Grace Millane's murder: From England to the Auckland High Court

Newshub reporter Jamie Ensor sat through each day of the Grace Millane murder trial. He looks back at the events that gripped the nation.  

In October 2018, a young, passionate artist stepped onto a plane heading to South America.

"See ya England," Grace Millane tweeted, not knowing she'd never return to her home county of Essex alive.

More coverage of the trial can be found here.

In the words of her father, Grace was a "gregarious" woman who had long dreamed of travelling the world. She ventured around Peru, taking in the sights and embracing the culture. 

Throughout her journey, the Brit remained in constant contact with her engaged and loving family. On social media, Grace shared photos of llamas and a dog she had met.

She arrived in New Zealand on November 20 and spent the following ten days travelling around the upper North Island, including a visit to Cape Reinga and the Bay of Islands. The Base backpackers in Auckland would become her Kiwi home, where she met and socialised with friends. A typical, fun overseas experience for a woman looking for adventure.

What would happen next shocked the world and spurred unprecedented outbursts of emotion from New Zealanders, including from the Prime Minister. Vigils and marches sprung up in numerous Kiwi towns; a condemnation of New Zealand's shocking - but very real - record of violence against women. 

The resulting trial of the man accused of murdering the British backpacker received immense public interest, with crowds of people - young and old - turning up to the Auckland High Court each day to observe. 

In court, David and Gillian Millane, the young Brit's parents, often wept as gruesome evidence was presented about how their daughter was treated by the man sitting largely emotionless in the dock. On the first day, David stared at the man. It was the first time he had seen his daughter's killer in the flesh.

But regardless of the horrific nature of the evidence, the palpable tension in courtroom 11 as the offender sat only metres away, and the obvious emotional toll it was having upon them, the parents came to court every day hand in hand, united in the desire to see justice for their "Gracie". Even if it couldn't bring her back.

Grace Millane's parents, David and Gillian.
Grace Millane's parents, David and Gillian. Photo credit: Newshub

The young woman's private life was delved into in front of the many onlookers, with the court hearing Millane used dating applications like Tinder, on which she would meet her killer. He continues to have his name protected from publication by a court-ordered suppression order. 

Like many young adults, the British backpacker experimented sexually - as was her right. But, as would be submitted in court, just because Millane was interested in sexual practises others may consider unconventional, didn't mean she consented to having her life torn away from her.

You cannot consent to being murdered, as Justice Simon Moore would say.

A night out

On December 1, Grace Millane's killer realised he had 'matched' with the young woman on Tinder and they began chatting in the casual, banterous and innocent way most Tinder conversations begin. A spontaneous request from the man to meet her at the SkyCity complex spurred on what would be a four-hour date.

That date was showcased to the jury in the murderer's trial which began on November 4, 2019, and would run for three weeks before his conviction.

The extensive CCTV cameras spread around Auckland Central caught nearly every moment of their rendezvous; from the pair embracing for the first time until they entered the CityLife hotel.

They met at the base of the Sky Tower, decorated at the time with Christmas trees and festive ornaments. A photo of the scene was sent by Millane to her tight-knit family.

They met at the base of the Sky Tower.
They met at the base of the Sky Tower. Photo credit: CCTV / Supplied

The footage then revealed the chilling moment Millane's soon-to-be killer begins to wander up to her. He briefly appears to turn around.

But he decides against it, continuing on towards the young woman, greeting her with a hug.

In a December 6 police interview played for the jury, the murderer told Detective Ewen Settle  he was concerned Millane could be a "catfish" - an individual who uses a false identity on dating applications to trick potential partners. He chose SkyCity due to the crowds of people who would also be at the Auckland site. 

This made him feel "safe".

Inside SkyCity, the pair visited Andy's Burger Bar. While the security cameras couldn't capture the exact details of their time in the establishment, they purchased several drinks. The man would later tell police the conversation was fairly general. It ranged from topics like her travels to pieces of information about himself.

In a text sent from Millane to Ameena Ashcroft, a friend of hers in Dubai at the time, she said her Tinder match said he was an oil company manager - just one of the many lies the murderer told that would be brought up during his trial. 

Grace Millane enters the CityLife hotel, captured on CCTV.
Grace Millane enters the CityLife hotel, captured on CCTV. Photo credit: Supplied

After spending a little over an hour at the burger joint, the pair strolled across Victoria St West to the Mexican Cafe, where they had more drinks. 

While here, the murderer would come across a woman he had previously slept with. She told the court during his trial that their sexual encounter involved him choking her. This was something she encouraged, but also a practise he was interested in.  

Millane and the man then went on to the Bluestone Room bar, located close to the CityLife hotel. As the jury would see via the CCTV footage, the pair were clearly intimate, frequently kissing, holding hands and putting their arms around each other's waists.

