Cold case: Pathologist solves cause of death 15 years later after chance encounter

The case of Jason Chase haunted New Zealand pathologist Cynric Temple-Camp as he was unable to establish his cause of death. Fifteen years later, he spoke to a retired colleague about it. As he says in this extract from his new book, The Quick and the Dead, the result, left him “flabbergasted”. Jason Chase went missing on December 13, 2002. He was a 25-year-old shearer who had been staying up Tairawhiti way. He was fit and healthy with no known illnesses: in fact, he was in great shape, because he was training for a bike race. We knew he had left Gisborne back in mid-December and was headed back home to Dannevirke to his family for Christmas. He never arrived. At first this went unnoticed, as there wasn’t a specific date for his arrival. Then an abandoned car was reported in the Tamaki Reserve, just out of Dannevirke in the foothills of the Ruahine Range. It was Jason’s car. Why was it there? Where was Jason? What was he doing? No one knew. We heard he knew the area pretty well and he could easily have gone up into the mountains for a bit. But it was all really out of character. He had been somewhat depressed but there was nothing to suggest he was suicidal. The search ground into gear. The Palmerston North rescue helicopter flew several missions, weaving in and out of the steep-sided gullies so close that it seemed you could lean out and touch them as they passed. All efforts were fruitless. The search was officially suspended just before Christmas. Jason’s whanau and the Dannevirke community would not give up. Hundreds of volunteers rallied and continued their private search. Teams of rescuers went out each day to quarter large tracts of the mountains. It is a beautiful but wild place to tramp. If you get lost, it’s a very hard place in which to be found. It’s punishing terrain — very steep mountainsides clad in dense native bush with intervening, rock-strewn gullies. These gullies carry torrents of water in the wet season, but they were dry and hard and irregular going to walk along right now. Periodically, slips scar the steep sides of the ranges, disgorging yet more rocks into the gullies. In winter, as I look out of my office window, I can see the surrounding peaks are often dusted with snow. The search went on day after day. A Pongaroa farmer even helped out using his plane to see if he could find Jason. But the search was a failure. There was no sign that Jason had even passed by anywhere there. If it weren’t for the presence of his car, there would have been no reason to suppose he was in there at all. Finally, around the middle of the afternoon on Friday, January 3, whanau found Jason in the ranges. A mystery death That evening, the police handed me a booklet of the beautifully taken pictures their photographer had prepared. I studied the photographs carefully, sitting dressed for action in my surgical scrubs in the tiny cupboard that served as the mortuary office. The backdrop was typical Ruahine ranges and I was right about the temperature that day, as it was clearly baking in the sunshine. There was nothing visible in the gully from 500 feet, but as the photographer descended, there, quite clearly, was Jason. He was easy to see, as he was wearing a short-sleeved, multi-coloured rugby shirt with a bright-red back displayed to the sky. His pale shorts were either cream-coloured or were a very faded khaki. He was lying peacefully on his left side with his legs stretched out and his feet bare. If he hadn’t been on a rocky river bed, you’d have thought he’d just lain down there for a comfortable snooze. The police were right. This was certainly no murder scene. It looked peaceful. There had been no deadly struggle here, and I was sure he had died exactly on this spot. I could easily imagine him lying down here for the last time, making himself as comfortable as he could. I could find absolutely no evidence of any injuries or fractures. Jason was well nourished, and even had food in his stomach. Water was evidently not a problem, as he was well hydrated and there was urine in his bladder. There were two shallow ulcers in his duodenum. They hadn’t been there long, maybe a few hours. “These are stress ulcers,” I decided. “They develop very quickly and they point to a time of significant stress just before death, though they don’t tell us what the stress was. Septicaemia, shock or severe injury can all do it. But I don’t see any sign of any of those.” The toxicology report came from the ESR. Blood, urine and stomach contents were all negative for all drugs, medications and a range of common poisons. We settled on a time of death somewhere around four to six days prior to when Jason was found. That meant on or around around 30 December. That was long after the official search had been called off, so we could say with confidence that Jason had not been lying exposed on that rocky bed and been missed by the helicopter search crew. More sombrely, though, it meant he had been up there alive and well and the search-and-rescue operation had failed to find him. It still left us frustratingly nowhere, so far as the cause of death was concerned. Now we had to face the family at an inquest. The Dannevirke coroner, Stuart Smith, asked me to drive across the ranges, as the extended family was expected to be there. The family were still unhappy with the negative result of the search effort. I gave my meagre evidence. I didn’t know the cause of death. I knew many things that it was not: suicide, murder, injury, catastrophic medical diseases, poisons were all out. But there had clearly been acute stress at the end. The weird ulcers in his duodenum told me so. But where had Jason been all that time since mid-December? He didn’t look as though he had been lost and stumbling around, trying to find his way out. His clothes were tidy and not