Thursday, March 10, 2016

Lost in the Night: The Disappearance of Iraena Asher

On the 10th of October, 2004, a beautiful young model and trainee teacher disappeared into the night in Piha, West Auckland. She was never seen again. 

Iraena Asher in 2004, age 25

It's 2004, and for almost a year, the New Zealand media has been focusing a harsh spotlight on the Government over the crisis situation at emergency services. People calling the emergency 111 number are unable to get through, are cut off, or have their calls mishandled by overworked dispatchers, who send personnel to the wrong location or just don't send them at all.

On a balmy night in October, a young woman by the name of Iraena Asher calls 111 from a prepaid cellphone, just outside a residence in the coastel community of Piha, 40kms from Auckland's metropolis with it's well-lit streets. She tells the dispatcher that she needs a police car sent, that she's afraid of someone at the address she is outside of. She tells him that she is being pressured for sex, that she's been drinking and doesn't feel safe. Here's the transcript for that call, Iraena's responses are in italics, the dispatchers in bold.

Could you please umm come and get me from [number] Piha Road?”

what’s happening there Ma’m?

Yes please”

what’s happening?”

umm I just need to be taken away from here”.

What's your name?”

Iraena … please can you get here as soon as possible”.

yeah can you tell us what’s going on Iraena - - Iraena?”.

I don’t feel safe in this house because - - there’s a guy here who I’m
very afraid of”.

Is he your partner?”


Who is the male that you are scared of there - - Iraena?”


At this point the call taker repeats the question and Iraena names a man who was not actually at the address at the time
Is it just you two there Iraena?”

no there’s, there’s a girl here as well who I’m concerned about too”.
The transcript doesn't include all of the conversation between the dispatcher and Iraena after this point. Instead, it's condensed to the most important exchanges, and I believe this is because there was a lot of the same questions being asked, and some questions being repeated multiple times because Iraena doesn't always respond or seem to understand the dispatcher

The dispatcher asks Iraena several questions about why she is afraid of the man and the situation she's in...

well I feel, well I feel scared of him” ... “because he’s, basically he’s got me here and I just, I don’t feel safe here”.

Ms Asher told the dispatcher that she did not live at the Piha Road address, provided her address in Ponsonby, and said she did not have her “wallet or anything with me”, and then said “ … I need help immediately”.

I can’t hear anything going on … you still haven’t told me why you
are afraid of this guy. Is that his address?”


“ … what’s he done to scare you?”

well, he’s just been pressuring me for sex and I really don’t want to”.

In response to a question as to her age, Ms Asher correctly told the Call Taker that she was 25. She told the Call Taker that she had been drinking and that she had come in a person’s car.

He’s actually quite scary too”.

where is he now?”

in the bedroom”.

“ … what’s he doing?”

I don’t know. I just need to be taken away from here ’cause I don’t know these people very well and I don’t feel safe here”.

Okay. We’ll try and get there as soon as we can, Iraena. That’s your mobile you’re calling on?”.

I just picked it up off the table, I just thought I want to get out of the situation ’cause
it’s not healthy for me”.

Iraena tells the dispatcher that she's known her boyfriend for about a week and that they've been drinking for most of the day.

“ … we kept drinking, and now I need your help now please, [number] Piha Road”...“I don’t feel safe right now and I thought the best thing to do would be to ring the Police and that’s what I’ve done ’cause I want to do the right thing. I’m just fucken really scared, okay?”

“ … you still want a lift though, don’t you?”

Yeah I do” ...“I didn’t know it was going to be so hard to get some help”.
Well I need all the circumstances don’t I, Iraena?”

Yeah you do”.

no worries, we’ll be there as soon as we can”.
Yeah I hope so”.

This call lasted five and a half minutes.

At the conclusion of the call, the dispatcher recorded the basic details of the call and passed that on to another dispatcher at North Comms, who referred it to the Waitakere police, along with the original dispatcher's comment that the call was “Just a bit rubbish.” A shift Sergeant at Waitakere read the details of the call, and suggested to the dispatcher that Iraena Asher call a taxi. The Sergeant than went to take care of a high priority call involving a possible firearms incident.

The dispatcher at North Comms calls Iraena on the cellphone she used to place the original call and here is the transcript of that call.

Can you call a taxi?”

No, 'cause this phone won't let me call out.”

I'll phone one, which company would you prefer?”

The most expensive.”


Umm...Discount Taxis.”

Discount Taxis? Okay, I will give them a ring and I will ring you back with how long they're going to be.”

I will really need them to come here soon because it's just really weird here 'cause they've given me drugs and stuff as well.”....”I'm scared”...”and it's probably the drugs as well, making me more paranoid or something, I'm quite scared.”

