'A life sentence': Grace Millane murder leaves trail of shattered lives

By Eleanor Ainge Roy in Auckland

Detective Inspector Scott Beard, who led the the inquiry into the murder of British backpacker Grace Millane, described the horrific narrative of the case as “like reading a novel”; and on Friday the drama that has played out in New Zealand over the past 15 months reached its grim conclusion.

For the 28-year-old New Zealand man who strangled Millane there was life behind bars with a non-parole period of 17 years. By then he will be a middle-aged man.

There will also be intensive psychology and rehabilitation for the pathological liar labelled “high risk” in his sentencing report, a man estranged from his family, and who lived out a fantasy existence on Tinder, culminating in the “depraved” murder of Millane. His identity remains suppressed, a not uncommon practice in the country of just five million people.

The man’s demeanour throughout the trial was one of indifference, which broke only briefly on Friday when the Millane family read out their victim impact statements via videolink from Britain. Then, the killer lowered his head into his hands, massaged his forehead, and began to cry. He has maintained his innocence throughout.

But the real life sentence is the one that will be borne by Millane’s family. On Friday morning her brother Declan told the court that the ordeal had left them broken and destroyed.

“I will simply miss my sister for the rest of my life and this pain will never go away,” he said, using tissues to wipe the tears from his eyes. “It’s tough to carry on life as normal after the destruction of our family … how do you carry on?” he said, addressing his sister’s killer.

A candlelight vigil is held for Grace Millane in Christchurch following news of her death.
A candlelight vigil is held for Grace Millane in Christchurch following news of her death. Photograph: Mark Baker/AP

Millane, 22, from Essex, arrived in New Zealand in November 2018 as part of a round-the-world trip. She died by manual strangulation on 2 December during sex in the man’s hotel apartment in central Auckland. The pair had met on the dating app Tinder and, according to Millane’s excited text messages to a friend: they “clicked”.

After Millane’s death, the man watched hardcore pornography and took intimate photographs of her corpse, before embarking on another Tinder date with a different woman at a different Auckland bar. The next day he squeezed Millane’s body into a suitcase and buried her in the Waitakere ranges, a bushland area 45 minutes west of New Zealand’s largest city. He also purchased cleaning products and attempted to systematically hide and destroy evidence, as well as Googling “rigor mortis” “flesh-eating birds” and “hottest fire”.

Millane’s remains were found by police a week after she died, when her killer blamed rough sex gone wrong – a defence that later failed him in court. It was a week spent “in a living nightmare” for the Millane family, and a week in which New Zealanders – including the prime minister – hoped and prayed for Millane’s safe return. Mass candlelight vigils, thousands strong, were held in her honour, one of which father David Millane attended.

Mother Gillian Millane, who told the court on Friday that losing Grace had made her suicidal, said she could not, and had no interest in, ever forgiving her daughter’s killer – a daughter she described as her “very best friend”.

“No life sentence you receive today will match my life sentence without my Grace,” Gillian said. “You took it upon yourself to murder my beautiful Grace – an innocent girl. You ripped a hole in our hearts.”

Just as the police who worked on the case for 15 months struggled to believe it at times, so did New Zealanders. The case shook the country, and led many of its citizens – women, mostly – to question the assumption that it is a safe place. It also left some young women openly fearful of dating apps and casual sex, and circumspect about how bold – or vulnerable – they really can be.

Grace Millane was described by her mother as her ‘very best friend’.
Grace Millane was described by her mother as her ‘very best friend’. Photograph: Lucie Blackman Trust/PA

Justice Simon Moore, who oversaw the murder trial, drove home this point, saying Millane’s age, diminutive stature and status as a lone traveller in a foreign country made her unquestionably “vulnerable” in his eyes – a state her killer took advantage of.

Crown prosecutor Brian Dickey described the Millane murder as “unique” in New Zealand, in its “personalised” method, morbid aftermath and the wider ramifications that tore through the community.

“This case has had a profound impact on young women in New Zealand and how safe they feel with men, or not.”

Beard said he had never before worked on a case that had such international impact, and said the “rough sex” defence used by the killer “repeatedly re-victimises the victim, and their family”. It had been cruel and unfair that Millane’s sexual history and private life were exposed before the court, the public, and her parents, who were in attendance for the full three weeks in November, he said.

“Strangling someone for five to 10 minutes until they die is not rough sex,” said Beard after the sentencing.

Justice Moore was similarly unequivocal, labelling the crime as “cold-blooded”, “callous” and “depraved”.

Detective Inspector Scott Beard speaks to the media while investigating the disappearance of Grace Millane.
Detective Inspector Scott Beard speaks to the media while investigating the disappearance of Grace Millane. Photograph: Hannah Peters/Getty Images

“Your actions reveal a complete disregard for your victim” Moore said.

Back home in Essex, the Millane family are now slowly inching towards closure, and rebuilding lives in which at least three members have revealed shredded mental and physical health.

Victoria Millane – Grace’s sister-in-law – often visits the graveyard where Millane is buried. Victoria married Grace’s brother Michael last year, in a ceremony where Grace was meant to be her bridesmaid. Instead, Victoria told the court, a photo of Grace stood in her place beside the altar.

“Grace became the little sister I always longed for,” Victoria told the court via videolink, sobbing. “I often dream about Grace and seeing her again, hoping I will wake from this nightmare.”

“You,” she said, addressing Millane’s killer, and staring into the Skype camera. “Can never be forgiven”.