Gold miner Ian White says that in the old days, he would have been within his rights to shoot Hugh McAllister. "He's a likeable old bugger, but he's a conman," says White, whose mining arrangement with McAllister "turned to custard" a year or so before McAllister vanished without trace.
White was working McAllister's claim on the Greenstone River near Kumara on a "tribute" basis, which means White ran the claim for him and paid him a royalty of about 10 per cent. Things had been going well, but then the gold started drying up and White says McAllister accused him of taking more than he was declaring.
"He just got greedier and greedier and more senile. He washed us up a couple of times. That means he took the gold off the screens without telling us. He took about $60,000 worth. He went in there with his loader and bucket and probably spent all night washing the screen up. It's just straight-out theft.
"There's an old gold mining law that if you find someone pulling your gold out of your [screen] you could shoot them. So I could of shot him and tested this law, but I'm not like that," says White, laughing.
He and his son have been interviewed by detectives – "they had a couple of goes at me and a couple at Brent" – and attracted more attention when they rang 111 in March to say Brent had spotted McAllister driving across a bridge over the Taramakau River near Kumara in a rental car. By the time police arrived the vehicle was long gone.
White says he has no reason to want McAllister dead. He believes he is hiding "somewhere down south. He's done a runner. He owed that much money, that he couldn't get out of it, that's my theory".
Fantastic bloke or devious bastard. Murdered and buried under his gold tailings or hiding to escape his debts? It depends who you talk to. McAllister was last seen leaving his claim, an easy 5km drive from the house he rented in Kumara, on January 21, 2010. Six days later his battered ute was found on a side track off Kumara-Inchbonnie Rd, a kilometre or so from the mine, the $15,000 jar of gold he always hid in the vehicle still behind the seat.
Extensive searches of the area over the past two years have found neither hide nor hair of him. His mates are unequivocal: he's been bumped off.
"Nothing's gonna bring Hughey back, he's gone," says "Crazy Joe" Gillman, so named because of the conditions he used to brave when he was a trawler fisherman. "Hughey didn't leave Kumara, he's in the ground down there."
He notes that the ute was parked hard up against a gorse bush on the driver's side. "He didn't put that vehicle there. I mean, f---, Hughey wouldn't park it right up against a gorse bush."
McAllister, a widower, would visit Gillman at his home in Stillwater almost every day. They'd have a coffee or a beer and listen to country music. "We had a lot in common with bulldozers and machinery. I wouldn't be keen to do business with him though – he was tricky enough."
Gillman reckons someone in the mining industry knows what happened. "Hughey's either seen something he shouldn't have seen, or taken something he shouldn't have taken or done some deal he shouldn't have done. Maybe he found someone pinching gold. He's at the bottom of a deep hole."
Gold miner Craig Hopper also believes his mate was murdered.
"He's definitely been done in. When you owe people money and you're after people for money – not 50 bucks – you just don't know. No-one knows if that's the reason. I've got my suspicions."
Hopper says McAllister has wrongly been described as a recreational miner. "The police said he was hobby mining but they didn't know what they were talking about. He had half a million bucks worth of gear in there." He says there is still good money to be made "stripping" – sifting through the gravel that ended up in the river after the surrounding hills were sluiced during the gold rush in the 1870s.
There are 214 permits for gold mining on the Coast, of which 99 are held by individuals. It is understood the best week McAllister's Greenstone claim ever had delivered 45 ounces, about $90,000 at today's rates.
But Hopper says the hours are long and the overheads high. "It's a lot of hard work."
He scoffs at suggestions McAllister may have fallen down an old mine shaft. His claim was in the middle of the riverbed and he could drive right up to it. Sure there was thick bush on either side, he says, but McAllister was a big guy, with a "decent guts" on him, and wouldn't have gone far from his ute. "He wasn't the sort of guy who'd go wandering too far. He was a big guy and he was 70 years old. He used to like his food – he wouldn't have been far away from a pie."
McAllister was on the West Coast for about four years, having spent most of his life in Hawke's Bay. He helped build the breakwater at the Napier port with his contracting business, and bought and sold heavy machinery here and in Australia, as well as operating a tin mine at Townsville. His daughter, Brenda Wilkinson of Brisbane, says he saw gold mining as a lifestyle. "It was not a big money thing to him, it enabled him to live where he wanted and also to travel to see family," she says.
She last saw him when he visited just before his disappearance, to celebrate his granddaughter's 18th birthday. "It was fancy dress, and he came as a redback spider. His frame of mind was good."
Malcolm Robin, who was working on McAllister's claim when he disappeared and was one of the last to see him, says things were looking up after a major setback about a year earlier, when McAllister's $300,000 gold screen rolled in the river and was badly damaged. "He was pretty disheartened, I think he thought it might have been sabotage."
Robin, who has an engineering business at Stillwater, agreed to repair the plant as part of his deal to work the claim.
"Things were working out well for him finally. The plant was going again, it was his pride and joy." Robin says there was nothing unusual about the last day McAllister was seen. He'd been helping to drive diggers, and then just up and left as he always did. No-one even knew he was missing until several days later.
"I think he might have come to an unfortunate accident. The river was running a bit fresh that day, we had to pull one of the diggers out. It's a real mystery really, I feel sorry for his family."
