Those who follow missing persons or homicide cases know that speaking about their story, mainly affirming their presence is a way to keep a case alive, even if we do not have all the answers. New Zealand is a country where we are aware of crimes internationally thanks to the accessibility of media sources, however it is hard to realise what difficulties we have to face here on our homeland. It is harder to go missing in New Zealand than it is in the US: which is probably why when it does happen, the whole country watches.
This series aims to create continuous conversation around the topic so that these cases do not diminish with time. The time and segments are dedicated to those who have no voice and their families in the hopes that something will come out of this. I ask only of respect in the comments as these people remain to be loved by others. The following content is made through many, many hours of research and video interviews with no access to police records whatsoever, as many of the cases remain “open.” This is what I was able to obtain with thanks to New Zealand Archives, The Alexander Turnbull Library, the continuous investigations of the New Zealand Police and reporters at the time.
New Years is a time where we can leave everything that has happened in the year past and step forwards with a new hope. It’s a time to be with family and friends, rejoicing in happiness. For the Bentley family, this was not the case when their teenage daughter, Kirsty, failed to return home from a walk.
What We Know
31st December 1998
85 Kilometers from the large city hub of Christchurch in the South Island lies the small town of Ashburton. The surrounding districts were and still continue to be known for their agricultural communities, many taking up arms with cattle and produce farming. It’s a small town when compared to its neighboring city, Christchurch, but still a great place to bring up a family and bustling at the time of the new year.
Kirsty lived with her parents, Sid and Jill, her older brother and the family’s dog, Abby, who was a lovable, black labrador. When asked about her personality, it is said that she was a bright and talented girl, who made friends easily and was well loved by both teachers and students. Drama class was undoubtedly her favourite and it seems that she wad only looking forward in her life. She was attending the local high school and had plans to have dinner with her boyfriend and her family later on. Earlier that day, Kirsty was doing what any teenage girl would; hanging out with school friends and texting her boyfriend. She was happy, by all indications. They brought teddy-bears for their friends and prepared for the night’s festivities. Upon returning home, Kirsty phoned her Boyfriend, Graeme but had missed him and asked for him to ring her back when he could. At the time, landlines were the main form of communicative devices.
Seeing as it was still a sunny day, Kirsty decided to take Abby for a walk down to the local river – a place that was well populated and popular among the animal community. Her elder brother, John, was at home though he did not physically see Kirsty leave with Abby. (He only noticed that the dog lead was missing.) Her last known position was around 2:30 to 3pm, leaving her home. There was no indication she was meeting up with anyone during this trip, or that she knew that her life was in danger.
Her brother answered the call from Graeme at 4:30, who asked if Kirsty was home. “She’s not”, John replied. Kirsty was fit and athletic and loved to walk Abby. She probably either ran into someone or was taking a longer route. He assumed that she would come home soon, if not within the next hour. When an hour passed and Jill, Kirsty’s mother, arrived home, he told her that Kirsty hadn’t turned up from her walk – though it was only once her father, Sid, arrived home from work around that the Ashburton police were notified of her disappearance and a task force was assembled to help track her down. Initially, only her parents, a responding constable and Graeme searched for her by the river. Concerns grew as the night wore on – because Kirsty had left with light clothing – and her tardiness was completely out of character. But with no leads as to what had happened to her, they found neither Kirsty nor Abby.
The following morning and in the weeks following, the search parties grew. From police officers to the local Army Corp joined in search for the missing teen, spanning the search around the river bed out to around 150 meters either side of it.
Now, here is where things begin to become slightly strange.
The area which Kirsty’s family had searched was searched again but this time, instead of finding nothing, they heard barking. In among the bush was Abby, dehydrated and tied to a tree with her lead. They had also found bits of clothing strewn around in the bush. Later, these were confirmed as items of Kirsty’s given to her from the past Christmas.
This discovery was considered alarming as the dog definitely was not there the night before, indicating that someone had deliberately taken the duo somewhere and had come back to release the animal. Or, it should have been. At that point, the police – despite some alarm signals going off – did not think that anything sinister had occurred and Abby was still considered Missing, a possible runaway although her disappearance was under suspicious notions. Regardless, the finding triggered a manhunt, appearances on the late night news and a cash reward to anybody who could help in recovering their daughter.
It was not until 2 weeks later in Mid-January of 1999 that her body was found, a couple of days shy of her 16th birthday. Where she was found was far from where anyone had been expected to be.