Okay, no worries, I'll sort it out.”

I think it's [the address], can you just check the driveways between [number] and [number] 'cause I've been on drugs so I don't know what it is. It's between [number] and [number], can you check all those please?”

Okay, yeah, no worries”


At this point, the North Comms dispatcher calls Discount Taxis LTD, identifies himself as a police dispatcher and asks if he can organise a taxi ride for somebody else. The Taxi dispatcher tells the officer that's fine and asks for the address, at which point the North Comms dispatcher tells them that Iraena wasn't sure of the exact address and gives them the street name and the numbers Iraena relayed to him. The taxi company tells him they will be there in around 20 minutes and North Comms calls Iraena back to tell her this.

Why aren’t Police coming – you know they fucking gave me so many drugs and shit, I
was totally confused. I didn’t know what I was doing, they actually made me - - oh fuck, I
can’t do this by myself”.
I’ll, I’ll get the Sergeant to give you a ring”.
No wait, can you just wait, can you just talk to me”.

Yeah. I’ll get the, I’m at the Communications Centre so I can’t help you directly from here, and I am doing - - ”. 
No, no, can you just talk to me”. 
I’ll - - ”

Cause I’m quite scared at the moment”. 
Yeah and I understand that but - - ”.

No you don’t understand”.

Yes I’m dealing with units as well at the same time, I’m not a call taker - I’m not someone that you phone up and speak, you know, where you speak when you phone 111”.
But you don’t understand”

I honestly don’t have time to talk to you, I’ll get the Sergeant to give you a phone call, okay?”

Iraena hangs up on the dispatcher, her final call to police lasted 1 minute and 18 seconds. Three attempts were made by North Comms to contact Iraena between 9.49pm and 11pm, but each time the phone appeared to be switched off and went straight to voicemail.

At 1.19am the residents of a house on Beach Valley Road call 111 and report that four hours earlier, they had picked up a young woman who was wandering aimlessly, dressed only in ugg boots and a sweatshirt and seemingly under the influence of drugs. They took her home with them, put her to bed and promised to drive her home in the morning, but she had suddenly left the house at around 1am, running naked into the night. This time police dispatchers give the call a high priority status and a squad car is dispatched immediately to the residence.

Iraena was last seen at 1.30am by a couple walking their dog. According to them, she was naked, crouched by a streetlight and appeared to be talking it. She then kissed the ground and walked off towards the beach and disappeared. The couple did make some attempt to follow and find Iraena, but with no luck, so they went home and went to bed without calling police.

Piha beach - "We're not in Kansas anymore Toto"

There are a number of theories about what happened to Iraena after she was last seen. She may have simply walked out into the ocean and drowned, though her family say she was a strong swimmer and feel that this is unlikely. However, since Iraena was clearly under the influence of something, possibly against her will, it remains a viable possibility for investigators.

A second, similar theory, is that Iraena attempted to climb around the rocks on Piha beach and was swept out to sea and drowned. For those of you who don't know Piha, it's a very popular surf beach, and in the summer months it's all too common for swimmers and surfers alike to get into trouble in the heavy surf, leading to a number of tragic drownings. So this too, is a very viable theory, especially if Iraena was comprimised by drugs at the time.

A third theory is foul play. Sometime after been seen by the couple walking their dog, Iraena came into contact with a person or persons who caused her harm and hid the crime, either by dumping her body in to the ocean, or concealing her remains somewhere in the heavy bush around the Waitakere ranges, which is why she's never been found. Iraena had told police that she was afraid of the man she was with, and even though she named the wrong man, someone who wasn't there at the time, that doesnt' mean her fears for her safety were unfounded. Ireana was clearly on something, her behaviour corresponds to that, so while she may have been confused about who she was with, she may still have been rightfully in fear of him...whoever “he” is.

We may never know what really happened to Iraena Asher on that night in 2004, but what we can do is hold our emergency services to the highest standards and ensure that their performances are scrutinised, not just by rubber stamping officials, but by the public who depend on these people for their lives.  

It's not acceptable for a police dispatcher to take a call from a scared girl, regardless of whether she's on drugs or has been drinking, and to then write that call off as “a bit rubbish.” And, while our emergency services were overhauled and greatly improved after this incident, it should not have taken a girl's disappearance to make that happen. The public and the media had been highlighting problems with the 111 emergency line for NINE MONTHS prior to Iraena's disappearance, and still nothing was done until it was too late.

Iraena deserved better than that, her family deserved better. They're still living with the bad choices that the police made that night, and will do so for all their lives.

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