Cold Case Explorations

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The Mysterious Disappearance of Jamie Kaiwai

This case has remained unsolved for 4 years, 1 months, and 28 days.

Jamie Kaiwai was a 27-year-old mother who disappeared on the morning of October 10, 2019 in Tolaga, a city in Eastland, New Zealand. Although she had her struggles with mental health and drugs, she was trying to get her life back on track when she vanished.

Despite finding Kaiwai’s car with bloody clothes inside, police have largely ruled the disappearance as not suspicious. They neglected to test for fingerprints, neither in her car nor the room where she was living in at the Tolaga Bay Inn. Ultimately, authorities dismissed the case as one of likely suicide.

Kaiwai’s family though is vehemently against the idea that she ended her own life. Her son was five years old at the time and they doubt that she would have left him behind. They also point to a lackluster police investigation, one that nearly ended up being investigated itself.

Several years later, we’re left with few answers. Why did she disappear? Was this really a suicide as authorities suggest, or was foul play involved? What happened to Jamie Kaiwai?

Table of Contents

About Jamie Kaiwai

Jamie Kaiwai was born into a troubled homelife. Her father died when she was young and she ended up estranged from her mother. Her grandparents took her in during high school and she finished her schooling at the Tolaga Bay Area School.

Kaiwai was known for her generosity and contagious laugh in her small community of Tolaga, as well as for her love of music and talent as an artist. She also was a black belt and described by her grandparents as a talented, independent young woman.

Jamie Kaiwai and her son.
Jamie Kaiwai and her son (NZ Herald).

Kaiwai also reportedly had some struggles with mental illnesses and drug use, but was working on getting clean. In 2018, she had a psychotic episode and ended up losing custody of her son. With the assistance of a community mental health team, Kaiwai worked on getting back on track and securing a new job.

Overall, there was little to indicate that Kaiwai was thinking about running off to start a new life or that she was depressed. She was in the process of getting her life back on track when she suddenly disappeared.

Kaiwai’s Disappearance & Search Efforts

There wasn’t a lot of information about the days leading up to Kaiwai’s disappearance. From reports, Kaiwai was last seen on a Tolaga Bay beach near the wharf on the the morning of October 10, 2019 (although some sources say she was last seen on Friday, October 11). Her cell phone activity had stopped days earlier, on October 9.

The Search for Kaiwai Begins

For ten days, Tairawhiti authorities searched around the Tolaga Bay Wharf area, and a dive squad was brought in to perform a sonar search. However, they were unable to find any signs of her. Kaiwai’s grandfather said of the search:

“Not one person saw anybody. If she had drowned, she would have floated, and she would have gone where the tide takes her. The divers searched and found nothing.”

Kaiwai’s Grandfather (Source: Stuff NZ)

Another witness described the disappearance as troubling, stating, “All sorts of terrible rumors went around that this person did it, and that person did it.”

Tairawhiti police reportedly believed from early on that she had taken her own life. They came to this conclusion because of her previous struggles with mental health and her cannabis use. To date, her remains have never been located.

Tuia 250 Celebrations

The Tuia 250 celebrations were taking place in October 2019 in Tolaga Bay. The Tuia 250 was a celebration marking 250 years since the first onshore encounters between Māori and Pākehā in 1769, meaning the beach and bay were both teeming with people. However, no one reported seeing Kaiwai’s car arriving at the car park.

Additionally, six ships arrived in Tolaga Bay for the Tuia 250 Voyage in the early morning of October 13. The ships brought an influx of people, although no one reported seeing Kaiwai or her car.

A photograph of the Tolaga Bay Wharf area.
A photograph of the Tolaga Bay Wharf area (Over the Hill NZ).

Kaiwai’s Car Located

Kaiwai’s car was located on October 13, 2019 at Tolaga Bay. It was unlocked, the keys were inside, and there were a number of bloody clothes within as well. Police still neglected to treat this discovery as suspicious.

A photograph of the Tolaga Bay car park where Kaiwai’s car was located.
A photograph of the Tolaga Bay car park where Kaiwai’s car was located (Over the Hill NZ).

