Sara Niethe's boyfriend charged with murder

MICHAEL FOX, MICHELLE ROBINSON AND BELINDA FEEK
Last updated 10:35 17/08/2011
Karl Drury

The former boyfriend of Sara Niethe appears in North Shore District Court charged with her murder more than eight years after she disappeared.

Sara Niethe investigation

Sara Niethe
PETER DRURY/WAIKATO TIMES Zoom
A specialist police dive team from Wellington search the Awaiti Canal for clues on April 4, 2003, after the disappearance of Kerepehi woman Sara Niethe.
Mark Pakenham
GRAHAME COX/AUCKLAND NOW
MARK PAKENHAM: The man accused of Sara Niethe's murder appears at North Shore District Court.
SARA NIETHE: Disappeared in late March 2003.
SARA NIETHE: Disappeared in late March 2003.

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The former boyfriend of missing woman Sara Niethe has been charged with her murder more than eight years after she disappeared.

Mark Edward Pakenham was the last man to see Niethe alive and today he appeared in the North Shore District Court charged with her murder.

Pakenham appeared to greet someone in the public gallery using sign language to say "I love you" when he came into the court.

He pointed to his face, then put his hands on his heart and pointed to someone in the gallery.

Pakenham, who has grey hair and wore glasses, was tidily dressed in a grey jersey.

He applied for bail but was remanded in custody until a bail hearing tomorrow. Police will talk to Niethe's family to get their views on the bail application.

Niethe, a 30-year-old mother of three, never returned from a visit to Pakenham's Kaihere home on March 30, 2003.

Pakenham, a labourer who lives in Avondale, is now in police custody, charged with Niethe's murder on the night she was last seen.

An exhaustive police investigation into her death had previously proved fruitless until police announced yesterday they had made an arrest after an extensive reinvestigation was launched last year.

BODY AND CAR STILL MISSING

At a press conference in Hamilton this morning, Detective Senior Sergeant Mike Whitehead would not reveal what led to Pakenham's arrest but confirmed neither Niethe's body or car had been recovered.

He would not comment on whether DNA was a key factor.

Whitehead credited officer in charge Glen Tinsley, of Waihi CIB, for his perseverance and dedication for the breakthrough.

"It has sat with him ever since and he continued to work on it over the years and it was at his request last year that we conduct a full review of the matter.'''

The investigation was reopened in November before a new inquiry team was set up in May.

Pakenham was arrested on Kawau Island yesterday and taken to Warkworth police station for questioning. He was charged with murder at 6pm.

Whitehead said the arrest came about after going through previous information but no new searches were conducted.

''Over the intervening years there has been bits and pieces of information that has come in, nothing in itself particularly startling, but enough to indicate that a further inquiry was justified.''

Whitehead said police had kept in close contact with the family over the years. Niethe left behind three children - Dion, Danielle and Simone.

''We have spoken to Sara's mum Eileen Marbeck. I offered her the chance to come along today and she has declined.

"They will be going through a mix of emotions at the moment, I would imagine. She expressed to me that she was glad there had been some progress but they are aware that it's only a start to what will be a lengthy prosecution.

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"As a family, they haven't had the normal grieving processes that we rely on to be able deal with a loss like this and they still hold out hope that in some time in the future they will be able to hold a funeral.''

Whitehead said Niethe had been expected home that night.

"Her failure to return home or to make contact was immediately of concern as it was so out of character. One of her children was having her 10th birthday and Sara had made a booking for a birthday outing at a local cafe," he said.

"An extensive search and police investigation failed to find or establish what had happened to Sara or the Honda car she was driving on the day she went missing."

NIETHE'S LAST NIGHT

Niethe and Pakenham's relationship began after they met at a party in Auckland six months earlier, and discovered they lived within 15 kilometres of each other.

While Niethe's friends said the pair were dating, Pakenham told media at the time they were just friends.

On the night she was last seen alive, Niethe had gone to Pakenham's home to drink with him. He said Niethe decided to leave about midnight.

Pakenham said he had tried to convince her to stay as she sometimes did but Niethe was set on returning to her family.

He described waking to find some of Niethe's belongings, including her sunglasses, cigarettes and cellphone, on the table at his house which he returned to her house that next day though that was the last time had made contact with her family.

