September 1, 1983 (Thursday)
Awatoto Beach, Napier, North Island, New Zealand
Ko te Maori i roto i tenei tuhinga mai i te whakamaoritanga aipurangi. Ki te he ana, me whakapaha! Tena koa tohutohu mo te kupu tika. – The Maori in this article is from an online translation. If it’s wrong, we apologize! Please advise on the correct word.
Kirsa Mary Jensen
Alternative Name: Unknown
Ingoa Kārangaranga: Tautangata
Tetahi Ingoa: Tautangata
Disappearance – Te Ngaro
Missing from: Awatoto Beach, Napier, North Island, New Zealand
Date Missing: September 1, 1983 (Thursday)
Te Ra o te Ngaro: Awatoto Beach, Napier, New Zealand
Te Wa o te Ngaro: Hepetema 1, 1983 (Taite)
Te Whakapae: Tautangata
“When I think of her, I think curls and bubbles and laughter and responsibility. . . . Generous and kind and putting others first, but so dedicated to what she wanted to do. She would have done anything for an animal.”Robyn Jensen – Mother (Link)
Kirsa was the exuberant and kind daughter of a local Anglican minister and a school teacher. She was a good student, attending her second year at Colenso High School. Sweet but often shy, Kirsa always had a slightly closer bond with the animals in her life and a special passion for those in the animal kingdom. Kirsa hoped to attend Massey University to become a veterinarian and was even volunteering with a local vet in town. She was also a member of the New Zealand Equestrian Club and was responsible for her own horse Commodore.
That September, Kirsa was working to get Commodore ready for an upcoming local event and was looking for a chance to go out and ride. Unfortunately, rain had kept Kirsa and Commodore from getting out and practicing, but September 1 dawned nice and sunny for a change.
Kirsa and her friend were excited and planned to take advantage of the nice weather by riding together after school, but her friend backed out and Kirsa decided to ride Commodore along the Awatoto Beach alone.
The trip was common for Kirsa and considered relatively safe. The route was in a well-populated area and the beach she road on was visible from the highway. It was the middle of the day and Kirsa had gone the same way many times previously. But when she failed to return home at her usual time, around 5:00PM, her disappearance was quickly noticed.
Kirsa and Commodore set off from their Riverbend Road at approximately 2:45PM (14:45). Following their usual route, they should have arrived at the beach sometime around 3:30PM (15:30) (Link).
They were still riding along the beach at 4:00PM (16:00) when they were seen by an unknown witness (Link).
However, at some point, they appear to have ridden further south along Te Awa Avenue towards the delta of three rivers (Clive, Tutaekuri, and Ngaruroro). They eventually arrived at the gun emplacement (an old WWII fortification) close to the head of the Tutaekuri River. It is here that records suggest something went wrong.
1) Kirsa and her Horse
At 4:20PM (16:20), two surfers nearby saw a girl walking along the beach with a horse. She was leading the horse by its reins and was not riding him.
It is not clear if they were able to see her clearly, but they did not appear to have mentioned seeing any injuries on the girl.
2) Kirsa and the Unknown Man
At approximately 4:30PM (16:30), a witness (John Russell) was crossing Waitangi Bridge when he reportedly saw Kirsa speaking with an unfamiliar male near the emplacement in what seemed like a confrontation.
Possible Suspect #1 + Vehicle
The man was described as Caucasian, approximately 5’11” (180cm) tall, bald, and around 45 – 50 years old.
Near the two was a white utility vehicle (UTE) with brown side panels which might have belonged to the man. For those unfamiliar with this vehicle, it generally has a cab up front and then a flat bed in the back.
*There are several vehicles that appear when you search for white tonne utes in that era. A photo would be beneficial.
Russell was reportedly concerned enough about the body language of the two that he turned around and came back check that everything was okay. (Police would later find this explanation questionable).
Russell arrived to find Kirsa alone but injured with blood on her face. Kirsa told him she was hurt falling off of Commodore, but that she was fine. She then stated that her family had been informed and was coming to pick her up. Russell assumed everything was alright and left. According to his neighbors, Russell arrived home very shortly afterwards.
*The surfers previously had already seen the girl walking her horse, not riding him.
Russell did not say she was injured when he first saw her; did he miss it or was she actually hurt in the few minutes before he returned? If hurt by the unknown man, why not ask the witness for help?
