Swedish murders: Clothing found near murder site sparks renewed interest in case
To get to Crosbie's Clearing in the Coromandel Ranges you have to hike uphill for at least four hours along a scraggly, steep track through dense native bush.
When the track is not going uphill it is either a swampy rut or a narrow animal-sized trail winding around the edge of cliffs. Sometimes it disappears altogether and you just have to guess where it goes next and hope for the best.
It is not for amateurs.
Knee-deep in mud, I look back through the driving rain at photographer Dominico Zapata struggling under the weight of all his camera equipment and wonder how long until we give up.
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We're an hour in. We are most definitely amateurs.
It is in this rugged, isolated native bush that David Tamihere raped and killed two young Swedish backpackers in early April 1989, according to police evidence presented to his trial.
The disappearance of Sven Urban Hoglin, 23, and Heidi Paakkonen, 21, at the end of the Tararu Stream road north of Thames is fraught with many unanswered questions.
The investigation sparked one of New Zealand's largest ever search and rescue attempts. An unusually large number of eyewitnesses also came forward with vastly conflicting accounts.
Heidi's body has never been found.
Nothing much has changed in the Coromandel when it comes to the "Swedish case". To this day locals still try to string together theories from the enormous wealth of evidence and local rumours.
So when experienced bushman Alan Ford, who has plied his trade in the area for decades, roamed through a commercial forest and stumbled across a plastic bag with decaying women's leggings inside, he had just one thought: Heidi.
"Where it was in the forest attracted my attention because it was unusual to be here," says Ford.
"I went to go and pull it out and it was hard to pull. It was sort of bound to the ground. I pulled it out and it had one knot tied on the top.
"So I thought 's..., I wonder what's in here'. I opened the top and there was some form of clothing in there. I carefully took it out and tried to unroll it to actually identify what it was," he says.
In the bag Ford found three pairs of "really, really old" leggings in a fragile state. Two pairs were black and one was white. The white leggings had two blue socks sewn on to the bottom with red shoelaces. They also had four red straps sewn on to the hem in the form of suspenders.
"I felt really eerie. I was quite uneasy actually. You don't come across female leggings in a plastic bag in the forest very often do you," he says.
Ford took the bag into the Whangamata police station on May 5.
Apart from being concerned about the isolated nature of the bag, in an area which the public rarely used, Ford was aware that the bag was only 15 kilometres from where Urban's body was found in 1991.
Another three plastic bags containing Heidi's clothing, sorted by type, had been found near where the Swedes were last seen in 1989, on the Tararu track.
On June 26, almost two months later, Ford emailed the constable he had originally dealt with. That constable emailed back that day, saying that his superior had "no interest in the items" and that they wouldn't be testing them.
The constable also said that the police would destroy the items if Ford did not want them. If Ford wanted them back he needed to say so.
Ford emailed him back the next day to say that he did want them back, not satisfied that they had been properly tested. He told the constable when he would be in town next, to pick them up.
"I would have accepted if the police could have done forensic examinations, aged them properly, and came up with nothing. I would have been satisfied, walked away and got on with my life," Ford says.
Ford turned up to the police station on July 7 and was shocked to be told that the items had been destroyed – on June 9, a month before the constable had indicated by email that the items still existed.
"Honestly I was shocked. They told me to come and pick it up and they'd been destroyed for four weeks."
Police say they "visually examined" the items and ruled them out. They say a specialist with over 15 years' experience concluded the items were just over 10 years old.
"The items were examined by a specialist scene of crime officer and were deemed not old enough to be relevant to the case in question.
"Senior members of CIB also looked into whether or not the items could be linked to any investigation, recent or historic and were satisfied that these items were not of interest and of no evidential value," police say.
Police declined to comment any further on how they were able to visually determine whether clothing protected by a plastic bag was 10 or 28 years old.
They say the mix-up over the date of destruction was due to "miscommunication" between staff at the station.
Dr Peter Cropp, one of New Zealand's top forensic scientists with a long history as an expert witness in criminal trials for the police, thinks the way police handled the clothing is "appalling".
"That is just so out of order. It's just laziness.
"I think they should never have destroyed it."
He says he wasn't aware of any test where the age of clothing items could be determined just by looking at them, if there were no obvious indications of age such as brand labels.
Police are supposed to hold on to samples so that they can be checked in the future, Cropp explained.
"It's supposed to be open for people to re-check those samples.
"If their lab notes are requested they have to be made available for people to check them."
