It is a familiar trope in spy thrillers for a well-known scientist to go missing, seemingly vanishing without a trace, setting off wild speculation about why he disappeared. Something similar happened in real life to Auckland scientist and engineer Jim Donnelly.
According to the NZ Herald, one morning in June 2004, Jim Donnelly got up and went to work as usual at a steel mill south of Auckland. However, the day would turn out to be anything but typical.
Like any other day, Donnelly stopped for gas and a muffin on the way to the Glenbrook mill where he worked. When he arrived, he then parked and walked inside. Also, as usual, he signed in, changed into his work uniform, and walked up to his office.
He put his muffin on his desk but then something went very, very wrong. Soon after arriving at work and being seen just outside of his office – Donnelly was never seen nor heard from again.
A search of his office found the muffin uneaten still sitting where he put it down, and records show that his computer was never even turned on before he vanished.
Five days later, his hard hat was found near an acid-filled vat within the mill. Inside that vat, authorities discovered his PalmPilot, credit card, work ID, glasses, cash, and work key – but absolutely no sign of human remains.
Seventeen years later, despite extensive searches and a police investigation that remains open and active, his family is still without the answers they desperately want and need.
In a recent episode of the NZ Herald podcast A Moment In Crime, senior journalist Anna Leask looked back at Donnelly’s disappearance and his wife Tracey’s journey for the truth. Tracey told Leask that she firmly believes there are people who not only know what happened to her husband that day – but are responsible.
And she wants them to come forward once and for all.
“We were a normal, everyday family … and we were just going about our lives in a normal way.
“I don’t know what it was that destroyed that,” she told Leask during the podcast.
Donnelly Was Troubled
Tracey said for some time before his disappearance that she could see Jim was “troubled” and that something was weighing very heavily on him. Things became strained at home.
Jim’s wife said that he seemed quite stressed, anxious, and not himself at all.
“He was very preoccupied with something,” Tracey recalled.
“There wasn’t a normal atmosphere in our home … there was something on his mind. And I really don’t know what it was.
“From what I can see now, he thought he was handling it and sorting it out. But I think that it was bigger than he imagined.”
The weekend before Jim vanished was strange, to say the least.
He told Tracey he had to go to a meeting, went and hired a suit to wear, and explained he might be “a little fragile” when he came back. But he wouldn’t disclose any more.
“That really concerned me a lot,” said Tracey.
“I came back to him about five or 10 minutes later, after thinking about that, and said to him, do you mean fragile physically or mentally?
“He said physically, and I thought, what have you got yourself into? and I really didn’t know what to do.”
Jim went to the meeting, and when he returned less than two hours later, he was fine. Not a scratch, much to Tracey’s relief. She had half expected him to come home beaten and bloodied.
“My opinion is that [whatever it was that was troubling him] it does revolve around the mill, something was happening inside the mill, and I think he saw something he shouldn’t have – and it’s gone from there. If you had told me at the beginning, I would think that I would have told myself that I was incredibly silly, that this could not possibly happen to Jim.”
However, she told Leask that as time passed, and knowing her husband as she did, she could only come to one inescapable conclusion.
“…as time has gone on, we have got no answer, and it’s more and more clear that he has been removed by other people rather than himself.
She said suicide is a cry for help. People do not kill themselves and then hide their own body, or take lives in a way that they will not be discovered. They expect to be found, she said.
“If he had committed suicide, there would have been a body – so, my thing is my husband went to work, he was last seen at work, and he’s never come home…someone there knows why.”