It does not seem that her family was in fact notified that she was hurt. Did she lie about the situation, and if so, why? Or was she lied to by what she thought was a Good Samaritan? Or was Russell mistaken / lying?
3) The White Utility Vehicle
At approximately the same time, another witness passed a white utility vehicle similar to the one previously mentioned driving across the bridge. This witness said the driver had his arm wrapped around the shoulders of a a young woman in the vehicle with him. A description of the girl has not been provided.
Possible Suspect #2 + Vehicle
The driver was Caucasian (height unknown) with brown hair. He was approximately 20 – 30 years old.
The change in description may be a mistake by the witnesses or there may have been two separate men. The second witness did not appear to mention the brown side panels.
Commodore was seen in the moments after this, but in neither case is it clear if he was tied up or loose (a relevant fact).
- 4:40PM (16:40) – Commodore was seen by a passing driver; he seems upset.
- 4:45PM (16:45) – Commodore was seen by another surfer.
In both circumstances, there was no sighting of Kirsa – she had already vanished.
Kirsa’s mother began to be concerned when she still wasn’t home by 5:00PM (17:00) as expected.
She quickly contacted the police and filed a formal report at around 5:45PM (17:45).
A full search was quickly launched, and around 6:00PM (18:00) Commodore was located wandering untethered along the bridge near the highway. Evidence later suggested that Commodore had initially been tied to the gun emplacement by a rope. The rope on his bridle matched that at the emplacement. At some point he seems to have broken loose – what startled him enough to pull free is not clear.
The rope and concrete of the gun emplacement both had blood stains later confirmed to be human (Link). Notable was the fact that the Jensen’s quickly observed the rope did not belong to Kirsa.
Although the search continued until around 11:30PM (23:30) and then renewed the next morning. The vehicle the witness saw was never located, and the rivers were searched but nothing turned up.
Unfortunately, Kirsa was never found.
William John Russell, the witness who testified he saw Kirsa with the unknown bald man and spoke with her about her injury soon became a primary suspect.
The facts suggest that he did at least interact with Kirsa on the day that she disappeared.
- The rope used to tether Commodre was found to have originally been used on the orchard where Russell worked. Russell freely admitted it was his, but could not explain how Kirsa got it for the horse. Is it possible it fell out of his car and Kirsa found it?
- Two strands of hair that strongly matched Kirsa’s were found in Russell’s car later. Police admitted this may have been a nccidental transfer after he spoke with her.
Russell already served 2.5 years for his involvement in a gang rape in 1970. Police also found his story of driving five minutes more to turn around and come back to check out a random situation between two strangers unlikely.
There are however counter-facts that suggest he was not in fact involved in the actual disappearance:
- No blood or other traces of Kirsa were found in his vehicle or his home which were inspected thoroughly.
- The time between when Kirsa was seen by others and when Russell was seen returning home by neighbors was very short. It did not seem enough for him to have hidden Kirsa.
- Russell had led a clean life since his time in jail and nothing in his behavior at the time suggested that he was having a relapse.
- There was nothing to suggest Russell or Kirsa had met before this incident.
Russell stressed his innocence and repeatedly told police and Kirsa’s parents that he was not involved in the case. However, his mental condition began to deteriorate in the time following for reasons unknown. The events of that September afternoon would haunt Russell and he became increasingly confused in his memories of the incident. He eventually was checked into a psychiatric hospital for care, but continued to suffer from psychological issues.
In 1985, Russell slipped out of his psychiatric facility and appeared at the police station seemingly distressed and confused. According to New Zealand Mysteries, he was mumbling to himself phases like “could I have done it?” and seemingly confessed to police that he was concerned he may have killed her. Given that Russell was not making a lot of sense and was clearly mentally unstable, the police sent Russell back to psychiatric care where he remained for some time.
Russell later recanted his statement and would tragically commit suicide a few years later in 1992.
What drove him to such distress remains unclear. If guilt from participating in the crime, why didn’t he leave a note in the end apologizing or revealing the body’s location to the family when he knew how important it was to them? Perhaps it was the fear and depression from being falsely accused by police and media? Or was it simply the guilt from knowing that she was hurt and he could have helped, but in the end he drove away only for her to vanish?
The role Russell played in the case is questionable at best at this point. He clearly met and interacted with Kirsa that day. However, whether or not those events played out the way he communicated is not clear and his later mental instability puts the entire story into question even assuming his innocence.
Russell could have been telling the truth; however, this does not necessarily mean the truck or the bald man were actually involved.
