Just like you, but different
By and large you always think of New Zealand as being an outwardly friendly, people happy, tolerant, peaceful place. You would possibly describe it as such to foreigners, and not as a wild-west like country where crime is rampant. There are though some unsolved crimes that will forever be that, unsolved or unsolvable. This is one of those that still seems to be fresh and top of mind to many, and one that just won’t go away.
Why was Gordon Bray never charged with Jennifer Mary Beard’s murder in 1970?
The year 1970 was remarkable for investigations into three murders at a time when homicide was rare. The first victim was Jennifer Beard, an English schoolteacher, whose body was found in January under a bridge at Haast, deep in southern Westland.
The nation was first appalled by the young hitch-hiker’s death, then engrossed in the search for the Vauxhall car thought to have been driven by the murderer, then astonished by the lack of any result.
After all, the police had a suspect: Gordon Bray, a burly Timaru truck driver. Everyone knew that he was the prime suspect because Bray had announced it in the newspapers. He was a single man, he had been holidaying on the Coast, he was probably at the murder scene, he drove an old Vauxhall. Beyond one shadowy figure, never identified, no other suspect was ever turned up.
Beard, probably a virgin, was thought to have been relieving herself under the bridge on New Year’s Eve, 1969, when she was attacked. She had been seen with a man in a Vauxhall. She had probably been strangled, although her body was so decomposed that a cause of death could never be firmly established
Was Bray the man seen in the rest area at the bridge? Police had two eyewitnesses and a receipt belonging to Bray that was in a pocket of trousers found at the scene. Police thought the eyewitness evidence weak, especially as the most observant, a boy of 13, had described the Vauxhall he saw as “deep turquoise”.
One of the problems the police faced in their search for the Vauxhall – they checked almost all the 29,000 that were around 16 years old and still being driven in New Zealand in 1970 – was that witnesses described it in various shades of green with primer on its paintwork. Bray’s Vauxhall was dark blue, and the bodywork was in good condition. A jury, they concluded, would be doubtful.
Still, police were satisfied that they had enough evidence to place him at the murder scene. The lawyers remained dubious: “No more than suspicion, and very difficult to prove,” one said.
October 2005 – Two former West Coast men are calling for police to re-open the Jennifer Mary Beard murder case – 35 years after the Australian hitchhiker was found dead under the Haast River Bridge. She was last seen alive on December 31 in the company of a middle-aged man in a greeny-blue Vauxhall Velox. The identity of her killer has never been found.
But last month (September 2005) Christchurch businessman Wayne Williams – a former West Coaster who has followed the case for the past 18 years – went to police with information on another possible suspect. In documents supplied to police, Mr Williams describes a man known as Ron (surname unknown) as a possible suspect in the case.
Ron, who worked at the Hardy and Thompson sawmill in Westport at the time, had acted strangely after Beard’s death, Mr Williams said. Mr Watts said that when a police identikit picture appeared in the Westport News on January 30, 1970, Ron abruptly left his job and failed to collect two weeks’ wages.
The Police declined to follow up or entertain this information. The person in question is Ron Hunter, would be approx 72 years old today and could be living outside of NZ, possibly Australia. Who knows?
The man many think was responsible, Gordon Bray, died in Timaru in November 2003. He always maintained his innocence.
Updated 30th May 21013 – http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/crime/8733709/Cold-case-Family-doubts-police-case
Relatives of the prime suspect in the unsolved 1969 Jennifer Beard murder are pushing to clear his name.
Timaru truck driver Gordon Bray went to his grave 10 years ago, aged 83, maintaining his innocence over the young Welsh teacher’s murder.
Police never charged him because of lack of evidence.
Beard, 25, disappeared while hitchhiking down the West Coast on New Year’s Eve in 1969 on her way to meet her fiance. Her body was found under the Haast River bridge 19 days later.
Bray had been on the West Coast and owned a blue Vauxhall Velox car, which matched witnesses’ descriptions of the vehicle sought by police. A pair of trousers found 100 metres from her body three days after its discovery had a receipt tucked inside with his name on it.
Last weekend, some of Bray’s family gathered in Timaru for his sole surviving sibling’s 105th birthday.
His nephew, Sam Leary, of Kaikoura, said yesterday he and his four surviving sisters also met Oamaru private investigator Cindy Roberts and watched her documentary on the case.
The family are convinced their uncle had nothing to do with Beard’s death. “We could handle it if it was found that Jennifer Beard was murdered and they had hard evidence that Gordon Bray was the murderer. We could accept that but we’re a long way from that.”
Leary planned to stay in contact with Roberts, who also doubted Bray’s involvement.
Police documents stated their pathologist was unable to determine a cause of death because of the body’s state.
Leary said his family was not convinced Beard was murdered. “We want that part nailed down.”
His mother was devastated when her brother was accused of murder, he said, so the subject was avoided. They decided she was too frail to raise the case on her 105th birthday.
Leary’s family had lived only a few hundred metres from Bray’s Timaru home so had a lot of contact with him. “I spent years going fishing with my Uncle Gordon. He never once gave any hint of a violent attitude.”
The trousers found at the scene also gave the family doubts because they had never seen him wear denim trousers.
“And all the so-called evidence that has been talked about [the murderer] being a fat, balding man, well, I’m six foot and he was taller than me. He was not fat and he was not balding. He was just a big raw-boned guy