The death of Swedish tourist Heidi Paakkonen still haunts pensioner Graeme Pearce and he always hoped someone would find her body before he dies.
Ever since he found Paakkonen’s dark blue jacket neatly folded in the mud he has obsessed over where she could be.
The Thames man, now 76, speaks to the Herald ahead of the trial of a jailhouse informant being sued for perjury in August.
In 1989, Paakkonen, 21, and her fiance Sven Hoglin, 23, vanished, their disappearance sparking the biggest land-based search undertaken in New Zealand.
For months after they were reported missing, farmers and townsfolk, police, search and rescue crews and military personnel undertook a series of painstaking and soul-destroying grid-searches of the rugged terrain.
Pearce was one of those men.
Pearce found Paakkonen’s jacket a week after the official search had been called off in an area of bush called Jam Tins. He resparked the operation and Paakkonen’s wallet was later found in the same area.
For almost a decade he spent every weekend searching the tracks that crawl over Crosbie’s Range in hope of finding Paakkonen.
He was plagued with thoughts wondering what he had missed and often couldn’t sleep due to his mind buzzing with the mystery. With gullies and open mines, some up to 300m deep, the rugged area was near impossible to fully search.
“It’s like it’s unfinished business,” Pearce said.
“Something that haunts us.
“The basic thing with search and rescue is you go out there to find people. You want to find them alive. Virtually from the beginning we were looking for dead people.
“Police said to us ‘You’ll never find those bodies together’. After this time lapse you’re definitely looking for someone who’s dead.”
David Tamihere was convicted in 1990 of the murders of Paakkonen and Hoglin the previous year.
Hoglin’s body was found by pig hunters in 1991 near Whangamata – 70km from where Paakkonen was last seen.
Tamihere was released on life parole in 2010 after serving 20 years and having mounted several appeals.
Pearce last did the track from Tararu to Crosbies Clearing five years ago when he went up with an ex-local to show him where he found the jacket. But he’s slowed down since, now choosing to focus on maintaining the two cemeteries and an urupa in his town.
While his searching has decelerated he said there are still other people out there looking, a whole new generation has cottoned on to the mystery.
Pearce’s theory is that Paakkonen’s body would be somewhere towards Waiwawa Stream or at the back of Table Mountain. Not many pig hunters go out there as it’s too far to carry a pig back in.
“I really don’t think she’s going to be found,” he said.
“You could search for 10 or more years and still not cover the area properly.
“In the back of my mind before I died I always hoped someone would find her.”
Over the years Pearce and his wife have taken in backpackers at their home. He doesn’t tell them what happened, but is keen to ensure they have a safe place to stay.
“We had a couple of girls who thought they were going to camp in a sports field. I said ‘No, you don’t camp there’.
“It doesn’t do you any harm to be nice and try and help people. Rather than be a grumpy old man.”
A jailhouse informant who claimed Tamihere confessed to murdering the couple is being sued for perjury.
The private prosecution is being brought by self-styled jailhouse “lawyer” Arthur Taylor, who claimed that the informant made direct admissions to him that he had lied at Tamihere’s trial.
Doing recent interviews about the murder has stirred the events up for Pearce again. He’s been thinking about it non-stop for a month, but that will die down he said.
“You have to realise in life there are some things you have no control over.
“Once you accept that and find you can look inside yourself as long as you’re happy then to hell with the rest of the world.”
Source : New Zealand Herald