mysterious disappearance in New Zealand
Kirsty shortly before her death.
Kirsty Marianne Bentley
(1983-01-18)18 January 1983
Christchurch, New Zealand
|Died||31 December 1998(1998-12-31) (aged 15)|
Canterbury, New Zealand
|Cause of death||blunt force trauma|
|Body discovered||17 January 1999|
Kirsty Marianne Bentley was a teenager living in Ashburton, New Zealand, who went missing while walking her family dog on the afternoon of 31 December 1998. After an extensive search lasting several weeks, her body was found in dense scrub approximately 40 km away. Police consider the case to be a homicide, and it remains one of the highest-profile unsolved murders in New Zealand.
Kirsty Marianne Bentley was born on 18 January 1983 at the Christchurch Women's Hospital. She was the second child of her parents, Jill and Sidney Bentley; she had an older brother John.
Bentley was by all accounts a normal teenager. Her mother has described her as vibrant, honest and compassionate. She was confident and direct with people she knew, but could be shy and reserved with those she did not. Bentley had a strong creative streak that she expressed through drama classes and poetry. She attended Ashburton College, and at school she was well liked and had a close-knit friend group. She had recently begun dating a local boy from one of her classes.
On the day of her disappearance, Bentley met a friend at the Ashburton library at around 10:30am on 31 December 1998. After doing some shopping, they had lunch at McDonald's around midday.: 16 Bentley was dropped off at her home by her friend's sister at around 2:30pm.: 20
After returning home, her brother John told her that her boyfriend had called and left a message, asking her to call him back. Phone records show she made a call to her boyfriend at 2:38pm,: 231 but he wasn't there so she left a message asking him to call her back.
From here, it appears Bentley decided to take the family's black Labrador dog, Abby, for a walk. This was not unusual for Bentley; she often took the dog for a walk to pass the time. John did not hear her leaving the house.: 232 A neighbour witnessed her walking by his house with the dog at 3:05pm,: 233 but from this point on the exact timeline of what happened to her cannot be clearly established.
Bentley's boyfriend called back at 4:30pm,: 19  and at this time John noticed his sister was still absent. When his mother, Jill, returned home from work at around 5:15pm,: 13 he immediately told her Bentley had not come home. After calling Bentley's boyfriend to confirm he did not know where Kirsty was, Jill conducted the first search, by walking the route Bentley would normally take down to the Ashburton River. However, she was becoming increasingly anxious and soon decided to turn back.
After returning to the house, she and John agreed to wait until 6pm before conducting another search, in case Kirsty came home of her own accord. John left to search the dog walking route just before 6pm, and shortly afterwards Kirsty's father, Sid, returned home. When he was told Kirsty was missing, he immediately notified police.: 22 
After Police became involved the search rapidly grew more intense throughout the evening, with a mixture of police staff, family members and friends canvassing the area looking for Bentley. This first search continued through the entire night. Nothing was found.: 6
The official Search and Rescue operation began at 8am the next day. At around 10am, the family dog, Abby, was found tied to a tree in a patch of dense foliage beside the Ashburton River,: 7 close to Robilliard Park.: 34 The general area had been searched the previous night, but the dog had not been found; the dense foliage means it is possible she was missed during this search. The dog was found tied to a tree with a lead of the same type that the family owned, however the family initially believed the lead did not belong to them.: 55
Nearby two items of clothing, underwear and boxer shorts, were found.: 36 These were later confirmed to belong to Bentley.: 8 
Over the next 16 days, police and volunteers meticulously searched the Ashburton area of Canterbury. Initially the search was focused on the Ashburton township but it expanded out to cover a much larger area of Canterbury. The New Zealand Army sent troops from Burnham Military Camp to help in the effort also.
On 17 January, two men in the Camp Gully area of Rakaia, roughly 40 km away from Ashburton, found a badly decomposed human body lying in a patch of overgrown scrub and planted pine. The body was later confirmed to be Bentley's.
