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.
Donnelly was 43 years old when he went missing on Monday, June 21, 2004.
He hasn’t been seen since and his whereabouts are a total mystery to his loved ones and the police.
The married father of two was living with his wife Tracey and their two young children in Dannemora when he disappeared.
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 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 that what happened to him remains unexplained but “the presumption is Jim has died”.
- The police investigation
Inspector Dave Glossop previously held the file on Donnelly’s disappearance before it was transferred to Detective Inspector Shaun Vickers of Counties Manukau Police.
While Glossop wasn’t involved in the initial investigation into Donnelly’s whereabouts, he has colleagues and friends who were and he knows as much about the case as anyone.
“When I took over as head of the Criminal Investigation Branch for Counties Manukau South I picked up the file to review it as the previous person who held it had left the police,” Glossop told the Times.
“I went out to the mill and spoke to some of the key people.
“I built a relationship with Tracey and did a few experiments trying to reconstruct timings and other things.
“The case has been under my skin ever since. I’ve become from the police’s point of view the subject matter expert on it because I held the file for so long.”
Glossop says he takes every opportunity to talk about the case with professionals who he thinks can contribute by sharing their opinions on it.
That sometimes leads to questions he hasn’t already thought of, but it’s happened less often in the past six to seven years, he says.
“Of all the cases I’ve ever dealt with and all the people I’ve talked to about cases, this is the most perplexing one because in every investigation there are always facts to link to and lever from.
“You tease out the facts and it leads to another fact.
“This has just got so many conflicting facts and so many variables and unknowns.
“It’s been through the coroner a long time ago and Jim’s been declared deceased.
“The cause of death is unknown and I hope one day we do know for Tracey’s sake, but it really is a mystery.”
- The initial search
Glossop says when someone is missing there are a limited number of possibilities, including foul play, suicide, intentional disappearance, or an accident.
There’s no known evidence Donnelly was the victim of foul play or of an industrial accident at the steel mill, he says.
“There is absolutely no indication of that. If he’d fallen or been hurt somewhere we would have found him by now.
“The searches done within the mill and immediate surrounds was very thorough and I’ve had those searches redone.
“The initial searches were looking for someone who was injured, so if someone was trying to evade the police they easily could because we weren’t looking for somebody who was hiding from us.
“But when we did the subsequent search of the surrounds we got a whole lot of volunteers, the Army, police, Search and Rescue, and put GPS [units] on people’s backs so we could see exactly where they’d been.
“It was a hard search. We were looking for anything and turning over every rock to see if we could find anything.
“Nothing came of that. Everything that was searchable has been searched.”
Police talked to experts about sewage ponds located within walking distance of the mill but their contents was so corrosive it would have destroyed human remains, Glossop says.
“We’re talking about unfiltered raw sewage. It just wasn’t practical to put divers in because there’s zero visibility.
“We looked at trying to dredge it but with the time delay and the best advice we had at the time was ‘you’re wasting your time’.
“We even spoke about ground-penetrating radar with the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] and that sort of stuff but it was a dead end.”
- Jim’s unusual behaviour
One of the many unexplained aspects of the case is what led Donnelly to start behaving in an unusual way in the days prior to his disappearance.
Glossop says the behaviour was “really outside the norm” for the dependable family man.
The day before Donnelly vanished he turned up in his car at a friend’s workplace.
He didn’t see his friend there but had an interaction with the site’s security guard which caused concern.
Donnelly produced his driver’s licence when asked to do so but would repeat the security guard’s questions back to him.
“The way he was speaking he sounded very robotic,” Glossop says.
Several days prior to his disappearance Donnelly had told his wife he needed to attend a meeting but wouldn’t say who it was with or what it was about.
“The day before, when he drove to town to get some takeaways, those are things we know happened because we have CCTV of him and [using] the eftpos card buying the takeaways,” Glossop says.
“But he returned home with that half eaten.
“The time frames that he’d left and come back, we’re relying on memory and they’re very tight timeframes.
“I drove it a couple of times in different conditions sticking to the speed limit.
“Both times I attempted it I couldn’t drive in the timeframe.
“Nothing is conclusive but that says any meeting he had must have been really short.
“We don’t know if he did actually attend a meeting.”
The next story in this series examines more of the evidence relating to Donnelly’s disappearance.