Cold Case: The mysterious case of Richard Hinkley who vanished on Christmas Day

When police turned up at Richard Hinkley’s home after a neighbour reported him missing they found a clean and tidy unit with Japanese decor and plenty of family pictures on display.

There were no signs of struggle, his laptop was still there and everything was in order – except for his partially unmade bed, something that seemed slightly at odds with how tidy everything else was in the flat.

It was February 10, 2016 and although the fridge was well-stocked the milk had long expired and his much-loved plants in the backyard hadn’t been cared for in some time.

Inquiries quickly revealed the 49-year-old was last seen on December 23. The last known conversation anyone had with him was when an uncle called on Christmas morning.

According to his uncle, it was a shorter than normal conversation and Hinkley, who sounded “a bit tense” said he’d call back when he was a bit more awake.

After that, he simply vanished.

Nearly six years on and police still have no idea what happened to the Christchurch man, whose disappearance featured on the final episode of TVNZ’s Cold Case this evening.

“Everything seems to stop at his house on the 25th of Dec 2015, it’s as if time has stood still since then,” said Detective Sergeant Michael Freeman who has been involved in the case since Hinkley went missing.

“It’s as if someone has got out of bed, answered a phone call, made a cup of tea, left their slippers on the floor and walked out the door.”

Freeman said police were contacted by Housing New Zealand, now Kāinga Ora, staff on February 10. They had received a call from a neighbour who was concerned he hadn’t seen him for several weeks.

Police carried out a welfare check but found no signs of a break-in or any misadventure. The flat was “neat and tidy” and there didn’t appear to be any missing items.

“It appeared as if someone had just got up and walked out of the address.”

Police started contacting known associates but when no one had seen Hinkley for several weeks they launched an official missing person’s inquiry, which involved trawling through all aspects of his life.

A picture began to emerge of a man who loved all things Japan – he had even learned the language and decorated the walls of his flat with Japanese wallpaper.

He was estranged from his father, but had a close relationship with his mother and had a good reputation with colleagues he once worked with on a fishing trawler. He had workedhere and in Australia and other jobs included time as a taxi driver and in construction.

He had also managed his money well but in 2004 he was involved in a car crash that left him with serious spinal and head injuries.

In 2011 his mother died, and things changed dramatically for Hinkley.

His family say the loss “hit him hard”, he suffered from depression and he started drinking heavily.

“Emotionally he took a dive with all that grief,” his aunt Jill Martin said on the show.

He also moved into a world where dabbled in drugs, had more associates than long-term friends and ended up in financial trouble.

His family still don’t know if any of these factors played a role in his disappearance.

Freeman describes Hinkley as a unique and “slightly quirky” individual who would invite associates to his home where they would listen to music, drink and smoke cannabis.

There were often disagreements and friendships often didn’t last long as he was prone to lose his temper if things didn’t go his way.

“Most of the time Richard was quite placid but he’d rise to the occasion if somebody pressed the wrong button,” recalls Patsy Job, another one of his aunts. “He’d stick up for himself, and others, if he thought there was a wrong being done.”

Detective Inspector Michael Ford, who was not involved in the case at the time but was brought in to provide a fresh perspective on the disappearance for the show, said finding out what happened to Hinkley was difficult because there was no body.

Options include the possibility that Hinkley took his own life, left of his own accord and didn’t want to be found or was killed by someone else.

“Locating Richard is the key to this mystery,” said Ford. “When we locate Richard we will be able to establish how he’s got there, why he is there and who else is involved.”

Money is one factor that could play into all those possibilities.

Hinkley had traditionally been very good with his finances but by the time he went missing he was looking at insolvency and working with a budgeting adviser to try and repay close to $50,000 worth of debt.

He had started using a credit card when his mother died, putting the cost of her funeral on the card and then making regular cash withdrawals from ATMs the following year.

By 2015 the monthly withdrawals were happening at an “alarming rate” – until July when his card became maxed out.

Police are still unsure what he did with the cash; gambling was considered but there was no real evidence of it. Associates described how he would flash around the money and count it in front of them.

None of them seemed to know where it came from or what it was spent on.

On December 23 he met a budgeting service staff member. He appeared to be on track with his budgeting and had set up an automatic payment system.

Police have questioned whether the shame of insolvency overwhelmed him, if he used the money to leave his former life and flee overseas undetected, or if associates he flashed cash in front of “taken advantage of that” and something more sinister happened as a result.

“I think it certainly is a bit of a dream to accumulate a bit of cash and create a new identity but I think he’s still in NZ,” said Detective Sean Greenall who has also been involved in the case.

Freeman said the drug world was fickle so could have played a role in his disappearance.

“Let’s face it, people get killed over an ounce, a pound, if something goes wrong. That could be a possibility but we just don’t know.”

If foul play was involved Greenall believes more than one person would know about it given Hinkley was a large man, standing about 184cm tall.

Police say there weren’t any signs that Hinkley had planned to end his life or flee and create a new one – he had what would have been fresh milk and bread, his cupboards were full of clothing. And, you’d often expect a body to turn up by now if he had chosen to end his life.

The only thing that looked out of place in his flat was the partially unmade bed.

“It was noticeable that it was a double bed, that had only been slept in on one side as the blankets were folded back. It’s as if someone just got up, got changed and left,” said Freeman.

“That struck me as unusual, given his cleanliness. That bed wasn’t as tidy as the rest of the house.”

Hinkley’s laptop was missing the second time police searched his home. They later tracked it down – it had been pawned a few days after neighbours reported his disappearance to HNZ. It was then reformatted and sold online so all possible evidence, or clues about his state of mind, was gone.

Police say the length of time it took for his disappearance to be reported to police, combined with his lack of good friends, state of mind and the laptop being reformatted has made the investigation more difficult, especially in the absence of a body.

They believe the answer lies with the public and hope the publicity from tonight’s show encourages anyone with information to come forward.

“This is very solvable, it’s just finding that piece of evidence or information that leads us down the right path,” said Ford. “It’s just so important if the community have information they tell us. We want to know where he is because if we find him, everything else will fall into place.”

Freeman said it is difficult not knowing what has happened.

“It stays with you, some of these people you don’t find, because we’ve all got families. I’m a parent myself, I’ve got two daughters. No parent should have to wonder where his child is, missing or dead.

“You look around the room and he can see there are family memories there – lots of photographs and happy times. He’s someone’s son, someone’s uncle or relative. His family want some closure.

“We just have a moment in time, we can evidentially put him at his address on Christmas Day but almost from 10 o’clock that day Richard has ceased to exist.”

And that’s something that remains difficult for his family to cope with. His father died a few years ago without knowing what happened to his son.

“We lost other family members in the last few years but know what happened and were able to say goodbyes,” said his aunt Martin. “But in the case of Richard, we just don’t know what happened.”

There’s not a day that goes past that his family don’t think about him.

“When I think of Richard now, I’m just wondering ‘where you are Richard?,” said Aunt Job.

“If Richard is no longer alive we want to bring him back and put him with our ancestors.”

Anyone with information is asked to call 0800 COLD CASE (0800 2653 2273) or visit www.police.govt.nz/coldcase

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