More alcoholic beverages were consumed before the pair wandered towards the hotel. Images captured in the establishment's elevator would be the last taken of Millane alive.

The CCTV footage from that night contradicted the murderer's claims in his December 6 police interview that he had parted with Millane at roughly 8pm. He said he then wandered along Queen St, met a group of Chinese travellers, and drunk in a pub.

He provided a detailed description of the bar as a "pretty old and dusty place" with "black" decor and "rickety tables". The pub also didn't serve Corona, according to the man, and he had to go onto the pavement to smoke. He sung with other patrons before he blacked out and woke in his room the next day.

The story was a fantasy. 

Inside the CityLife hotel room

While only two people will ever know what exactly happened in the man's hotel room, the verdict from a jury of seven women and five men found that Grace Millane was murdered by the man she had earlier told Ashcroft she "clicked" with.

One detail that remains undetermined is the time of her death, but photographs of a female body as well as Google searches extracted from the murderer's phone contribute to two theories submitted by the Crown.

At 1:29am on December 2, a search for the Waitakere Ranges is made. This is followed by a search for the hottest type of fire. Pornography is then viewed on the device.

Minutes later, the phone captured several intimate photographs of a woman's body. The Crown submitted at trial that this was a deceased Millane, a conclusion they came to in consideration of the fact that the photos were taken after the search for the Waitakere Ranges - where the young Brit's body would later be discovered. 

However, in the December 8 police interview where the murderer changed his story dramatically from his previous encounter with police, he told Det Settle that he and Millane had taken naked photographs of each other in moments between having sex. The British backpacker's phone was never retrieved by police to determine whether explicit photos of the murderer were taken by her.

Crown prosecutor Brian Dickey suggested that if the photos found on the murderer's phone were of Millane alive, then his searches for the Waitakere Ranges prove the man planned to murder her. This was disputed, however, by lead defence lawyer Ian Brookie who said the multiple theories showed the "equivocal" nature of the Crown's case and suggested the searches may have been by accident.

Grace Millane's murder: From England to the Auckland High Court
Photo credit: Supplied

Dickey said the photos likely spoke to motive and the murderer as wanting to have full control and domination over women. 

"He has eroticised the death of British backpacker Grace Millane, which occurred under his handhold, and on her birthday." 

That was disregarded as "ridiculous" by Brookie. The defence argued the man didn't have a motive.

In the December 8 police interview, the accused admitted his previous story about parting with Millane had been a lie and told Det Settle a new version of events. 

The murderer said while initially "normal", sex became "violent" after Millane brought up an interest in rough sex she had previosuly practised. He said he was open to the idea and photos were taken of each other naked. At one point, the man said Millane wanted him to hold her by the throat.

Ian Brookie.
Ian Brookie. Photo credit: Getty

Afterwards, the man said he went into the shower and passed out, waking up later in the dark and thinking Millane had left. But when he awoke later in the morning, he said he found her lying on the floor with blood coming from her nose.

"I screamed and yelled out at her. [I] tried to move her to see if she was awake," he told Det Settle.

Questioned on why he didn't ring the authorities, he said dialled 111 but didn't hit go as he was scared no one would believe his story. 

In closing statements, Brookie told the jury the man "freaked out" and did the wrong thing because he recognised how horrific the situation appeared. He considered this a "pivot point", where the man committed to the course of covering up the "accident".

Evidence given by forensic experts in his trial would confirm blood DNA found around the apartment matched that of Millane's. The amount of blood could not be determined.

Grace Millane's murder: From England to the Auckland High Court
Photo credit: Supplied

The days after murder

The eyes of CCTV cameras around Auckland captured the killer's movements in the days after he murdered Grace Millane.

From purchasing a suitcase at an Elliot St Warehouse and cleaning products at the supermarket, to hiring a rental car and RugDoctor, the man's attempted cover-up was fully displayed for the jury. 

One location the murderer ventured while Millane's body lay inside his apartment was Ponsonby's Revelry bar for a date with another woman. 

In the witness box during the trial, the woman - a former journalist who cannot be named - confidently spoke to the jury, sure of herself and of her recollection of that meeting.

She said she felt uncomfortable in the killer's presence after he brought up a man being convicted for manslaughter after the man's partner died during rough sex. The killer also said his friends in the police force were having problems with multiple missing bodies in the Waitakere Ranges. 

The man charged with Millane's murder buys cleaning products at the supermarket.
The man buys cleaning products at the supermarket. Photo credit: CCTV / Supplied

That date was also caught on security cameras. But what wasn't was the additional internet searches the killer made during the day of December 2. Among other things, he searched for large duffel bags, the time in London, and rigor mortis.

