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 Piha’s mysterious legacy

In brief
  • “Black Coast Vanishings” is a documentary series examining disappearances at Piha beach over 25 years, raising concerns of a serial killer.
  • Yet, Piha’s mysteries date back further leaving questions of murder and suicide unanswered.
  • Like a fatal bach fire, a communist leader’s vanishing, and the suspicious death of French engineer Jean Venot.

“There’s a lot of secrets at Piha”

This is the opening line in the promo video for Black Coast Vanishings. A  four-part documentary series that kicked off on Sunday (Jan. 28) on threenow, profiling six vanishings from this rugged west coast beach over the past 25 years and posing the question: is a serial killer on the loose? 

Most famous of these might be the disappearance of 25-year-old Iraena Asher, in 2004, and the Police’s botched response to her call for help (sending a cab – that never got to her – instead of squad car).

Another is French teen Eloi Rolland who went missing near Piha beach in March, 2020.

“Is it possible someone who lives out here is going around killing people?” Another voice on the promo video asks.

Piha mysteries go back much further than 25 years

Such as:

Missing accountant Eric Edgar

In 1936, Auckland accountant Eric Edgar went missing. He was last seen walking along Piha beach, past Lion Rock. 

Dozens of people helped search for Edgar, but no trace of him was found. Over a week later, his mutilated body was washed up on shore.

Body in fatal Piha bach fire stolen from grave

In 1939, a bach fire in Piha claimed the life of Gordon McKay, an Australian newcomer. Investigations revealed he had an insurance policy worth £25,500 and suspicions of arson arose.

Detectives discovered that the remains in the fire were not McKay’s but those of a buried soldier. Gordon McKay and James Talbot had dug up the soldier’s body from Waikumete Cemetery, in Glen Eden, to fake McKay’s death.

Talbot was found guilty of arson and interfering with human remains, receiving a two-year sentence. McKay was also found guilty and sentenced to four years for the same charges.

An unusual epilogue: McKay attempted to take out another life insurance policy in 1955, but it was denied.

Communist trade union leader vanishes at Piha

In 1948, Walter Ashton, former secretary of the Auckland Trades Council and a member of the Auckland district committee of the Communist Party, went missing. His car was found parked at South Piha. He was last seen in Auckland city, getting petrol, the morning of his disappearance. When he didn’t show up for his scheduled appointments, the police were called.

A local man reported seeing a man climbing the “track to the rocks at Dawson’s Ledge” at Piha that afternoon, and later on the rocks. He thought this was strange as the weather was bad (heavy rain).

KGB implications, but never proven

Ashton was never found, and presumed drowned. A few months later the Greymouth Evening Star reported J.B. Cotterill (Labour MP for Wanganui) asked Mr. Fraser, the Minister responsible for the Police, if everything possible was being done to find Ashton, and questioned the whereabouts of £1600 raised as aid for Russia that went missing with him. Cotterill expressed hope that “the missing man has not been not caught in the sweep of Russia’s sickle”.

Frenchman shot in the head at Piha beach

In 1949, French engineer Jean Venot was found dead, with a bullet wound in his head, near Piha’s Lion Rock. 

A large search for the weapon was carried out, but none found. Venot’s luggage, which he took with him when he left his “private hotel” in Auckland, was never found, but his papers and documents were found “floating in the sea near the cruiser Black Prince at the Devonport naval base.”

Suicide or execution

A coroner ruled Venot’s death as suicide, after a note he apparently wrote to a woman in France named Pauliette Lacaze detailing his desire to take his life, was produced. 

When Venot’s body was found, his head was half wrapped in a towel (that completely covered his face) and had a bullet hole through it.

Image: Jonathan Saunders

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