What killed Rutger Hale?
Scientists, defence force investigators and even the United States Army have investigated the mysterious death of Rutger Hale. And still there are no answers.
Yesterday, coroner Richard McElrea was told an object, potentially similar to a cannonball, flew at high speed through Hale's front windscreen and smashed the 22-year-old's head before flying out the back windscreen as he drove to work, between Lake Hawea and Wanaka, on October 24.
That object has never been found, and the experts cannot agree what it was.
ESR scientists found the object was made of, or contained, fragments of common-grade stainless steel used in vehicle parts and other everyday items such as tools and cookware. It was coated in soil or dirt found in the South Island.
However, the US Army materials and manufacturing science branch specialist technicians worked with the New Zealand Defence Technology Agency and concluded the object was unlikely to be made of solid steel or similar high density material.
It "had a reasonably sharp corner", their expert said.
"Impact marking within the vehicle suggest that the penetrating object had a rough surface texture such that it scratched the interior and has at least one dimension in excess of 80mm."
The agency found the object either struck the windscreen twice, first hitting the window and then smashing through it, or two separate items hit the windscreen.
Police were unable to find the object but believed it came from the back of an oncoming vehicle.
Girlfriend Danielle Oylear, who was in the front passenger seat when the object hit, spoke of a white ute travelling toward them before the crash. The driver appeared to have taken a corner too wide and entered their lane for a short time, she said.
"I remember thinking there was something awful about it, like maybe it was a drunk driver. It just didn't seem right."
She then recalled something about the size of a tissue box or brick, and beige in colour, "rocketing" towards the car.
Initially believing someone had thrown something at them, she now believed it had come off the back of the white vehicle.
Detective Sergeant Brian Cameron said police interviewed the driver of every white four-wheel-drive ute registered in the Central Lakes area since 2010. They ruled out the only one believed to be in the area of the crash at the time.
Police also sought telephone production orders from telecommunication companies to identify any cellphone signals in the area at the time and had reviewed several theories, including those submitted by members of the public during the investigation, but none was supported by facts enough to have any certainty placed on them, Cameron said.
Theories included a rock falling from a bank, a pipe or piece of scaffolding going through the windscreen, a person hiding in the bushes and firing or throwing an item at the vehicle and the object being thrown intentionally by a person in or on the back of a vehicle. He believed the object was likely man-made and came from another vehicle.
Serious crash investigator Senior Constable Alastair Crosland said circular tyre marks had been found showing a vehicle had driven a complete circle near the crash, but these were not necessarily related to the incident that killed Hale.
Pathologist Martin Sage said he believed that part of the object was cannon-ball shaped and that Hale's head injury was caused by a semi-circular object striking the head.
This was of little comfort to Hale's family who travelled from Auckland for the inquest.
Speaking after the inquest, Hale's mother, Lisa Miller, thanked police and investigators for the time and effort put into the investigation.
However, "there is no answer to be had," she said.
Oylear said the inquest raised more questions than answers and she believed the final piece of the puzzle, the missing object, had to have been picked up off the road.
"We should have found an object. It leaves you wanting," she said.
The coroner reserved his formal findings.
The Southland Times