He suggested at the time she may have pulled over for a sleep on her way home and that she may have been abducted from there.

Police searched the 49-year-old's property at the time as part of an extensive investigation into her death which ultimately proved fruitless.

PAKENHAM'S 'ONLY MATE' SHOCKED 

The manager of the Auckland boarding house where Pakenham lived for 18 months said he "got quite close" to Pakenham and often asked him about his former girlfriend.

"But I didn't push too much. He didn't like talking about it," said Brad Bellman, Robertton Lodge Boarding House manager. 

Bellman said he was "shocked" his former mate had been arrested, but had half expected it as he'd been visited by police investigating Niethe's disappearance about two months ago.

He said he kicked Pakenham out of the lodge in Roberton Rd, Avondale, about six months ago because of his behaviour.

"It wasn't because he didn't pay his rent... he always paid it on time," Bellman said.

"It was his not caring about any other tenant. He'd slam doors late at night, barge around. He was very arrogant. But he got on with most people."

Bellman said he was Pakenham's "only mate".

"I took him over as a mate. I have this thing, you keep people close to find out about them. I was wary of him," he said.

"He would come to my room and have a few beers and a chat. I knew something was wrong with him. But he never said anything. We were quite close, we'd have beers, go for a drive... he was pretty close to me.

"I did like him, his personality was pretty good, but there was a big but, there. He was a little intimidating. That was probably why I stayed close to him, to make sure things were ok at the lodge."

Lodge owner Peter Wheeler said he had used Pakenham to do gardening at one of his properties.

He nicknamed the accused, "lumberjack" because he was so handy with a chainsaw.

"He was tremendously strong, he had amazing strength. With a chainsaw he was very impressed. He trimmed a tree right down for me. He was absolutely amazing, clearly a man of experience who had done work in forestry before."

Like a lot of boarding house tenants, Wheeler said Pakenham had a "changeable" demeanour.

"He could be really good, high energy, very sociable, then the next day he would crash. We have lots of people like that at the boarding house. They just crash."

Wheeler said Pakenham got on with other tenants "pretty well most of the time" but was "not a person you'd want to mess with".

"He was a man who could get very angry... but he did seem to attract the ladies. His psyquie, his demeanour. Girls tend to like a man of his calibre."

Neithe's brother, Lee Marbeck, declined to comment today, saying: "I haven't got any comment to make at this stage, police will be putting out a press release."

NO RESULT DESPITE REWARD   

The extensive search for the Hauraki woman, which combed rivers and canals, roads and peat land, proved fruitless.

Officers were still receiving information from the public for months after her death and even offers of a reward of $20,000, later increased to $50,000, did not yield positive results.

Eventually, a truck driver came forward saying they saw her car driving "erratically" with its lights off along SH2 towards Ngatea about midnight the night she disappeared.

Then a man filmed by security cameras at the Shell service station in Ngatea contacted police and told them he also saw Niethe's car being driven with the lights off in Ngatea on the night of her disappearance.

Previously there had been no sighting of Niethe, or her car.

It took several months before officers admitted they suspected foul play although her bank accounts remained untouched and there was no sign of a road accident when she disappeared.

In 2009, police searched peat land near Ngatea for her remains following reviews of the case.

Her case appeared on TV show Sensing Murder in 2008.

Psychics claimed Niethe's body may have been dumped in rugged land north of Thames. It is not known if her body has been recovered.

At the time, inquiry head Detective Sergeant Glenn Tinsley of Waihi police said no leads had come from the show, and police did not put much faith in psychics.

Speaking yesterday, Whitehead said police never closed the case.

"A full review of the investigation was carried out in 2010 and following that an extensive reinvestigation was launched," he said.

"Evidence assembled by the investigation team was reviewed by the Hamilton Crown solicitor before the decision to arrest the man was made."

Whitehead said the arrest was a testament to the hard work of police who worked on the case.

"To be able to take this case to the point it can be presented before the courts is a testament to the calibre of investigative staff who serve the wider Waikato community.

"It will also hopefully serve as some reassurance to Sara's family and those of other victims who place their faith in police."

- Auckland Now

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