Beckenridge mystery: Multiple 'sightings' of missing pair

Mike Zhao-Beckenridge disappeared with his step-father four years ago. Photo via NZ Herald
Mike Zhao-Beckenridge disappeared with his step-father four years ago. Photo via NZ Herald
Police have confirmed they have received multiple potential sightings of missing South Island schoolboy Mike Zhao-Beckenridge and his step-father John Beckenridge.

Wednesday marks four years since Beckenridge, who would now be 68, picked up his stepson from an Invercargill school – in the process breaking a court order – and vanished.

Mike would now be aged 15.

Five days after the pair's disappearance, a farmer spotted Mike and Beckenridge sleeping in their car. A day earlier there was a confirmed sighting of the pair at a service station in Tokanui, 55km east of Invercargill.

Beckenridge's car was later found in the surf off the Southland coast, but there was no sign of their bodies in the 4WD, and speculation has been rife that the pair managed to evade capture in New Zealand and were in hiding overseas.

John Beckenridge
John Beckenridge
As the anniversary of the cold case nears, police have confirmed they had received potential sightings of the pair.

"There has been a number of reports of persons, of an elderly aged caucasian and a young Asian teenage boy both in New Zealand, the Gili Islands [in Indonesia] and other countries," Detective Sergeant Dave Kennelly from the Invercargill police told the Herald on Sunday.

The police investigation into the disappearance had been "extensive", with Kennelly saying despite the lack of any bodies being found, police were in a position to hand over their file to the Coroner's office in a matter of weeks.

A Coronial Services spokesperson said the "coroner's inquiry is on hold until the Police have completed their investigation."

The spokesperson added once police had referred a case to the coroner, the coroner must decide whether to open an inquiry.

The Coroner's office was unable to say how many deaths had been ruled on in recent years in cases missing a body.

But they highlighted at least three - Margaret Kaye Stewart (who went missing in bush near Wellington in 2005 and was ruled dead in 2013), Richard Rustbatch (lost at sea in 2012 and ruled dead in 2013) and Robert Te Paewhenua Roberts (involved in a crash in the Bay of Plenty in 2004 and ruled dead in 2017).

Part of the Beckenridge police investigation had involved the monitoring of international gaming sites for any clues to the teenager's whereabouts.

Mike was a keen gamer.

Kennelly wouldn't be drawn on anything that Interpol had uncovered from their international inquiries.

Beckenridge – a helicopter pilot - met Mike's mother, Fiona Lu, while they were working in Afghanistan in 2006. Lu, who is from China, had moved to the war-torn country to work as a waitress, with her parents raising Mike.

The pair later moved to New Zealand where they were based in Queenstown. Their relationship broke down in 2014 shortly after Lu moved to Invercargill to begin a hairdressing course.

Lu told the Herald on Sunday last year that she was adamant her son was alive.

"There is not a single day I don't think of him. I love him deeply. And for my part I am sorry for what has happened," she said.

At the time, her partner Peter Russell said he believed Beckenridge had "poisoned his stepson against his mum" and the pair plotted their elaborate disappearance; including where he would crash his car off Curio Bay in the Catlins.

A Herald on Sunday investigation last year revealed a woman claimed she saw the pair on Gili Air Island, Bali, on June 30, 2015 – more than three months after they disappeared.

The Volkswagen Touareg belonging to John Beckenridge is recovered from the sea near Curio Bay in...
The Volkswagen Touareg belonging to John Beckenridge is recovered from the sea near Curio Bay in May 2015. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery
Gili Air Island is a small and popular destination for tourists who like scuba diving.

She said the pair were in a "happy conversation". The witness said the man appeared to be 60-63 years of age and wearing a brimmed, light brown suede hat.

The family's desperate search for answers had earlier led them to employ private investigator Mark Templeman, who arranged a meeting with the witness, Lu and Russell in December 2016.

Lu recognised Beckenridge's distinctive hat and the witness also noted a physical characteristic of Beckenridge only Lu would have known about.

Russell has spent more than $150,000 on the private search.

Templeman said every anniversary was difficult for Lu.

"Every time this comes up it is upsetting for the family. Fiona gets quite depressed," he said last week.

Templeman believed the pair had fled to Asia by sea - and didn't think Swedish-born Beckenridge was "the sort of person who would take his own life. He loved Michael too much to cause him harm or death".

Beckenridge had four known aliases - John Locke, John Robert Lundh, Knut Goran Roland Lundh and John Bradford.

Police told Templeman divers who found Beckenridge's car in the sea said both front seatbelts were engaged and the seats were pushed back due to the roof being compressed.

Heartbreaking texts and video of the boy were unearthed by Beckenridge's neighbour and Mike's babysitter, Barbara Smith.

Beckenridge's final text – sent on the day his car went off the cliff – stated the pair was being "chased by the Gestapo. Fiona f****ed up. No going back. My estate will pay back you[r] money. Do not contact anyone please. Regards, JB and MB."

The Smiths often thought of Mike, especially when they look at their own grandson John, who is 16.

"It still upsets me that I don't know what happened to them but over time it gets less painful. I don't think I'll hear from John again. If he and Mike are still alive and well, New Zealand is the last place he will come near. My grandson John and Mike are the same age – he would be a big boy now, grown up and independent," she said.

Smith understands Lu's pain and anguish.

"I feel so sorry for Fiona. I hope she is healing but each year is a constant reminder of what she has lost. It will be really tough for her not to see Mike marry and have kids. There wouldn't be a day that goes by she wouldn't be thinking where he is and how he is doing."

Cold case timeline

2015

March 13
Mike Zhao-Beckenridge picked up by his step-father John Beckenridge at an Invercargill school, breaking a court order.

March 18
Farmer sees the pair sleeping in a vehicle and notifies police. Police seek help to find the pair, thought to be travelling in a dark blue Volkswagen Touareg.

March 20
Final texts sent by Beckenridge to Mike's mother Fiona Lu, lawyers and friends.

March 24
Police find car in Blue Cod Bay, southeast of Invercargill, six days later confirm it belongs to Beckenridge.

April 8
Detective says "all the evidence" points to the pair being inside the car when it plunged off the cliff.

May 8
Divers and helicopter recover car. Ten days later, police say forensic examinations find "no signs of human remains" in car.

June
Possible sighting of Beckenridge and Mike in Indonesia.

2016

March
Police still treating the disappearance as a missing person's case.

April
John Beckenridge's Queenstown home sells for $860,000. The funds are expected to be held in a trust until he is declared dead.

2017

July
International child abduction expert Col Chapman says after considering evidence, he believes the pair have left New Zealand.

2018

March
Herald on Sunday obtains witness statement of a person who claims to have sighted a pair that looked like Beckenridge and Mike in Indonesia. Police say their inquiries are "ongoing and this remains an active investigation".

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