The body was lying at the bottom of a steep embankment,: 9  covered in a thin layer of branches and leaves.: 9 She had been placed in the fetal position and was fully clothed in what she had last been seen wearing, with the exception of the underwear that had previously been found at the scene of her disappearance.: 10  A large paddock was at the top of an embankment above her, and the location was close to State Highway 72, part of the Inland Scenic Route.
The area she was found is known for being used by illegal cannabis growers, and the men who found her were out looking for a cannabis patch. Initially they were reluctant to contact police, but decided the discovery was too important not to report.: 83
After the discovery, Police closed the scene and ordered a no-fly zone over the area as they conducted their investigation.: 80 They conducted an extensive scene examination over several days, and took plaster casts of tire tracks in the area.
It was the height of summer, and so Bentley's body was in an advanced state of decomposition.: 9 She was recovered and transported to Christchurch Hospital where a post-mortem was conducted.: 11  It took three days before dental records were used to formally identify the body.: 81,85 : 12
Bentley was killed by blunt force trauma to the right-side of the back of her head. The blow or blows was inflicted with enough force to severely fracture her skull. The pathologist determined she would have died shortly after the wound was inflicted.: 11 Police initially withheld her cause of death from the public for operational reasons. The pathologist believed she was killed soon after she went missing, and that is was likely that she was placed in the Camp Gully area the same night, based on an examination of her stomach contents and the state of her body.: 16
Police asked for help from the public regarding vehicles that may have been seen in the area at the time. They also asked for cannabis growers to come forward if they had seen anything. These calls to the public did not reveal anything useful.
A funeral for Bentley was held at St Stephen's Anglican Church in Ashburton on 25 January 1999. Between 500 and 700 people attended.: 100 Bentley's body was cremated, and her ashes sealed in a steel urn. The urn was buried in a specially planted memorial garden at the family home. After Sid's death in 2015, the ashes were transferred to Bentley's mother, Jill.
Media coverage of the case was extensive, making it one of the most high-profile unsolved crimes in New Zealand history. At the time, all major news outlets in New Zealand closely followed the case. The intensity of the coverage was both a help and a hindrance to the investigation. For instance, the men who found her body cited seeing Bentley's mother on evening news television broadcasts as the reason they had decided to come forward, despite the fact they were engaged in an illegal activity when they found her.: 83
However, the relationship between the media and the police and family was also strained at times.: 134-139 Decisions by media to publish reports that Bentley's body had been discovered before she had been formally identified were publicly criticised by police. In addition, the family expressed distress at the pressure they received from media during the several days that Bentley's body remained formally unidentified.: 84
Police have stated that hundreds of individuals have been considered suspects at one time or another, and a list of several hundred people have never been formally eliminated from the enquiry. At times the list of suspects has been as small as 20 people. Some possible suspects have received media attention in relation to the case.
Sid and John Bentley
At an early stage in the case, media reported that Sid and John were considered suspects in Kirsty's disappearance. Both denied any involvement, although John acknowledged in media interviews that it was only common sense that police should consider them as suspects. Police later confirmed that they were considered suspects in the investigation.
Police conducted a scene examination at the family home in the early stages of the investigation, including carrying out Luminol testing.: 65 However the tests did not find anything of value to the investigation.
Sid was unable to provide a strong alibi for his whereabouts on that day. He initially claimed he had been in Christchurch and Lyttelton at the time, but later claimed he had hit his head on a cupboard door and forgotten that he had actually been in Ashburton for part of the day. His exact whereabouts at the time remain unknown. Family members have stated they believe Sid was embarrassed to admit whatever it was that he was doing on that day, but they do not believe he was involved in the murder in any way.
Police later consulted retired British DetectiveInspector Chuck Burton, who stated that in his opinion, the perpetrator was likely to have known Bentley and been close with her, based on the nature of the crime and the way her body was left at Camp Gully.
Despite this, police never laid charges against either Sid or John, suggesting no strong evidence of their involvement was ever found. In 2018, Police confirmed they do not believe Sid or John were involved in the crime.
