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Death of Aisling Symes

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File:Aisling Symes.jpg
The disappearance of Aisling Symes in 2009. Above is an image of the toddler which was widely circulated in the aftermath

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.

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.[1] One New Zealand police inspector claimed on Morning Ireland that only five children had disappeared in his country in the previous fifty years.[2] 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.[3] Forty members of the New Zealand police were quickly put on the case.[4] This had risen to sixty by the end of the first week and was set to rise again before her body was located.[5]


The parents of Aisling Symes were Angela, a native of New Zealand, and Allan Symes, who came from Stradbally in County Waterford, Eire, and had lived in New Zealand for 18 years at the time of her disappearance.[6] She 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.[7] Aisling and Caitlin joined their mother occasionally as she cleaned and worked on a washing machine.[8][7] While working on the machine, Angela noticed Aisling had suddenly disappeared and commenced fifteen minutes of searching before calling in the police.[7] There were initial fears that she had drowned in a creek that ran behind the property.[9]

At least 100 people from across the city commenced a search which had ended by 9 October when Aisling was not found.[10][11][12] Many brought their young children along to assist,[10] overcome with fears that their own children could be at risk.[13] Police also distributed leaflets containing photographs of her.[10]

By 7 October, police expressed a fear that Aisling had been abducted.[14] Police commenced door-to-door searches.[15] Bilingual speakers of Asian languages assisted by knocking on doors and requests for assistance were transmitted on Asian radio stations.[8]

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".[16] 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".[6][17] His wife was far too upset to speak,[17] reportedly breaking down into tears in a neighbouring room afterwards.[18]

Angela Symes appeared on New Zealand television the following day, holding Aisling's Pooh Bear.[19]

On 9 October, Aisling's abductor was told to deliver her to a hospital urgently.[8][20]

On 10 October, Allan Symes appeared on The Marian Finucane Show on RTÉ Radio 1 to request the safe return of his daughter.[21] A 10-second video of a dancing Aisling was also released by police.[22] The footage was transmitted on New Zealand's national television.[1]

A businessman offered a $3,000 reward but police refused it, ruling out the need for any such money.[23] He had claimed his staff had been "emotionally affected" by the case so he decided to assist.[23] Lord Ashcroft offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to the safe return of the child.[24]

On 12 October, the police reported that they had found a body in a drain near the Symes house.[25][26] They confirmed that the body was that of Aisling Symes on the next day.[27]

Waitakere Police later said the results of a post mortem on 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.[citation needed]

Suspects and cases of mistaken identity[edit]

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.[10] 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.[20] Vets were instructed to watch out for such a woman.[5] A woman described as fitting this description was targeted by a group of people and suffered trauma as a result.[17] 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.[23][28] A middle-aged Asian couple were also quizzed over the origin of a European toddler whom it turned out they were babysitting.[28] Police urged people not to approach any similar women and not to unnecessarily harass "Asian women walking down the road".[17][23] Police identified the woman after Aisling's body was found.[29] 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.[30][31] She was unable to assist police with the Symes case.[30]

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".[32][33] 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.[32]

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.[34]


Allegations of police racism[edit]

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.[35] A police diving team which had arrived from Wellington was instead sent on to Henderson to assist in the Symes case.[36] 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.[35] 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.[37] 3 News made efforts to ask police about this but received no response.[37] Missing white woman syndrome was implied.[38]

TVNZ psychic disagreement[edit]

"I was walking past the television and [Aisling] popped up, and I went 'oh, she's in a ditch, hole, in West Auckland. That's what I got, instantly."

Deb Webber to Paul Henry on Breakfast[39]

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.[40] 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".[39] TVNZ responded with the following statement: "We're not trying to push a psychic message to make money and get ratings".[39]

Hundreds of e-mails were sent to the station.[39] 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."[41] 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".[42]


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.[31] The funeral ceremony concluded with the release of white doves as Aisling's body was taken from the church.[43][44]


