Death of Aisling Symes
The disappearance of Aisling Celine Symes, a two-year-old girl of Irish and New Zealand descent, occurred on 5 October 2009 in Auckland, New Zealand. It was initially thought the girl had been abducted, but on 12 October 2009 it was confirmed that a body had been located in a storm water drain on a property adjoining the one from where she went missing. The body was confirmed to be Aisling's.
Aisling's parents are Angela and Allan Symes. Allan Symes is originally from Stradbally, County Waterford in Ireland. He had lived in New Zealand for 18 years at the time of Aisling's disappearance. The last known person to see Aisling was her five-year-old sister Caitlin.
A description issued of an Asian woman believed to have been in the vicinity prompted a number of incidents where Asian mothers were targeted by curious members of the public.
The disappearance attracted headlines in New Zealand and Ireland, particularly as child abduction is an unusual occurrence in New Zealand. One New Zealand police inspector claimed on Morning Ireland that only five children had disappeared in his country in the previous fifty years. The New Zealand Herald said nine children had disappeared without trace in the country in sixty years, at least two cases of which involved more than one child at a time. Forty members of the New Zealand police were quickly put on the case. This had risen to sixty by the end of the first week and was set to rise again before her body was located.
Sophie Tedmanson of The Times and Paul Chapman of The Daily Telegraph compared Aisling's case to that of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. Madeleine's parents, who had lived in New Zealand for a time prior to their marriage, said their "thoughts and prayers" were with the Symes family. The grandfather of Amber-Lee Cruickshank, a two-year-old child who disappeared in late 1992, also sent his regards, saying "It's not very nice, I tell you".
Aisling Symes was playing in the garden of her mother's childhood home on Longburn Road, Henderson, Auckland, with her five-year-old sister Caitlin at the time of her disappearance at approximately 17:00 local time on 5 October 2009. Aisling was playing with her newly purchased toy, a Pooh Bear. Angela Symes was cleaning the house and planning to sell it. She kept her daughters within sight and their dog was also nearby. Aisling and Caitlin joined their mother occasionally as she cleaned, even helping when she fixed a faulty washing machine. While working on the machine, Angela noticed Aisling had suddenly disappeared and commenced fifteen minutes of searching before calling in the police. There were initial fears that she had drowned in a creek that ran behind the property.
At least one hundred people from across the city commenced a search which had ended by 9 October when Aisling was not found. Many brought their young children along to assist, overcome with fears that their own children could be at risk. Police also distributed leaflets containing photographs of Aisling.
By 7 October, police expressed a fear that Aisling had been abducted. Police commenced door-to-door searches. Bilingual speakers of Asian languages assisted by knocking on doors and requests for assistance were transmitted on Asian radio stations.
On 8 October, Angela Symes issued a plea for the safe return of her daughter, saying "Just as long as they are looking after her". Aithne Potts, an aunt of Aisling's, reiterated that plea: "As long as she's safe and well we don't give a damn". A television press conference was held at which Allan Symes said: "These recent days have proven to be the most harrowing of our lives. [We’ve had] no sleep and we feel like we’re barely existing, [just] surviving every moment, not knowing where Aisling is". His wife was far too upset to speak, reportedly breaking down into tears in a neighbouring room afterwards.
Angela Symes appeared on New Zealand television the following day, holding Aisling's Pooh Bear.
On 10 October, Allan Symes appeared on The Marian Finucane Show on RTÉ Radio 1 to request the safe return of his daughter. A 10-second video of a dancing Aisling was also released by police. The footage was transmitted on New Zealand's national television.
At 9:30 p.m. on 12 October, the police reported that they had found a body in a drain near the Symes house.
At around 9:40 a.m. on 13 October, police confirmed that the body they found was that of Aisling Symes.
Suspects and cases of mistaken identity
A number of suspects and several cases of mistaken identity resulted from the case.
A woman in her thirties of Asian appearance with a dog of black and grey colours on a lead was seen near Aisling prior to her disappearance. She was of a height of 165 centimetres. Her origin was unclear and police said she was thought to be from India, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam or other Asian ethnicities. Vets were instructed to watch out for such a woman. A woman described as fitting this description was targeted by a group of people and suffered trauma as a result. Another Asian woman whose child appeared European was questioned by police and was found to be so similar to Aisling that a photograph had to be held closely to confirm the difference. A middle-aged Asian couple were also quizzed over the origin of a European toddler whom it turned out they were babysitting. Police urged people not to approach any similar women and not to unnecessarily harass "Asian women walking down the road". Police identified the woman after Aisling's body was found. It was revealed that she was from the Philippines, had a history of mental illness, and had previously tried to lure children into her car with lollies. Despite this she was unable to assist police with the Symes case.
Detective Inspector Graham Bell, presenter of the television series Police Ten 7, suggested Aisling may have been taken by "a nutty woman". He thought it odd that the Asian woman wore sandals and socks "which in our society is regarded as a little bit eccentric". President of the United States National Center for Missing and Exploited Children Ernie Allen said most child abductors in his country were women and that she would have to construct a story for the sudden appearance of a child.