Bloody Clothes in Kaiwai’s Car

Authorities searched Kaiwai’s car for more clues about her disappearance. They located some odd articles of clothing:

  • grey track pants (covered in sand and damp with a shoe stuck in one of the legs)
  • two hoodies, one inside the other (with drops of blood on the inside cuff)
  • a black leather jacket (with blood on the sleeves)
  • a black jersey (with blood on it)

It isn’t clear from media reports if all of the clothing found belonged to Kaiwai or not. There was also no mention that authorities tested the blood for DNA to find out whose it was.

Kaiwai’s Car Was Moved

Additionally, Kaiwai’s family was sure someone had driven the car because it had battery trouble; if it wasn’t driven every 12 hours or so, the battery would die. “It had a crook battery. If that car had been there since Friday not driven, it would not have fired up straight away,” Kaiwai’s grandfather said of the vehicle.

Originally, police suggested that Kaiwai’s blue Nissan Tiida had been in the same place in the car park for about five days. However, it was later learned that the car had been moved at least three times over several days.

Photographs submitted by those who had attended the Tuia 250 celebrations showed the car in three different locations at various points in time. This indicated that someone was coming back to move it from spot-to-spot on several different days (August 10, 12, and 13). So who had been moving her car? And why?

Jonique Oli-Alainu’uese (left) with her cousin Jamie Kaiwai.
Jonique Oli-Alainu’uese (left) with her cousin Jamie Kaiwai (NZ Herald).

Blood in Kaiwai’s Room

At the time of her disappearance, Kaiwai was living in a room at the Tolage Bay Inn. When investigators examined her room, they found blood inside, although it’s not clear what sort of blood evidence specifically was found. Law enforcement did not test Kaiwai’s car for fingerprints, nor was her room tested for prints at the Tolaga Bay Inn.

Kaiwai’s Laptop Searched

When Kaiwai’s laptop was examined, police found evidence of where she’d been thanks to her phone’s GPS uploading data to her computer. The cell phone data showed she made a drive to Hawke’s Bay and then another to Te Araroa. However, she only stayed about five minutes at each location. Some have suggested this is evidence that she was having another sort of mental health crisis.

Investigators also found evidence that she was searching for midwives in Uawa a few months before she went missing. Her family isn’t sure if this means that she was pregnant or not.

A picture of Jamie Kaiwai (Facebook).

Other Clues Found

Kaiwai’s EFTPOS card (similar to a debit card) was located at a different Tolaga Bay beach, away from where her car was found. A blanket that Kaiwai’s grandmother leant to her was also discovered to be missing. “She asked our nan for this blanket because she was cold at the inn. My nan had two of these blankets,” Kaiwai’s cousin said of the blanket.

Still an Open Investigation

As of 2022, authorities have said that their investigation remains open, but they aren’t treating the disappearance as suspicious. Tairawhiti police Detective Senior Sergeant Kevin Ford noted that Kaiwai’s case is still classified as a missing persons investigation.

A keychain reading “Justice for Jamie Kaiwai” that were sold as a fundraising item.
A keychain reading “Justice for Jamie Kaiwai” that were sold as a fundraising item (Facebook).

But Was it a Botched Investigation?

Some have suggested on social media that, because Kaiwai is of Māori descent, the search for her was not taken as seriously as it would have otherwise been.

Some comments about the disappearance of Jamie Kaiwai, mostly criticizing authorities and the media for a lack of coverage.
Some comments about the disappearance of Jamie Kaiwai, mostly criticizing authorities and the media for a lack of coverage (Facebook).

Members of Kaiwai’s family too have speculated that her case didn’t get as much attention because of her ethnic background:

“Does being a young Māori mother make her less deserving of the same attention that as a nation, we give to the likes of Grace Millane [another missing woman]? Can we truly say, that had she been a tourist or a caucasian, NZ would know her name by now?”

Kaiwai’s Family (Source: Stuff NZ)

Kaiwai’s cousin, Jonique Oli-Alainu’uese, believes that the investigation was lacking from the start. She said, “I can’t accept the lack of investigation into the case. I can’t let go because there’s too much wrong.”

A private investigator hired by the family has stated that there are “obvious flaws” in the way authorities investigated the case. And, to be fair, there were a lot of flaws. Fingerprints went uncollected, assumptions were made about why she went missing, and bloody clothes weren’t treated with suspicion by authorities.

