Mysterious vanishings seem to come for anyone at any time. Jim Donnelly seemed to have a rather normal life. The 43-year-old father of two had a stable job as a scientist at the Glenbrook Steel Mill, south of Auckland, New Zealand for over 20 years, was happily married to his wife Tracey, and by all accounts was a loving father to his two children Liam and Siobhan, aged seven and five. He was a man who seemed to have a stable, happy life, no known enemies, and would not be the kind of person one would think would become the center of one of New Zealand’s strangest unsolved cases, but Donnelly was about to become a bizarre vanishing surrounded by strange clues.
On Monday June 21, 2004, Jim got up, got ready for work, kissed his wife goodbye, and headed off to work at the mill like he had done every day for two decades. He arrived at the mill on schedule, parked his car, clocked in, changed into his uniform, and went to his office without any incident at all, but after this, he seems to have just vanished off the face of the earth. His wife casually called him at 8 a.m., but he didn’t pick up and didn’t call her right back as he usually would have done, which was the first sign that something was perhaps amiss. This might have just been a fluke, but when she learned that he had missed a meeting at 9 a.m. she became worried. Numerous attempts were made to call him on his mobile phone, but he would not pick up or return these calls, and when 6 p.m. came with no sign of Jim he was officially reported missing. At first it was thought that Jim had at some point left the site, but a thorough search of the mill turned up Jim’s car, which was still parked on the premises but not in its usual spot. This was odd, because he had always parked it in the same exact spot, but things were about to get much stranger.
When authorities arrived, they did a full search of the facility but found no sign of Jim. His office was in order, the computer was turned off, and there was even a muffin he had bought on his way to work eerily sitting on his desk uneaten. The car was found to be in pristine condition, with nothing missing and no sign of any sort of struggle or anything suspicious except for the fact that it was parked in a different spot than usual. It was thought that he may have had an accident at the mill, but no evidence of this was found. He was just simply gone. As the investigation was going on, it took on a sinister air when it came to light that Jim had been exhibiting some odd behavior in the weeks leading up to the disappearance. According to his wife Tracey, he had been acting guarded, stressed, anxious, and not his usual self. He had also suddenly cancelled a dinner date they were supposed to go on because he said he had an “urgent meeting,” and he generally seemed to be preoccupied and paranoid about something. She would say of some of what happened:
He was very preoccupied with something. 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. He went to a meeting and told me he might be a little fragile when he came back. But he wouldn't disclose any more. That really concerned me a lot. 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. I didn't know what to think ... the whole weekend was a bit surreal.
This meeting of his came and went, but he returned from it unfazed and would elaborate no further. The strange behavior continued when he stormed off one day because he said he had to “avert a crisis,” and he would spend hours pacing around the house acting agitated or go on uncommonly long walks. One night he suddenly woke up in the middle of the night to tell Tracey all about the birthday presents he had bought for his kids, although their birthdays were still months away, and Jim also became obsessed with joining the Freemasons, something he had never shown any interest in before, and in general was acting totally out of character and unlike himself. Even more oddly, it would also turn out that on the night before his disappearance, Jim had been found trespassing at an office block where his good friend Stephen Taylor worked. He apparently sneaked through a secure car park, and when stopped by building’s resident caretaker he had explained that he was looking for his friend in order to “pay a debt.” At the time, Jim was described as dazed, disoriented, and slightly incoherent, and after this he left without incident. Throughout all of this weirdness, he did not tell his wife what was going on, and when she asked him what was wrong he cryptically explained, “If you knew what was in my head you would not be worried. Family comes first, family is most important.”
As the investigation continued, there were some weird clues that would appear. A set of footprints was found from boots that could have matched what Jim had been wearing, leading away over a bank and disappearing into grass around a nearby pond. A search of this pond turned up nothing. There was also a witness found who claimed to have seen a man matching Jim’s description “running for his life” as police had begun their search of the mill. It is unclear if this has any connection to the case, and nothing came of this potential lead. Everyone who worked at the mill was questioned, but this turned up nothing either. There was one ominous potential lead when it was reported that there had been an unidentified car driving around near where Jim’s car had been found, but this didn’t lead anywhere. For the most part, everyone told the same story, of how Jim had come to work and gone to his office as usual, with nothing particularly odd about him that day. No one saw him leave the mill, no one saw him outside of the mill, it was as if he had just evaporated into thin air. It would not be until a full week after his disappearance that the oddest clue of all would appear.
While continuing to search the facility, there was found a vat of acid with a hard hat next to it believed to have possibly belonged to the missing man. On a hunch, police had the vat drained, and discovered his work key, his work ID card, palm pilot, safety glasses and credit card and cash. Oddly, the work key had been removed from his key ring he always carried with him and the rest of the keys could not be located. The acid itself was too weak to have been able to fully dissolve a human body in such a short span of time, and no human remains were found in the vat. Strangely, the hard hat that had drawn attention to the vat had already been searched, meaning that someone had put that hat there during the investigation. Why were those belongings put there and by whom? How hat the hat appeared there after the search of the area? No one had a clue.
Police would end up entertaining several different scenarios for what may have happened. One was that he had decided to leave his old life behind, another that he had committed suicide, or that he had been murdered, but there was no evidence to point to any one of these. His wife has long pointed to something sinister going on at that mill, even suggesting that they went through efforts to cover it up. On top of this, there were numerous dropped balls during the police investigation. For one, they never had the hard hat found next to the acid vat checked for fingerprints. They also did very little follow-up interviewing of the employees or manager of the site, dropping their investigation rather early. She thinks that her husband never did leave that mill, that he was killed on site either intentionally or accidentally, and that it has all been brushed under the carpet. She has said of this ominous scenario and her frustration in trying to find answers to it all:
The mill is supposed to be a secure site. That’s what they kept telling us. How did this happen in the middle of search and rescue, with mill staff all knowing there was a missing person on-site? Why did no one see anything? I can only presume someone knows. My opinion has never changed. To me, the answer lies in the mill - the last place Jim was seen. I approached the mill management with a request to allow access for a private investigator. This request was declined. I found this very frustrating. Didn’t they want this mystery solved? Jim was one of their workers. How will I get answers if the mill isn’t co-operating?
My opinion is that 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. But 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. Because 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. We have to do this to try and find out what happened. Where the hell is my husband? He went to work and where is he? What's happened to him?"
The steel mill management was more than happy for people to think Jim left their site voluntarily, but there is no evidence to show or prove this. What are they worried about? Why in this day and age of workplace safety haven’t they been made to be more accountable? Are safety regulations just a farce, there to only say we implemented notices and advise of hazards? Aren’t the mill bosses responsible for the loss of a worker who signed into work and never signed out? It’s fallen on me to prove he went missing while still in the mill. Surely, it should be on the mill to prove otherwise. I feel powerless against a corporation that doesn’t care.
In the end, the case has never been solved and Jim Donnelly has never been seen again. He just went to work as usual, went to his office, and vanished to leave myriad odd clues behind. We are left with many questions. Why would this otherwise unassuming man go into work and then just vanish without being seen by anyone or drawing attention to himself? What was the meaning of his bizarre behavior and cryptic statements in the days leading up to his disappearance, and do they have any connection to what happened to him? Why were his belongings dumped into that acid? Was this all a murder and cover-up, or something else? Jim's family has never given up the search for answers, but as of yet these have been few and far between, and it remains a perplexing and strange case we may never get to the bottom of.