Another case of mistaken identity occurred when a woman murdered her husband and when police commenced door-to-door enquiries they found that homeowners had not heard shots being fired and assumed that police had come to ask about the Aisling Symes case.
A businessman offered a $3,000 reward but police refused it, ruling out the need for any such money. He had claimed his staff had been "emotionally affected" by the case so he decided to assist. Lord Ashcroft offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to the safe return of the child.
Finding the body
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On Monday the 12th just before 8:00 pm, police activity increased as they closed in on a house in West Auckland. Police confirmed in a press conference on the morning of 13 October that the body found the previous evening in a drainpipe in Henderson was that of two-year-old missing toddler Aisling Symes. Police inspector Gary Davey, head of the Aisling inquiry, says the body was removed from the scene at 1am on 13 October. He said the body of Aisling probably lay in the drain within metres of scores of police and searchers for days after she disappeared. The drain, which was a short distance from the house she disappeared from on Monday last week and was two metres below the ground, had been thoroughly searched by officers with special search techniques. Mr Davey says cameras were used to reach 9–10 metres into the drain, but the search proved fruitless. A decision was then made to dig up part of the drain, a digger was called in and it took five hours until Aisling's body was found inside. When police were first called to the Longburn Rd house on Monday last week a police officer searched the pipe three times, Mr Davey said. The manhole cover was ajar about 10 cm and the first police officer looked down the pipe and there was no sign of a body. "He called out and did not hear anything other than running water," Mr Davey said. The officer then searched towards the stream and 15 minutes later returned to the manhole, climbed about two metres down the larger access pipe after moving the manhole cover back. He shone his torch down the smaller 375mm drain at the bottom and could see nothing. He also called her name but there was no response. "He believed he could see five metres up into the drain and five metres down the drain." The drain was searched for a third time later in the night by search and rescue searchers, Mr Davey said. During the search Aisling's father Alan Symes also climbed down the pipe and looked for his daughter, said Mr Davey. Mr Davey says it is too early to tell how Aisling got into the drain, but police believe no foul play was involved. "I believe it is more likely or not that she was there from the start and I believe it is misadventure," he says.
Waitakere Police later said the results of a post mortem on Aisling Symes were consistent with drowning. Inspector Gary Davey, Waitakere Area Police Commander, said he was unable to comment on the specific details of the autopsy but there was no evidence of injury. Aisling's body was later released to her family.
The Internet, according to Tim Hume of The Sunday Star-Times, "went nuts" when news of Aisling's body emerged. #Aisling, a trending topic on Twitter, was popular and 25,000 Facebookers swapped messages on the matter.
Allegations of police racism
The family of Srikanth Rayadurgam, a 23-year-old Indian student reported missing on 1 October 2009, criticised police in Auckland for leaving them to their own devices in the search for their loved one. A police diving team which had arrived from Wellington was instead sent on to Henderson to assist in the Symes case. Rayadurgam's family argue that police concentrated all their resources on the Symes case, suggesting that skin colour had made the difference and asking why they could not be treated equally. Police had not been quick to react when called upon to assist in the search and when they arrived they soon allegedly departed the scene to search for Aisling. 3 News made efforts to ask police about this but received no response. Missing white woman syndrome was implied.
TVNZ psychic disagreement
The family were introduced to Sensing Murder medium Deb Webber by state broadcaster Television New Zealand (TVNZ), a move which was later criticised due to Aisling only having disappeared two days previously. One policeman, asked whether police would make use of comments made by Webber on the television program Breakfast, said, "I'm totally aghast - it seems like a totally commercial play". TVNZ responded with the following statement: "We're not trying to push a psychic message to make money and get ratings".
Hundreds of e-mails were sent to the station. New Zealand Skeptics chair Vicki Hyde criticised Webber's prediction saying it "was wrong" stating "TVNZ were guilty of using the situation as a marketing ploy" and adding "It's not sensing murder, it's sensing opportunity, sensing exploitation and there's nothing worse than exploiting parents who are under such strain and stresses." Allan Symes responded on Facebook with the statement: "Please do not suggest psychics, the family are a strong Christian family and will not consider this under any circumstances".
Hundreds of people attended Aisling's funeral at the Ranui Baptist Church on 16 October 2009. Screens were installed outside the church and in neighbouring buildings. Aisling's coffin was covered with the flags of New Zealand and Ireland and her Pooh Bear sat on top. A photographic slideshow occurred alongside the hymn "Be Thou My Vision". The funeral ceremony concluded with the release of white doves as Aisling's body was taken from the church.
The New Zealand Herald issued an editorial which began, "Throughout the week that little Aisling Symes was missing, the country felt as small as a village". Tim Hume of The Sunday Star-Times called her "the toddler who united a country".
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