After meeting the woman and hiring the RugDoctor, at 9:30pm that evening - nearly a day after he entered the CityLife hotel with Millane - he took a baggage trolley up to his room.

He returned to the lobby with the trolley carrying two suitcases and a sports bag. These were placed in the rental car which was then parked inside a nearby building. 

Unknown to anyone who may have been in the hotel reception area he crossed, a young woman was contorted inside one of the suitcases.

As this footage played for the court, there was a stillness in the room. Jurors and members of the public appeared shocked at what they were seeing. Millane's parents wiped their eyes and stared at the ground.

Early on December 3, the killer drove the red car to the Kumeu ITM, where he purchased a red shovel and had a brief chat with the cashier.

He then drove into the Waitakere Ranges along Scenic Dr where he picked out a spot near to a landing bay. Roughly 10 metres into the bush, he dug a shallow hole in the clay in which he placed the heavy suitcase.

Detective Evan Ingley told the jury this was Millane's "gravesite". An area of about 2 metres by 1.5 metres, it was covered in broken ponga tree leaves and ferns "haphazardly".

Supported by evidence given by members of the public who came across the man after Millane's murder, prosecutor Dickey told the jury the killer never appeared panicked as one would expect someone to be if they had accidentally killed their lover. Instead, the man was "cool, calm, and controlled". 

On December 3, the killer purchased a red shovel from the Kumeu ITM.
On December 3, the killer purchased a red shovel from the Kumeu ITM. Photo credit: Supplied

Defence lawyer Brookie submitted that the man had to appear normal to keep with the course he had committed to and that if the jury looked carefully enough during the CCTV footage, they would see moments of panic and shock.

In the days after Millane's burial, the public would learn of her disappearance. A missing person post uploaded to Facebook by Millane's brothers was quickly picked up by the national media and within hours New Zealand knew the name Grace Millane. Tributes began to flow and the search for her was underway.

As part of their investigation, police contacted the killer and he agreed to meet with them on December 6 in the Crowne Plaza hotel food court.

In this meeting and the subsequent police interview that day, the murderer would begin telling his "labyrinth of lies" as Dickey put it. But the man was let go while inquiries continued.

On December 7, David Millane arrived in New Zealand and appealed to the public for information in an emotional press conference, hoping his daughter would be returned to her family.

Grace Millane's murder: From England to the Auckland High Court
Photo credit: Supplied

But it was only the next day when the devastating news broke that police believed the young British woman had been murdered. It was also announced that a 26-year-old man, who had been seen entering the CityLife hotel with Millane, had been arrested.

The man's arrest came during his December 8 interview, where he admitted Millane died in his company and that he disposed of her body.

He told Det Settle he didn't intend to kill the Brit and was telling his story in the hope it would bring closure to Millane's loved ones. As this filmed interview played in court, the mention of Grace's family spurred more tears from Gillian and David sitting in the front row of the public gallery.

Following his arrest, the murderer cooperated and took police to where he had buried the British woman. 

Her body was discovered on December 9, a week after she was murdered.

Bruises and alcohol

Dr Simon Stables was the pathologist assigned to examine Grace Millane's body after its discovery. He put the cause of death down as being sustained pressure to the neck. 

Along with United States-based pathologist Dr Fintan Garavan, Dr Stables spoke to the jury about the body. 

Their evidence required the jurors to see photos highlighting the multiple bruises discovered on Millane. During this clinical discussion of the young woman's remains, the Millanes were understandably upset.

Dr Stables said the bruises - most of which were located on Millane's upper chest and arms - were inflicted before death. He believed some could have been the result of restraint. The most significant bruise was on Millane's neck, and Dr Stables said this was crucial to her death.

While he said the pathology could be consistent with a scenario where death occured by manual aspyhixation during sex, he - like Dr Garavan - had never come across such a case during their decades of experience. 

Simon Stables.
Simon Stables. Photo credit: Newshub

Dr Garavan, however, tended to believe the injuries came from during consensual sex. He said if the woman had been attacked he would expect to see deep-muscle haemorrhaging from a resulting struggle - something not found on Millane's neck. 

However, Dr Garavan also recognised no such bruising may occur if the person being strangled had their arms pinned down and they were controlled by their oppressor, unable to resist.

This could also explain the lack of defensive injuries on Millane, including why there were no abrasions on her neck from clawing at an oppressor's strangling hands. 

Timing was a key part of the two pathologists' evidence. While Dr Stables was hesitant about saying how long strangulation needed to occur before death, Dr Garavan estimated it was between five and ten minutes. 

Forensic scientist Diana Kappatos told the jury that Millane's blood-alcohol level at the time of post-mortem was 106mg - twice the legal limit. However, she said due to the decomposed nature of the body, the level at time of death could have been higher or lower.

