The missing but not the forgotten

Three very different people spread across almost 40 years share a common, tragic bond: each has vanished virtually without trace somewhere in the Nelson region.

A tweed hat; a digital watch face; a mysterious entry in a Heaphy Track hut book. The sole clues left behind by three long-term missing people across the wider Nelson region reflect the widely differing identities, times and circumstances of their disappearances.

But for Nelson Search and Rescue assistant co-ordinator Sherp Tucker, there is one common thread: along with the recent disappearance of Nelson teen Leo Lipp-Neighbours, these are the haunting files that he's never had the satisfaction of solving over his long career in search and rescue.

The missing – Americans Ed Reynolds and Roselyn Tilbury, who vanished in the mountains almost four decades apart, and an elderly Kaiteriteri man, John Isinger – are loved ones Mr Tucker has never been able to reunite with their families.

"Quite honestly, the cases that you resolve come and go – the ones you don't resolve stick around," he says.

From an orderly Nelson office with numerous computers holding search information, Mr Tucker says he doesn't like the term cold case. For him, the files are anything but dead and buried. Any new information could open them up again.

There are, he says, families out there who still need answers.

February 14, 1998, is burnt into Mr Tucker's memory. Not for any romantic connotations of Valentine's Day, but because it was when 89-year-old John Isinger went for his daily walk from his Tapu Bay rest home, near Kaiteriteri, and never came back.

Mr Isinger was last seen at a bus shelter on the corner of Stephens Bay Rd and Kaiteriteri Rd at 2pm that day. Within hours of the retiree being reported missing, there were 150 to 200 people scouring the Kaiteriteri area, but to no avail.

For five days, searchers covered the Tapu Bay, Stephens Bay and Kaiteriteri areas, but the only trace of Mr Isinger was his tweed cheesecutter hat, found on a firebreak in the Little Kaiteriteri forest (now part of the new Kaiteriteri Mountain Bike Park).

Mr Isinger was short – about 150cm tall – and very short-sighted, and he walked with a definite shuffle, holding a tall driftwood stick in front of him.

"He used to shuffle-walk on the side of the road and use the stick to let him know where he was by the sound of the stones on the edge of the road," Mr Tucker says.

However, while his eyesight was not good, he was very mobile.

"It was quite common for John to go for a walk, and it was quite common for him to come home. There was no reason to think he was at risk."

Searchers thought Mr Isinger had dementia, but Mr Tucker says that wasn't the case. He did have a medical condition that made him disoriented from time to time.

With no clues to go on, friends of Mr Isinger held a memorial service for their missing friend and planted a cornus tree in his memory two months after his disappearance. He was declared dead at a coroner's inquest two years later.

This year, search and rescue revisited the Isinger case as a training exercise. The case will also be the subject of an episode in a new series of TV One show The Missing later this year.

Mr Tucker said the training exercise centred on the area where Mr Isinger's hat was found. He still believes Mr Isinger died within 200 metres of where it was found, but isn't surprised the new search failed to turn up any further clues.

The search area may not be at high altitude but it is "pretty rugged country", full of gorse and blackberry.

Searchers combed the area side by side in 1998 and found nothing. After 12 years of nature taking its toll, the chances of a new discovery are faint.

Like Mr Isinger, Roselyn Tilbury, 23, who disappeared from near the start of the Heaphy Track in March 1972, also vanished in a matter of hours.

Described at the time as something of a hippie, the young American was on the track with her Canadian boyfriend. The couple had been staying at a Marahau commune for a few weeks before embarking on their Heaphy tramp. She was ill-equipped and ill-dressed for the trip – after walking to Brown Hut, the first hut from the Collingwood end of the track, the couple spent much of the evening trying to repair Ms Tilbury's homemade knee-length calf leather moccasins, which were all but worn through.

They tried to attach spare rubber heels to the soles, and when that didn't work, put the rubber inside the moccasins.

The next morning, they headed off. They reportedly agreed that because Mr Tait was faster, he would go ahead and wait for Ms Tilbury. In one of the quirkier aspects of the case, he later told authorities that, as he waited, he took out the flute he was carrying and played it to pass the time, waiting for a rendezvous that never happened.

He eventually headed back to the hut, where he found a cryptic hut-book entry in Ms Tilbury's handwriting: "They'd be forgotten as soon as I made them."

Uncharacteristically, she left no indication of her intentions.

But it was two more days before Mr Tait walked off the track and raised the alarm. Mr Tucker says a huge search effort was put in, much of it in heavy rain, spread out over 12 days. Nothing was found except for a faint set of footprints in the Shakespeare Flat area.

Scott Bainbridge, who wrote about the Tilbury case in his book about missing people, Without Trace, says Ms Tilbury was from an affluent Los Angeles family, her parents living in the city of Anaheim. She married early, separated and "embraced the hippie lifestyle".