Additionally, Stuff has obtained a report from an expert closely associated with the case at the time which slams the police handling of the Ford material as "inappropriate" and stating that it should not have been destroyed.
The report also states that it still would have been possible to locate DNA on the clothing and that the clothing should have been sent to forensics experts for proper examination.
It says Ford's decision to hand in the clothing was the "appropriate" course of action, one which could have been "very important" to the investigation.
That expert cannot be named because of their involvement with the case at the time.
The crime is still a current affair. At the end of this month, Tamihere will attempt to see one of the secret prison witnesses who testified against him in the 1990 trial charged with perjury.
Ford's find would throw another spanner in the works of a case which already makes little sense. The police account says the murders took place near Crosbie's. Heidi's folded jacket was deliberately placed behind a mound two hours down the track. Other items were found at the beginning of the track. Urban's body was found 75km away.
Is it possible that that Heidi ended up somewhere else, like the Whangamata peninsula?
In a 1994 interview, four years after the trial, the former head of the police inquiry, John Hughes, says he thought that Tamihere had somehow led the couple to the Parakiwai area, where Urban was found, in their Subaru.
He then murdered Urban up the Parakiwai and then drove Heidi away from the area.
Sticking with the original police line from the trial, Hughes says he thought they then drove back to Tararu Creek Rd where he murdered Heidi somewhere in the area.
Searches of the Tararu area as well as the Parakiwai area have failed to find Heidi's body.
The road leading down the Whangamata Peninsula has extra significance. Tamihere had to travel along north along State Highway 25 to get the Subaru back to Tararu where it was next spotted on April 10 1989.
Bypassing Whangamata township, the Whangamata Peninsula Rd is the first uninhabited, accessible road off the main road north of where Urban was murdered – as it was in 1989.
The only place to commit a rape and murder without being spotted or heard would have been an uninhabited, accessible road.
Almost three decades on, exactly what happened remains unresolved. No police officer, judge, lawyer or member of the public have been able to connect the dots. Tamihere won't explain what happened, because he maintains he is innocent.
'HE'S UNDER THE NIKAUS'
Crosbie's Clearing, one of the most isolated places in the Coromandel, is tremendously difficult to reach.
Despite constantly thinking about turning back, Dominico and I slog on, taking frequent breaks. Having climbed to the top of a ridge, we reach a spot called the Jam Tins where three tracks intersect.
It was just 20 minutes downhill from the Jam Tins where Graeme Pearce found Heidi's distinctive jacket neatly folded behind a mound. It's a find that has bugged everyone who has read about the case since.
Pearce had been helping with the search and rescue efforts following the couple's disappearance but took a break one weekend for his son's 21st birthday party.
"In the week after that my wife said I was like a bear with a sore head because I was bugged. Maybe it was just a guilt complex because I hadn't been up there with the boys searching but I decided I needed to go."
So he headed up by himself the next weekend, by now late July 1989, to have a look.
"So on the way in I looked on the left-hand side and on the way out I looked on the left-hand side and getting around half past three I was starting to get a bit edgy about it all because there was an All Blacks game on TV.
"I came to this little sort of animal trail and walked around it, looked down the bank, ah nothing there and pushed away and as I turned here was the jacket just sitting there, neatly folded. But it was off the track, you couldn't see it from the track."
Other items of Heidi's clothing had been found in plastic bags which appeared to be thrown from the track by whoever had taken her backpack. So Pearce and some detectives went back up the trail and tried to throw the jacket from the track, folded like it had been found. It didn't work. Someone had deliberately gone off the track and placed the item there.
Pearce says people in the area are still looking for Heidi.
"You don't go up there for a daily walk. You're always going that little bit off-trail to have a little nosey just in case. I think it will always be there, I don't think the town will ever forget about it. It's almost like it's like a little bit of a blight on us that we didn't find it," he says.
After hours of tramping, I think I've found the spot. Pearce told me he found the jacket twenty minutes down the track from the Jam Tins. I counted about thirty minutes down - Pearce was much fitter at the time than I am now.
There is a noticeable mound, but only a vague sign of an animal track. In 28 years the whole makeup of the area might have changed. Behind the mound, dense black vines crowd the space and make it impassable.
At the Jam Tins a Department of Conservation sign says Crosbie's is just over an hour away. Delighted, we churn on, convinced the worst is over.
It takes us another two hours. The parts that aren't rocky steep inclines are ankle-deep mud at best and knee-deep at worst.
Just when you think you can't go any higher you finally see the clearing peering through the trees at the very top of an exposed knoll.
