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 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”.
Will the truth ever come out?
Inspector Dave Glossop previously held the file on Donnelly’s disappearance and while he wasn’t involved in the initial investigation he has colleagues and friends who were and he knows as much about the case as anyone.
The most common theories are Donnelly intentionally left to start a new life, that he took his own life, he was the victim of foul play, or of an industrial accident at the mill.
Glossop says he lives in hope that someone knows what happened to Donnelly and one day comes forward.
“We know alliances and allegiances changes and there are deathbed confessions.
“I’m really hoping there is a break [in the case].
“Every time remains are found out that way I usually get a phone call from Tracey, if I haven’t heard it already.
“There are a lot of pre-European burial grounds out that way and with the erosion it’s not an uncommon location to find human remains.
“We once got a report of human remains found in a sack under a house so that we thought was a bit more optimistic, but it quickly turned out they were pre-European remains that somebody had gathered on the beach and threw into a sack. It was an empty house.”
Glossop says New Zealand is a very difficult place in which to disappear.
“I could talk for hours on this subject and I have with many people, but it just doesn’t make any sense.
“We have missing persons cases here but often we have an idea of what happened to them even if we can’t prove it. In this case we genuinely don’t know.”
Donnelly’s car located
If Donnelly left his workplace the day he vanished he can’t have done so in his own vehicle as it was found in the mill’s car park.
Some of his clothes were in a bag in its boot, Glossop says.
“It didn’t really mean anything. It didn’t appear to be a ‘go-bag’ and if it is why is it still in his car?
“There are little red herrings. Like the night Jim disappeared the mill put a security guard on his car and a vehicle came into the car park. They reversed back and did a u-turn to get some distance.
“These things you can make a mountain out of them in your head if you want, but where does it take you?”
Was Donnelly suicidal?
Glossop has experience dealing with people in mental crisis from his time on the police’s negotiation team.
“We did a lot of work around people who were suicidal,” he says.
“Jim’s son’s birthday was coming up and it was an important date.
“He’d bought his son a Harry Potter video game. It was having some sort of soundcard conflict.
“That night he’d told Tracey he thought he had it sorted, or he can solve it, so he’s planning to do stuff.
“He hadn’t done anything to put his affairs in order and he bought something to eat for lunch [the day he disappeared].
“But if he’s having a psychotic episode, and we’re not talking about anything drug-related, it could be all sorts of things.”
Donnelly was experiencing no known financial or marital problems, Glossop says.
“And he’s very devoted to his kids. It’s been devastating for them.
“From what everyone knew about Jim he was very dedicated to his kids.
“We’ve gone through the [bank] accounts and there’s no money being siphoned off or hidden over a period of time.”
Did Donnelly just walk away?
Glossop says he’s discussed the theory that Donnelly intentionally disappeared “100 times with different people”.
“If he’s prepared and he’s got a bag that he’s hidden nearby, a human being can walk for a very long way with a bottle of water.
“It’s not inconceivable to walk into Waiuku, which is not that far away from the mill, and catch a bus, but with all the media you would think someone would have seen him.
“We can only go on facts and there’s no indication in his personality and everything to show anything like that.”
‘I can’t think of anything bigger’
As far as the police are concerned, they do not know what happened to Donnelly after he was last seen and they do not speculate, Glossop says.
“His behaviour in the days leading up to it can be interpreted as different things.
“In terms of facts in the case we can lever off, it’s too ambiguous, which is what makes it so perplexing.
“I just hope one day there’s a solution to it.”
Glossop urges anyone with information on what happened to Donnelly to contact police.
“Imagine what Tracey and the kids have gone through.
“If somebody could put an end to that suffering … anybody with a shred of decency would come forward and remove that pain.
“Imagine waking up every day and not knowing, and that’s what Tracey’s life is like.
“She’s a very brave lady who’s tried to get on with things but it’s just this big unanswered question and it is massive. I can’t think of anything bigger.”
People with information on the disappearance of Jim Donnelly can contact police on 105 or the free and anonymous Crimestoppers tip-off line on 0800 555 111.