In the months after Bentley's death, Police asked the public for information about a green Commer van, registration number EP9888, that was of interest to the inquiry. The van was described as a 1961 model set up to be used as a camper, with a distinctive Commer branding badge attached to the front. The van was either blue or a faded blue-green. It was last registered with the NZTA in 1995. This type of van was commonly used by tourists and drifters at the time, and in many cases these vehicles were not registered. The van was rare; as few as 2 matching its general description are believed to have ever been in New Zealand.
An experienced mechanic originally reported the van to police after seeing it in the area around the time of Bentley's disappearance. Due to the distinctive nature of the van and the man's experience with them, he took special note of the van at the time and was able to give a highly detailed description of it. The van was also seen by other witnesses in the Ashburton area in the weeks before Bentley's disappearance, and there were reports it was also seen in the Camp Gully area.
Police believed that such a distinctive vehicle could not go unnoticed by the public, and a sighting could lead to a break in the case. Many people came forward to police with possible sightings, but all were discounted as not being the van that police were seeking; the distinctive nature of the van made it very easy for them to rule out mistaken sightings. No further leads on the camper were ever revealed, and it has never been found.
In addition to this, police distributed fliers asking for information on a girl seen near the van on Chalmers Avenue, close to where Bentley had disappeared. The girl was known to the dairy owners in the suburb of Netherby as a customer. However, despite this, and repeated public requests by police, the girl never came forward. Her identity and her connection to the suspicious van remains unknown.
Russell John Tully
In March 2017 media reported that police were investigating whether Russell John Tully, a local man who murdered two staff members at the AshburtonWork and Income office in 2014, may have been involved. Tully had been known to camp in the area of Ashburton from which Kirsty went missing. Tully strongly denied any involvement.
In May 2018 Police announced they had eliminated Tully from the enquiry. He had provided a detailed account of where he had been living and working during the time Bentley disappeared. Police confirmed he had not originally been interviewed because he was living in Nelson at the time, and was no longer suspected of any involvement.
After Sid's death in 2015, an unidentified woman came forward to say that she suspected her ex-boyfriend had been involved in the murder. He had been a suspect in the original investigation, and they had both been interviewed by police and media at the time in relation to the case. According to an interview with her in 2015, her ex-boyfriend, while intoxicated, had admitted his involvement to her on several occasions. It is unclear whether she ever came forward to formally change her statement to police.[original research?]
In 2014 the case was transferred from Detective Inspector Greg Williams to Detective Inspector Greg Murton. At the time he commented that the investigation was open and would continue to be until it was resolved.
In 2015 Bentley's father, Sid, died of esophageal cancer. His death briefly renewed public interest in the case.
In 2018, Police confirmed that Russell John Tully was no longer of interest to the enquiry.
In late 2018, almost 20 years after the disappearance, Detective Inspector Murton announced that there had been advances in DNA testing that he hoped could lead to a break in the case. Items of evidence including the dog lead and underwear have been submitted for further testing at Environmental Science and Research.
The case is still under active investigation, with Detective Inspector Murton stating in 2018 that, "the case is still open and being investigated."
- ^ abcdefghijklmnopqrsBentley, Jill; Williams, Tony (2001). Kirsty: Her Mother Writes with Love. New Zealand: Reed Books. ISBN .
- ^ abcdefghijklmRyan, James (15 July 2016). An inquest into the death of Kirsty Marianne Bentley: Findings of Coroner J P Ryan (Report).
- ^Van Beynan, Martin; Gee, David (2 January 1999). "Dog found tethered; copter joins search". The Press. Christchurch, New Zealand.
- ^ abcO'Hanlon, Sinead (9 January 1999). "The mystery of Kirsty Bentley". The Press. Christchurch, New Zealand.
- ^O'Hanlon, Sinead (4 January 1999). "Underwear find crushes parents". The Press. Christchurch, New Zealand.
