In­side the hunt for Grace

Car crit­i­cal to back­packer in­quiry with po­lice work­ing to track its movements

Herald on Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - Isaac Dav­i­son, Cherie Howie and Natalie Akoorie

A week of fad­ing hopes by Bri­tish back­packer Grace Mil­lane’s fam­ily came to a dev­as­tat­ing end last night with po­lice con­firm­ing a homi­cide in­ves­ti­ga­tion. They will charge a man, 26, with mur­der but were still look­ing for her body. A for­mer top de­tec­tive has spo­ken of the high-tech tools of­fi­cers will be us­ing to break the case.

Acar seized in re­la­tion to the mur­der of Bri­tish back­packer Grace Mil­lane ap­pears to be the key piece of ev­i­dence in her death, a for­mer po­lice in­spec­tor says.

A 26-year-old man was in cus­tody last night, with po­lice re­veal­ing he would be charged with mur­der, and will ap­pear in the Auck­land Dis­trict Court to­mor­row.

Po­lice also seized a car yes­ter­day and it was likely needed to trans­port Mil­lane’s body, which was still miss­ing, re­tired Bay of Plenty Dis­trict crime man­ager and De­tec­tive In­spec­tor Gra­ham Bell said.

The po­lice pri­or­ity would be track­ing the ve­hi­cle’s movements with GPS or us­ing cell­phone tow­ers — which was pos­si­ble even if their mo­bile phones were switched off, he re­vealed.

The week-long search for the 22-year-old back­packer from Es­sex took a tragic turn yes­ter­day when Auck­land po­lice said at a 5pm press con­fer­ence they be­lieved she had been mur­dered and that they had taken a man into cus­tody at 3pm and speak­ing to him in re­la­tion to the mur­der of Mil­lane.

They then said about 9pm the man would be charged.

He had been with Mil­lane at Auck­land’s CityLife Ho­tel at 9.41pm last Satur­day — the last time she was seen.

There was no ev­i­dence that they knew each other be­fore Mil­lane dis­ap­peared but De­tec­tive In­spec­tor Scott Beard wouldn’t com­ment on spec­u­la­tion they may have met on Tin­der.

“Sadly the ev­i­dence we have gath­ered to this point of the in­quiry has es­tab­lished that this is a homi­cide.”

Asked why po­lice were now treat­ing Mil­lane’s dis­ap­pear­ance as mur­der, he said it was a com­bi­na­tion of fac­tors.

“The ev­i­dence we have lo­cated so far, our scene ex­am­i­na­tion, from the CCTV footage we have and our in­ves­ti­ga­tion has de­ter­mined that Grace is no longer alive and this is a mur­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion.”

They had re­ceived sev­eral phone calls from the pub­lic and those were be­ing “worked through and pri­ori­tised”.

Po­lice were try­ing to find out where the ve­hi­cle had been since Mil­lane’s dis­ap­pear­ance a week ago.

“I know that the thoughts of all New Zealan­ders will be with Grace’s fam­ily and I want to re­as­sure ev­ery­one here and abroad that New Zealand po­lice are de­ter­mined to do ev­ery­thing we can to find her,” Beard said.

Bell said the po­lice would be do­ing “foren­sic ex­am­i­na­tions at length” on the car and try­ing to find any phys­i­cal ev­i­dence — DNA, fin­ger­prints, or cloth­ing fi­bres.

“They will also be try­ing very hard to see where that ve­hi­cle has been. I would say that is a key el­e­ment of the whole thing. She’s been mur­dered and they don’t know where the body is so you need a ve­hi­cle to trans­port the body.”

The first step could be to pub­lish a de­scrip­tion and pic­ture of the car and ask for pub­lic sight­ings. If that failed to turn up in­for­ma­tion, po­lice could track Mil­lane’s and the sus­pect’s mo­bile phones through GPS or through polling — check­ing which mo­bile phone tow­ers had picked up their sig­nal.

An­other pri­or­ity would be find­ing

three items which po­lice said were miss­ing — Mil­lane’s pass­port, a pink Ca­sio Baby-G watch and a neck­lace.

“There’s a chance that the killer has tried to get rid of those,” Bell said.

Beard broke the news of Mil­lane’s death to fam­ily yes­ter­day and said they were dev­as­tated. Her fa­ther David flew into Auck­land on Fri­day and made a tear­ful plea for any­one who knew any­thing to con­tact po­lice.

“Every­body who is a par­ent will un­der­stand what the fam­ily is go­ing through . . . our hearts go out to them,” Beard said, com­ing close to tears.

Other fam­ily waited for new in the United King­dom, in­clud­ing Mil­lane’s mother Gil­lian, un­able to travel to New Zealand be­cause she was re­cov­er­ing from an op­er­a­tion.

He said they were de­ter­mined to re­turn her to the fam­ily who have spread word of the tal­ented artist and univer­sity grad­u­ate’s dis­ap­pear­ance world­wide since her daily so­cial me­dia con­tact with fam­ily stopped the night be­fore her 22nd birth­day on Sun­day.

Mil­lane had ar­rived in New Zealand on Novem­ber 20, as part of a year-long, world­wide over­seas ex­pe­ri­ence that be­gan ear­lier this year in South Amer­ica.

A guest at the 26-storey CityLife ho­tel on Queen St told the Her­ald on Sun­day yes­ter­day po­lice were talk­ing to ev­ery­one who had stayed on the same floor as the man who was in cus­tody.

Po­lice of­fi­cers were also seen walk­ing the streets around the ho­tel, ap­par­ently check­ing for CCTV cam­eras.

“They’ve prob­a­bly got sev­eral peo­ple metic­u­lously trawl­ing through ev­ery bit of se­cu­rity cam­era footage they can find from the in­ner city,” Bell said. “It’s a big job and it’s a la­bo­ri­ous task be­cause most of the time you’re just look­ing at in­con­se­quen­tial move­ment, peo­ple com­ing and go­ing.”

The last sight­ings of Mil­lane were on last Satur­day evening in one of the busiest parts of the city. She was cap­tured on CCTV leav­ing Andy’s Burg­ers & Bar on the first level of SkyCity at 7.15pm last Satur­day. Po­lice said she and the sus­pect went to sev­eral places be­fore head­ing to the CityLife ho­tel.

Beard wouldn’t say whether po­lice had seen footage of the man leav­ing CityLife Ho­tel or if he thought Mil­lane was killed in the ho­tel.

At Base Back­pack­ers on Queen St, where Mil­lane had stayed for two weeks be­fore dis­ap­pear­ing, sev­eral guests watched the news last night of her sus­pected mur­der, in shock.

Po­lice removed her re­main­ing be­long­ings from her room ear­lier in the week.

The Lu­cie Black­man Trust, which has been sup­port­ing Mil­lane’s fam­ily, posted on its Face­book page they were “in­cred­i­bly sad­dened” by the po­lice an­nounce­ment.

“Thank you to all who helped try and find Grace.

“Our thoughts are with her fam­ily at this aw­ful time.”

The trust was set up by fam­ily of a Bri­tish woman who dis­ap­peared and was later found dead in Tokyo, and sup­ports fam­i­lies of Brits in cri­sis over­seas.

I know that the thoughts of all New Zealan­ders will be with Grace’s fam­ily

De­tec­tive In­spec­tor Scott Beard

Re­tired Bay of Plenty Dis­trict crime man­ager, De­tec­tive In­spec­tor Gra­ham Bell.

Photo / Doug Sher­ring

Grace’s fa­ther David Mil­lane makes a plea for in­for­ma­tion.

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