Inquest opens into missing NZ man

A jury at the first day of an London inquest into the disappearance of Northland man Lee Sheppard seven years ago has heard of a hard-working, religious, rugby-loving man who was "clucky" to have a baby.

The opening exchanges of the two-week inquest saw Mr Sheppard's wife Juliet answer questions from the family barrister James Maxwell-Scott about the couple's relationship, and their plans to return to New Zealand from London, where they were on an OE.

Mr Sheppard was last seen on January 31, 2003. His body has never been found. A nine-member jury must decide whether he is alive or dead, and if he is dead, how, when and why he died.

He was a night shift supervisor at EMR Fridge Recycling in North London when he vanished. He would now be 34 and the couple have a 7-year-old son, Jaden.

His employer's barrister, David Travers, questioned Mrs Sheppard about the couple's relationship and "tensions" at work and at home.

Mrs Sheppard told the inquest her husband was "excited" when she broken the news of her pregnancy to him five days before he disappeared after clocking on for work at his Willesden workplace on January 30, 2003.

The couple planned to see a doctor to confirm the pregnancy the next day.

Mrs Sheppard said her husband had "fussed over me like I was ill or something".

She earlier described how they planned to return home to his Northland home in Paparoa, 55km south of Whangarei, in May 2003.

Her husband's diary, read out in court, told how he missed his dog and family and planned to build a house in New Zealand. He wrote in August 2002: "I love my mum and dad so much. We will meet again soon... I want a life and I mainly want my wife to be around my parents when we have children".

Mrs Sheppard, who gave evidence all day, told the court they had become engaged in June 1997, when he was 21 and she was 19, after he dressed up in a dog outfit at a New Zealand theme park to pop the question.

They had met at a church youth group in 1996 and set up home in Auckland before their OE.

Mrs Sheppard, accompanied by her sister Janet and mother as well as Auckland private investigator Ron McQuilter, said her husband loved sport, had a strong faith in God and was keen to go home and build a family life in Paparoa.

He was told by EMR colleague Terry McCartney the night he disappeared that he would have to continue with night shifts, a message that prompted him to tell his wife he was going to hand in his notice.

Mrs Sheppard said her husband "seemed really happy" when she phoned him on his way to his last night at work.

£10 was withdrawn at an ATM from their joint account at 10.03pm, soon after he left for work. He has not used the account since. He had told his wife the fridge recycling plant was not working.

"I just remember the last words were 'looking forward to seeing you, I love you babe, bye'," Mrs Sheppard said.

Mrs Sheppard left home before 7am for work, coming home to an answerphone message from her husband's employment agency saying he had been fired as he had not finished his shift.

When Mrs Sheppard called the firm, it said her husband had " walked off the job", and suggested she call the police.

Mr Sheppard's mother Rose and brother Brent flew to London from New Zealand two days after he was reported missing and offered a £13,000 reward, which went uncollected.

Mr Travers questioned Mrs Sheppard about a disastrous holiday to Europe, tensions between the couple and their flatmates, and her husband's drinking.

The inquest is due to run for two weeks.

 

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