15 Jul 2016

Coroner: Kirsty Bentley's death no accident

5:01 pm on 15 July 2016

Eighteen years after her body was discovered in a remote part of Mid Canterbury, the coroner has ruled the death of Kirsty Bentley was not accidental.

The 15-year-old from Ashburton went missing after taking her dog for a walk on New Year's Eve in 1998, and her body was found two weeks later.

Her body was found in bushes in a remote part of the Rakaia Gorge.

Kirsty Bentley

Kirsty Bentley Photo: Supplied

Today's inquest happened in a court room empty apart from a handful of reporters and court staff.

Nobody from Kirsty's family attended.

It was left to the man now in charge of cracking the mystery surrounding her death, Detective Inspector Gregory Murton, to read out the few details police did have.

Her older brother, John, the last person to see her alive, told police she left the house late in the afternoon to take the family dog for a walk.

On his arrival home from work that evening, her father, Peter, called police and the next day a search by the river turned up one of the few clues in the case.

Gregory Murton

Gregory Murton Photo: RNZ / Conan Young

"The family dog Abby was found tied to a tree by her lead. This was in an area of bush and foliage just off one of the tracks near to the river and Kirsty's regular dog-walking route.

Later that morning, Kirsty's underwear, namely black underpants and a pair of green boxer shorts, were found on top of blackberry bushes in the same walking area."

Two weeks later, on the day before her 16th birthday, Kirsty's partially buried body was found 60km away near the Rakaia Gorge.

The report from the pathologist, Dr Martin Sage, which found that she died due to a blow to the head from a blunt object, was read out in court.

"I have no doubt that this skull injury would have been accompanied by injuries to the underlying brain, which would cause immediate loss of consciousness and be followed rapidly by inevitable death within seconds or minutes unless urgent supportive medical care were given.

"It is very highly likely that death would occur within hours or days even if such medical care were available."

Coroner Peter Ryan made it clear today's hearing was solely about establishing the cause of her death, not who was responsible for it.

He ruled the teenager's death was not an accident and passed on his condolences to her family.

"And particularly in the horrific way that Kirsty died. It is particularly unfortunate that the perpetrator or perpetrators have not been brought to justice and I'm sure this must cause the family great distress."

Outside court, Mr Murton said the reason the coroner had waited this long to hold an inquest was that the case had yet to be solved.

While the police had discounted most of their 140 so-called people of interest, the case was very much open and he was continuing to review the evidence, he said.

Coroner Peter Ryan

Coroner Peter Ryan Photo: RNZ / Conan Young

Advances in technology meant forensic testing of the exhibits that had remained in the hands of the police was now more refined, he said.

"The forensic examination was done last year in terms of reviewing the forensic evidence we've got. As you can appreciate there's literally thousands and thousands of documents relating to this.

"That's all electronic and I've been going through those."

Eighteen years after her death, Mr Murton said he was committed to bringing to justice the person or people responsible.