- ^O'Hanlon, Sinead (12 January 1999). "Army helps in river search". The Press. Christchurch, New Zealand.
- ^O'Hanlon, Sinead; Van Beynan, Martin (18 January 1999). "Body find may end hunt for girl". The Press. Christchurch, New Zealand.
- ^ abcBruce, Mike (21 January 1999). "Family devastated at news of Kirsty's murdered body". The Press. Christchurch, New Zealand.
- ^Clausen, Victoria (23 January 1999). "Kirsty's killer 'familiar with the area'; Inquiry head rules out early resolution". The Press. Christchurch, New Zealand.
- ^ abcO'Hanlon, Sinead (19 January 1999). "Family's painful wait; There is a chance it is Kirsty - policeman". The Press. Christchurch, New Zealand.
- ^Wall, Tony (19 January 1999). "Clues to Kirsty case in tracks". The New Zealand Herald. Auckland, New Zealand. Retrieved 15 July 2018.
- ^"Coroner: Kirsty Bentley killed by massive blow to the head". The New Zealand Herald. Auckland, New Zealand. 16 July 2016. Retrieved 15 July 2018.
- ^"Police renew Kirsty call". The Press. Christchurch, New Zealand. 29 January 1998.
- ^Clausen, Victoria (26 January 1999). "Police appeal to growers of cannabis". The Press. Christchurch, New Zealand.
- ^O'Hanlon, Sinead (26 January 1999). "Tears of grief and anger for Kirsty". The Press. Christchurch, New Zealand.
- ^Livingstone, Tommy; Sherwood, Sam (3 July 2015). "Ashes returned to Kirsty's mum". The Press. Christchurch, New Zealand. Retrieved 15 July 2018.
- ^Robinson, R J (22 January 1999). "Letters to the Editor: Identifying Kirsty". The Dominion Post. Wellington, New Zealand.
- ^ abLivingstone, Tommy (15 March 2017). "Mother of Kirsty Bentley not convinced new information in the case will bring answers". Stuff. Christchurch, New Zealand. Retrieved 15 July 2018.
- ^ abcdMcCracken, Heather (11 April 2010). "New leads in Bentley murder case". The New Zealand Herald. Auckland, New Zealand. Retrieved 15 July 2018.
- ^Martin, Yvonne (16 January 1999). "I'm a suspect, says Kirsty's big brother". The Dominion. Wellington, New Zealand.
- ^O'Hanlon, Sinead (7 January 1999). "Police search Kirsty's home; Abduction theory probed". The Press. Christchurch, New Zealand.
- ^O'Hanlon, Sinead (8 January 1999). "No new clues in search of home". The Press. Christchurch, New Zealand.
- ^ abLivingstone, Tommy; Dally, Joelle; Mann, Brittany (1 July 2015). "Cancer claims father of murdered Ashburton teen Kirsty Bentley". Stuff. Christchurch, New Zealand. Retrieved 15 July 2018.
- ^ abLivingstone, Tommy (12 July 2015). "Killer is still out here, says Bentley's mum". Stuff. Christchurch, New Zealand. Retrieved 15 July 2018.
- ^ ab"Kirsty Bentley killing: Russell John Tully linked to murder". Newshub. New Zealand. 15 March 2017. Retrieved 15 July 2018.
- ^"Developments in DNA testing could help finally solve 1998 murder of Ashburton teenager Kirsty Bentley". tvnz.co.nz. New Zealand. 2 December 2018. Retrieved 3 December 2018.
- ^ abNZPA (30 June 2000). "Van details fresh lead in Kirsty case". The New Zealand Herald. Auckland, New Zealand. Retrieved 15 July 2018.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
- ^"Record for Registration EP9888". CarJam. Retrieved 15 July 2018.
- ^ abKoubaridis, Andrew (4 January 2016). "Murder of teenager Kirsty Bentley has haunted New Zealand for 17 years". News.com.au. Australia. Retrieved 15 July 2018.
