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November 2009
 
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The search for Aisling

Aisling Symes
Photo: Private Collection

Two-year-old Aisling Symes disappeared at around 17.15 on Monday 5 October. Her mother’s attention was momentarily diverted as she struggled to disconnect a washing machine. When she looked up Aisling was gone.

Family members carried out an initial search, but could not find the little girl.


Records show police were called at 17.42 and an I-car arrived at the address in Longburn Road, Henderson shortly afterwards at 17.47.

First one, then two I-car crews began to search the area. By 18.30 search and rescue experts had been put on standby and by 20.30 a full search and rescue operation was underway.

The following day, as concern and fear for Aisling’s safety grew, so did the impetus behind the attempt to locate her.

At the height of the search around 140 people were involved. Police search teams, LandSAR, the Dive Squad, the Fire Service, 38 volunteers from the New Zealand Air Force and community volunteers all did their utmost to locate Aisling.

Police helicopter Eagle, which had been deployed in the successful hunt for an armed offender in Dannevirke, returned to base to refuel then the crew immediately turned out to join the search.

Waitakere Area Commander, Inspector Gary Davey became the public face of the investigation. While Gary dealt with the demands of a media driven by huge public concern and need for information about the hunt for Aisling, the incident management team he appointed did everything they could to locate the little girl.

The quest to find Aisling was divided into two main phases, a search phase and an investigative phase, both of which continued until she was found.


The search phase was coordinated by Inspector Scotty Webb with the assistance of Land SAR.

All obvious areas were searched, including the drain in which Aisling was eventually found. A camera put down the drain when she first went missing failed to locate her as the water quality was so poor and murky.

Members of the management team: Constable Natalie Heem, Inspector Gary Davey, Detective Senior Sergeant Jill Rogers and Detective Sergeant Roger Small.
Photo: Anna Woolnough

Detective Senior Sergeant Jill Rogers led the investigative phase. As she had just completed several major investigations, Jill was off duty on the morning of Tuesday 6 October when she heard of Aisling’s disappearance on the radio. She made the decision to come into work and volunteered to take up the inquiry.

It was Jill’s job to ensure that no possible scenario for Aisling’s disappearance was discounted. Abduction, homicide and any other possibility had to be considered, investigated and eliminated.

Second in charge of the investigation, Detective Sergeant Roger Small oversaw the management of the vast amount of information and thousands of hours worth of CCTV footage that made its way into the incident room.

The team received reports of possible sightings of Aisling throughout the inquiry – from Invercargill to Whangārei and as far away as a flight from Heathrow to Malaysia.

At the height of the inquiry more than 70 CIB and CIU staff were working on it. Gary was very grateful for the support he received from District Commander, Superintendent Bill Searle and AMCOS, Auckland City and Counties
Manukau police, who were happy to volunteer staff to assist.

Additional support came from seasoned detectives Superintendent Andy Lovelock and Detective Inspector Greg Crammer, who carried out peer reviews of the investigation as it progressed.

Commissioner Howard Broad paid a visit to the station to give his personal support to staff.

All the incident management team agree it was Constable Natalie Heem, Family Liaison Officer to the Symes family, who had the most difficult role.

Natalie provided support to the family who were understandably distraught and helped them deal with the pressures created by the search, the investigation and the media interest.

Gary says, “She was an invaluable conduit between the family and the investigation team, carefully explaining police process to the family while supporting the investigation phase.”

The level of public support during this investigation was truly amazing. Staff members were inundated with flowers, cards and letters of support, while officers received cakes, scones and pikelets from the public, who wanted to contribute to the search for Aisling in whatever way they could.

Aisling’s disappearance drew international media attention. Gary gave interviews around the clock, doing what he could to satisfy the demands of local and national media from 7.00 and doing live interviews with the Irish media at 23.30.

“Support from the media is very important in cases like this,” says Gary. “We needed to ensure that media interest in Aisling was sustained, to keep her image in front of the public until we located her.

“However the sheer volume of media inquiries does create pressure on an investigation.

“I was grateful to Communications Managers Kevin Loughlin and Noreen Hegarty and the communications staff who supported Aisling’s family, fielded requests, planned responses and helped ensure the right messages and appeals were made at the right time.

“Everyone involved in the search for Aisling desperately wanted her to be found alive,” says Gary.

“I want to acknowledge the professionalism and dedication of the team who worked so hard to locate her along with the other staff who carried on with their normal duties keeping Waitakere District safe.”

 

Cards and letters of support flow in

Operation Longburn staff received many hundreds of cards and letters of support including the following letter from Michael Jensen:

Hello,

Some 26 years ago my sister Kirsa Jensen was abducted and is still officially a missing person. I was 16 at the time. I have many memories of that period and one of the strongest was the dedication and effort of the New Zealand Police.

Many officers, including Ian Holyoake, Bill Withers, Murray Jeffries and Murray Sawyer dedicated so much time to the effort to find my sister, to the extent of using what little leave they had during that time to search areas not covered by official searches.

I am well aware of the level of involvement that New Zealand Police officers invest in cases like this.

I have seen first hand the sacrifices they make when a child’s safety is at risk, and the pain and frustration we all share when a less than desirable outcome eventuates.

With little Aisling’s case I have felt a strong degree of empathy with both the family and the officers involved, perhaps because I am a father myself now.

Please pass on my profound respect to Inspector Davey and his team for the strength they have shown over the last week and the empathy they have towards the Symes family.

Sincerely,
Michael Jensen

 

Case of missing schoolgirl Kirsa Jensen still open

Kirsa Jensen

Napier schoolgirl Kirsa Jensen disappeared 26 years ago.

Kirsa, a 14-year-old Colenso High School student, went for an after-school ride on her horse Commodore at Awatoto, just south of Napier, on 1 September 1983.

Witnesses last saw Kirsa by an old gun emplacement near the mouth of the Tutaekuri River.

Her horse, Commodore, was found near the emplacement, but no trace of Kirsa has been found.

 

The case remains open and Detective Sergeant Brian Schaab, of Napier CIB, would like to hear from anyone who has information about Kirsa’s disappearance, especially if they have not contacted police before.

“We just need to find that vital part of the jigsaw which will help us establish what happened to Kirsa,” says Brian.

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