Standing sentinel-like at the foot of the coffin as mourners filed past, the tall 16-year-old schoolgirl spent her heartbreaking final moments with Kirsty Bentley, as close as she could get to her murdered best friend.
Lee-Anne Murray had been planning to spend a sun-soaked, carefree summer holiday with the girl she clicked with at the beginning of third form. There was to be fun at the races, at Kirsty's sweet 16th birthday party and hours spent listening to their favourite boy bands.
Instead, after a brutal attack, she was in church, farewelling her friend forever.
"I remember the funeral – it was big, really big," says Lee-Anne, speaking exclusively to Woman's Day as she casts her mind back to the start of 1999.
"Kirsty's mum Jill would quite often mention how I stood at the end of the casket as everyone went past paying their respects, like I was guarding her. I didn't even know I was doing it."
It remains one of the country's most puzzling cold cases, the vivacious and talented young Ashburton schoolgirl who disappeared on New Year's Eve 1998, her bludgeoned body discovered dumped in the Rakaia Gorge some 50km away nearly three weeks later.
Despite a $50,000 bounty, no-one has ever been charged with her murder.
As the 20th anniversary passes, Lee-Anne – one of the last to see Kirsty alive – tells Woman's Day it has taken years to deal with her schoolfriend's death, but she still holds out hope whoever is responsible will be brought to justice.
Now a Christchurch health administrator, Lee-Anne reveals that being caught up in one of the country's most notorious murder-mysteries at a young age took a traumatic toll, including panic attacks a decade on as she avoided confronting the harrowing truth about how her friend was killed.
"I didn't find out how she died until much later," she tells. "I don't think at the time we could fathom what had happened."
The 36-year-old fondly recounts memories of the big-hearted girl who came into her life soon after she started at Ashburton College.
"For someone that age, looking back now, she was a ridiculously caring person and wise beyond her years. If you were having a problem, she wanted to help you fix it. Her smile could cheer you up and she would be really silly with it. She was just that person."
On the day she disappeared, the pair had spent the morning enjoying a typical teen pastime – shopping.
With plans to go to the Addington races together on New Year's Day, they went to The Warehouse to buy "bits and pieces" before grabbing lunch in town.
"My sister picked us up, drove us back to Kirsty's house and dropped her off," recalls Lee-Anne. "I was going to stay, but it was New Year's Eve and we had people coming over. I was going to see her the following day anyway.
"The next thing I remember was Jill ringing and asking if I had seen or heard from Kirsty. I told her no, that she was going to take her black Labrador Abby for a walk."
As revellers prepared to usher in the final year of the century, Lee-Anne and concerned friends began searching the path Kirsty had taken hours earlier.
"We walked down the river track the next day near where Abby was found," Lee-Anne tells. "I remember we were knocking on people's doors, asking if they had seen her."
With a major police investigation underway, the Bentley home became a refuge for her confused and anxious friends.
"We spent the majority of our time at their house," she says. "Jill probably got sick and tired of the sight of us, but every day we were there at the house. We had each other for support. None of us knew how to deal with it any better than the next person. And Jill was really good for us too."
It's a bond that still continues today, with Jill gifting Lee-Anne treasured mementos, including Kirsty's christening shawl and notes they penned to each other in class. In turn, the friend affectionately dubbed "the tall of it" has kept in touch, helping Jill retrieve her daughter's ashes after her ex-husband died in 2015.
Lee-Anne tells how everyone initially held out hope, expecting Kirsty to walk in the door with loyal Abby on a leash. But the disappearance took a sinister turn when Kirsty's underwear and boxer shorts were found near to where the dog was tied up. "Until then, none of us wanted to actually think of the worst," admits Lee-Anne.
During the next fortnight, a piwakawaka – regarded in Maori folklore as a harbinger of death – seemed to signal a tragic end.
"A fantail kept flying into my house and sitting on the lampshade every day she was missing," tells Lee-Anne. "The day they found Kirsty, my cat killed the fantail."
In the two decades since the teen's death, Lee-Anne is still left wondering who is responsible for taking her friend's life.
"I don't know who killed Kirsty and it's not for want of trying," she tells.
With the whodunnit entering its third decade, newly-married Lee-Anne is making a fresh appeal for people to come forward with information that could solve the case.
"If there's anyone who could say, 'I know Joe Bloggs did this,' go and tell the police. Not only did her father die not knowing who did that to his daughter, but Jill has lived her life not knowing who took her daughter from her. There's quite a large group of us who have had to go through our lives not knowing who took our friend from us.
"If anyone deserves to know, it's Jill and John. They deserve to know who took their daughter and sister from them, and to see that person be put away for what they did."
Despite seeking professional help, Lee-Anne admits there are times it still deeply affects her.
"I was looking over some things recently. It mentioned how Kirsty was killed by a blow to the back of her head and my stomach lurched thinking about it. You'd think I'd be OK with it now, but it still gets me."
But it's knowing Kirsty was robbed of a future that reduces Lee-Anne to tears. Her voice faltering with emotion, she says, "When I got married last year, I thought, 'She never got to have a wedding,' Our milestones, our 21sts, when people started having their babies ... She never got to have that chance.
"There are not many days that go past where she doesn't flick into my head for some reason or another. Even stupid things like the Backstreet Boys being back in fashion now. She was the biggest fan alive. And that sort of gives you that little twinge of emotion knowing she'd love this cheesy song."
With plans to use the christening shawl to cover her babies, Lee-Anne is left wondering what her relationship with Kirsty would be like had that New Year's Eve walk ended differently.
"You can't say we would have stayed as close through our 20s, but all of us girls from that time, we've all kept in touch. I feel we still would have been friends. I have never met anyone quite like her."
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