Bubbly Kirsty Bentley grabbed at the blue and white sarong she’d fastened around her waist. “I think I’m showing too much leg!” the 15-year-old complained to her mum, who was getting ready to go to work.
“Here, I’ll fix it,” Jill smiled patiently, fishing around for a safety pin. Kirsty fidgeted as her doting mother fastened the pin to her sarong. It was New Year’s Eve 1998 and she had a big day ahead. “Bye, Mum!” she yelled as she flew out the door.
“I remember her waving to me as she went past the windows on the front and the side of the house,” says Jill of the last time she saw her beloved daughter alive. “My gaze followed her. I was waving too and smiling at her excitement. It is still such a sweet memory,”
Two weeks later – the day before Kirsty’s 16th birthday – her body was discovered in thick scrub and blackberry bushes in the Rakaia Gorge, 40km from her Ashburton home.
Despite a massive manhunt and a huge $50,000 reward, her murder has never been solved and the police file remains open to this day.
On the hot summer’s day on which Kirsty disappeared, she had left her home on South Street to take her dog Abby for a walk. It was something the teenager did routinely – but that day, she never returned.
After an anxious night of searching, Abby was found tied to a tree near the riverbank. The new underpants and boxer shorts Jill had bought Kirsty for Christmas that year lay nearby.
Jill says that on the day her precious daughter died, “a light switched off”. Her heart grew quiet and still. Nearly two decades on, she has slowly learned how to process that pain – and to live again.
“For my own sanity, I created an attic in my mind where I store things. If they come out, I deal with them and put them away again,” she explains.
Jill’s second husband Noel Peachey is fiercely protective of her and of Kirsty’s memory. She says, “He never met Kirsty and wishes that he had.” It’s with his help that Jill has learned how to feel joy again and how to laugh.
Taking pride of place in the couple’s lounge is a large photo of Kirsty grinning and giving a thumbs-up. “We often joke with her,” says Jill. “We say, ‘Is it Noel’s turn to make the drinks?’ Kirsty, bless her, always has her thumb up.”
It’s been a long time since Jill kissed Kirsty good night – but she still holds an evening ritual for the teenager so cruelly taken from her.
“On the way to bed, I walk past Kirsty’s urn on the mantlepiece and say, ‘Night- night, darling,’” she tells. Jill was only reunited with Kirsty’s ashes last year, when the urn was dug up from the garden of her ex-husband, Sid Bentley, after his death.
“Oh, how I hugged and kissed that flask,” says Jill. “We just wanted to get Kirsty home, where she belonged.”
Today, the steel urn sits proudly on Jill’s mantelpiece, engraved, “Kirsty Marianne Bentley, 18th January, 1983 – 31st December, 1998.” For Jill, the passing of time has helped to lessen the anguish.
“Kirsty is no less important to me than what she was, but now I try to think less about her death and more about her life,” she reveals.
Jill has retired and lives an almost-reclusive life with Noel and their black SPCA rescue cat Tara. The couple met online in 2001 and quietly married in a small room of the Dunedin Cathedral seven years later. They settled in Invercargill, a day’s drive from Ashburton, Kirsty’s childhood home and the place she last drew breath.
“After all the drama surrounding Kirsty’s murder, we welcome the quiet. Noel guards the gate and keeps an eye out for uninvited reporters,” she laughs. The minutiae of Kirsty’s final day are well known to police. After sorting her daughter’s sarong that morning, Jill left the house for work at 9.30am.
At 11.07am, Kirsty was caught on a CCTV camera at The Warehouse, buying teddy bears with a friend from school. The girls went to McDonald’s for lunch and to KFC for a drink. Phone records show that at 2.38pm, Kirsty called her boyfriend Graeme Offord and left a message. Jill thinks she then took Abby for a walk about 3pm.
Alarm bells were raised early in the evening. When Jill pulled up in the driveway from work at 5.15pm, Kirsty’s brother John, then aged 19, walked up to her car and said, “Where the f* is Kirsty?” She was missing and so was Abby.
Even after all these years, Jill can recall the feeling of dread. She went straight to Kirsty’s room to find her shopping still on her bed and her soft toys all lined up. “I will never forget the stillness,” she says.
In those first few minutes – long before the police were called – Jill reveals she knew with certainty that Kirsty was dead.
“Maybe it’s just mother’s instinct. When I walked into her bedroom, the quiet was loud and clear – it was an unforgettable feeling. It was eerie in there. There was nothing to feel any more. I knew she wasn’t alive.”
Jill had always harboured a secret fear that something bad would happen to Kirsty. Not long after she was born, Kirsty stopped breathing – Jill had been on epilepsy medication during her pregnancy, and her newborn was in withdrawal and fighting for her life.
Kirsty proved to be a battler, but years on, Jill still couldn’t shake a feeling of foreboding. Despite this, Kirsty had grown into a vivacious young lady who loved drama and the arts, and who drew people towards her.
Recalls Jill, “She had a zest for life and only two speeds – top gear and stop. Kirsty just seemed just so darned happy with life and I didn’t want her to lose that.”
In the days that followed Kirsty’s disappearance, family and friends filled the house. So despite the gnawing silence in her daughter’s bedroom, there was life.
Jill says the family – herself, then-husband Sid and John – were thrown into the middle of a media circus. Reporters repeatedly phoned the house and camped out at the end of their driveway. The family’s private lives were thrust into the spotlight.
“Even at the local bread shop, I got sick of being stared at like a two-headed freak,” recalls Jill. Yet, she says, life went on.
Even on the day after Kirsty’s body was discovered, family and friends pressed on with celebrations for her 16th birthday. “Everything went ahead as planned – it was just more low-key. Kirsty would have wanted that.”
Cake was taken to the police team, while Kirsty’s friends cooked dinner at the house. “We raised our glasses to the birthday girl and we also said, ‘Rest in peace.’”
Public scrutiny of the murder was amplified when Kirsty’s father and brother John became suspects. They denied any involvement and were never charged. “Yes, that was horrid,” Jill admits, “but when I got through the shock, I decided that whatever had happened, John would have my love and support.”
Jill says she has a good relationship with her son, who is studying in Sydney. She and Sid separated in 2000 and he died of cancer last year.
“I told the detective, ‘Bring me the evidence and I’ll accept the story.’ I’m still waiting.”
Jill believes she is a totally different person today to who she was in 1998.
“If Kirsty was to magically appear, she would wonder where the old Mum went to,” she laughs. Not only has she remarried, moved towns and retired, but she also feels stronger than ever.
“I’m told I’m a stubborn mule who’s strong-willed and, yes, I’ll own that. It has served me well all these years.”
With the passing of time, Jill no longer dwells on what happened to her girl. “I’d love her murder to be solved, but I don’t let it rule my thoughts. Let the killer squirm – I have a life to lead,” she says.
Although she is getting on with life, Jill has hung on to a few precious reminders of her only daughter. For instance, she has been unable to part with the soft toy collection Kirsty left lined on her bed the day she died.
“Wherever I go, they come with me, taking up couch space,” she tells. “Dear Pooh Bear has been loyal to a fault – he’s a good huggable. Noel calls them ‘the boys’.”
Kirsty’s legacy, she believes, is the friendships she made and the zest she had for life. And although Jill would give anything to have her daughter alive again, it heartens her to know she died happy. “If there is ever a good time to die, it was then,” she says. “All in Kirsty’s world was well.”
Kiwi cold case
This is the first in a Woman’s Day series of unsolved murder investigations. If you have any further information on Kirsty’s disappearance, please phone NZ Police.