served in Fiji and the Solomon Islands during World War II and, according to relatives, was an experienced bushman who, on occasion, had lived and hunted in the Kaimanawa Ranges.

As his nephew Ken Watkins puts it, "Neville knew how to find something or someone, if it or they were there to be found."

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Jim Kirk was 20 and the only permanent shepherd on the farm in 1957. He'd been away when Peter went missing but returned to work just as the official search concluded. He's now in his early 80s, still an active recreational hunter and living in Gisborne.

"There were all sorts of rumours and innuendo about Peter's disappearance. It was baffling," he told the Weekend Herald .

"The horses were usually kept in one of two paddocks, sometimes near the woolshed but mainly down below the house.

"Peter's parents came back to the farm to search for him most weekends for quite a while afterwards but the farm was about 5000 acres at the time and, except for grazing paddocks, was well covered in fern, bracken and second growth native bush."

Searchers at Oponae Station. Photo / Supplied
Searchers at Oponae Station. Photo / Supplied

Kirk says there was no offal pit on the property for Peter to fall into and nor was there a killing house. Stock that were slaughtered to feed the household and working dogs were killed in the shearing shed.

Brian Burgess was 19 when he and three mates, all keen hunters, volunteered to join the search. He also lives and works in Gisborne and told the Weekend Herald of his recollections of the search.

"From memory, the weather wasn't bad and I have photos from the time of us wearing only light clothing during the day.

"I have a vivid memory which I've carried with me all these years of seeing the distraught look on Peter's mother's face. It was total despair. She was so terribly upset."

Arthur Brasting was also on holiday at the station when Peter went missing. Pictured on Sensing Murder last year. Photo / TVNZ
Arthur Brasting was also on holiday at the station when Peter went missing. Pictured on Sensing Murder last year. Photo / TVNZ

On September 5, 1957, the Gisborne Herald ran the headline: "Hope abandoned: search called off" with an article that reported the search for Peter was one of the greatest volunteer efforts in New Zealand.

The Gisborne Herald article went on to quote Chief Inspector F. W. Edwards, of the Gisborne police, saying, "In a steadily widening search until last night, experienced men numbering up to 150 at the peak of the effort covered a scope of country which included every possible area into which the boy might have penetrated before fatigue would have brought him to a halt, presuming that after losing touch with his adult companions, he had continued in a fairly straight line in any direction.

"The searchers included some of the best bushmen and hill country trampers in the North Island and every theory on the boy's possible movement was tested to exhaustion."

General view looking down the Waioeka Gorge heading towards the tiny outpost of Oponae. Photo / Alan Gibson
General view looking down the Waioeka Gorge heading towards the tiny outpost of Oponae. Photo / Alan Gibson

That same news report describes searchers being "mystified" by Peter's disappearance in relatively open country where the "last tracks of his worn-down gumboots were described".

Neither the boy nor his boots have ever been found.

If Peter Boland's disappearance wasn't mysterious enough, the absence of any official police record of him for nearly 60 years is perhaps even more so.

The sign for Oponae Lodge where Peter had been staying. Photo / Alan Gibson
The sign for Oponae Lodge where Peter had been staying. Photo / Alan Gibson

They have been unable to find any archived file, any official record of the search for a missing child, any folder of news clippings or any formal statements from the four young men in their teens and early 20s who were on the farm while Peter was enjoying school holidays away from his family in Auckland.

In 2001, when Peter's cousin Ken Watkins inquired about the file, then Inspector Ron Cooper, of Bay of Plenty police, wrote on June 11 that, "… I regret to advise that I have been unable to locate any police file or record. I have checked all known indicies [sic] within police. I have checked Archive New Zealand.

"The Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages advises there is a record of Peter's birth but not of his death. That indicates a coroner's inquest was not held so I am unable to follow that up.

The area in front of the homestead. Photo / Alan Gibson
The area in front of the homestead. Photo / Alan Gibson

"I'm afraid the passage of time is just too great and recording practices too much changed in that time. I regret I was unable to be of more assistance and am sorry to hear your aunt passed away without this being resolved."

Watkins thinks the absence of official records relating to his cousin is more sinister.

"There was no file, no archived record of the search for him, no missing person report and no inclination even then to investigate why none of these things existed. I feel someone made [original] police records of Peter's disappearance, disappear."

General view of the river in an area known as Tawa Flats. Photo / Alan Gibson
General view of the river in an area known as Tawa Flats. Photo / Alan Gibson

Detective Sergeant Rob Lemoto, of the Bay of Plenty Child Protection Team, says there was a lot of valuable information passed to police as a result of the Sensing Murder research in 2016 into Peter's disappearance.

"Consequently, when information from a separate, unrelated source came to our attention in November last year, it gave us further impetus to launch the investigation into Peter Boland's loss and likely death.

"We informed Peter's brother Gavin and, through him the wider family, that it seems things weren't done properly from a current police perspective in 1957 and that we're going to try and put things right now."

Tawa Flats. Photo / Alan Gibson
Tawa Flats. Photo / Alan Gibson

Lemoto hopes the police investigation gives the Boland family some comfort.

"At the very least, I would dearly love to be able to locate Peter's remains so that, finally, he could rest in peace with his parents at the Waikumete Cemetery in Auckland.

"However, we've got a lot of work to do and time is of the essence when it comes to speaking to witnesses and associates of those who were at the Oponae farm when the mystery of Peter Boland's disappearance began."

Peter's father Neville died in February 1971, aged 51. His mother, Nell, died in 2001 aged 79, no closer to solving the mystery of her missing child. She was, according to her two surviving children and nephew, quiet, reserved and "old school" when it came to privacy.

Peter's sister Julie Bennett featured on the Sensing Murder episode about his disappearance. Photo / TVNZ
Peter's sister Julie Bennett featured on the Sensing Murder episode about his disappearance. Photo / TVNZ

She rarely spoke of Peter but shared some thoughts with her other children in later years.

"I know my mother felt that something untoward happened to Peter and those thoughts are the same as mine," Gavin Boland said.

"I couldn't see how my brother would [have been] silly enough to go into the river really.

Peter's cousin Ken Watkins on the episode. Photo / TVNZ
Peter's cousin Ken Watkins on the episode. Photo / TVNZ

He wasn't that sort of person. He was quite confident physically and wasn't dumb at school. He was quite capable of looking after himself, even at 9."

He has always tried to find answers about why Peter went missing without a trace.

"My involvement with the Sensing Murder programme a few years ago was, I thought at the time, a last-ditch effort to find some resolution.

James Kirk was among the searchers. Photo / TVNZ
James Kirk was among the searchers. Photo / TVNZ

"I guess I was hoping that, if something untoward had happened, the programme might disturb the person concerned. I had no evidence [of foul play] so it was really a matter of, if someone had a guilty conscience, would they have it jogged free.

"This latest news of a police investigation would make my mother cry if she was still alive. It's great to know there's an official record of Peter now and, even after all this time, it would be nice to locate a skeleton.

"I would like to find out what happened and, if it was an abduction or murder, I would like to see the person [responsible] punished. Even after all this time I think it would have a major impact on them and those around them."

Brian Burgess was also among the searchers. Photo / TVNZ
Brian Burgess was also among the searchers. Photo / TVNZ

He says Peter's disappearance has had a significant impact on his life.

"It's made me more of a loner and insular. I keep to myself a lot and, even though I have many friends, I don't have many close friends.

"I've had this underlying feeling that people I get close to might disappear and never come back."

• Anyone with any information regarding Peter Boland's disappearance should call Bay of Plenty Police on 07 213 0328 or anonymously contact Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.