The Murder of Kayo Matsuzawa

Last month, I was all set and ready to go with different case write-up, one about the 2007 murder of Brittany McGlone. I was only a few edits away from posting it when I learned that there had been an arrest in the case. I do not want to give the impression that this means that the case has been solved by any means. Even assuming the charges aren’t dropped, there will still be the trial, and who knows what kind of new information might come to light at that point? However, it does move the case past the phase where I can in all consciousness write about it. My chosen area of focus is unsolved cases that have gone cold or are close to becoming so, and I don’t plan to change this at any point in the immediate future.

So it was back to square one, where I happen to have a massive back log of cases waiting for me. The one I chose will be the first case I have covered outside of the United States or Canada. There are actually quite a few non-North American cases I want to cover, and this particular one has always been near the top of the list. That is the 1999 murder of Kayo Matsuzawa in Auckland, New Zealand.

Kayo Matsuzawa was a young Japanese woman–various sources give her age as either 28 or 29 years old, but I have not found her actual birthdate–who had wanted to travel the world since childhood. She grew up in a small fishing village on the northeast coast of Japan’s main island. She was known as outgoing, well-liked, and did well in school. After completing her studies, she worked at a local fish market so she could pursue her travel goals. There are not a lot of details available about her family, but it seems that she was close to her parents and had at least one sibling, an older brother. For a long time, Kayo had been particularly drawn to New Zealand. After all, who wouldn’t be? In addition to beautiful landscapes and glow worm caves, New Zealand has a very low crime rate, which made what happened to Kayo even more bizarre.

When Kayo finally embarked on her travels, things initially went very well. She had taken English classes in preparation, and was described as being able to speak and understand the language quite clearly. Initially, she stayed in Christchurch, where she worked at a restaurant and became close to coworker named Naomi. After spending about a year in New Zealand, Kayo decided she wanted to see more of the country before she returned to Japan in November. She asked if Naomi wanted to go with her to Auckland and explore some of the surrounding areas, but Naomi could not afford travel at the time. So, on September 11th, 1999, Kayo arrived in Auckland alone and checked into a single room on the second floor of the Queen Street Backpacker’s Hotel. Based on all available evidence, she left her backpack on her bed in her room and then went out into the city. She is picked up on CCTV at 2:14 pm getting off an airport shuttle near the hotel, and then again on the Bank of New Zealand (BNZ) security camera at 3:32 pm. There are no indications of activity from her after this point, and there is no evidence that she ever returned to the Queen Street Backpacker’s Hotel.

On September 22nd, Kayo’s body was discovered in a small utility room off of a stairwell that ran between the BNZ and the neighboring Centrecourt building. She was naked, and her body had decomposed to the point where it was no longer possible to determine her cause of death. It has only been stated that there were “no obvious injuries” found during her autopsy, but her manner of death was presumed to be a homicide.

The man who discovered Kayo’s body was Dennis Groves, an alarm technician conducting a routine inspection of the building’s fire alarm panel, which was located in the closet. Dennis knew from past experience that it was difficult to find someone with a key to the room, so he had opened the door using a screwdriver. The relative inaccessibility of the utility closet is a crucial piece of information that I will return to later.

As it turned out, another piece of evidence in Kayo’s case had already surfaced, although no one at the time knew it was connected to a probable homicide. On September 16th, five days after Kayo was last seen, her handbag, purse, passport, and some insurance papers she was carrying were found in a rubbish bin near the building, close to a bus stop. As these bins were emptied three times a day, it was likely they were placed there the same day they were recovered.

Once the connection between the body in the closet and the discarded documents was made, investigators were left to determine who had killed Kayo. Her clothes have never been found, and neither have the pieces of jewelry she was believed to have been wearing at the time of her death, a pair of crescent-shaped earrings and a small gold ring with a light pink stone. Male DNA was recovered from beneath her fingernails, but it has yet to be matched to anyone. Because Kayo’s body was found naked, it is reasonable to speculate that the motive for the crime was sexual, but I have not found any confirmation that a sexual assault occurred in any of the sources I have read (this, too, may have been the result of the body being in an advanced state of decomposition).

