Heidi's family cling to hope

Swedish tourist Heidi Paakkonen's grieving family still clings to the faint hope that she's alive, despite vanishing 20 years ago while tramping in the Coromandel.

Paakkonen and her boyfriend, Urban Hoglin, then aged 21 and 23, went missing after heading into bush near Thames on April 8, 1989. Hoglin's remains were found in October, 1991, and returned to Sweden for burial, but Paakkonen was never seen again.

Aucklander David Tamihere, 55, continues to protest his innocence, despite being convicted in December 1990 of murdering the pair.

Cea Paakkonen, Heidi's sister-in-law, told the Sunday Star-Times the family's suffering was made far worse because Heidi's body had never been found.

"It's easier to have a grave to go to. We don't have a place for when we want to grieve. It's difficult.

"Is she dead? There is no evidence that she's dead. You always wonder, maybe she's alive. I do and the family do. You have to be realistic and you know probably she's dead - but you always wonder."

When the Parole Board declined Tamihere's latest bid for freedom last November, it noted that police and Paakkonen's family urged it to delay releasing Tamihere until he disclosed her body's location, although he told the board he had no idea where she was.

On important milestones, such as birthdays and Christmas, Urban Hoglin's family gathers by his graveside in the small Swedish village of Storfors to lay flowers and light candles. The couple's families, who still live in the same village and are close friends, are confident that Tamihere is the killer and never want him freed.

"I believe an eye for an eye," says Hoglin's brother, Stefan. "If you have done this terrible crime that he has done, if you are sitting for 20 years, it's nothing. What I'm thinking is he should be put away for the rest of his life."

None of the couple's relatives have returned to New Zealand since Tamihere's trial, but are keen to and hold no bitterness towards this country. "I have nothing against New Zealand people - it's just this man," Hoglin said. "Something like this could happen here too."

The families doubt the theory suggested in a book published last year that Tamihere had an accomplice for the murders - a claim based on the fact that Hoglin's body showed no signs that he tried to defend himself while being stabbed to death.

"People get to have their own opinions but the police were so sure about it [Tamihere being the sole offender] and we have to believe them. The court found the guilt and the evidence pointed to him alone," Hoglin said.

He says it was terrible Tamihere had been free to kill. Tamihere committed the murders three years after breaking into a house in his Auckland suburb of Avondale in April 1986, where he sexually violated and threatened to kill a 47-year-old woman occupant over six hours.

He pleaded guilty, but absconded while on bail. In the intervening years, he lived on Tamihere family land in Mataroa Bay, Coromandel - where he has since asked the Parole Board to free him to - living rough in bush around the area.

He was arrested in May 1989, for the sexual violation and sentenced to six- and-half years. His link to the Swedish couple surfaced only when a tourist recognised photographs of their car and told police in June 1989 that he was given a ride in it by a man called "Pat Kelly", who turned out to be Tamihere.

Sunday Star Times