As I ran down the pitch with the ball, parents cheered from the sidelines. But I could hear one above them all. My mum, Sara Niethe, 30, was always the loudest supporter at my matches. And when my sisters, Danielle, nine, Simone, eight, and I had prize-giving ceremonies, Mum was the most enthusiastic clapper in the crowd.
At 12, I loved knowing how proud she was of us. We all lived with my nan, Eileen Marbeck, so it was a happy time. Then on March 30, 2003, Mum was heading out.
‘See you later,’ she said, kissing each of us goodbye.
But the next morning, Mum hadn’t come home.
‘She’ll be back soon,’ Nan breezed, getting us ready for school.
That day though, Mum’s ex boyfriend, Mark Pakenham, dropped off her sunglasses and mobile phone. He said she’d come round for a drink and left about midnight, forgetting her things. Mark’s place was only 10 minutes away, so why hadn’t Mum made it back?
While Nan put on a brave face for us kids, I knew something bad had happened. Every time the phone rang, Nan ran to pick it up. And on Danielle’s 10th birthday three days later, Nan burst into tears.
Mum had organised a party at a cafe, which went ahead as planned, but I knew what Nan was thinking. She wouldn’t have missed this for the world.
Police combed rivers, canals and roadsides, and even searched Mark’s house. Mark denied having anything to do with Mum’s disappearance and suggested she might have pulled over on the way home for a sleep and been abducted.
But Mum – and her car – had completely vanished. Not a moment passed when my heart didn’t ache for her. The worst part was not knowing if she was dead or alive.
As I got older, part of me wanted to ask Mark about her last moments, but I couldn’t bring myself to speak to him. Something told me he was keeping a dark secret. Police offered a $50,000 reward for information and the case remained open, but it proved fruitless.
All the stress and confusion took its toll on Nan and her health began to deteriorate, yet she remained our rock. When I graduated from university, she was in the crowd with my sisters. But there was a gaping hole where Mum should have been, clapping the loudest.
Then one day – eight years after Mum had disappeared – I was at work when my phone rang.
‘Mark Pakenham’s been charged with murder,’ I was told.
It was such a shock, I don’t even remember who called. All I knew was that I’d expected this all along. It was another two agonising years before he appeared at the High Court in Hamilton in 2013. Despite previously denying any involvement, Mark Edward Pakenham, 50, pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter.
The court heard that in recordings police made of Pakenham talking to a friend, he admitted injecting Mum with a shot of methamphetamine. She’d never used it and the lethal dose killed her.
He told the friend it was not ‘a nice way to go’ after she began squirming. I broke down as I read a victim-impact statement on behalf of my sisters and me.
‘She was always supportive and smiling and we will never see her smile again,’ I told Pakenham. ‘The hardest aspects are having not known for 10 years whether she was dead or alive, along with the desperation of not having a grave to visit.’
Pakenham claimed not to know where Mum’s body was because he was under the influence of drugs and alcohol at the time of the killing. But we didn’t believe him, and neither did the judge, Justice Timothy Brewer. He jailed Pakenham for six years and seven months.
Knowing Mum was never coming back meant we could finally attempt to grieve. But by continuing to conceal the location of her body, we were denied true peace.
‘I just want to lay her to rest,’ Nan wept when we all got together on Mum’s anniversary.
A father himself, how could Pakenham keep silent about this? After serving just three years, he was released on parole in 2016. While he moved on, a free man, we were still shackled by the unknown.
Then in April this year, Nan was diagnosed with cancer and given just weeks to live. Appealing once more to Pakenham to tell the truth, I gave an interview to the local paper.
‘I don’t really care what Mark’s doing with his life now but if he has any intent of ever attempting to make amends, the time is now or never,’ I said.
Still he wouldn’t say. When Nan passed away in May, aged 74, it was the most difficult thing I’d been through since losing Mum. She’d gone to her grave, haunted by not being able to say goodbye to her girl.
Now I’m pleading with the public again to report any information that will lead us to Mum’s body. Our lives have never been the same since she was stolen from us.
I’m so proud of my sisters and the wonderful women they’ve grown into. They gave my nan the joy of great-grandchildren before she passed, bringing happiness back into her daily life. They’re the strongest, most hardworking, caring humans I know and, as their big brother, I want to give them the answers Nan never got.
As memories of my mum become hazy, the heartache increases. Please put us out of this misery.
If you have any information, call Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111 (NZ), or 1800 333 000 (Australia).
This story was originally published in that’s life, issue 34, 17 August 2017.