We emerge facing east. Ahead of us in the far distance, appearing and disappearing behind fast, swirling mist and rain, are what appear to be the coastal towns of Pauanui and Tairua. Closer still, and towards the south-east, are the Pinnacles and Table Mountain, immensely steep pillars of rock emerging from the forest. It doesn't look like New Zealand.
In every direction there is thick native forest and fast-moving weather. If anything went wrong up here, we would have to hike at least four hours to reach anything resembling civilisation. The feeling of isolation is palpable.
Unbelievably, people have tried to farm this land despite its immense isolation. People finally gave up in the 1960s and all but the clearing has been reclaimed by native bush.
During the 1980s, Tamihere's tent was spotted up here multiple times by trampers. He was living here intermittently while on the run from the police after ditching bail on a rape charge.
Tamihere may have lived here but Crosbie's turned out to be a red herring.
Ten months after Tamihere was sentenced, Urban's body was discovered by pig hunters on the other side of the Coromandel Peninsula in the Parakiwai valley. It's 75 kilometres by road from the Tararu Stream carpark where the Swedes were supposedly last seen.
Only a skeleton and fragments of clothing remained. Pathologists at the time said cuts to the clothing and the skeleton showed signs of multiple stab wounds.
Forester Lyall Bowen, now in his seventies, has been working the Parakiwai Quarry forestry block for decades and was on site at the time of the disappearance.
It is a modern forestry site just like any other, located just a 10-minute drive south of Whangamata.
He leads us to the site where Urban's body was found. It's not accessible to the public – the land is owned by the forestry company that Bowen works for. We are the first people he has taken to the site.
Off an outlying forestry road lies a small clearing. Beyond that, a thick nikau grove. Within, a rough stone plinth with the word 'Sven' hand-carved onto it (Sven was Urban's first name).
Bowen comes up to the site periodically to tidy it up.
"He's under the nikaus which is good. It is a beautiful area.
"It has just been forgotten now. I've got to come back and clean it up more," he says.
But that's not the only reason Bowen comes back. He is convinced Heidi is still in the Parakiwai area.
Bowen has encountered dead bodies several times before in the forest and knows the distinctive smell. Several locals told us during our time there that the forests of Coromandel are popular suicide spots.
He recalls a time two weeks after the weekend the Swedes are supposed to have disappeared when he thought he smelt a dead body in the forest. The spot he is talking about is just a 10-minute walk away from where Urban's body would eventually be found. It is an area surrounded by creeks and swamps.
"My brother got out to open the gate and he said 'jeez, there's something dead here'. The smell was pretty potent.
"We had a good look round, couldn't spot anything. I don't think this area was fully checked out with the police, it would have been very, very hard for them to actually find remains," he says.
A heavy layer of pine needles covers everything on the forest floor like a thick carpet, which only gets thicker with age.
Bowen mentioned that a strange incident back then made him think Heidi was in the area.
"One reason I keep coming back here is many years ago I was unlocking a gate miles from here and an old lady was parked and got out and she walked over and says to me 'You'll find her near water'."
"It took a few days to sink in what she was talking about because when I asked what she meant she just walked away and got back in her car."
This is a case that does not go away.
AN ENDURING MYSTERY
Even today, the whereabouts of Heidi Paakkonen is still a hot topic of conversation in the Coromandel.
One woman we talk to in a Thames bookstore who covered the case at the time as a TV reporter says she was told the Mongrel Mob were behind it.
Another story we hear is that Heidi is still living in the bush with two children. A seemingly credible witness swore years later she had seen Heidi on Kawau Island.
The Junction Hotel in Thames, down a side street out the back of an old colonial building, is humming on a Monday night – fairly unusual for a provincial New Zealand town.
There we hear multiple stories. One older gentlemen remembers when Tamihere used to come in and drink now and again whenever he came down from Crosbie's Clearing. Then he would head back into the hills.
Another man with a grey ponytail tells us a convincing story of how it wasn't Tamihere at all, but three brothers who have never been caught.
Police also thought they knew what happened when they charged Tamihere, already a convicted rapist and killer by this time, with the Swedes' deaths in October 1989.
During the 1990 trial, one so graphic the details have still not been fully publicised, police painted a picture of Tamihere raping and murdering both Heidi and Urban somewhere in the Crosbie's Clearing area.
After the trial Tamihere was sentenced to life imprisonment. He finished his sentence in 2010. Tamihere insists to this day that he is innocent.
- Sunday Star Times