- ^ abcSherwood, Sam (30 May 2018). "Work and Income double murderer interviewed over Kirsty Bentley cold case". Stuff. New Zealand. Retrieved 15 July 2018.
- ^"Woman changes statement over Kirsty Bentley murder". The New Zealand Herald. Auckland, New Zealand. 7 July 2015. Retrieved 15 July 2018.
- ^"Police 'will never give up'". Ashburton Guardian. Ashburton, New Zealand. 10 June 2014. Retrieved 15 July 2018.
- ^ abBayer, Kurt (2 December 2018). "DNA could crack open Kirsty Bentley cold case 20 years after Ashburton schoolgirl's murder". nzherald.co.nz. Christchurch, New Zealand. Retrieved 3 December 2018.
- Bentley, Jill; Williams, Tony (2001). Kirsty: Her Mother Writes with Love. New Zealand: Reed Books. ISBN .
New leads in Bentley murder case
4 minutes to read
Kirsty Bentley was murdered in 1998. Photo / Supplied
Herald on Sunday
By: Heather McCracken
A top international criminal profiler has revealed major new details about the Kirsty Bentley murder, including the theory a crime scene was staged by the killer to throw off police.
The retired British police inspector, who reviewed the case at the request of New Zealand detectives, concluded the killer had an "emotional connection" to his victim.
He is backed by the Kiwi cop who headed the original inquiry and said he had held the same view "since day one".
Kirsty's best friend and boyfriend welcomed the revelations but doubted they would be enough to help clear up one of New Zealand's most notorious cold case murders.
Kirsty, 15, disappeared on December 31, 1998, while walking the family dog, Abby, on the Ashburton riverbank.
The dog was found tied to a tree near the river the next day, and Kirsty's underwear was nearby. Her body was discovered two weeks later in the Rakaia gorge, 40km away.
Retired Detective Inspector Chuck Burton was asked to review the files in a bid to shed new light on the cold case.
After examining evidence and statements, Burton said he believed the offender staged a crime scene.
"It's an offender protecting his own identity by changing and altering the crime scene."
The murderer also knew the local area, he added.
Retired Detective Senior Sergeant Lance Corcoran, who headed the Ashburton CIB when Kirsty disappeared, also believed the crime scene was staged. "I've held that view since day one," he said.
Police never established where Kirsty was killed, which would have been a key piece of the puzzle, he said.
He backed the release of new details by police, but said it could have been done earlier.
"Ten years down the track you run the risk of potential witnesses being deceased, and with the passage of time, people's recall is not as good," he said.
He'd always hoped he would live to see the case resolved.
"It's fair to say I've got some very definite views about a number of things, and I'd like to see those confirmed in my lifetime. I've always felt there's a very real chance of that happening."
The latest officer to head the inquiry, Detective Inspector Greg Williams, said police requested the file be reviewed by Burton, an expert in child murder cases.
He couldn't discuss the findings yesterday, but said the exercise had been useful.
"There's developing scientific stuff around crime, and it's always good to have someone like that look at it."
Williams said police were also releasing new information not previously made public.
The list of suspects has been narrowed to about 20 people, and still includes Kirsty's father, Sid, and brother, John.
Both admitted they were being treated as suspects but denied any involvement.
The lack of answers has frustrated the Bentley family for more than a decade.
Kirsty's mother, Jill, said in 2000 she was unhappy with the handling of the case, and the family felt like they were on trial.
Jill and Sid have since divorced. Sid remains in Ashburton and Jill has remarried and lives in Invercargill.
Kirsty's best friend Lee-Anne Jellyman, now Lee-Anne Kerr, said she hoped new publicity would bring a breakthrough.
"But whether or not it gets people to remember things they may not have mentioned so long ago is a different story."
Kerr, 27, said it had become easier to talk about her friend, but was tough at the time.
"To have something like that happen just blows you out of the water."
She went shopping with Kirsty on the day she disappeared. She dropped her home about 2.30pm but the girls had planned to spend the whole afternoon together.