The Search Goes On

To date, Kaiwai has never made contact with anyone again, nor has her body been located. The family has alluded to the fact they don’t think she is alive anymore. Most of all, they don’t think she would have left her son. One said of where they believe she is:

“We believe she is close to Tolaga Bay, 10–30km north. My final plea is that if you’re out hiking, tramping, hunting, walking, in and around abandoned homes, shorelines, rivers that you keep her in mind.”

Kaiwai’s Family (Source: Stuff NZ)

Theories on What Happened

There are a few theories out there about what happened to Jamie Kaiwai, although authorities seem to maintain that most likely she took her own life.

Kaiwai Committed Suicide

The prevailing theory by authorities is that Kaiwai took her own life after struggling with mental health issues and drug use. This is very possible, especially because some people are very good about hiding their true feelings or what they’re going through before they decide to end it all (and if you’re struggling, please reach out for help).

In Kaiwai’s case though, it seemed that she was doing better. She had just secured new employment and, by all accounts, was trying to get back on the straight and narrow. It’s possible though that while she was doing better from the outside looking in, she was still struggling internally.

Family members often don’t want to believe that their loved one would take their own life, especially if a suicide note isn’t left behind. The fact of the matter is that less than half of suicide victims leave a note, so it’s not as common an occurrence as TV and movies would have you believe.

Ultimately, if this case had been more thoroughly investigated from the start instead of being dismissed as a suicide, the family and the public would have more faith in the outcome of the investigation. It’s entirely possible that Kaiwai committed suicide and it’s also entirely possible that there is another explanation for her disappearance.

Jamie Kaiwai and her son at one of the beaches at Tolaga Bay.
Jamie Kaiwai and her son at one of the beaches at Tolaga Bay (Gisborne Herald).

Kaiwai Drowned

Some have suggested that perhaps Kaiwai went for a swim and then ended up drowning. This is possible, although it should be stated that she wasn’t known for being a swimmer or swimming in the ocean. Her grandparents said of her, “She loved to watch the sea, but she would never get in. She was afraid of the water and wasn’t a swimmer.”

It’s possible that Kaiwai ended up in the water if she was under the influence of drugs, but at the same time, she’s only been accused of using cannabis. I doubt that smoking some pot would make a non-swimmer go out into the water, especially the ocean which can be unpredictable.

There Was Foul Play Involved

Many in this case suspect foul play was involved, especially Kaiwai’s family. Oli-Alainu’uese, her cousin, has stated:

“She would not just go missing. She loved her family, she loved her son… None of us believe she committed suicide. In our heart of hearts we believe something has happened to her by someone else.”

Jonique Oli-Alainu’uese (Source: NZ Herald)

Coupled with the bloody clothes found in Kaiwai’s car, it makes sense that many believe something nefarious happened. Bloody garments certainly point to some sort of altercation or fight that took place, unless Kaiwai injured herself while wearing them. But if those were the clothes that she allegedly committed suicide in, she wouldn’t have been able to take them off and leave them in her car.

In doing research on this case, I was unable to find any information about whose blood was on the clothes. Was it Kaiwai’s? Was it someone else’s? Surely the Tairawhiti police tested the clothing and got some sort of DNA information from it, although perhaps they haven’t made that information public yet. Then again, the investigation has been somewhat lacking, as family and friends have pointed out.

Kaiwai Had Another Psychotic Break

Lastly, some have suggested that Kaiwai had another sort of psychotic break that resulted in her death. She had been severely mentally ill before in 2018, but she had gone through treatment for that and ended up doing better.

Still, it’s possible that Kaiwai suffered another episode that led to her bloodying and leaving some clothes in her car before running off and perhaps succumbing to the elements. Although boats and divers searched Tolaga Bay, they never found her body, so she probably would have ended up somewhere on land if she did have another psychotic break.

What Do I Think Happened?

Ultimately, this case is disappointing because there are so many unanswered questions that could point to one outcome over another. A lackluster investigation has really hampered the ability for this case to be solved, either pointing to foul play, to suicide, or to some other outcome.

