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Jennifer Mary Beard
Thanks to Michelle Scott for the contribution of this story

On January 3 1970 on a hot summers day in South Westland, a family of five from Oamaru was crossing the Haast River Bridge. The 8-year-old daughter told her parents she needed to go the toilet, so the car stopped in the rest area, and the girl headed for the privacy of the bushes underneath the bridge. On her return to the vehicle, she said, "Daddy, there's a lady lying near the stream. She hasn't got any clothes on. I think she is asleep."

Perhaps the little girl had a history of telling stories, or the parents assumed that there was an amorous couple enjoying a private moment under the bridge. In any case, they did not investigate and drove off. If they had believed their daughter, the whole history of one of the most notorious unsolved murders in New Zealand would have been vastly different.

The woman lying under the bridge was not asleep. Her name was Jennifer Mary Beard and she would lie there for another 16 days. Meanwhile, it was not until the 9th of January she was reported missing by her fiancée, Reg Williams, with whom she had planned a rendezvous with in Milford.

Beard was a 25-year old schoolteacher from Tasmania with a love of hiking. Jennifer and Reg had agreed to holiday in the South Island, travel separately, and meet up after Reg had finished leading a tramping group in Milford Sound. Attractive and sweet natured, she was by all accounts was a clean-living, sensible girl, and it was completely out of character for her simply not to show up as planned.

The policeman put in charge of the search for Jenny was Detective Inspector Emmett T. Mitten, who immediately instigated a sweeping search for Jenny between the Fox Glacier, where she had last been seen on the 31st December in the company of a middle aged man in greeny-blue Vauxhall, and the gates of the Haast. The search was based at Lake Moeraki and completely cut off from civilization. It was not easy terrain to search, as South Westland is swampy and covered with dense native bush. The searchers searched in as far off the road or the track as they could.

A family, the Crossans, visited the Dunedin Police Station and told the police that they had helped a man get his car mobile at the rest area near the northern approach to the Haast River Bridge at about 1.20pm on the 31st December 1969. The man was middle-aged and driving a greeny-blue 1953-1955 Vauxhall, which fitted the description of the last person seen with Jenny Beard. Based on this information, on the 19th of January, Mitten sent Detective Joy and a few other policemen down to the bridge. Moving under the northern span of the bridge for only a matter of minutes, Joy came across the partly clad body of Jennifer Beard, partially hidden by bushes. On inspection of the scene, it was found that the humidity of the area, as well as the probable rise and fall of the Haast river, had severely decomposed Jenny's body and made the investigation that much more difficult for the police.

A pair of track pants was neatly rolled down to hear knees and her hiking boots were still on her feet. The clothes of her upper body had been ripped apart and were around her neck. By this, the police were able to reconstruct that Jenny, while relieving herself under the bridge, had been interrupted by someone who had brutally sexually attacked her. By the state of the scene, the police assumed she had died during the attack and been left there. The rucksack and camera she was last seen with were not to be found near her body.

Because of the time that had elapsed between her death and the recovery of her body, no cause of death could be pinpointed. The hyoid bone, a u-shaped bone at the base of the throat that would have been inspected for a case of strangulation, was not found. Whether a bird took it away or the police missed it during their search was never discovered. However, the police believed she was probably strangled.

The police concentrated much time and energy on finding the car Beard was last seen in, believing that if they found the car, they would find the driver. Jenny was seen in the car at many points along the highway that day, at the Fox Glacier, at the Lake Moeraki River Bridge, and the car was sighted at the Ha
This not your cold calculating killer... This is a guy who has done something on the spur of the moment ... [it would be a feeling of] total panic.
ast rest area. Some 33,000 Vauxhalls were in New Zealand at this time and the police had to manually check all of them.

After leaving the Haast River Bridge around 1.30pm on the 31st of December, the car in question then drove south from the rest area and visited the garage on the south side of the bridge. Its driver asked the attendant if the gear linkages could be attended to. The Crossan family, heading north, encountered the vehicle passing them at speed. They stopped along the way at Lake Paringa and when back on the road the car passed them again. This meant that the driver of this car must have left the road altogether at some point as the Crossans had not noticed overtaking it. The same car then stopped in at the garage at Fox glacier to have the gear linkages attended to at about 3pm. The mechanic said the man appeared calm but was definitely in a hurry. In the car was a quantity of camping equipment but as he was busy he did not take particular notice of it. Edward Watson of the Bruce Bay Store also attended to these linkages sometime in the afternoon.

On the 22nd of January, a man was questioned at the Timaru Police station for about six hours and his car inspected by a government analyst. Mitten emphasised at the time that there was nothing significant about this man in particular and no arrest was made for the murder of Jennifer Beard. In fact, it was another year before the detectives, after a year of intensive inquiry, again reviewed their evidence. The assembled officers eventually decided there was not sufficient evidence to charge any person with murder.

The commissioner, Superintendent Walton, did not want his team to charge someone only to have the suspect acquitted, because under the law that person could not be charged again - even if more evidence came to light in the future. "The dream was," says Mitten, "that we would find the pack and camera, and on the film would be a picture of Beard's murderer." Nevertheless, as time passed, it became increasingly obvious that no new evidence would be recovered.

Many years later, in 1988, the man who had been the chief suspect for the murder came forward and spoke to his local newspaper, the Timaru Herald. Gordon Bray, then aged 70 years old, publicly said he had been interviewed by Mitten and his Vauxhall had been examined. He had been in South Westland during the time Jenny Beard was on holiday. Bray claimed he had gone down that highway the day before Beard is believed to have been murdered, and that, unfortunately, he fitted the description of the wanted man and had a similar car. He said he was innocent, the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

If the driver was in fact the murderer, he would have scrambled up the bank after murdering Jenny, then wrenched the car into gear. In his haste to get back on the road, the gear linkages in the already old car may have became untangled. He then could have managed to get the car mobile again with the aid of a passing family, and then take off at speed. "This not your cold calculating killer..." Mitten says. "This is a guy who has done something on the spur of the moment ... [it would be a feeling of] total panic."

Somewhere along the line he would have realised that she had left her camera and rucksack in the car, and knowing this would incriminate him, drove off onto a side road and hid the items where they would never be found, probably in one of the many fast-flowing rivers that lead to the sea. Because he was driving so fast, the old car could not take it causing him to need to stop twice to have the linkages seen to before going back on the road.

Jennifer Beard was not discovered by searchers for another 19 days, and the identity of her killer has never been confirmed.


Back to NZ Unsolved Mysteries Index
 

On the last day of 1969, Jennifer Beard was brutally murdered and left under a bridge in a remote part of the South Island. Despite an intensive investigation the identity of her murderer has never been ascertained.

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