"My mum used to say that we're lucky that I didn't go with her that afternoon," said Kerr.'
Kirsty's boyfriend at the time, Graeme Offord, said he'd always hoped that the case would be solved.
"But it's been a long time, and I think I, like most of her friends, have just accepted that it may never be."
The Bentley files
* The 15-year-old Ashburton teen went missing on New Year's eve, 1998, while walking the family dog.
* A $50,000 reward offered in the months after her death was withdrawn a year later after failing to bring any new information.
* In 2000, her father Sid Bentley claimed to have remembered new details about his actions on the day of her disappearance after banging his head.
* Sid and Kirsty's brother, John, later said publicly that they were being treated by police as suspects, but denied any involvement.
Latest from New Zealand
DNA could crack open Kirsty Bentley cold case 20 years after Ashburton schoolgirl's murder
On New Year's Eve 20 years ago Kirsty Bentley went missing. Earlier this month, Kurt Bayer profiled the case ahead of the anniversary marking the tragic disappearance.
The cold case file amounts to more than 70 archive boxes containing 400 folders of documents and evidence.
Twenty years since murdered Ashburton schoolgirl Kirsty Marianne Bentley went missing while walking her dog, it remains one of New Zealand's highest-profile murder mysteries. It still fascinates, chills and divides mid-Cantabrians. Locals are quick to offer a theory or toss out a name of a likely suspect.
In the late 90s, genetic crime solving was in its infancy.
But now, Detective Inspector Greg Murton believes that advances in modern DNA testing techniques could crack open the case.
The dog leash found around the dog's neck — tying her to a tree at the Ashburton riverbank 50km away from where Kirsty's body was later found — along with underwear found nearby will be included in new tests to be carried out by scientists at the Institute of Environmental Science and Research, New Zealand's Crown Research Institute, in Auckland.
"The case is still open and being investigated," Murton tells the Herald on Sunday
"With the new forensic testing we are hopeful to get the right result for the family even after all these years. There have been other cases recently where murders that are 20 years old have been solved through DNA or other reasons, so we're forever hopeful."
DNA profiling — a process of identifying a specific pattern of DNA from a person or sample of bodily tissue — has revolutionised forensic science and global crime investigation. In New Zealand, there have been several high-profile examples where DNA has nailed criminals decades after they thought they were scot-free.
In 1995, in a joint project involving police and ESR, New Zealand created the National DNA Profile Databank. It involved the collection of DNA profiles from convicted offenders and volunteers onto a central database that is matched against DNA profiles obtained from unsolved crimes in an attempt to "identify any individual that could be linked to an offence through biological material left at the crime scene".
Testing has advanced since and the new techniques will be applied to the evidence from Operation Kirsty.
In 2002, Jules Mikus was jailed for life after DNA evidence linked him to the savage rape and murder of Napier schoolgirl Teresa Cormack 15 years earlier.
It was also the downfall of Jarrod Allan Mangels. After a drunken Nelson night out in 2003, Mangels was asked to give a blood sample. His DNA was later found to match the DNA found on nail clippings from Maureen McKinnel who was strangled at her Arrowtown home on Boxing Day 1987 and dumped naked over the Arrow River Bridge.
Murton, who took charge of the unsolved crime file case in 2014, is hopeful for some test results by the end of the year. But he cautioned that final answers still may be some way off — if they are ever found.
"It's such a fine level of testing. [ESR] have to interpret those results and then look at where we go from there," he says. "More sensitive testing methods are great but at the end of the day we still need a suspect to test this against."
Over the years, hundreds of local men have been spoken to by police during Operation Kirsty, including her brother John and ex-Royal Navy sailor father Sid, whose movements on New Year's Eve were vague, and whose story later changed. Both said police treated them as suspects and vehemently denied any involvement, with Sid doing so right up to his death in June 2015, aged 64.
One theory doing the rounds was that John had killed his sister and that his father helped him dump the body. He has said detectives appeared to think he was jealous of his sister because she had a boyfriend.