Some in Kumara have pointed the finger at a couple of the workers who'd been employed on the claim. One had criminal convictions, they say, and the other was a known "gold thief". The partner of one of the men says it did seem as if police were focusing on him. There was a misunderstanding about his firearms and whether they were licensed or not, but he would never have done anything to harm McAllister, she says.
Police inquiries have reached the big smoke, an Auckland detective twice interviewing digger driver Graham Smith. Shortly before McAllister disappeared, Smith had filed papers in the High Court at Greymouth to have him declared bankrupt over a $140,000 debt.
"His kid said I'd want to kill him – I didn't want to kill him, I just wanted 140,000 bucks," Smith says. He had invested $100,000 in McAllister's company, Goldsouth, to develop a lucrative claim on the Mikonui River near Ross, but McAllister allegedly spent the money elsewhere and never mined the claim. "He ran away with my money."
Shortly before he disappeared, Smith says, McAllister transferred all of his shares to a family member, leaving Smith with no way of claiming his debt, which had climbed to $140,000 with interest. He believes if McAllister had fronted in court, "the whole thing would have blown open – I would have been left with the mine probably. It's a rich hunk of dirt he's got there".
Smith describes McAllister as a "devious bastard" and thinks he has gone into hiding to avoid him.
White agrees that McAllister had no scruples.
The first time he met McAllister was at Notown, near Greymouth. He'd found a digger bucket that he wanted to remove but McAllister arrived and claimed it was his. White agreed to pay him for it, but found out a long time later that it wasn't McAllister's at all. It had been reported stolen.
After he pulled his equipment out of McAllister's claim following their dispute, White says McAllister presented him with written demands for $600,000, supposedly for unpaid royalties.
McAllister also blamed him when his screening machine rolled over, supposedly for not repairing it properly after an earlier incident.
But the screen had been listing for days, anyone could see it was going to tip it over, and McAllister did nothing about it, White says.
That didn't stop him making an insurance claim. "Everywhere he's been he claims on insurance. How they haven't nailed him before is beyond me."
A mate of McAllister's, gold miner Graham Jacobs, known as "Jake", says there was a story doing the rounds that McAllister was prosecuted for insurance fraud in Australia, after burying a bulldozer and reporting it stolen.
Jacobs says McAllister was involved in million-dollar deals, was a "large-scale entrepreneur" and had made enemies.
"He told me the week before he went missing, he said `Jake, if I owed any more money, I'd owe all New Zealand."'
Detective Paul Heathcote of Nelson plays down the significance of McAllister's financial disputes.
"People were chasing him for money, obviously. From our inquiries we've not been able to establish any link between that and the disappearance.
"We've got a very open mind. The scenarios are that he's met with foul play, he's had an accident or he's left the area voluntarily. We can't substantiate any one of those theories over another."
"I can never decide if he's dead or alive," says Jackie Adams, a detective sergeant from Greymouth who worked the case early on. "One week I would think one thing and the next I'd think something else. I've never had one like this before... this one's just a bit strange."
Adams says McAllister was a "wheeler dealer. He's been involved in a number of different things". There were allegations of tax dodging – "that what was coming out of the ground wasn't what was being put forward for tax purposes".
Everyone in Kumara had an opinion on him, Adams says. No one sat on the fence.
"Some people think he was the best thing, a fantastic fella, really nice, and there's others who think he was Satan incarnate."
If he was murdered, Adams says, it would have been a simple thing to dispose of the body.
"Those diggers they use might move 20-30 tonnes a day of gravel... so if you wanted to get rid of somebody it would be very easy. It would take you 30 seconds to dig a 10-feet deep hole."
McAllister's son, Mathew, has taken over his claim and it is understood to be doing well. He declined to be interviewed for this article. The family has held back from doing media interviews so as not to antagonise Kumara people, but they believe their father was murdered and are offering a $25,000 reward for information.
"He may have had an accident, however the river was searched, the area he was working was searched and nothing has been found," says Brenda Wilkinson. "Considering that police have exhausted all inquiries along those lines, and trying to obtain false credentials to go overseas is extremely hard, and Hugh's age, the family believe foul play to be the most likely cause of his disappearance."
Anyone with information should contact Crimestoppers on 0800555111.
January 21, 2010: Hugh McAllister last seen at his claim on the Greenstone River, 5km from Kumara.
January 22: Friend Bernie Kaye arrives from Hawke's Bay and finds no sign of McAllister. His wallet, full of cash, and phone are found at his home.
January 26: Police alerted.
January 27: McAllister's ute, with $15,000 of gold inside, found on a side track near the mine. Large search begins.
February 1: Police scale back search. Family begins their own search, including using helicopters. They search for several weeks.
July: Nelson police take over inquiry, and send a team of detectives to Kumara.
January, 2011: Police return to area for a one-year review.
March, 2012: Police descend on area after reported sighting of McAllister. Police also excavate an area after a digger driver reports a "funny smell". Nothing is found.
April, 2012: Five Nelson detectives head back to the Coast to have another go at cracking the case.
June 12, 2012: Family, through Crimestoppers, announces a $25,000 reward for information. The money was put up by a friend.
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