Nine years after his death, family bury son
"A bittersweet conclusion."
This is how former Southland woman Jillian Whyte felt when she buried the remains of her son this month, nine years to the day after he went missing.
On November 16, 2003, former Tokanui resident James Douglas Whyte disappeared while driving his truck from South Australia back home to Queensland, on a lonely road in outback Australia. His funeral service was held in Brisbane a fortnight ago, on November 16.
Until last year, no trace of the 31-year-old had been found. Only a half-smoked cigarette, two water bottles and overnight bag were found in his abandoned interstate transporter truck. But in September last year, when the family had all but given up hope, his remains were discovered when a farm worker found a skull in a paddock at a station close to where his truck was found.
The remains were crushed and spread over a large area by cattle on the station and were badly damaged by sun exposure and flooding.
They were in such bad condition that a year long process of DNA testing proved inconclusive but samples sent to Mexico for specialist testing positively identified James Whyte.
His parents, Jillian and Robin, had questioned how their son's remains went unnoticed during countless hours of police and private searches that combed kilometres surrounding the area.
"It's a frustration that his remains were found within 2km of the truck and we will never understand why they didn't find him during the initial search," Mrs Whyte said.
She said it had been a long journey but there were obvious questions that had not been answered. Did he wander off? Was foul play involved?
Mrs Whyte found it strange that Mr Whyte's mobile phone and wallet were never found, yet his apartment keys and pieces of his clothing were found after eight years of exposure in extreme weather conditions.
Police believe he died where his keys were found because they were buried and would not have floated away like clothing, she said.
"It bothers me and my husband that James' remains were never found at the time of searching, when it was drought season, with no vegetation at all and everything on the land could be seen," she said. "But we won't allow these questions to bring us down any further . . . we are so much luckier than a lot of other families of missing persons because we have his remains."
Castlereagh local area command crime manager Inspector Tony Mureaun, who searched for Mr Whyte, said the case was now closed and no foul play was suspected.
A second coroner's inquest at the end of October this year found the manner and cause of death was unknown.
"Unfortunately, we will also never know why James was never found after days of searching, or what happened to him, but everyone has an opinion," he said.
Mrs Whyte said police understood Mr Whyte had no water or food and wandered off and got disoriented in the bush during the night because there was no moonlight or street lights to guide him.
"He was tired and stressed and running behind schedule. He wanted to get home for the weekend and we think he got lost trying to find a shortcut he had heard about," she said.
Having Mr Whyte "home" was as good as it would get for the Whyte family, who were content just to have their son.
"There comes a time when you have to leave it alone. It's just too hard to live questioning it every day," Mrs Whyte said.
She did not like the word "closure" but it was the best way to describe how the family felt.
She felt more at peace after the funeral service. "For eight long years it was just horrible as parents to think that we might never know where he was, but now our boy is home and put to rest".
The Whytes still have family in Invercargill and Southland, some of whom travelled to Australia for Mr Whyte's funeral service.
- © Fairfax NZ News