Missing man Christopher Bates: Lack of answers adds to heartbreak

Christopher Bates’ parents want someone to remember something that leads them to their son. There has been no sign of the Alexandra man since he disappeared almost three and a-half years ago, and his case has been referred to the coroner.

A body.

Chris Bates’ parents, Trish and John, gently skirt around this term when discussing their son’s disappearance on February 11, 2018.

Likewise, the officer in charge of the investigation, who retired on Wednesday.

Yet, a body is what they need to end the wait.

Referring Chris’ case to the coroner is something his parents and Detective Sergeant Derek Shaw, of Central Otago Criminal Investigation Branch, describe as “procedural”.

Chris’ parents are no longer together but are unified in making that decision, although it offers them nothing in terms of answers.

“It doesn’t change anything,” John says.

Trish agrees.

“What we know is Chris left his family home on Sunday, February 11, and we never saw him again.

“The intervening period has been painful as we have all continued with our lives and struggled to come to terms with the probability that Chris’ life did not continue.”

“It has got to the point where we need to move it on for a coroner to consider,” Shaw says.

Chris has missed birthdays, Christmases and his brother Jonathan’s wedding in the interim.

For Trish, John and Shaw, the coroner is just the next step in a mystery that remains just that — a mystery.

Chris left the family home in Alexandra on February 11, 2018, 10 days after his 22nd birthday, and never returned.

His disappearance was reported to police four days later, sparking the investigation that continues.

“We don’t know what his plans were. He headed away to catch up with some mates or go for a swim … he bought some cigarettes,” Shaw says.

Those cigarettes represented the last proven sighting of him, when he was captured on CCTV footage after buying a pack of John Player Special at the Z fuel station in Tarbert St, several blocks south of his home at 3.51pm.

That brand of cigarette would later spark a potential lead in the case — more on that later.

“He was positively identified and was travelling on foot by himself,” Shaw says.

Chris entered and exited the then-staffed service station — it has since become self-service — from Fox St.

“It’s largely a mystery after that.”

What has been established is Chris returned home at some point and left his wallet, containing the bank card he used to buy the cigarettes, in his room.

No-one was home at the time to see when he came and went.

Chris had his phone with him, but it was battered, unreliable, and had poor battery life.

He had a habit of turning it off to conserve power.

Shaw says after positively identifying Chris in the CCTV footage, investigators’ efforts turned to tracing his phone.

“It is not an exact science,” Det Sgt Shaw says.

A wedge of land was identified north and east of the town where his phone was detected from 6.30pm.

The last signal from the phone, and by virtue Chris’ last documented move, was 10.50am the next day.

John says not to read too much into that.

“It [the phone] was always cutting out. He couldn’t ring his mates because his phone wasn’t working.”

Initial searches focused on the area triangulated from a cellphone tower, with much of the open terrain ruled out.

Efforts in the weeks and months that followed involved search and rescue teams from across Otago, Southland and Canterbury, and concentrated on part of the area, one of dense vegetation and swamp near the Manuherikia River.

As Shaw tells it, the Clutha River from Alexandra to the Roxburgh Dam, and other possible sighting locations throughout the country were checked, but search efforts kept returning to the same spot.

Two floods swept through that area between initial and subsequent searches.

The discovery of John Player Special cigarette packets across the Manuherikia River on the lower slopes of the Knobby Range and above the Otago Central Rail Trail sparked some interest, Shaw says.

“We had those tested at the same kind of forensic level you’d apply to a homicide case.

“Male DNA was detected but it was an inconclusive match with Trish.”

For Chris’ family, it was the search efforts that sustained them in the beginning.

Those efforts would be bolstered by Chris’ mates from Dunedin, John says.

Shaw says the search effort continued in earnest until April when plans to drain the Manorburn Dam were deemed unfeasible.

Urgency was replaced with a sense of dread and then a sense of acceptance that is hard for his parents to quantify.

Trish’s voice catches, tears flow freely.

“The feeling doesn’t change.

“Losing a child is different, losing someone young … you lose their future.”

Tears well in John’s eyes as he gives his take.

“Losing a son is just about as bad as it gets.”

Chris’ future seemed assured; he had completed a bachelor of commerce degree at Otago University and was applying for jobs when he disappeared.

Again, they repeat the coroner is just a formality.

“It only ends when we eventually find that clue that allows us to lay Chris to rest.”

Trish says the past three and a-half years have been a rollercoaster.

“We have experienced heartbreak, heartbreak and above all the uncertainty of what happened to Chris.

“Many people helped search for Chris and for answers to bring some closure to the family.”

They need to find Chris to have the opportunity to do the one thing they so far have not been able to do properly: grieve.

For Shaw there is also an element of emotion.

The 42-year police veteran finished his career on Wednesday – Chris’ file was his last open case, and it stays with him.

“It’s like having a stone in your shoe.”

Christopher Bates’ file remains open; anyone with substantial information should contact police on 105 and quote file number 180215/9929.

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