One of the big unknowns in this case is where the murder actually occurred. It’s possible that Kayo was forced, lured, or brought to the closet, and killed inside, but it’s also possible that she was killed in a different location and her body was brought there afterwards. Kayo was a petite young woman and one person could have carried her, whether she was dead or unconscious at the time. She was small enough that it’s even possible someone brought her to the BNZ/Centrecourt building inside a suitcase or duffel bag. It’s not known where Kayo went or what she did after she passed the bank security camera. One theory is that she may have spotted a sign for Key Education, a Japanese Language School on the second floor of the building, and gone inside. If that is the case, there is no record of her actually visiting the school. She was traveling on a budget, so it’s unlikely that she was shopping at any of the expensive nearby stores. She may, however, have gone to get something to eat at the food court in the Centrecourt basement.

Friends of Kayo’s said that, while she was not oblivious to safety, she was also friendly and outgoing, even with strangers, and that she was somewhat trusting. She was not know to use drugs, but she would drink lightly. One theory that developed was that someone may have spiked her drink at one of the nearby bars or restaurants. Perhaps she spent the evening socializing with fellow travelers that she met, who then left the area in the eleven days before her body was discovered. This could explain why no one has surfaced claiming to have witnessed her activities during the latter part of the day.

There have been persons of interest, of varying degrees of plausibility. One was a mentally unstable Ukrainian man who sometimes stayed at the same hotel where Kayo was staying. He was a second hand jewelry dealer who left for Australia around the time of the murder to pawn some jewelry there. However, this jewelry turned out not to be linked to Kayo. There were also reports of a man meeting his description walking with a woman meeting Kayo’s description, but nothing more ever came of this. The man was later arrested in France and brought back to New Zealand, where detectives ultimately cleared him of any involvement. Another possible suspect was Allen Grimson, a naval officer wanted for two murders in the United Kingdom. His involvement was deemed somewhat unlikely, however, as his previous known victims were both male and Grimson had never attempted to conceal the bodies of his victims in the past.

The following profile was developed of Kayo’s killer. Based on the fact that he disposed of the body indoors in a busy, commercial section of Auckland, he likely did not have access to his own car. In addition, the rubbish bin where Kayo’s identification documents were found was located next to a bus stop. He would have appeared confident and trustworthy, and he would have known the area well. 

The most strange and striking aspect of Kayo’s murder is the location of her body, and the question of how her killer accessed the utility closet will likely comprise the bulk of this discussion. The closet was not a place most people even knew about, much less were able to enter. Dennis Groves, remember, had to use a screwdriver to get inside, this being easier than tracking down a key. This is also not a place that someone could easily find by accident. Depending on which building someone enters the staircase from, they would either activate a motion sensitive security alarm, or they would have needed an electronic key. Since the security alarm was never triggered, we can surmise the following about Kayo’s attacker. First, they either had an electronic key or were able to disable to alarm. Secondly, they also had a key to the closet or means to open the door without leaving traces of a forced entry (as Groves did with the screw driver). Lastly, they most likely knew where the closet was and had been inside it before bringing Kayo there. All of this points to someone with a high degree of familiarity with the building, and possibly someone who worked in one of the buildings or had worked in one in the past. There is one more, rather alarming, piece of information that relates to the buildings: from late on the afternoon on the 11th until the following Monday (September 14th), all of the security data from the Centrecourt building was missing as was some of the security data from the BNZ building.

Now, this seems significant, but I should mention a caveat before I proceed. While I have come across this information in several independent sources, nowhere have I seen a comparison to what the normal pattern of data storage was. If security data was always stored until being manually deleted, than this be would unusual and quite possibly connected with Kayo’s murder. It would link someone with computer access to the security data to her death, directly or indirectly. However, if the data, or at least portions of it, were automatically deleted at intervals, then it may simply be coincidental. As it is, I think it is more than chance can account for, but I did want to note that we’re only talking about a small percentage of the total data ever collected by the security system. Another piece of information that is missing is at what point the information ceased to be recorded, and I simply don’t know enough about electronic surveillance to answer that question. Was data recording turned off late on the 11th and turned back on again on the 14th, or was all the data deleted at some point after the 14th? Most importantly, would anyone manipulating the information have had to be logged in with some kind of identifier? This was 1999, so I’ll admit to being fuzzy about how the whole process would have worked, but I hope these questions have at least been asked.