weather-beaten. He must have been under shelter most of the time. His feet were bare and they were totally uninjured, so he must have been wearing shoes. Where were they? I reckoned they were somewhere close to where we found him. So what was that final stress caused by? Was it just simple exposure? Heat stroke? Surely not. There was water up there. It wasn’t all that hot until the last few days, by which time I thought he was already dead. I had nothing useful to add to the mystery. With a heavy heart, I gave my opinion that Jason had died of obscure natural causes. ‘I was flabbergasted by what I heard’ A few years went by and I couldn’t get Jason out of my mind. I was satisfied the search-and-rescue operation hadn’t missed him lying there, but it nagged at me that we had all overlooked something that might explain his death. One day, I told Jason’s story to my retired surgical colleague and friend John Coutts. “In the Ruahines, you say? In the foothills? That rings a bell.” Off John went to his attic, stuffed full of surgical notes, papers and memorabilia collected from a lifetime of medicine in the Manawatu. “Here you are.” John climbed down and thrust a paper at me. “It happened back in 1961. “It was over Dannevirke way in the Ruahines, pretty much where your chap was found. That’s what reminded me. Two young men, 18 and 21 years old, went up there shooting. It was the same time of year too — Boxing Day, in fact, and pretty warm so they were lightly clad. They left coming down until quite late and it was early evening when they did. They couldn’t see quite clearly where they were going as it was getting dark and they pushed through quite dense bush. They ran into a bank of tree nettles. Do you know what they are?” I shook my head. “I’ve heard of nettles, but what are tree nettles?’ “Urtica ferox,” John said happily. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the New Zealand bush. “‘It means Fierce Itch. It’s a native found on the fringes of the bush. They grow to two metres and their leaves are covered with rigid stinging hairs, each about six millimetres long. “There are patches of them clumped in small localities over several parts of the ranges. Anyway, these blokes were wearing shorts, just like your man Jason. They said they had run into a lot of stinging nettle and it felt like a million needle pricks. Less than an hour later, one of the lads developed a guts ache and couldn’t go on. He just lay down and soon became paralysed. “He said he had trouble breathing and shortly afterward he became blind, too. His friend managed to get help and they got him out and to the hospital. He died five hours later. “His mate developed similar symptoms but not quite as severe and he eventually recovered.” I was stunned. “Why the hell haven’t we all heard of this?” John shrugged. “They’re known to kill animals, too,” he said, his blue eyes twinkling with amusement. “Horses are particularly prone and can die quite quickly. They usually have fits and become paralysed. It does something to the nervous system. There was a group of trampers back then who got stung and they had serious incoordination for three days.” After this conversation, I did some research. Tree nettle may well leave no sign on the skin and its poison, called triffydin is exotic and not well known. It’s a great name. It’s named after the triffids, moving plants that stung people to death and then ate them, from John Wyndham’s famous scifi book The Day of the Triffids. The ESR wouldn’t have found triffydin, because they didn’t know to test for it. And death can be very rapid. Was it a tree nettle that killed Jason? I was quite sure that was the only plausible explanation. Something had killed him and it wasn’t murder, suicide, injury, exposure to the elements or any medical disease. In Africa or Australia I would have wondered about a snake bite, but that is one peril we thankfully do not face in New Zealand. I met with the dignified Chase whanau and their friends to tell them of what I had found and what I thought had happened. I was flabbergasted by what I heard. Dave is Dannevirke born and bred and is a local farmer, a hunter and a friend of the family who knew Jason well. He had also been a tireless member of the whanau search. “I knew about the death of the young men by the nettle trees back in 1961,” Dave said. “I remember my father talking about it. He was involved in their rescue back then. And we hunters know that you have to pull on leggings to protect yourself if you’re wearing shorts up there.” That was a surprise. The nettle danger was therefore known, at least locally, even though the country at large seemed to have forgotten. But it was what came next that made me sit up. “We found Jason in Nettle Gully. It’s a hard way down and ringed by nettles and bloody difficult to get through. I reckoned he was coming back down home and chose the wrong gully. He meant to come down the one a bit further on but made a mistake.” A mistake. That’s exactly what it was. We believe Jason went into the bush for some time out. I now found out his sleeping bag was missing as was his backpack. His water bottle was found by whanau nearby. He had food, water was plentiful and when he was ready he trekked out. The bush is hard and can be deceptive and he just took the wrong gully. An accident. Nettle trees were the only plausible cause of death. I was pleased at the outcome. I had never been at peace with Jason for years. His death had never made anysense to me. Now I could put it away, my job done. His story was now told. But Jason’s death does make me wonder that if we didn’t know about this particular danger, what other toxic surprises might be out there in the bush that none of us have yet heard about? The Quick and the DeadBy Cynric Temple-CampPublished by HarperCollins New ZealandOut July 8 RRP: $39.99
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