In March last year, Murton confirmed he was looking at double Ashburton Work and Income killer Russell Tully as a possible suspect. The former local diesel mechanic was ruled out after Murton quizzed him behind bars and came away satisfied with his alibi.
Kirsty's mother Jill Peachy is kept up-to-date on the case by Murton. She's aware of the new DNA testing and that it's helped catch killers years down the line. But she long ago ceased holding her breath.
"If it's going to be, it will," she tells the Herald on Sunday.
"I just hope the killer is sweating that one day they will be caught.
"I don't have a face to hate, nor a reason to assess the 'why?' One day 20 years ago, I waved a happy bye-bye to my girl and then she was gone. There's been nothing to show me what happened."
December 31, 1998, had been a balmy day in town. Kirsty — a well-rounded, sensible, giggly girl who loved drama studies, poetry, choir singing, the Backstreet Boys, her boyfriend and friends — had been lounging in the library. She then did some shopping with best friend Lee-Anne Jellyman, grabbing lunch at McDonald's, and popping in to see a friend at the dairy.
She would never know it, but she'd done better than she expected in her fifth-form exams and was loving what was turning out to be a long, hot summer. A pool party was being planned for her 16th birthday on January 18. She was bursting with excitement at the prospect of boyfriend Graeme Offord coming for dinner that night, with plans for him to stay over.
At about 2.30pm, she arrived back at the family's South St home before taking her black labrador-cross Abby for a stroll while her brother John, then 19, listened to music in his bedroom. He remembers thinking Kirsty had been gone for a while but didn't think too much of it.
"These sorts of things aren't supposed to happen, so the idea of something bad happening to Kirsty was not even in my mind," he says. "Mum came home and I asked her about it, expecting her to know. When she had a puzzled look on her face, I was a bit surprised."
But on arriving home, mother Jill felt something was wrong. Over the previous few months, she'd felt an unexplained dread that "somehow my little girl was at risk".
Quizzing John, she noticed Abby's dog lead was missing from the stool by the back door where Kirsty usually dropped it.
Jill headed towards the river, and as panic swept over her, she started running. But as she got near Abby's favourite swimming hole, she turned around and ran home.
The Herald on Sunday this week retraced Kirsty's steps on that fateful afternoon. The Bentleys' modest red brick home is just two doors down from the broad Chalmers Ave, where the teen turned left with Abby in tow and wandered just a few hundred metres down the road that runs into a dead-end for motorists, and into the riverbank. The river tracks have since been upgraded for mountainbikes and include one-way loops. Just off the trails, the bush is dense and prickly with blackberry and fallen trees.
When Kirsty's father arrived home at around 6pm, things were not looking good. He immediately thought they should phone the police and lodge a missing person report.
The Bentleys, along with friends and police staff, started searching the neighbourhood, building yards, the northern riverbank and its paths.
As darkness fell, so did the mood. Kirsty had left home only wearing light clothes — a black tank top with a white butterfly-patterned blue sarong and black Colorado shoes with white soles.
She was nowhere to be found.
At 8am the next morning, an official search and rescue operation was launched. They scoured the Ashburton riverbank and after just two hours, they heard barking. A dehydrated Abby was found tied to a tree by a lead in an area of dense bush just off one of the walking tracks favoured by Kirsty.
Later that morning, they came across two items of clothing — underwear and boxer shorts — on top of blackberry bushes, which was identified as belonging to the missing teen.
Detective Senior Sergeant Lance Corcoran, who led the original Ashburton CIB investigation, felt from day one that the crime scene was staged by the killer to throw police off his trail. His view would be endorsed a decade later by top international criminal profiler, retired British police inspector Chuck Burton, who reviewed the files in a bid to shed new light on the cold case.
"It's an offender protecting his own identity by changing and altering the crime scene," Burton tells the Herald on Sunday.
