Without a trace

Lee was soon to be a dad, so why would he vanish over night..?

Published by: Laura Hinton
Published on: 30th June 2011

The flat looked spotless. The smell of dinner filled the air and… was that the sound of a bath running? Since discovering I was pregnant a week ago, my hubby Lee, 26, had been treating me as though I was royalty.
‘Dinner’s ready,’ he called from the kitchen.
‘Smells lovely,’ I said.
‘It’s spaghetti bolognese,’ he said proudly, wiping his hands down his trousers.
Not only was he cooking, he was trying to unblock the sink too!
We’d been in the UK a year after flying over from New Zealand, and were living with
my sister Janet, 18, and brother Lance, 32.
We’d planned on staying a few months, save up some cash, and then continue our around-the-
world adventure.
But then I’d fallen pregnant so, instead, we were planning to fly home after the birth.
Lee, though, was keen to earn his keep. He’d always been a proper Mr Fix It, no job too big or small. Even when he was at work at the EMR fridge recycling plant in North London, it was him the bosses called on when any machinery went wrong.
‘Right, I want you to take it easy tonight,’ he told me. ‘I’m on a late shift, so won’t be able to keep an eye on you.’
‘Maybe it’s you who needs to slow down a bit,’ I teased.
‘Nah, I’m fine,’ he beamed.
‘Oh, and I booked our first antenatal appointment with the doctor for tomorrow.’
‘Babe, you’re amazing!’
‘Right, I’ve got to go,’ he said, giving me a kiss. ‘I’ve run your bath, and I’ll see you in the morning – can’t wait to speak to the doc about this baby!’
‘Neither can I!’ I grinned.
Just before midnight, Lee called to say he loved me and I went to bed with a smile. I’d known him since I was a teenager, always knew he was the guy for me. He was such a fun-loving character.
Even when he’d proposed at a theme park five years earlier, he’d made me giggle, dressing in a dog suit to do the deed! And I knew he’d be a great dad – patient, kind, supportive…
So next morning, when I woke up to find he wasn’t home, I was instantly worried. ‘Maybe he had to extend his shift?’ Janet shrugged.
‘No, he’d have called,’ I frowned, checking my messages. ‘And his phone’s going straight to voicemail.’
‘His battery’s probably flat, I bet he’ll be waiting for you at the doctor’s surgery,’ reassured Janet.
But when I got there, the waiting room was empty. Lee wouldn’t have missed this.
As soon as the appointment was over, I called his workplace to find out what was going on.
‘We’d like to know where he is too,’ said the foreman at EMR. ‘He turned up for work, then he just disappeared. When he comes home, tell him he’s fired.’
Tears brimming, I hung up. Lee wouldn’t have walked out of work without telling anyone, without phoning me.
Panicking now, I called the police and reported him missing.
When they checked his locker at work, they found all his stuff still there and his bank accounts hadn’t been touched. ‘Was he depressed at all? Worried about money?’ asked the investigating officer. ‘Was everything okay in your relationship?’
‘We’d just found out we’re having a baby,’ I sobbed. ‘Everything was perfect.’
But he didn’t believe me, I could tell from the look on his face.
It was just so surreal. One moment we were planning the arrival of our baby, the next Lee had just vanished. There had to be an explanation.
But, as time went on, there was still no sign of my hubby. My belly got bigger, I had my first scan, then my second… and Lee missed it all. There was no trace of him.
Eventually, police came to see me. ‘The case will remain open but, unless we get any new information, there’s nothing more we can do,’ explained the officer.
‘You can’t leave me wondering,’ I gasped. ‘I need to know what’s happened to my husband.’
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘People go missing all the time, and sometimes we never find out why. In most cases they were just unhappy
with their life, and either ended it or started a new one elsewhere.’
Sinking into the sofa, I shook my head. ‘Not my Lee,’ I said.
I knew what people were thinking – that he’d found another woman, or run off because he didn’t want to be lumbered with a child. But they didn’t know him.
He was broodier than I was when it came to kids! He’d been so excited about our future, there was no way he’d have just upped and left.
‘What are you going to do?’ Janet asked.
‘Wait for him. He’ll come back,’ I said. Each morning when I woke up, I reached out for him, forgetting he wasn’t there.
Every time the baby kicked, I’d call out his name, then realise he wouldn’t answer me.
And when people spotted my swollen belly and asked about the father… all I could do was shrug.
Eventually, with eight weeks to go before the birth, my mum Lynaire, 66, called me. ‘Lee isn’t coming home, love,’ she sighed. ‘And I’m worried about you. Come back to New Zealand, let me look after you.’
I packed up our stuff in a daze. The photo of us in Disneyland Paris just before we came to the UK, his kit for the local Saffron Walden rugby team… Oh the afternoons I’d spent in the rain cheering him!
‘We had so much to look forward to,’ I sighed to Janet. ‘He’s the love of my life, where on earth has he gone?’
Back home, Mum did her best to comfort me. She held my hand when my contractions started, shouted encouraging words as I gave birth to our baby.
‘It’s a little boy,’ smiled the midwife, handing him to me. Seeing his blue eyes and the little wisps of blond hair around his crown, I started to cry.
