December 31st, 1969 in New Zealand’s West Coast was by many reports an idyllic, golden summer day. It’s not hard to imagine Jennifer Beard perhaps feeling a mixture of carefree excitement and mild apprehension as she left Franz Josef township to hitchhike to Milford Sound. Scarcely populated even today in the 1960s and 70’s New Zealand’s West Coast was even more so, with graveled roads winding through isolated rugged terrain and wetlands. Still New Zealand had a relatively low crime rate and not known as either reckless or a risk taker, Jennifer most certainly expected to reach her destination without any harm.
Jennifer Beard, who was by all accounts a clean living Christian school teacher who had immigrated from Wales to Australia a few years earlier, had been hitchhiking around New Zealand for the past few months and was heading towards the Milford Sounds for a prearranged tramp with with her fiancé. When Jennifer uncharacteristically failed to show up as arranged, her fiancé alerted the police on the 9th of January.
On the 3rd of January, 1969, a little girl making a rest stop with her family reported back to her parents that a lady was lying under the bridge without any clothes on, the parents decided to not take the little girl seriously, leaving it another 19 days before police and soldiers descended into the wild and rugged terrain and discovered the tragic end to Jennifer’s journey. For 22 days Jennifer’s body had lain under the bridge dense bush and by the time her remains were found an advanced stage of decomposition had set in.
Forensic examination was unable to determine but concluded that Jennifer had most likely been strangled from behind while crouching to urinate. The motive was almost undisputedly sexual, Jennifer’s bra had been pulled up her ribcage and the reports of her last sighted whereabouts placed her in a greenish-blue Vauxhall driven by a middle aged man of large build.
Sightings of Jennifer between Franz Josef and Haast, on December 31st 1969 were numerous, including reports of people seeing her at Fox Glacier, close to the Bruce Bay Area and by the Lake Moeraki River Bridge.
Police quickly identified a suspect, a Timaru man of the name Gordon Bray who had been in the area on the day and drove a car fitting the description of the one Jennifer was last seen in. Bray adamantly denied ever meeting Jennifer, and died in 2003, possibly taking with him any chance of the Jennifer Beard murder case being resolved. The strongest evidence towards Gordon Bray included a receipt made out to his name discovered in the pockets of a pair of wet pants 100 meters from the bridge where Jennifer’s body was discovered.
Another suspect, unfortunately not closely followed up by police at the time, was a man known by the name Ron Hunter who also drove a greenish blue Vauxhall and who had reportedly fled his job at a Westport sawmill when an identikit of Jennifer Beard’s suspected killer was circulated.
The Jennifer Beard murder was the first widely reported story of a foreign traveler reaching a perilous end while hitchhiking around New Zealand, and most certainly not the last. As to date Jennifer Beard’s killer has not been caught.
Retracing Jennifer Beard’s hitchhiking route:
I decided to begin my journey in Christchurch, wanting to retrace Jennifer Beard’s journey as accurately as possible. Today’s Christchurch is significantly different from the old Christchurch Jennifer would have explored, damaged old stone buildings replaced by temporary structures decorated with modern art, post earthquake Christchurch is no longer an ‘old’ city, with the ‘new’ Christchurch a strange yet endearing mix of old meets new.
After a long walk to the outskirts, my first ride out of the city was from a fellow traveler, albeit from France. In exchange for the ride I rolled him cigarettes (badly) while he puffed away between discussions of Europe and nuclear politics, stopping briefly at Arthur’s Pass which I vaguely recalled as being somewhere Jennifer Beard had stopped.
The Frenchman took me as far as the West Coast-Greymouth junction, where a few minutes later a beaming Australian family of four pulled over, kindly inviting me to share their lunch of bread rolls and salad in a small clearing overlooking the rugged West Coast bush. As anyone familiar with the drive knows, the deeper you go into the West Coast, the more denser and steeper the bush lining the windy roads becomes before rolling out again into open paddocks and farmland as you near Franz Josef.
The family dropped me off on the main road in Franz Josef and after spending the night at a local backpackers, I set off early, the sun slowly warming the already bustling tourist town. “You missed the other trucks! You need a ride?” The truck drivers weather beaten face smiled down at me while the other trucker politely climbed outside so I could haul myself up into the cab.
I gripped the bar overhead tightly as the truck wove through the windy road towards Haast. “I was a boy when that happened, five years old. I still remember it was such a tragedy, I think it’s a great thing what your doing.” The irony of the fact I could be murdered myself doing this seemed lost on him and I appreciated his faith in my journey. The truck drivers left me at Fox Glacier township (another area Jennifer reportedly stopped at). The sun was shining and I felt giddy with adventure and excitement, freedom stretching out before me, it was hard not to remember that Jennifer Beard over forty years earlier had lost her freedom when traveling the same area.
I’d only been hitchhiking for a couple of minutes when a friendly young Asian couple pulled over and offered me a ride. At a rest stop at Lake Paringa they shared with me their meal of flavored strawberry milk, chocolate chip cookies and hard boiled eggs (which not being an egg fan, I politely declined), stopping again to take pictures by the white sand dunes of Bruce Bay. After being slowed down by roadworks and another brief pull over by Lake Moeraki Bridge, it was over an hours journey by the time we reached the Haast River Bridge.
Stretching out under the sunny blue sky on a summers day, surrounded by an almost impossibly bright blue lake, the Haast River Bridge is the longest one lane bridge in New Zealand. Climbing out of the car I was struck by the peacefulness of the area and the feeling of isolation with the nearest building, a gas station, miles away on the other side of the bridge, relatively unseen when standing by the northern end.
I wandered around the rest stop area and took a few photos then headed back up to the highway. For summer, the past week or so in the South Island had been cold, but the day was sunny and bright. A convey of classic cars drove slowly over the bridge, away from Haast. It was time to head back on the road.
Sources of information:
Crime Files, NZ law and order news: Jennifer Mary Beard. http://www.crime.co.nz/c-files.aspx?ID=10655
Price, Marc. Getting away with murder: The Jennifer Beard inquiry. New Zealand: Longacre Press. (2008)