It just didn't add up. There were no signs of the underwear having been torn or forcibly removed, and the Bentleys didn't think the lead was the same one Kirsty left home with. Nobody heard barking the night before either.
There were no other clues down by the river.
Over the next fortnight as the hunt for Kirsty widened across Ashburton and the wider Canterbury district, rumours began swirling and fingers began to point. Hundreds of local men were spoken to by police.
On January 17, 1999 — 18 days after Kirsty disappeared, and with news coverage diminishing with every passing day — her body was found.
Two men searching for an illegal cannabis plot in the Camp Gully area of Rakaia Gorge — some 55kms by road inland from Ashburton — stumbled across a badly decomposing body partially covered with sticks and scrub at the bottom of a steep embankment. Placed in the fetal position, she was fully clothed in what she'd left home in but was missing the underwear found by Ashburton River.
A post-mortem examination conducted two days later by forensic pathologist Dr Martin Sage concluded that given there was undigested food in her stomach — and it was known she'd eaten French fries with Lee-Anne at around midday on the day she disappeared — it was "most likely" she died that same day.
In the months after her death, police asked the public for information about a green Commer van which was reportedly seen in the area at the time of Kirsty's disappearance — and over the following days in the Mid Canterbury town as well as Camp Gully area. It's never been traced.
Corcoran is now in his 70s. He retired from the police at 55 — the age of compulsory retirement in those days — just months into the inquiry.
Although he doesn't let the case haunt him, he admits thinking about it "from time to time". The fact that a local schoolgirl was murdered in his community, made it more personal to him than some other cases.
Kirsty's big brother John now lives in Australia and just like any life experience, it is a part of him but he doesn't let it define him either.
"It's not in the forefront of my mind, just a little thing in the corner that reminds me of how the world can be," he says.
Lee-Anne Jellyman is now Lee-Anne Murray, aged 36 and a contracts administrator in Christchurch.
She has her suspicions on what happened that day 20 years ago, "as do most people, I think", which she isn't keen to share. She doubts she'll ever see justice for her "sweet, caring, loyal, wise beyond her years" best friend.
"There is always the idea I would like to ask them why, but maybe I don't want to know the answer to that question — there is no reason why a 15-year-old should have been taken that way. However, I actually don't have a lot of confidence that I will ever see that justice."
Peachey, who now lives in Invercargill with second husband Noel Peachey, doesn't have any theories on what happened to her daughter. And having no answers or any clues has been one of the toughest things to handle.
"But I think of the happy memories, not the day she died. I've been through very black years of grieving and don't wish to return to that. If Kirsty's name is mentioned I smile. She is the Kirsty I remember."
THE KIRSTY BENTLEY CASE
December 31, 1998
Kirsty meets a friend at the Ashburton library, before shopping and lunch at McDonald's.
Arrives home at165 South St.
Neighbour sees her walk past his house with the family dog Abby.
Mother Jill comes home from work. Son John says his sister hasn't returned from walking the dog. She has a quick look down at the river.
Father Sid comes home and police are informed. Family, friends and police search with no success.
January 1, 1999
Official search and rescue operation begins.
Abby is found tied to a tree in dense foliage beside the Ashburton River, close to Robilliard Park. Kirsty's underwear and boxer shorts found nearby.
Two men find Kirsty's body at Camp Gully, in the Rakaia Gorge.
Hundreds of mourners farewell Kirsty at St Stephen's Anglican Church in Ashburton.
Sid dies, aged 64. Both he and John were treated as suspects. They denied any involvement.
Coroner concludes Kirsty died from a massive blow to the back of her head at an unknown location, "likely to be in the Ashburton or Rakaia areas" on the day she went missing by "person or persons unknown".
Police confirm double Work and Income killer Russell Tully is being look at as a suspect. He was ruled out in May this year.
Police say that advances in DNA technology have led to new tests being done to try to trace the killer.
20-year murder mystery: Kirsty's mum breaks her silence
Now living a reclusive life, Jill Bentley explains how life has changed since her girl’s death
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