Bob Martin has spent 13 years, his savings and much of his pension looking for his daughter.
When she disappeared in 2005, the 79-year-old combed the reserves along State Highway 1 between Hamilton and Taupo. He put flyers up in Putaruru and Tokoroa. He dug on land because psychics told him that’s where she’d be.
But he’s been unable to find her.
Francesca Martin - known as Fran and aged 42 when she went missing - was last seen at a petrol station in Hamilton on April 20, 2005. Her white Nissan Pulsar turned up the next day two hours’ drive away, near the intersection of State Highway 1 and 5 in Wairakei.
“All I want to do is to get someone to come up and tell me, I do know where she is and get lucky and find that he’s right or she’s right,” Bob says. “All I want is my daughter and to bury her - nothing more.”
Bob told RNZ’s podcast The Lost he’s driven to Wairakei to look for Fran more than one hundred times and spent his savings of $75,000 in his search.
“I had big telephone bills. It was just a bit here and a bit there, but a bit here and a bit there over six years is a lot of money.”
Fran was last seen at a Caltex petrol station. CCTV footage shows she bought cigarettes, took out $30 and then left. About 20 seconds later, it appears she came back in to ask for directions.
At the time, police said Fran was at the petrol station at 8.55pm, but Detective Sergeant, Matt Cranshaw, who is in charge of her case now, says she took out money at exactly 7.57pm - an hour earlier.
Mr Cranshaw says the discrepancy between the petrol station timestamp and bank withdrawal could be because of daylight saving.
A truck driver would later report seeing a car like Fran’s passing him near the highway intersection at Wairakei at about 10.45pm. When he approached the intersection, Mr Cranshaw says the truck driver looked up State Highway 5 towards Rotorua and saw what appeared to be the same car parked.
“The inside lights [were] turned on and the passenger door was opened,” Mr Cranshaw says. “From that he assumed there may be two people because that door was open. However, he could not see inside the vehicle.”
Fran’s car was be found by police about 24 hours after she was seen at the petrol station.
Fran is described as a shy woman, with a quick mind and a photographic memory. But in 1985, she had an accident and would later be diagnosed as a schizophrenic, and would take anti-depressants.
Before she disappeared, Fran was planning to spend a couple of nights at a beach, north of Raglan. So when her car turned up in Wairakei, Bob was confused.
“No one understood why the car was down there. It’s a complete mystery because it’s the complete opposite where she was going,” he says.
“We knew something was wrong. Something had happened. I could feel that it wasn’t good.”
At her house, clean washing ready to be hung up and clothes ready to be packed were found. Her pills were up-to-date, Bob says.
The police search for Fran went on for weeks. Bob’s search went on for years.
“Dave and I we went down and searched all the reserves that came up between Hamilton and Taupo. Some of them are just south of Cambridge. We would always be ready to do some digging,” Bob says.
“In some of the reserves you’d ... the old style fridges, we used to open them up to see if anyone was in them.”
Bob focused a lot of his time on a gravel road about 1km south of the Wairakei Thermal Valley, after he was contacted by a Scottish diviner and two psychics who all, independently, said she was buried there. The psychics said she had been killed.
Bob dug around the area, hoping to find his daughter. On one occasion, a bulldozer operator volunteered his services. But nothing was found.
Local cafe owner, Cathy Sandbrook, says she saw and heard suspicious activity in the area around the time Fran disappeared, including an ear-piercing scream and a red ute with a white car parked beside it.
She’s not sure exactly what day it was, or whether it’s connected to Fran’s disappearance, but thanks to RNZ’s inquiries Mr Cranshaw says police now plan to interview her about it.
Fran’s disappearance is still being treated as a missing person case - and the police are keeping an open mind, Mr Cranshaw says.
“We’ve got no information at this point in time that would suggest something sinister has occurred to her. Not to say that it hasn’t, just that we haven’t got the information to say categorically that there’s more than her going missing.”
But Mr Cranshaw says Fran also had mental health issues.
“There are some indications from some of her close associations that she was actually really unwell at the time. There were indications that she was to be assessed by mental health a couple of days post-her going missing.”
Bob is convinced Fran was killed, and despite the years, he’s still determined to find her. He runs every morning to stay fit, he says, but petrol has become too dear. He can no longer drive south to dig.
“I still get my days when I’m sitting here and I think about certain things and have tears running because they are happy tears too because I think of the good times.
“I just feel that something should have gone right, instead of everything going wrong and it just didn’t,” he says.
“It’s just the way things go, but I do want to find her.”
Do you have any information on Fran’s whereabouts?
Crimestoppers: 0800 555 111