While out in the remote bush trying to find cannabis plants, two men came across the body of Kirsty. She was lying in a paddock, 60 kilometers from where the Ashburton River is, in an area of Camp Gully. As it had been the middle of a very hot Canterbury summer, at the time that she was discovered, her body was already decomposing at a rapid rate. She was covered with leaves and branches, and slightly buried shallowly with dirt.
Because of the way she was found and the conduct of the police according to reports at the time, it leads me to think that where the body was discovered was not the murder scene. The area had had rainfall in the past day that Kirsty was lying there. This washed away any physical evidence for detectives as well as making their jobs that much harder.
The area she was found in was dense bush. Not a normal kind of forest area like you would find in America or England where the trees are tall and serene. This is dense bush with gorse, bramble and blackberry bushes that are notorious for growing vigorously. My suspicion is that if she were still alive at the point of arrival in Camp Gully, she would have much more scratch marks on her. And unless the suspect/s had some sort of Hazmat suit, the suspect would most likely have injuries to their body. Whoever had dumped her body there would have known that placing her there would cause the search and rescue units difficulty in tracking her. However, this information would have proved to be fruitless as by the time of this information coming out, the injuries would have had enough time to heal. I believe that the suspect/s may have thought that the growth of the bushes would have hidden her, given the shallow burial. The body seems to have been found much earlier that they had initially figured it would be.
Against Police warnings and public outcry, one of the men who has originally found her had been trying to sell his story to the media. He did get interviews but was reportedly not paid for anything.
Newspapers had reported that the cause of death might be blunt force trauma to the back of her head, possibly due to the luminary tests done in many suspect’s homes, including her parents. (This is the tests done to detect the presence of blood under UV lighting.) The cause of her death was only confirmed in a further second inquiry by the coroner’s office and was indeed a blunt force object, though specifically the police were unable to confirm the type of weapon.
Now during my investigation, the bulk of what I was able to obtain was from the local newspapers during January 1999. It seemed that the entirety of New Zealand was at the forefront of each development as if it were a soap opera. The title “If Dogs could talk” was the opening sentence to the very first published article. Nearly every daily edition contained some report and this openness with the public is concerning. Anyone would wholeheartedly understand the need to find their missing child as much as possibly, however I think extent of coverage was both beneficial and detrimental towards Police and they had that known. And it seems that the Police too were aware of this point. In the “Letter’s to the Editor” section of the Dominion post, an active constable verbally reprimanded the editors in a letter that had subsequently been published in the paper.
Through this constant back and forth, we’re able to see the relationship between the Police and the Media at this time, as well as the impressions fro public. They had duty to rely each other but this was a coy and almost passive aggressive tone. This could not be confirmed until a second inquest into the case in 2016, where this detail was confirmed by the coroner.
So with Kirsty now found, this only gives comfort to the family that she is home with them but not of the steps leading to her very sad ending.
Which leads us to the theories and most importantly, who done it?
Immediately, there is no doubt that Kirsty was the victim of homicide. No way would she leave Abby alone or have the means on her own to get to Camp Gully. With the evidence given, we are able to form around three initial theories.
(1) – The Green Peace truck and other car investigations: Kirsty was picked up by a stranger, taken to either Camp Gully or and undisclosed location, murdered and dumped.
I do have doubts that Kirsty would go off with a complete stranger, as her parents had said that she was smart and level headed. She was reliable, and all of this indicates to me that she would not be the type of person to venture off alone with someone or someone who only she knew without telling someone, let alone leaving Abby tied up to a tree in sweltering heat. I use the word ‘stranger’ in the context that this individual unknown to police.
Which, is why it may have been a kidnapping situation. It’s possible that she was a victim by chance, and that both individuals were totally unrelated given the lack of evidence and people of interest, but I do not think this individual was unknown in the area. Given where her body was found and its remoteness, it indicates that they would have known the area rather well.
During the time of her initial disappearance, the police were focusing their sights on a vehicle of interest. This vehicle had been reported by a mechanic to Police after he had been called out to fix his broken down car. The man was apparently acting odd and sounded foreign to the mechanic. He said “the brown coloured car was parked haphazardly on the road…..it was as if someone had jumped out and was ready to jump back in.” This car had been seen driving around Ashburton, and the layby where the mechanic had apparently been called to. Leads on this information were taken into consideration but if they actually lead to anything being discovered is unknown.
(2) Kirsty had been killed by John and Sid was helping to cover the crime up
As time passed on, more ideas became thought of into the investigation, and this was more implied than any of the others: more so because time and leads were running out. The Ashburton Police had been investigating the trucks in the previous theory before turning to take a closer look at the family dynamics. They thought that there may have been a possibility that Sid and/or John was involved with the disappear and murder. According to John, the Police had only interviewed him once, asking him questions concerning the relationship between Kirsty, himself and their father. Under this scrutiny, the family took to the local papers to protest their innocence. This move by Police shocked Jill, and as a supportive wife stood by her family while continuing to support police.