Mr Bainbridge says the Nelson CIB initially suspected Mr Tait murdered Ms Tilbury. Drops along the track were searched but no clues turned up.

The possibility was raised Ms Tilbury took a wrong turning to Shakespeare Flat and drowned crossing the Aorere River.

Afterwards, some of the searchers suspected something fishy had gone on and she had sneaked out of the country. However, checks showed she never left the country under her married or maiden names.

Mr Tucker also hints that he thinks the Tilbury case is unusual.

"I get a bit alarmed when you don't find anything, because of the skill of the searchers involved.

"If we find nothing and have good resources out there looking, you've got to say: `Is there anything to find?"'

In the small American town of Hanover, Pennsylvania, John Reynolds starts each day with the same routine. He turns on his computer, fires up the internet and heads straight to New Zealand news site Once there, he types in his son's name: Ed Reynolds.

He also searches under "Sherp Tucker" and Tasman police search and rescue manager "Inspector Hugh Flower".

He is looking for any new stories on his son, who disappeared last year, part-way through a much anticipated tramping holiday in New Zealand.

Ed was described as a passionate tramper – even, as Mr Tucker puts it, obsessive. The 39-year-old is said to have lost 30kg through his extensive hiking, and he thought nothing of walking for 12 hours or more a day. But he was no typical tramper, travelling ultra-light, with the emphasis on speed, carrying the bare minimum of gear and stripping right down what he did have. Even his watch had its strap and pins removed to lighten his load by a few more grams. Instead of tramping shoes, he wore expensive running shoes.

Ed had walked the Heaphy Track and his last email home painted the picture of someone itching to get into the high mountains. It tells of someone enjoying New Zealand, a traveller impressed with the kindness of Kiwis, and of a tramper who took his safety seriously.

He was last seen at the East Matakitaki hut in the Nelson Lakes National Park on February 26, 2009.

"Two fellows saw him walk out the door at 6.30am in the morning headed for the Three Tarn Pass," his father says. "That's the last anyone saw of him."

What was normally considered a two or three-day trip, he planned to do in one.

After Ed missed his scheduled flight back to the States, Mr Reynolds and his wife, Linda, contacted New Zealand police and a search was launched.

The search initially focused on the East Matakitaki area after it was established from hut book records this was where he was last seen. No sign of Ed was found.

But Mr Tucker says he is "pretty sure" that a tramper who asked a Glenroy Valley farmer for directions was Ed.

The tramper, whom the farmer described as being "pretty annoyed", asked for directions to get to East Matakitaki Valley.

If this was Mr Reynolds, he was days off-route, heading in the wrong direction with a rugged mountain range between him and where he wanted to go.

Armed with this possible sighting, search crews widened their search and a footprint was found at a mountain creek near the headwaters of the Glenroy River; it proved to be an exact match with a pair of shoes Mr Reynolds had left with friends in Auckland, identical to those he was wearing in the South Island.

Further extensive searching failed to find any further traces.

Mr Reynolds says he was ready to accept his son was missing in the mountains until a strange twist late last year. A father walking in the area with his children found a gold coin on the ground. His children started scrabbling, looking for more money, and found instead a strapless digital watch. Both Mr Tucker and John Reynolds believe it was Ed's.

"It was basically a miracle – other than finding Ed, it was the next best thing," Mr Reynolds says.

It suggests a scenario of Ed, having initially been far off course, getting back on track and making it to the East Matakitaki route.

"It takes us from one side of the mountain to the other side of the mountain and an hour-and-a-half from what his destination was," Mr Tucker says.

The discovery gave the family hope that further clues to what had happened to him, or even his body, would be found.

But further searching has found nothing, and really, Mr Reynolds says, rather than providing answers, the watch find has only widened the mystery.

It was easier to accept Ed was lost in the rugged mountains "and now we don't really know where in the hell he is", Mr Reynolds says. After all, the watch was found so close to the end of a track, it is possible Ed made it out. But what then?

Was he picked up by a hitchhiker? Was he hit by a car in the dark and knocked into a ditch? His father has kicked around numerous scenarios.

He now believes that Ed, anxious at being behind schedule, made it off the track and headed straight towards his next destination, Arthur's Pass.

Until further clues turn up, his son's disappearance remains devastating and a "bang-on mystery".

Mr Tucker also believes it's possible Ed made it off the track. But Ed Reynolds' approach to tramping could have contributed to his demise.

"He didn't have that much for what I consider for safe tramping; he was certainly on the edge. If you push yourself to the limits, when something does go wrong, it's a lot easier for things to overtake you."

As for Mr Reynolds, faced with the grimmest mystery about what might have become of his son, "it's like a real deep wound", he says.

He asks for time to compose himself; then he finishes: "It's like there's a splinter in there and it kind of scabs over... but until you get closure, it is never going to close up."

The Nelson Mail