Unanswered Questions

Even the most novice of true crime readers understand the importance of gathering and preserving evidence at a potential crime scene. As one of my crime scene instructors said, “You only have one opportunity to get it done right.” And unfortunately, the Tairawhiti police did not do it right in this case.

Aside from not dusting for fingerprints in either Kaiwai’s car or the inn room where she was staying, there is no public information available that suggests they tested the bloody clothing found in her car. They also assumed that her car hadn’t been moved for many days, but were disproven in that when photographs were submitted that showed Kaiwai’s car being moved at least three times over the days she was supposedly missing.

Then there is the Kaiwai’s EFTPOS card that was found abandoned on a nearby beach. How did it get there? Did she leave it there or did someone else put it there? Lastly, where is the missing blanket that should have been in her car or room? That was never located, either, and it didn’t disappear into thin air.

A photograph of Jamie Kaiwai and her grandfather, Eru Kaiwai (Gisborne Herald).

Suicide, Psychotic Break Possible

All that being said, it’s entirely possible that Kaiwai ended up taking her own life. Her body has never been found, nor has she made contact with anyone (that we know of). It’s also possible that she suffered from another psychotic break of some sort and ended up succumbing to the elements.

The fact of the matter is that this most likely wouldn’t still be a mysterious case if authorities had done a better job investigating in the first place. We simply might not ever know what really happened to Kaiwai because of the poor investigation done by police.

An Overall Poor Investigation

As many of you may know, I have a high respect for law enforcement; it’s often a thankless job, and working long hours with some of the most troubled people in society takes its toll. I encourage anyone who’s curious to go on a ride-along or two in their local precinct, especially on the night shift. You’ll see first-hand what sort of craziness I’m talking about.

However, in doing my research for this case, I couldn’t find one source that said that police actually investigated this disappearance thoroughly. The investigation was so bad that the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) looked into the investigation (as of August 2021). Kaiwai’s cousin, Oli-Alainu’uese, has said of the original investigation:

“I don’t dislike the police. I honor the work they do. But in this situation I think they are refusing accountability for the mistakes they have made. That means Jamie misses out and our family is not getting the answers we need.”

Jonique Oli-Alainu’uese (Source: NZ Herald)

Ultimately, the IPCA suggested that “police should review the investigation and upon completion would notify the authority of their findings.” (It sounds like another case of “We investigated ourselves and found no evidence of wrongdoing,” but that’s just my opinion.)

The answers that Kaiwai’s family so desperately seek may never be uncovered. If the investigation had been more thorough from the get-go, I don’t think this case would be so up for debate. Due to the poor investigation, her family and loved ones are left without answers. It’s time to bring closure to those who love Jamie Kaiwai.

Case Updates

Despite the fact that this is a more recent case, there have been a few updates, although nothing that brings closure to the case or Kaiwai’s family.

May 2021: Give a Little Campaign Started

In May 2021, Jamie Kaiwai’s cousin, Jonique Oli-Alainu’uese, started a crowdfunding campaign to raise enough money to hire private investigators in Kaiwai’s case. The description for the campaign reads:

“We understand that this is a huge amount, which is why we have been hesitant. However this amount is far beyond the reach of our family. In order for an independent investigation including a lawyer and private investigator, this is the cost we have been asked to be prepared for.”

Crowdfunding Campaign (Source: GiveALittle)

The campaign was closed after the family raised over $100,000.

August 2021: Police Investigation Investigated

In August 2021, an Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) investigation was started into how the police handled Jamie Kaiwai’s case.

Do You Have Information?

If you have information about the disappearance of Jamie Kaiwai, contact investigators at 0800 123 114. Authorities continue to work closely with family representatives and encourage anyone with information to call 105, quoting file number 191014/3116.

A request for photographs of the Tolaga Bay car park area during the dates when Jamie Kaiwai went missing.
A request for photographs of the Tolaga Bay car park area during the dates when Jamie Kaiwai went missing (Facebook).

Cold Case Questions

  • Why did Jamie Kaiwai disappear?
  • Was this really a suicide as authorities suggest, or was foul play involved?
  • Why was Kaiwai’s car moved, and who moved it?

Tell me your thoughts in the comments below!

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