OPINION: Emmett Mitten always believed he knew who murdered hitch-hiker Jennifer Mary Beard, raped and strangled to death under the Haast River Bridge in January 1970.
The only problem for the then police inspector was that he couldn't prove it.
Jenny Beard was a Tasmanian school teacher in New Zealand on holiday, hitching rides down the West Coast and across to Milford where she planned to meet up with her boyfriend when she disappeared and Mitten, who eventually retired from the police force as an assistant commissioner, became convinced her killer was Timaru man Gordon Bray, who was known to have been driving through the area at the time she disappeared.
Bray was never charged, police legal advisers deciding that while a great deal of circumstantial evidence pointing to him had been gathered it was not enough to take before a jury.
Jenny Beard's murder, and that of Mona Blades, a Hamilton teenager who disappeared while hitch-hiking to Hastings in 1975, are still officially unsolved, but those involved in the violent deaths of eight other people killed while thumbing rides on New Zealand roads in the past 40 years have all ended up in prison.
Their deaths have been brought back into the public eye again this week by coroner Richard McElrea when he released his finding into the death of Czech tourist Dagmar Pytlickova, killed during a particularly gruesome sex attack in a backblocks forest area near Waimate in May last year.
Mr McElrea's finding was, if not exactly routine, not a surprise - the killer, Jason Frandi, was found dead near his victim after taking his own life. However, the coroner went on to urge hitch-hikers to refuse offers of rides from people they did not know and that is a view not likely to be shared by the many thousands of (mostly young) tourists and other travellers who solicit rides on our roads every year.
Mr McElrea was endorsing a statement at the inquest by Inspector Dave Gaskin that "for your own safety hitch-hiking or accepting rides from people you don't know is not recommended". While there was no official police policy on hitching, police strongly advised members of the public and overseas visitors to be cautious and never travel alone, he said.
Taking care is good, sensible advice, but to suggest the dangers of accepting rides from strangers is so great people should not take that risk appears to be a serious over- reaction.
Ten murders of hitch-hikers in 40 years is not a statistic that we can be proud of but it needs to be seen in the context that thousands, tens of thousands of back-packing tourists are seen with their thumbs out on our roads every year and few New Zealand drivers will not have stopped to pick them up and then delivered them to their intended destinations in perfect safety.
It has become an important part of the travelling experience for many visitors, a way to mix with typical Kiwis outside of the more artificial environments of the main tourist centres. And many Kiwis will stop to give a ride to them because we, great overseas travellers ourselves, are often returning similar favours given to us when we were on our own great OE.
Mr McElrea's advice on the need to be careful is sensible and it is followed every day, not just by hitchers but by local drivers as they approach each other along the road. Common sense tells both there are some characters who should be avoided.
But stopping the practice altogether? Tourists on New Zealand roads are more likely to be in danger travelling in buses.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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