The formal inquest found that the stormwater pipe into which Aisling fell should have been replaced two to three years prior to her death, as it was decades old and not designed to support the housing development at the time. The inquest found that it was likely that water pressure popped off the manhole cover while Aisling's mother was clearing out the home of her late parents. Numerous complaints had been lodged with the Waitakere City Council regarding the drain prior to the event. Fitting a $480 safety grate on the 22,000 manholes in the Waitakere area was estimated at a cost of $20 million, and for the entire Auckland area would have been about $70 million.[45]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Paul Chapman (10 October 2009). "New Zealand child disappearance 'similar' to that of Madeleine McCann". London: The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 2009-10-10.
  2. "NZ: Search intensifies for missing girl". RTÉ. 9 October 2009. Retrieved 2009-10-09.
  3. "McCanns send their support". The New Zealand Herald. 11 October 2009. Retrieved 2009-10-11.
  4. "Toddler missing in New Zealand". RTÉ. 8 October 2009. Archived from the original on 12 October 2009. Retrieved 2009-10-09.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Anna Leask (11 October 2009). "Aisling inquiry police numbers to grow". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 2009-10-11.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Conor Kane (9 October 2009). "Parents plead for safe return of missing toddler". Irish Independent. Retrieved 2009-10-09.[permanent dead link]
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Rachel Tiffen (10 October 2009). "When the nightmare started - mother tells". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 2009-10-10.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 "Parents' pleas for NZ toddler". The Sydney Morning Herald. 11 October 2009. Retrieved 2009-10-11.
  9. "Fears missing toddler kidnapped". 8 October 2009. Archived from the original on 9 October 2009. Retrieved 2009-10-10.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 Rachel Tiffen (6 October 2009). "Missing girl's family pray for a miracle". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 2009-10-10.
  11. Rachel Tiffen (9 October 2009). "Aisling victim of an opportunist, police say". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 2009-10-10.
  12. "PRESS DIGEST-New Zealand newspapers - Oct 8". Reuters. 7 October 2009. Retrieved 2009-10-10.
  13. Jolene Williams and Andrew Koubaridis (8 October 2009). "Anxious families fear for their children". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 2009-10-10.
  14. "Abduction of toddler 'more and more a possibility'". The New Zealand Herald. 7 October 2009. Retrieved 2009-10-10.
  15. Rachel Tiffen (8 October 2009). "Kidnap fears as search for toddler suspended". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 2009-10-10.
  16. Edward Gay (7 October 2009). "Aunty's emotional plea - 'Tell us where she is'". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 2009-10-10.
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 Pádraig Collins (10 October 2009). "Search continues for missing girl". The Irish Times. Retrieved 2009-10-10. The woman police are seeking is thought to be about 35, with dark, shoulder-length hair. She was walking a black and grey dog at the time witnesses say they saw her. Mr Davey said a woman who fitted the description was targeted by a group of people on Wednesday and has been left traumatised by their actions. He said people should contact police rather than make approaches themselves.
  18. Rachel Tiffen and Edward Gay (8 October 2009). "Missing toddler: 'If you have any information, come forward' - father". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 2009-10-10.
  19. Claire Murphy (9 October 2009). "Mum's plea to abductor". Evening Herald. Retrieved 2009-10-10.[permanent dead link]
  20. 20.0 20.1 Andrew Koubaridis (10 October 2009). "Captors urged to deliver girl to hospital". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 2009-10-10.
  21. "Irishman 'desperate' to get daughter back". RTÉ. 10 October 2009. Retrieved 2009-10-10.
  22. "Police release video of Aisling as search continues". The Belfast Telegraph. 10 October 2009. Archived from the original on 20 April 2013. Retrieved 2009-10-10.
  23. 23.0 23.1 23.2 23.3 Edward Gay and Alanah May Eriksen (9 October 2009). "Missing toddler: Police reject offer of reward". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 2009-10-10.
  24. Edward Gay and Rachel Tiffen (12 October 2009). "50,000 reward offered in Aisling Symes case". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 2009-10-13.
  25. reporters, Staff (12 October 2009). "Missing toddler: Mayor confirms body found". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 11 September 2011.
  26. Francis, Clio (13 October 2009). "Body found in hunt for Aisling". Retrieved 11 September 2011.
  27. Chris Whitworth / NZPA (13 October 2009). "Aisling lay in drain metres from searchers". 3 News. Archived from the original on 24 March 2012. Retrieved 11 September 2011.
  28. 28.0 28.1 Alanah May Eriksen (9 October 2009). "Toddler's lookalikes spark calls to police". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 2009-10-10.
  29. Yvonne Tahana, James Ihaka and Andrew Koubaridis (13 October 2009). "Aisling case: Mystery woman identified". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 2009-10-13.
  30. 30.0 30.1 "Woman had history of luring children". Television New Zealand. 17 October 2009. Retrieved 2009-10-18.
  31. 31.0 31.1 Rachel Tiffen (16 October 2009). "Revealed: Secret of Aisling suspect". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 2009-10-18.
  32. 32.0 32.1 "Expert's hope for missing toddler". The New Zealand Herald. 11 October 2009. Retrieved 2009-10-11.
  33. Graham Bell (11 October 2009). "Graham Bell: Aisling's case brings back memories". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 2009-10-11.
  34. Anna Rushworth (11 October 2009). "Woman arrested after man shot dead". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 2009-10-11.
  35. 35.0 35.1 "Family unhappy with search for student". Otago Daily Times. 9 October 2009. Retrieved 2009-10-10.
  36. "Divers search harbour for missing student". Television New Zealand. 7 October 2009. Retrieved 2009-10-10.
  37. 37.0 37.1 Laura Turner (9 October 2009). "Family of missing Indian man question police motives". 3 News. Archived from the original on 6 April 2012. Retrieved 2009-10-10.
  38. "The toddler who united a country". The Sunday Star-Times. 18 October 2009. Retrieved 2009-10-18.
  39. 39.0 39.1 39.2 39.3 Matt Nippert (11 October 2009). "TV psychic row breaks out as police search for missing girl". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 2009-10-11.
  40. John Drinnan (9 October 2009). "Media: TVNZ role in toddler case unsettling". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 2009-10-10.
  41. NZPA (11 October 2009). "Aisling psychic prediction criticised". Retrieved 2009-10-13.
  42. Paul Chapman (13 October 2009). "Toddler's body lay in drain for a week while police searched". London: The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 2009-10-13.
  43. Cormac Murphy (16 October 2009). "Doves mark final farewell as Aisling's family mourn 'little bundle of love'". Evening Herald. Archived from the original on 17 February 2013. Retrieved 2009-10-16.
  44. Pádraig Collins (17 October 2009). "Final farewell for little Aisling". The Irish Times. Retrieved 2009-10-17. A slideshow of images of Aisling was shown to the congregation as an Irish recording of the hymn Be Thou My Vision was played. One photo showed Aisling in her stroller with an Irish flag attached.
  45. Aisling Symes inquest ends, Edward Gay and NZPA, 17 June 2011

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