During the investigation, it was discovered that staff at one of the bars on the lower level of the building would sometimes prop open a door to the stairwell so that employees could take smoke breaks. This would mean that it may have been possible for Kayo and/or her attacker to enter the area, even without a key card. Many of the staircase doors locked from the inside, since it was used as a fire escape for all levels of both buildings. Kayo could have entered through an unsecured door from the basement food court area and gotten turned around when trying to get back to the street level. She would have been unable to exit the stairwell through any of the doors she passed. It’s possible that this happened, and that she encountered someone of less-than-steely moral fiber while searching for an exit to the stairs. This person may have had security access to the stairs or they may have entered the same way Kayo did (perhaps following her). Even if this is the case, the fact that they brought Kayo to the obscure panel room and were able to get inside strongly suggests they had been to that spot on previous occasions.

There are several variations on this scenario, some of which I find more likely. Rather than happening upon a propped open door and rapidly becoming so turned around that she could not find her way back, it’s more feasible that someone brought Kayo there for the purpose of assaulting and killing her. Most likely, they entered through a less publicly visible door with the use of that person’s key card. Perhaps this person had struck up a friendly conversation with Kayo, and maybe spiked her drink to make her more pliant. They may have used a ruse to lure her to a more isolated place, such as offering to show her a “short cut” to another location. Based on all available information, especially the signs that Kayo’s murderer did not have regular access to their own car, I lean toward her being killed in the utility room or adjacent stairwell, rather than her body being smuggled inside from a different location. While the utility room was effective in delaying the body’s discovery, it still seems unlikely that this would be the best place to dispose of it for someone with other options. If the crime had occurred elsewhere in the city, it seems more likely that the killer would have disposed of her remains in a more remote location (if they had transportation) or a nearby place that couldn’t be readily linked to them (if they didn’t). Transporting the victim’s body through a public area would be a major risk just to deposit it in the utility closet.

After murdering Kayo and secreting her body in the closet, the killer removed her clothes and the purse containing her identity papers and left, probably concealing these items in a bag or backpack. We don’t know what happened to her clothing–perhaps her killer kept it, or disposed of it in an unknown location–but the identifying papers were deposited in the rubbish bins near a bus stop next to the Centrecourt building on September 16th. The killer might have initially held onto the items, then became uneasy with how readily they would link them with their victim if they were discovered. At this point, they disposed of them in the public trash receptacle, possibly before or after taking a bus from the bus stop.

The Kayo Matsuzawa murder sticks with me because it’s such an outlier by multiple criteria. A newcomer to a city with a low rate of violent crime is murdered and deposited inside of a public building on a busy commercial street. Kayo had no personal ties to Auckland, making it probable that she crossed paths with an opportunistic predator. The last hours of her life are largely unaccounted for, and there’s been almost nothing but radio silence as to who killed her.

It’s possible that whoever killed Kayo never committed any other violent crimes, before or after her death, but I wouldn’t exactly bet money on it. However, it should be noted that, as far as I have been able to discover, there haven’t been any other murders, abductions, assaults, or attempts at the same linked to the Centrecourt or BNZ buildings, despite all the indications that her killer had spent a lot of time there. This invites a nearly endless string of speculation. Maybe Kayo’s is the only actual murder her killer has committed, or at least the only one that occurred under whatever set of circumstances caused them to hide her body in the utility room. Possibly the attacker was only in Auckland for a short period of time, and has since moved elsewhere within New Zealand or perhaps even outside of it. Either way, the evidence of familiarity with the building interior seems too strong to ignore.

I would be interested in hearing other perspectives on this oddball of a case, so if you have additional information, insight, or theories, feel free to share them here!


Kayo Matsuzawa-1998

The Vaguest of City Disappearances: the Unsolved Homicide of Kayo Matsuzawa, NZ

The Body in the Cupboard: The Murder of Kayo Matsuzawa by the A Moment in Crime Podcast. The hosts speak with investigators Scott Beard and Mark Fergus

Evidence Locker Episode

Bryan Bruce Documentary  The host, Bryan Bruce, interviews Senior Sargent Simon Scott, one of the original investigators.

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