Mysterious murders can happen in the most unlikely of places. The South Pacific Ocean island nation of Fiji, officially the Republic of Fiji, consists of an expansive archipelago of more than 330 islands—of which about 110 are permanently inhabited—and more than 500 islets. It is well-known as a popular tourist destination, drawing in visitors from around the world who come for the azure water, white sandy beaches, vast colorful coral reefs, year-round tropical weather, and various world-class five-star resorts and hotels. It is all the very picture of an island paradise, and the last place one would expect there to be mysterious disappearances and murders, but it would appear that behind the veneer of tourists having fun in the sun, there is a dark side of the islands that occasionally emerges into the light.
In 2011, the Russian couple Yuri Shipulin and his wife, Nataliya Gerasimova moved to Fiji to get away and start a new life among the postcard-perfect islands. It was a dream come true for them, and they went about starting their new home in the picturesque and popular tourist region of Nadi, located on the western side of the main island of Viti Levu. Here they started up a farm to grow and sell fruit and vegetables and led mostly a tranquil, peaceful life away from the thrum of big city. On June 16, 2016, the couple got into their grey metallic land cruiser and left their farm at Kachiqari, off the road leading to Nausori Highlands, to head towards town. It was a totally normal thing for them to do, as they often went to sell their wares, pick up supplies, or tend to their photography business there, but in this case it seems as if they were about to drive right off the face of the earth.
When the couple did not return by the next day, it was seen as odd, and when calls to their mobile phones remained unanswered they were reported missing by their business partner and fellow Russian, Andrew Luzanenko, who also lived with them on the farm. Police were able to locate the missing couple’s car, which still had the keys in the ignition and contained their phones, wallets, and other belongings, as well as some of Nataliya’s clothing that had oddly been neatly folded, but no sign of them. Their farm was also meticulously searched but there was nothing to indicate where they had gone or what had happened to them. Friends, customers, and business associates of the couple claimed that neither of them had made any mention of going on a trip or anything that could explain why they had not come home. When people around the island were questioned, police were able to pick up a lead when a witness apparently sighted the couple on the evening of the 16th having drinks at Denarau, which is a small private resort development on the western side of Viti Levu known for its upscale hotels and resorts. The witness described them as in good spirits, laughing and chatting away, but this is the last time they would be seen and it is not clear what happened to them after this.
At the time the case was puzzling. How could this couple, who were well known on the island, just so completely disappear into thin air without anyone having seen anything? Police hoped that a massive flyer campaign and public appeals to the public would turn up something, but no leads came in, no tips, and no clues. In the void of any trail to really follow, authorities began trying to piece together what the couple had been doing in the days before their vanishing and if there had been anything amiss, but this turned up nothing. Friends and business associates all reported that both of them had gone about business as usual and had been their typical, friendly cheerful selves right up to the end, and seemed perfectly happy with their life in paradise. They had even made several business appointments for the days after their disappearance that they never showed up for, and it was seen as unlikely that they had committed suicide or just run off to start a new life, especially since starting a new life is precisely why they had come to Fiji to begin with. The case went completely cold, and then there would be some gruesome new developments.
June 24th was another clear, sunny day at the popular Natadola Beach, with beachgoers swimming and sunbathing near the clear blue waters. It looked like a scene off a postcard or travel brochure, but one thing the travel brochure didn’t mention is human body parts washing up on the pristine white sand. On this day, beachgoers were shocked when a pair of human feet wrapped in some sort of green netting tied with blue fishing lone and with rocks apparently to weigh it all down washed up on shore. At the time, police were unable to identify the remains, but they would not have to wait long before more body parts began appearing at the same beach. Another pair of feet washed up a few days later, and not long after the feet were discovered, a vacationing couple from New Zealand were cavorting about in the water when they made a grisly discovery. Graeme Bickley made the shocking discovery with his wife Jan, and he says of it:
I noticed an unusual bundle in the water. I went out in the tide – it was in knee depth height – and grabbed it, it looked like a little bundle but it was very heavy of course. It was slightly bigger than a steering wheel, completely round and full of rocks.
Bickley would be horrified when he looked within the bundle and discovered within it a disembodied human head. The head would be turned over for analysis and would be found to have belonged to the missing Yuri Shipulin. DNA testing would also later show that the feet also belonged to the vanished couple. After this macabre revelation, more body parts continued to wash up on shore, including hands and the torso of Nataliya Gerasimova, ruthlessly cut off below the navel and above the knees, all of them wrapped in that same type of green fishing net and blue line and weighted down with rocks. Rather bizarrely, the beach was not shut down, and Repeka Nasiko, a reporter for the Fijian Times, would say:
We have asked the police a number of times why the beach remains open. Because body parts keep turning up, and always on the beach. It’s a shocking killing, we are not used to something like this here. It is so public and a very popular picnic spot. People are scared that whoever did this is still on the loose.
It was not clear that the missing couple had met with some sort of foul play, and locals were now scared to go out at night because they feared there was a sadistic killer on the prowl in the island paradise, all while the Fiji police commissioner assured the public that it was safe. As the new hit the media with lurid headlines and people were whipped up into a panic, police were trying to figure out just what had happened. Who would have killed the couple and why? Also, why had they done so in such a chilling, gruesome manner? Police were able to find a grim possible motive when they dug deeper and found that Yuri had been in quite a bit of debt, to the tune of $200,000 owned to former business associates, but when these associates were questioned there was found nothing suspicious. During the investigation, Fijian authorities were extremely tight-lipped, revealing very little about what was going on, but the general consensus was that they had no solid suspects or even potential suspects. All that was known was that police believed there may have been some local involvement in the murder, and despite several announces that they were about to charge someone this never actually materialized. Although a massive reward was offered for any information leading to a break in the case, what has gone on to be the most brutal murders that Fiji has ever seen has remained unsolved.