THE Grampians, or Gariwerd, stands as an imposing backdrop against the flat Wimmera surrounds, but amid its well-trodden trails are unsolved mysteries; the tales of those who vanished and those left searching.
Gerard VanDerWerf, 56, was a St Kilda-based builder. He enjoyed chess and keeping fit by walking and doing yoga.
He was born in America but followed his brother to Australia, leaving a sister and brother behind in the US.
On September 23, 2016, at 10am, Mr VanDerWerf checked out of a Stawell motel. Four hours later, a reliable witness claims to have seen him walking on Grampians Road, 10 to 12 kilometres south of Borough Huts.
Mystery in the Grampians: where is Gerard VanDerWerf?
Halls Gap Sergeant Scott Olsen believes Mr VanDerWerf is still in the Grampians National Park and is deceased.
The search for Mr VanDerWerf has run for six months, cost $250,000 and hundreds of hours of police and volunteer time.
Sergeant Olsen knows a lot about Gerard VanDerWerf.
He has stood in his St Kilda home, searched his South Melbourne storage container and met his distraught family – but he does not know where Mr VanDerWerf is.
No one does.
More than 20 square kilometres of the Grampians has been searched by police dogs, horses, helicopters and manned search and rescue crews.
“An average guy” – police call for mental health support
Sergeant Olsen has chosen to tell Mr VanDerWerf’s story, with the family’s permission, in the hope witnesses might come forward. He also wants to show people the importance of getting help.
“He was an average guy, who it looks like succumbed to the black dog,” Sergeant Olsen said.
“I hope this encourages other people struggling with mental illness to get help early. There’s nothing to be ashamed of, especially for men.
“Life gets everyone down from time to time. We need to recognise that and have the courage and strength to do something about it.
“These are the unintended consequences at the end of the day.”
The unexpected cost and toll of mental illness
Mr VanDerWerf had a history of mental health issues. Sergeant Olsen said he had twice travelled to the Grampians with an intention to end his life.
Sergeant Olsen said Mr VanDerWerf had no reason to reinvent himself or fake his death.
“This man didn’t want to be found,” he said. “I don’t think he deliberately hid himself to be evasive or a nuisance to anyone.
“I think he did it because he didn’t want to cause any trouble.
““People aren’t necessarily thinking about the impact on their families, emergency services or those who find them.
“They just think they’ll go up there and that will be the end of the matter but worried relatives need closure.”
What we know: Mr VanDerWerf’s movements
On September 18, Mr VanDerWerf left his St Kilda home and purchased a 3.7-metre, 16-kilogram extendable aluminium ladder, before travelling to Stawell.
CCTV footage reveals he brought the ladder from St Kilda to Stawell.
For five days, Mr VanDerWerf stayed in a Stawell motel.
Sergeant Olsen believes he probably travelled to Halls Gap during this time and left items in the Grampians.
On September 23, Mr VanDerWerf checked out of the motel and, aside from one sighting, vanished.
Police were alerted to Mr VanDerWerf’s disappearance by his family after one of his brothers, living in America, received an email. The email was sent on delay from Mr VanDerWerf and said his car could be located at the Borough Huts car park.
The start of the lengthy search
Halls Gap Senior Constable Kellie Harris found the vehicle in the car park, sparking an intensive five-day search. The area was saturated by bush search and rescue crews from Melbourne as well as SES, CFA, Parks Victoria and other organisations.
Despite the lengthy and extensive search few signs of Mr VanDerWerf have been found. Distinctive green marking tape, police know he purchased, was tied along the disused Cathcart Chislett Memorial Track.
Police know Mr VanDerWerf had previously hiked the track in 2012, but Sergeant Olsen said if that was the case he had no reason to be 10 kilometres south of the Borough Huts on Grampians Road as a witness has indicated.
The disused track, the highway and all areas surrounding roads and fire roads as far away as Jimmy Creek have been extensively searched, with no sign of Mr VanDerWerf.
Previous Grampians disappearances
Mr VanDerWerf’s case, while unusual, is not unique. A similar case from 1986 remains unsolved.
Peter Thomas Whyte was 27 when he was last seen in the Grampians.
His vehicle was located at Halls Gap and, despite extensive searches by police, no sign of him has ever been uncovered.
Sergeant Olsen said Mr VanDerWerf’s brand new silver ladder, green marking tape and a fluorescent yellow 12-litre dry bag, could hold the key to his recovery.
Police believe the items would be near Mr VanDerWerf and have contacted everyone from mining companies to the military to investigate ways of locating the non-ferrous metal ladder.
Sergeant Olsen said police were even prepared to use new technology, that shoots lasers from an aircraft to the ground to pick up anomalies, but operators were unable to guarantee the ladder would be found.
The nightmare scenario
Despite exhausting almost every possible avenue of inquiry, Sergeant Olsen is determined to find Mr VanDerWerf for two reasons – to give his family closure and ensure he is not found by civilians.
“It’s been very exhausting. You certainly don’t feel like you’ve completed the task until a final resolution,” he said.
“It does play on your mind.
“It’s about closure for the family – primarily that’s what we’re after and our second concern is that he will be found by someone other than emergency services.”
Sergeant Olsen said about five years ago, an orienteering group found an unidentified body in the park. It was his nightmare that it would happen again.
“There’s no question for me that the money and the time have been worth it,” he said.
“People ask how long we’re going to look. Really, it’s until we have satisfied every avenue of inquiry.
“It’s exhaustive, but we’ll keep looking.”
Hope and investigations continue: Gerard ‘will be found’
Sergeant Olsen said the mystery and sadness of the case had taken a toll.
He said more than anything he would like to see Gerard VanDerWerf walk through the doors of the Halls Gap Police Station.
“We think inevitably he will be found,” he said.
“Ultimately, if he turned up tomorrow in my office, no one would be happier than me, just to get closure for the family.”
The investigation into Gerard VanDerWerf’s disappearance and suspected death continues, with Sergeant Olsen optimistic public leads or a request for a previously unavailable cadaver dog might bring the extensive search to an end.
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