‘You look like your dad, little man,’ I sniffed. ‘He’d have been so proud of you.’
‘I’m sorry he’s not here, love,’ Mum sighed.
‘As long as I’ve got this little fella, Lee will always be with me,’ I sobbed.
I called him Jaden – Lee’s favourite boy’s name – and tried to move on with my life.
But every day my little lad looked more and more like the daddy who’d wanted him so much.
Other people noticed, too.
Jaden was about four when I met Pete, 35, a friend of Lee’s brother, at a family barbecue.
My little boy was prancing around in front of us, kicking a football and talking to everybody who’d listen. ‘I can’t believe how much your son is like Lee,’ Pete smiled sadly. And he was right – Jaden had turned into a showman, just like his dad.
Me and Pete really bonded over our memories and, over the next few months, he became my rock. My family had been so supportive, but finally in Pete I found someone who really seemed to understand. Before long, our friendship blossomed into something more.
‘We’ll take things slow,’ he promised. ‘I know you’re worried about betraying Lee.’
I shook my head.
‘It’s been five years,’ I sighed. ‘He’s gone for good.’
I just wish I knew what had happened to him.
Jaden wanted to know about his dad, too. At his first school sports day, while the other kids were having pictures taken with their parents, he turned to me sadly.
‘Where’s my dad?’ Jaden asked. ‘Why don’t I have one like everyone else?’
Stroking his blond hair, tears prickled my eyes.
‘He’s lost, little man,’ I smiled sadly. ‘And no one can find him.’
But the thought that maybe he didn’t want to be found haunted my dreams, too.
A few days later, I was tidying up when I came across a shoebox of keepsakes that I’d kept from our travels. Inside were some of Lee’s diaries.
He’d kept them religiously, and I’d never thought of reading them – until now. If he’d been having an affair, or was unhappy in some way, these diaries might hold a clue. Hands shaking, I flipped open his last diary, turned to the entry a few days before Lee had disappeared.
I can’t wait to be a dad, he’d written. It won’t be plain sailing, but it’s something I want dearly and I must get a move on because everybody is getting ahead of us.
Sobbing gently, I clutched the diary to my chest.
I’d never doubted Lee’s love for me, and this proved it.
That night, when Pete came home from work, I told him that I’d made a decision. ‘I’m going to hire a private investigator, find out once and for all what happened to Lee.’
‘I’ll do whatever I can to support you,’ he nodded.
I found Ron McQuilter, an ex British police officer working as a PI in Auckland. He still had contacts in London and, soon, he was working side by side with Detective Sergeant Goodwin. Both were determined to find answers for us.
Over the next three years they went over the evidence, re-interviewed factory workers, and got statements from new witnesses. The truth, when it was uncovered, was horrific and so incredible it beggared belief…
In February this year, I found myself sitting in Barnet Coroner’s Court with Lee’s parents Ken and Rose.
Clutching Rose’s hand, I held my breath as Dmytro Oliferenko, a Ukrainian who’d been reluctant to come forward in 2003 because he’d been working illegally, now gave crucial evidence.
‘At about 10pm, the recycling chamber malfunctioned,’ he explained. ‘About an hour later, we realised Lee was missing. No one wanted to go inside to see what the blockage actually was.’
‘The reason you were scared is that in the back of your mind, you thought the blockage might have been Lee’s body?’ asked
our barrister James Maxwell-Scott.
As Dmytro nodded, I gasped. He said Lee was always trying to fix things around the plant. But if he’d climbed into the recycling chamber, it’s possible he could have been overcome by nitrogen gas and passed out.
When the machinery began working again, he would have been dropped, unconscious, into the huge 40-ton crusher that pulverised up to 10 fridges at a time.
The evidence was all there – Lee had never clocked out of work, CCTV footage showed he’d never left the building and, the following day, a worker had found a mystery substance in the crusher that no one could identify. It’s possible that it was part of Lee.
As the verdict of accidental death was read out, I couldn’t stop crying. I’d waited eight years, and travelled thousands of miles to find out what had happened to my Lee, and I’d never expected his fate to be as gruesome as that.
‘But at least I know now,’ I told Pete on the phone later on. ‘At least I have closure.’
Although I’m talking to my lawyers about how I can take the matter further, I’m still moving on with my life. Recently, me and Pete got married and I’m expecting another baby. But that doesn’t mean I’ll ever forget about Lee. I want to keep his memories alive for Jaden.
Lee had been so excited about having a baby, it’s so sad he never got to hold his son in his arms.
But at least now I can hold my head up high when I talk about him, and proudly tell my son his daddy always wanted to be there.
For eight years I lived with the thought Lee had run off, or committed suicide, but now I know he loved us all along.

• A spokesman for EMR said: ‘We recognise that at the centre of this case has been a family seeking answers as to what happened to a much-loved family man.
‘We extend our sincere sympathies to the family.’
Juliet Clark, 33, Northland, New Zealand