Dr Garavan believed it would have been higher, and told the jury alcohol could have contributed to Millane's death by affecting her breathing.

The November trial

When the killer's trial began on November 4, 2019, it had been nearly a year since Millane's murder. In that time, the man had plead not-guilty to the charge and received name suppression.

That suppression was not upheld, however, by many international outlets, resulting in a strong rebuke by the New Zealand Justice Minister.

The trial was highly anticipated and saw flocks of journalists from around New Zealand and the world arrive at the Auckland High Court. 

Present throughout it all was the Crown team - Brian Dickey, Robin McCoubrey and Litia Tuiburelevu - and the defence - Ian Brookie, Ron Mansfield and Claire Farquhar. Justice Simon Moore was the judge of law.

In the public gallery along with David and Gillian Millane was Detective Inspector Scott Beard - the man in charge of the Grace Millane investigation codenamed Operation Gourami - and family liaison officer Detective Toni Jordan. Detective Sergeant Greg Brand, essential in the background to the investigation, was also present. 

Detective Inspector Scott Beard with Grace Millane's parents.
Detective Inspector Scott Beard with Grace Millane's parents. Photo credit: Getty

The killer's father sat through most of the proceedings.

Over three weeks, the Crown would allege the British backpacker was murdered by the accused following their four-hour Tinder date.

But the defence upheld the man's version of events, saying the death was an accident during rough, consensual sex between a couple that was inexperienced in such practises and likely highly intoxicated.

Along with the pathology evidence, the CCTV footage, the filmed police interviews, evidence from police officers and civilians who met the killer, the trial saw the sex lives of both victim and offender explored in detail.

The jury heard from one female witness who alleged the accused suffocated her with his genitals in November last year. 

"I started kicking, trying to indicate that I couldn't breathe," she told the jury.

She described her kicking as "violent" and said she was using her full force to get him off her. It is her opinion that he knew she couldn't breathe. 

The woman - who cannot be named - appeared anxious and fearful at the start of her time as a witness and became more distressed when under cross-examination.

It was suggested to her by the defence that she over-exaggerated her encounter with the man and she was questioned on why she sent the man more than 700 texts in the weeks afterwards if such a terrifying encounter had happened.

Defence lawyer Ron Mansfield.
Defence lawyer Ron Mansfield. Photo credit: Getty

Defence lawyer Mansfield went through hundreds of texts between her and Millane's killer one by one, with the lawyer frequently asking why she hadn't cut the conversation off if she was scared of the man. She said she didn't want to aggravate him.

Mansfield put it to her that she dramafied her account when she found out the man was charged with murder as she was embarrassed she had been seeking a relationship with him.

Repeatedly, the upset woman maintained she was telling the truth and never wanted to be caught up in the court case. As her time as witness went past the 5pm cut-off, she broke down when told she would have to return the next day. 

Another woman - who messaged and talked to Millane's killer on the phone, but never met him - told the court he had said he liked "dominating and strangulation".

Millane's interest in BDSM - a term an expert in sexual culture said reflected a spectrum of practices from extreme sadomasochism to milder consensual actions - was also explored during the defence's case.

A former partner of the woman said in a statement that they practised a safe form of rough sex, while a man she messaged on the dating application Whiplr - geared towards more sexual kinks - described her as being "naive and trusting" on the app.

Throughout the trial, the killer remained mostly emotionless and stared at either Justice Moore or his lawyers. He broke down during opening statements on November 6, when his lawyer ran through his version of events.

Grace Millane's murder: From England to the Auckland High Court
Photo credit: Newshub

The verdict

The three weeks saw 35 witnesses give evidence, hundreds of online and text messages read, many exhibits discussed and summaries from the Crown, defence and judge. The jury was then sent away to deliberate at 12:34pm on Friday, November 22.

At 4:10pm, the 12 jurors sent a question to Justice Moore about the application of pressure to Millane's neck. Shortly afterwards, the foreperson indicated to the court that they were close to a verdict and wanted to continue deliberations past the 5pm cut-off, which the judge allowed.

At 5:45pm, after more than five hours of deliberations, the jury returned a unanimous verdict of guilty of murder. The murderer was convicted and told he would be sentenced in February 2020. The lawyers shook hands and Justice Moore retired.

Minutes later, outside the Auckland High Court, David and Gillian Millane - supported by Det Insp Scott Beard - approached a large group of reporters.

After every piece of evidence, every submission from a lawyer, every lie listened to, they would have the final word on the beautiful, bubbly, talented woman their daughter was.

"Grace was our sunshine and she will be missed forever."

Grace Millane.
Grace Millane. Photo credit: Facebook