Real Life

Where is our Judy? Whanau’s tears for missing mum

Memories are all they have left

It was pouring with rain when Tira Yorke woke before dawn. Shaking her partner William Clarke awake in the dark, she told him, “There’s something wrong with Judy.” William told Tira to go back to sleep, but she lay awake until the sun came up, worrying about her big sister.

Less than five kilometres away, on the other side of Te Puke, Tira’s dad Willy Yorke was also awake in the early hours of October 22, 1992. A seasonal orchard worker, he had a terrifying nightmare that his oldest daughter Judy was calling his name, but he couldn’t find her.

Tira, now aged 47, and her father, Willy, 67, still recall their vivid dreams like they were yesterday. But by the time the pair got up to a wet spring morning 24 years ago, their nightmares were beginning to turn into reality.

Judy Yorke, a 25-year-old single mum to Joseph, then seven, and Shannel, three, was missing. The night before, at about 6pm, she had driven to her parents’ house on Valley Road in Te Puke and dropped off daughter Shannel. Her son Joseph was already there – he’d lived with Jane and Willy since he was born.

Judy was wearing a black shirt, black jeans and distinctive black shoes with a buckle on the top. That night, she’d borrowed her sister Tira’s gold earrings, which had a lion’s head on them. Shannel may have only been three at the time, but she still recalls snippets of the last night she saw her mum. Now aged 27, she is a mother herself to a baby daughter called Gospel.

“I remember Mum handing me to Nan, and Nan wrapping me in one of those itchy old wool blankets,” she says. “That’s it, then she left.” Waving goodbye to her family, Judy drove away in her 1979 white Honda Accord hatchback.

A clean-living mum who kept a meticulous house and dedicated herself to her family, she was recently single after a difficult relationship. That evening, she was enjoying newfound freedom. Judy’s family says she went to two local haunts, the Anchor Inn and the Te Puke pub. The last known sighting of Judy was in the wee hours of the morning at a party in a packing shed in the old Te Manaia orchard near Mount Maunganui.

By 7am the next day, Tira knew something was amiss. Her sister had promised to call her early, like she did most mornings. “We were close. Judy called me or Mum when she woke up and then about 10 times a day,” says Tira. “When I didn’t hear from her, I knew something was wrong.”

That morning, Tira drove to her sister’s house on Dunlop Road. Judy’s ex had moved out and was in prison at the time. She took in a flatmate, but she had shifted to Auckland. “I saw Judy’s car parked down the side of the house and all the curtains were pulled,” recalls Tira. “I thought, ‘She’s just hung over and having a sleep in.’”

Tira left, but returned later that day with dad Willy and little Shannel. By then, they’d contacted the police but been told to wait 24 hours to see if Judy showed up.

At Judy’s house, Willy pushed Shannel through a crack in a window and told her to let them in the front door. “As soon as we walked into the house, even Dad got worried,” tells Tira.

Judy’s family teased her about her fastidious housekeeping – she often vacuumed several times a day. That morning, her house was a mess. “There were clothes everywhere and her car keys were just thrown on the floor,” explains Tira. “I remember just crying. I knew she was truly missing.”

Over the next few days, the Yorke family retraced Judy’s footsteps and talked to all her friends. Whanau came from as far away as the Far North to help out. The police launched a murder investigation and interviewed the 30-odd party- goers in the orchard that night. Few clues were uncovered.

On October 28, 1992 – six days after she disappeared – Judy failed to show for Shannel’s fourth birthday party.“Judy would never miss her little girl’s birthday,” says Tira. “She was gone and someone out there knew what had happened.”

Judy left behind few clues. The night she disappeared, she was carrying a purse with a bankbook and Shannel’s birth certificate inside. Those items were never recovered. The only thing found were her black buckled shoes, covered in mud, one each side of a shelterbelt on the 3.25ha orchard where the party was hosted the night she disappeared. With the passing of time, that orchard has now become a housing development.

Police stopped searching for Judy after a while, but her family never did. “We looked for days, for weeks, for months, for years,” says Tira, a mother to Kaman, 30, Ashley, 20, Kiripa, 18, Cruise, 16, Jericho, 13, and grandmother to four-year-old Husqvarn.

“We talked to clairvoyants, who all told us to look in different places – the Kaituna River, the forest, past Katikati. We hunted all over the Bay of Plenty for Judy.”

And no-one felt the anguish of that fruitless search more than Judy’s late mother Jane. Judy was the oldest daughter of three, and the pair were extremely close. Judy’s first job after leaving Te Puke High School was alongside her mum as a seamstress at Bird Manufacturing.

“Mum never gave up looking for Judy,” says Tira. “I remember her doing the dishes, looking out the window, and saying, ‘Happy birthday my darling’ on her birthday.”

It is the Yorke family’s greatest regret that Jane went to her grave with the grief of not knowing where her darling daughter lay. “It broke Mum’s heart to lose Judy and all she wanted before she died was

to get her baby back.”

Jane passed away last year after a short battle with lung cancer. She was 66. Willy is still grieving for his daughter and is now struggling after the loss of his beloved wife. “Sometimes he just talks about wanting to be with Nan,” says Tira.

Continues Shannel, “Now I have had my own child, its been an eye-opener. I can’t imagine the pain of losing a child, let alone not having one to lay to rest.” Shannel was only three when her mum vanished, so has few memories of her. “People ask if I miss her, but you can’t miss what you don’t know,” she explains.

Her memories are snatches in time, a hug, being handed to her nan, the lolly jar at home. “I remember crying and Koro going home to get my teddy,” she recalls. “For some reason, I wanted raisins, so

he got me those as well. I still remember people crying, and the police and reporters at the house. Every time there was another meeting, I had to leave the room so they could talk.”

Shannel says she and her brother Joseph had a happy and loving childhood growing up with their grandparents. “I was my nan’s shadow. If she went into the garden, I would be there, hanging on her skirts and singing her songs from school,” smiles Shannel. “When the other kids went to the hot pools, I never wanted to go – I didn’t want to ever leave my Nan.”

Over the last two decades, Judy has missed out on the birth of her first grandchild, and many nieces and nephews. “She loved children and would have loved seeing the family grow,” tells Tira.

The whanau accepts Judy is dead and has always believed she was murdered. Getting Judy’s body back is a dream they still hope for.

On a hill overlooking the Kaituna River in Te Puke, Judy’s mum Jane is buried in the family urupa near Tia Marae. She lies alongside her own mother, Teoke Dinsdale, and near a tiny stillborn daughter of Judy’s, Channel. The graveyard can be seen from Tira’s property and from Shannel’s home. “It’s good to be able to keep an eye on Mum,” says Tira.

The family hopes new information will one day come to light that will let them put Judy to rest with her whanau. “Judy should be lying up there on that hill too,” asserts Tira. “She is whanau and there will always be a place for her at the urupa. Judy will never be forgotten.”

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