New clues give life to cold case murder

NEW INFO: The prime suspect for the murder of Jennifer Beard was Gordon Bray.
NEW INFO: The prime suspect for the murder of Jennifer Beard was Gordon Bray.

Dunedin police will review one of New Zealand's most notorious cold case murders after a new witness has come forward 43 years later.

The killer's car registration number may have been uncovered by Oamaru private investigator Cindy Roberts, who is making a film about the 1969 murder of Welsh teacher Jennifer Beard.

Beard, 25, disappeared while hitchhiking down the West Coast on New Year's Eve on her way to meet her fiance. Her body was found under the Haast River Bridge 19 days later, sparking the country's biggest manhunt at the time.

Roberts said she had spoken with a former Auckland man who claimed he saw a middle-aged man with a young attractive woman in a Vauxhall car near the bridge on December 31, recalling the car's registration number started with AD.

Police had never interviewed him but his recollections matched other witnesses' statements, Roberts said.

Detective Mark Lodge, who is in charge of the file, told Sunday Star-Times he would review the file in the New Year in light of the man's claims and consider whether to interview him.

"We definitely will look into it." The file had never been closed but "with the passage of time, it's even more remote of it being solved", he said.

The 75-year-old man, who declined to be named, said he travelled down the West Coast with his wife and three young children in a Bedford bus for the 1969 Christmas holidays.

They pulled off on to a remote side road by Haast River Bridge for a lunch break on New Year's Eve and drove past the pair sitting talking in a beaten-up Vauxhall Velox car.

They joked about the car's registration plates starting with AD followed by three numbers, possibly 936 "or something like that". "We said at least it was an AD not a BC, After Death not Before Christ, because it was so old, it was more BC." He recalled the man was about 50, overweight and balding.

"We laughed at how he was doing all right for himself having a young woman like that. It wasn't so amazing at all on reflection.

"He must have been on the verge of killing her. He probably killed her within minutes. We just happened to be Johnny on the spot in a remote spot."

Back then, the man, who now lives in Sydney, ran a car wrecking yard in Auckland and was certain the car was a Vauxhall Velox, probably an EIP series. These were made between 1951 and 1955.

"I probably owned two or three Veloxs at the time and have had dozens." Their family continued their holiday but phoned police when they heard about the murder some months later.

A woman took his call and said police would contact him to discuss what he saw but never did.

While his memory of the car's colour was vague, he told his sister, Beverley Sinclair, what he saw at the time.

"He said the car was blue initially but later he thought it might have been two-toned blue and green," Sinclair, 77, said.

She remembered him noting its registration started with AD.

The key suspect, Timaru truck driver Gordon Bray, maintained his innocence until he died aged 83 years in 2003 and was never charged.

He had owned a blue Vauxhall Velox, was on the West Coast at the time and a pair of trousers found 100 metres from Beard's body three days after its discovery contained a receipt with his name.

Roberts said she began probing the murder about three years ago and was amazed at the fresh information she had uncovered. An ex-nurse had contacted her in recent weeks to claim police committed a Fox Glacier man to Hokitika's Seaview Hospital for mentally-ill people in 1970, who had confessed to killing Beard.

Roberts' film will premier ahead of the Hokitika Wildfoods Festival next March.

Sunday Star Times