Devoted mother Vanessa Pickering meets violent end
Early on February 9 last year, a stranger found a distraught seven-year-old girl on the north side of the Old Waimakariri Bridge near Kaiapoi.
She had been wandering in a paddock.
It would later emerge the child had been left there by convicted murderer Malcolm George Chaston, a 41-year-old criminal with a vicious history.
A member of the girl's family contacted police, who immediately realised something was very wrong.
The girl's mother, Vanessa Pickering, 27, was missing from her Marine Pde home in Christchurch.
Two days later her body was found on a hill near Godley Head. Pickering had been murdered on Monday, February 8, 2010.
Details of how Chaston killed Pickering remain sketchy, with the police summary of facts not yet available.
Suppression of his guilty plea to the murder was lifted yesterday after he pleaded guilty to another charge. A court document at an earlier appearance by Chaston indicated Pickering was stabbed.
Theresa Soper, a friend who lived in Pickering's New Brighton apartment block, told of the scene left in Pickering's home on the day she disappeared.
"I knew her as a mother, mother to mother. All the pots were still on the stove I just can't see her going out anywhere without having fed [her child]. It is totally out of character. The meat and veges were just sitting there unserved," Soper said.
Pickering's mother, Rachel Kitson, immediately thought the worst when police contacted her at her Greymouth workplace to say her daughter was missing.
"On February 7, I was getting all these pains all over me. I've never felt like that before. I knew as soon as I got that call she [Vanessa] had gone."
Vanessa Pickering was born in Kaikoura, the second eldest of Rachel Kitson and Robert Pickering's four children.
Her family describe Vanessa as a hard-working woman who had her problems, but loved her daughter.
Pickering's early years seemed normal, almost sheltered, her mother said.
"She was brought up on farms; she loved the outdoors. She was a really outgoing girl."
Pickering thought the army would offer her a chance to see the world.
"That was her goal. She wanted to achieve something in life," Kitson said.
Just after her 17th birthday, Pickering joined the army cadets in Masterton in the North Island.
When she turned 18, she was sent to Burnham Military Camp, where she met the man who would become her partner and the father of her only child.
Pickering never managed to travel abroad. Her career in the armed forces was cut short.
"They were caught fraternising [in the back of an army truck]. So they couldn't really get back in. The old hormones took over," Kitson said.
Aged 20, Pickering fell pregnant. She later gave birth unassisted at a farm home where she and her partner were living.
Robert Pickering lives in Blenheim. He and Kitson have separated.
"You couldn't get much better," he said of his daughter. "She was never any trouble or anything. She was quiet as a mouse and did her own thing.
"She just loved animals, any animals.
"She had all sorts of pets and had very good ability on the farm as well – a real good worker. There's not many men who were as good a worker as she was."
Her father proudly recounts how, after leaving the army, Pickering called into a stock firm in Darfield to see if there were any jobs nearby.
"Apparently she walked from Darfield down to this dairy farm. It was over 5 kilometres. After she walked so far the farm manager couldn't turn her down."
The last years of her life saw Vanessa move to Christchurch where she worked in a meat-packing plant. The man who would kill her worked at the same plant.
Pickering's younger sister, Loana Pickering, 18, who lives with her father, said that as well as working at the plant, Vanessa had cleaned cars and was "just being there for her daughter [in Christchurch]."
Rachel Kitson had last spoken to her daughter on Wednesday, February 3.
They talked about getting together over the holidays.
Pickering, separated from her partner, was eager to get on with life, her mother said.
"She was in the throes of getting her life turned around for the better and she was looking at buying a cheap vehicle, a runabout, and the plan was on Easter Weekend [April 2 to 5, 2010] her and her daughter would come over [to Greymouth] and stay for a bit." But Kitson's daughter never made it.
On Wednesday, February 10, after police publicised Pickering's disappearance, Kitson left for Christchurch.
She told the police officer in charge of the search, Detective Senior Sergeant Virginia Le Bas, she wanted to identify her daughter's body when it was found.
The same day, Chaston was caught by police who used road spikes to stop his car at Cheviot, North Canterbury.
On Thursday, Vanessa Pickering's body was found.
Kitson remembers the day well. The police came to her motel and told her the news.
She told Pickering's daughter, "mummy" was "sleeping".
"It really just confirmed everything even she knew," Kitson said.
Pickering's daughter is now being cared for by her father and his mother.
Robert Pickering was working in Australia when he heard of his daughter's death.
He had last spoken to her on her birthday on August 1, 2009.
"Words can't explain it. It's just something you don't expect. You read about. You hear about it. You watch it on TV every day but you just don't think it's going to happen to you."
A year on, the murder still does not feel real.
"You just have to try and get on with life, I suppose. But it's always on your mind, all day every day."
Chaston's pleas meant nothing to him, he said.
"What he does ... I wouldn't give him the time of day to frustrate me.
"There'll be no closure because she's not here. I just wish it was like the Wild West days when we could sort this out ourselves."
Kitson was irked by Chaston's reluctance to enter an early guilty plea.
"I thought the s... would have pleaded guilty straight away. He knows how to work the system all right," she said.
"It won't be until after sentencing when he's been held accountable, I think, [that] the family can actually move on. We'll never know the answer why. But karma will come."
KILLER'S HISTORY OF CRIME
The 41-year-old man who murdered Vanessa Pickering is a violent criminal with a frightening history.
In 2002, Malcolm George Chaston was found guilty by a High Court jury on charges of bashing, choking and sexually violating a woman he knew. A jury rejected allegations of rape, indecent assault, rendering her unconscious by choking and three of kidnapping the woman.
According to a Court of Appeal decision, the case involved Chaston getting angry after finding the woman in the home of a male friend in September 2001.
The woman also complained that Chaston used cigarettes to burn her hands. Chaston was acquitted on this charge. Chaston was sentenced to six years in prison. His later appeal of the sentence was dismissed.
In 1989, aged 19, Chaston was serving an eight-year prison sentence, when he was brought to Christchurch Hospital for treatment.
Police told the Christchurch District Court that Chaston grabbed a doctor by the hair and held him, using a homemade knife that had been concealed. The doctor suffered a cut to his thumb.
The doctor escaped and a prison officer pushed Chaston against a wall. Chaston admitted attempting to escape from the hospital, but denied intentionally using the knife to hurt anyone.
Chaston also admitted assaulting a prison officer in 1989. He hit the officer three times in the face, knocking him unconscious.
It has been reported that Chaston was a former partner of prostitute Mellory Manning, 27, whose badly beaten and stabbed body was found in the Avon River on December 19, 2008.
The officer in charge of the Manning case, Detective Inspector Greg Williams, said Chaston was "not high on the list" of people of interest but would be spoken to by police to determine his movements.
Chaston also goes by the name Maniapoto Walker.
Fairfax has reported Chaston co-founded the white supremacist gang, the Fourth Reich.