They may not have police badges, but this group of Kiwis has set out to solve crimes that Criminal Investigation Branch detectives have drawn a blank on.
The group’s members, based in North Otago, have been brought together by a shared love of unsolved mysteries – and the killing of Welsh tourist Jennifer Beard over 40 years ago is the first one they want to unravel.
Their cold case group is a new take on book clubs, which have become a popular part of modern culture and a way to socialise and meet new people. The unsolved cases provide topics of conversation and have helped those involved form new friendships.
Cindy Roberts, a private investigator from Oamaru, formed the group and says she has always been intrigued by Jennifer’s tragic murder. The hitch-hiker was killed in 1969 when she was travelling through the South Island to meet her fiancé Reg Phillips.
It’s believed Jennifer was strangled in a sexually motivated attack on New Year’s Eve. Her body was found under the Haast River Bridge on the West Coast 19 days later.
Cindy (49) has been making a documentary about her death called Who Killed Jennifer
Beard, and while contacting people to get information about the case she discovered many others had a shared interest in unsolved crimes – which led to the formation of their social circle.
So far there are seven people in the group, which meets every Sunday to discuss the Jennifer Beard case. They also talk over other prominent cases, such as that of Kirsty Bentley, the 15-year-old who went missing on New Year’s Eve in 1998 while walking her dog in Ashburton and was later found dead, and the disappearance of two-year-old Amber-Lee Cruickshank in 1992.
“We start off on the internet looking for any little bit of information we can find, then make a list of people who have called police about information who would be good to contact,” Cindy explains.
Each member is regularly given tasks to investigate each week to see if they can find out any information that didn’t come to the police’s attention. Who Killed Jennifer Beard, which will first screen in Hokitika on March 6, speculates on a number of possible killers – including one who worked in a local bar. Students were warned to stay away from the man.
“He didn’t turn up for his shift the day Jennifer was murdered,” Cindy explains. He’s since believed to have died. “The movie is about all the things that we learned from researching the cold case, what actually happened, and we bring in the new evidence the public hasn’t heard about.
“It’s made up of witness interviews up and down the country,” adds Cindy, who has handed some of the information she’s uncovered to the police. “I’d love to see this case closed,” she says. “Putting the documentary altogether was like closure for me.”
The next cold case the super-sleuths plan to open will be that of toddler Amber-Lee. Surprisingly, the group’s discussions don’t result in heated arguments over favoured theories – rather their group has led to new friendships for everyone.
The group, which includes Cindy’s husband Michael (54), is tight-knit but more than happy to welcome new members. “We’re a solid group now. We haven’t been in Oamaru for very long – we’ve been here for two years and it’s been fantastic. We’re firm friends now. We share a common interest,” says Cindy.
She believes the establishment of cold case groups around the country could lead to more crimes being solved, as well as building new friendships.
“We would love to have people all over New Zealand willing to help us. It’s too costly for one person to work on one case and if we can share resources in different areas of New Zealand [with people] who can help with witness interviews, we would welcome it.”