Saturday, May 25, 2024

‘I struggle with the fact he isn’t here’

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East Auckland man Jim Donnelly disappeared in 2004. File photo supplied

June 2024 will mark the 20th anniversary of the disappearance of east Auckland man Jim Donnelly.

The Times is looking back, through a series of stories, at one of the most baffling unsolved cases in recent New Zealand history.

The 43-year-old father-of-two was living with his wife Tracey Donnelly and their two young children in Dannemora when he disappeared on Monday, June 21, 2004.

Coroner Sam Herdson held an inquest hearing on the matter in Auckland in 2007.

Her subsequent report states when Donnelly vanished he’d been working at Glenbrook Steel Mill in Waiuku, South Auckland, in a supervisory engineering role for 19 years.

Despite extensive searches at the mill and surrounding area, and an in-depth investigation, the coroner found what happened to him remains unexplained but “the presumption is Jim has died”.

What led Jim Donnelly to disappear is as big a mystery to the people he left behind as it is to police.

He arrived at work at the Glenbrook Steel Mill after stopping on the way to work to buy a muffin for lunch and parked his vehicle in the staff car park as usual.

Jim was observed acting strangely during the day by several colleagues and then somehow vanished with no one seeing when he left or where he went.

He didn’t drive off as his car was found where he’d parked it.

Tracey says he was planning her upcoming birthday in the days prior and had given no indication he was planning to leave or take his own life.

“That’s the biggest puzzle,” she told the Times.

“I can only think he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but even then I still struggle with that.

“I struggle with the fact he isn’t here because there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be here.

“There are scenarios but nothing actually sticks, nothing to hang your hat on.

“He was planning my 40th birthday at the time and there were all these plans.”

Tracey Donnelly. Times file photo Wayne Martin

In the years following Jim’s disappearance Tracey has worked to keep the case in the public eye.

She’s also in contact with Inspector Dave Glossop, who previously held the file on Jim’s disappearance.

“I’ve been proactive right through and I’ll speak to people who come to me with interest, simply because I need to keep it alive and out there,” Tracey says.

“A couple of times I said to Dave I didn’t want to continue as I wasn’t getting anything back and he said, ‘you just never know’.”

Tracey says Jim arrived at work the day he vanished but failed to show up for a planned meeting.

She has no idea what happened in the couple of hours between him arriving at the steel mill and then people realising he wasn’t around.

“That’s kind of where it’s come to. That period of time, because we know he’s turned up to work and he’s been seen in the locker room. He’s been seen by his office and then nothing. About five or six people saw him.

“They saw him in that area and where he was supposed to be, and then absolutely nothing.

“He wasn’t even seen walking away from where … it’s like he walked into a void and that’s how I feel sometimes.”

There are numerous questions in Tracey’s mind about how her husband was able to go missing from his work place.

She can’t understand why he would walk off by himself, if that’s what happened.

“The orange is bright orange and blue so you’re not going to be unnoticed, and if you were going to walk away why don’t you go to your locker room and get your jeans and grey sweatshirt out?

“Why aren’t you taking your car? It’s a long way from anywhere across the mill grounds.”

One of the most well known aspects of the case is that Jim’s work hardhat was found near an acid vat in the steel mill five days after he went missing.

Several items belonging to Jim were found inside the vat. Tracey says the acid vat and hardhat were in an area that Jim worked in.

“Someone wandering around with it could have had it in a bag,” she says of the hardhat.

“All I thought about was why would Jim put it there?

“My only other thought was it was taking the focus on searches away from another area that people wanted the focus taken away from. Maybe I’m over-thinking it.

“And it was only some of his stuff that was put in there [the acid vat]. That’s odd in itself.

“If you were disappearing why would you put your cash in there?”

Tracey says she has no clue what happened to Jim but she’s adamant he didn’t take his own life.

“Suicide was not on his radar. I’m convinced of that.

“You don’t know what happens in the brain, but his philosophy in life is you are there for them [his children] for the long haul. So that doesn’t make sense.

“If it’s foul play, that doesn’t make sense because he wasn’t involved in anything.

“Taking off and starting a new life, that doesn’t make sense. If it was accidental death there would be a body.

“So that’s why I’m just like ‘nothing makes sense’. There are a lot of possibilities but it doesn’t feel right.”

During the police’s initial search of Jim’s workplace they were guided by mill staff, Tracey says.

She found that frustrating as she wanted police “to go in there and just keep looking”.

“In the beginning they were looking for someone they thought had voluntarily left of things like that.

“They weren’t looking at it from any other angle.”

Tracey says she asked a senior police officer, not Glossop, why they couldn’t return to the mill and interview more people.

Two senior officers told her they had no reason to return to the mill, she says.

“They said he’s obviously decided what he’s going to do, as in suicide.

“’He’s left his workplace, he’s gone into the fields, and he’s thought about things and he’s come back and decided that that was it.

“And I said to him, ‘no, you’re telling me I have to deal in fact’. I said there is nothing to show that as well.

“We found it very frustrating.”

When Glossop took over the file Tracey talked to him about the investigation and what work police had done to identify what had happened to Jim.

“Dave said he went back and retraced it, redid the GPS tracking, and took cadaver dogs through just to recheck everything. They’d done that previously however nothing was ever found.

“They know he was there. They know he signed in but he never signed out.

“He bought in to all their safety procedures so had he left under his own steam he would have signed out.

“The evidence is he signed in, but there’s no evidence he ever left.”

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