This theory seems to be one grown out of speculation rather than anything else. The luminol tests revealed nothing in the family’s home, photos of Sid had shown him in a t-shirt: his arms were scratch free and there was not any time for John – from the time Kirsty left the house – to follow her down to the river, kidnap, kill her, drive back in time to receive Graeme’s phone call, go back and dump Kirsty and hide Abby before helping the search party all the way up until 12:30 the next morning, He would then have to go and put Abby back to wherever he hid her and then return to the family without raising suspicion.
While I do not think the family would be involved, this theory had been implied by the lack of consistency of witness accounts alongside John and Sid going to the media with this information – not the police. In 2000, Sid came forward claiming that he had new, previously unknown information about his actions on the day because of a “bump on his head.” The accuracy of this account is not dependable given the amount of time between his statements – statements that occur closer to the crime time-wise are considered to be more dependable.
I think the family, after the Police coming forward and suggesting that they may have been involved, had a cause and effect status added to the case. I don’t think this theory would have remained so embedded if Sid and John had not gone to the Media. Some handling of this case is definitely much to learn by, by both parties but I don’t think that with this was any malice intent.
(3) Kirsty was murdered at the river and dumped at Camp Gully
Given the facts, this is what I can group together as my own theory. Kirsty was walking on the river and was attacked by an individual. This individual dragged her to where her clothes were found and either killed her in the bush or in the river with a blunt object. The severity of blunt force trauma is dependent on the velocity of the attacker’s weapon and the severity of the contusion caused to Kirsty’s head. For fatality to occur, the weapon has to go at a high enough velocity to cause bruising to the body. Seeing as there was no determination of the weapon used or photos of the crime scene, I cannot make a definitive conclusion as to whether the scene would have blood or trace evidence at this scene. (Spare Kirsty’s clothing.) But, due to the rate of decomposition, Kirsty would have been killed very close to the night of her disappearance.
Given that Abby was not initially found, she would have been taken alongside Kirsty but may have been separated. (Eg, put onto the back of a Ute or a Boot.) This would be reasonable as to why Abby was not found in the first search. As a tidbit, in a book written by Jill Bentley, she points out that the lead that was found where Abby was, was not theirs. This information would indicate that either the killer had premeditated this incident – personally I think they did – or kept Abby after dumping Kirsty, went back to find another leash and tied Abby back up at dawn. This leaves the question: where is the original dog leash?
At this point in time Camp Gully was a hot-spot for campers and tourists since it was the New Year. There would have been no way for the killer to move in such a populated area without causing suspicion. If anyone saw anything out of the ordinary, it would be the campers. In saying this Kirsty would have most likely been dumped in the area either in the early morning or at dawn to avoid being seen, as the area only had one way in, one way out. The killer would have had to wear a degree of protective gear around his arms and face to prevent scratching from the bramble bushes. Again, the killer would have been noticeable if full gear if he was out at dusk, with the temperature being far too hot for long sleeved clothing.
Her body is left in the area until she if found and by then the suspect is already out of town.
After the death, investigation, and the subsequent media storm, life seemed to be on edge for the Bentley’s. After everything, Jill and Sid divorced and went their separate ways. In 2016, Sid died from cancer.
Jill moved away from Ashburton, relocating and settling down with a new partner. After all the whirlwind drama that came with the media, Jill says that she is thankful for the quiet and always says goodnight to Kirsty’s urn before going to bed. It is clear that the bond with her Mother was stronger than most, and that is reflected in Jill’s loving resilience. She says that while she would want her daughter’s murder to be solved, she won’t let it eat at her or diminish the life Kirsty had lived.
Regardless of the momentous theories that Kirsty’s murder has created, we are all left with a bottomless pit within regards to answers. This case creates more questions that may never be fully realised. How this story panned out to the media and the public seems to have indeed affected the outcome to a degree though this does not detract from the hard hours, the support from the community and the police during this hardship. But we should also not forget that this investigation has now continued for 19 years and little since the initial investigation has been released. If we are to find any resolve in this terrible incident, I hope that it is soon.
If you or someone you know has any information in regards to Kirsty’s murder, please contact the Ashburton Police on (03) 307 8400. Please leave only respect in the comments and let me know if you want to see more of this kind of topic.
The Dominion Post, January 1st 1999 – January 31st 1999.
The New Zealand Herald, January 1st 1999 – January 31st 1999.