- The bald man may not have owned the utility vehicle, in which case one but not the other may have been involved.
- Was a similar vehicle seen, but with a different driver?
- Was the suspect seen nearby, but in a different place or with different transportation?
- Was the bald man, like Russell, just a concerned citizen? Did Kirsa tell him the same thing she supposedly told Russell? Did he too leave thinking everything was fine?
- Was the younger man in the white UTE seen in the area? Was it his vehicle? Was he the person “going for help”?
It is also possible that Russell was not sharing accurate information (whether he was lying or simply confused).
- Both the information about the bald man and the white truck become completely irrelevant.
- Anything could be evidence.
Whoever the suspect, it was clearly a crime of opportunity. Kirsa was not usually alone during her rides. Nor did she always ride the same route or have a scheduled time or day for her trips with Commodore.
Given the uncertainty of the facts, if you or anyone you know has ANY information or saw ANYTHING strange or out of the ordinary on that day, please contact the police immediately. Even if it seems unrelated to the possible suspects or vehicles in the story, it may be a vital piece of information.
Description – Whakaahuatanga
- Date of Birth: December 15, 1968
- Age at Disappearance: 14
- Ethnicity: Caucasian
- Nationality: New Zealand
- Gender at Birth: Female
- Hair: Dark Blonde – based on her photos
- Eye Color: Light- Colored. Blue-Grey based on her photos
- Height: 5’6″ (158 cm)
- Weight: Slim
- Ra whanau: Tihema 15, 1968
- Tau: 14
- Matawaka: Kaukasia
- Iwi tūturu: Aotarangi
- Ira Ira: Wahine
- Tae Makawe: Makawe Kakaho
- Tae Karu: Rama-Tae. Akene he kikorangi, he atawhai ki te hina
- Teitei: 5’6″ (158 cm)
- Taumaha: Ahua Angiangi
Distinguishing Marks or Factors (Āhuatanga Motuhake)
Medical Concerns (Preocupaciones Médicas)
- Man; Caucasian; 5’11” (180cm); 45-50 years old; Bald
- Man; Caucasian; Brown Hair; 20 – 30 years old
- Tangata; Kaukasia; 5’11 “(180cm); 45-50 tau
- Tangata; Kaukasia; Makawe Parauri; 20 – 30 tau
- White Utility Vehicle (maybe with brown panel sides)
- White Utility Vehicle (tera pea he parauri tona taha)
If You or Anyone You Know Has Information About The Disappearances, Please Contact:
- Napier Police at (06) 8310 700
- Crime Stoppers
Or use the Blue QR Code (right) to find contact information for the National Police.
- New Zealand Police. “Kirsa Jensen”. Link.
- Migone, P. (2017) ‘The Lost: What happened to missing girl Kirsa Jensen?’, Stuff.co.nz, 3 November, Link.
- Leask, A. (2012) ‘New Zealand’s most notorious cold cases’, New Zealand Herald, 27 January. Link.
- Crime.co.nk. Link
- 1News (2017) ”Sheer and absolute hell’ – Mother of missing cold case girl Kirsa Jensen hopes Facebook Amber Alert system protects other children’, 9 November. Link
- New Zealand Missing, ‘Kirsa Jensen’, Link.
- Now to Love (2016) ‘The mystery disappearance of Napier schoolgirl Kirsa Jensen’, 25 November. Link
- Laing, D. (2018) ‘Cold-case mystery: Has the killer of Kirsa Jensen taken his secret to the grave?’, New Zealand Herald, 3 September. Link.
- Rotary Open Opportunities, ‘Kirsa Jensen Memorial | Rotary Club of Ahuriri Sunrise (clubrunner.ca)‘
- Green, E. (2015) ‘Fighting Crime, With Pollen’, The Atlantic, 17 November. Link.
- Laing, D. (2020) ‘Kirsa Jensen cold case: New information still coming in after 37 years, cop says’, New Zealand Herald, 1 September. Link.
- North & South (2016) ‘Finding Kirsa Jensen’, 1 December. Link
Podcasts & Documentaries:
The Lost – Kirsa Jensen (Link) – 3 November 2017.
New Zealand Missing – What Happened to 14-year-old Kirsa Jensen (Link) – 18 March 2021
Greenstone TV – Kirsa: A Mother’s Story (Link)
Afternoon with Jesse Mulligan – “Crimes NZ – The unsolved disappearance of Kirsa Jensen” (Link) – 6 August 2020
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