Two years ago, a pregnant 26-year-old Indian woman upped and vanished – she left the Wellington home she shared with her husband, took a bus to Island Bay and did not come home. A witness would later recall she was crying as she walked towards the curving esplanade that hugs the picturesque coastline. Days later her body was found on a remote Wairarapa beach by teenage surfers, more than 60km from the capital city. Mystery shrouded the circumstances of her untimely death, adding further pain to bereft family in India. A coroner’s report has retraced Sonam Shelar’s last steps and ruled the young woman drowned. Finally her family know more about her final day but their grief is still raw. Chelsea Boyle reports.
Sonam Shelar was five months’ pregnant when she was reported missing by her husband Sagar Shelar on November 17, 2018.
The couple were both born and raised in Mumbai but met on one of India’s leading match-making websites, the Bharat Matrimonial, in October 2017. They married later that year.
When April rolled around they moved to New Zealand and rented a two-storey house in Khandallah, Wellington, that backed onto a train line.
However, Sagar Shelar was looking for a new home for his blossoming family.
The owner of their rental, Keith Scott, also lived at the property and had discussed the couple moving out because he did not want a new baby in the house.
In a coroner’s report released to the Herald, Tracey Fitzgibbon said Scott described the Shelars’ marriage as “solemn”.
Some laughter was shared between the couple early on but in his view not “your usual newlywed happiness”.
Their flatmate Tim Highsted-Jones noted Sonam was often on her phone and spent most of her time on the couch in her bedroom.
“He did not think she ever left the house,” Coroner Fitzgibbon said.
Another flatmate Shiksha Desai also said Sonam mostly kept to herself and believed she was unhappy with the living situation, instead wanting to live in the city.
“Miss Desai believes Mrs Shelar felt isolated and did not like living in Khandallah,” Fitzgibbon said.
Sonam was suffering badly from morning sickness during her first trimester but otherwise her pregnancy appeared to be going well.
Her last GP appointment on October 9 recorded the expectant mum’s nausea had settled.
The stressors in her life were noted as the new marriage, being new to the country and some normal anxiety about pregnancy – “not thought to be out of the ordinary”.
There were no mental health concerns.
Two days before her disappearance she had an ultrasound that made her think she was having a baby girl – although the coroner’s report noted there was “confusion” as to whether the sex of the baby was known at this time.
Nevertheless, Sonam was visibly upset and this was noticed by her husband.
“He says after the ultrasound she cried,” Coroner Fitzgibbon said.
Sonam searched online for signs of a baby’s gender and although Sagar Shelar said the gender did not matter he said she wanted a boy.
In the findings Sonam’s mum and another close family member agreed she wanted a boy but said she was not fixated on this.
The next evening Sonam and her husband had a fight about etiquette in their shared Cashmere Avenue rental.
It had followed a complaint about Sonam closing cupboards in the kitchen using her feet.
Sagar Shelar said she was upset and felt like he was siding with Scott.
In the midst of the argument, Shelar told him she wanted to rejoin her family in India.
He said she could and made some initial inquiries.
“Mr Shelar believed there would be more support for his wife in India while she was pregnant,” Fitzgibbon said.
However, her family did not want her flying while pregnant, she said.
The November disappearance
As Sagar Shelar left for work at Moana Seafoods the next morning his wife was quietly using her phone in bed.
She did not respond when he said goodbye which was unusual. However, she had asked when he would be finished for the day.
The coroner heard Sagar Shelar would have never left her alone if he had been concerned.
He tried calling his wife several times that morning and there was no answer.
Worried, he left work and went back to check on her but Sonam – described in the report by Scott as a “homebody” unless in her husband’s company – was not there.
Sagar Shelar said her absence was “highly unusual”, Fitzgibbon said.
He noticed her shoes, water bottle and a green jacket were missing from the room.
He kept calling and went looking for her.
About 2.30pm he went to the Johnsonville Police Station to report her missing but there were no police present.
Police visited the Cashmere Avenue home shortly after to take a missing persons report.
They began initial searches and emergency polling of her cellphone showed it was off.
On November 18, police made a public appeal in the bid to find her.
She was last seen wearing a brown jacket with fur on the hood and white, black and orange trainers, police said.
Retracing her steps
During their investigation police carefully retraced her steps examining CCTV.
At 9.26am she could be seen walking along Homebush Rd in Khandallah.
She was recorded again boarding a bus at 10.13am at Wellington Train Station.
At 10.51am she arrived at Reef St in Island Bay and walked towards the beach.
Several witnesses saw her.
Benjamin Moore was one who saw a woman matching Sonam’s decription walking east on Reef St towards the Esplanade.
“Mr Moore states she was clearly distressed and crying,” Coroner Fitzgibbon said.
“When he approached her and asked what was wrong, she did not respond, and she walked around him when he attempted to speak with her.”
Sagar Shelar had previously visited Island Bay with his wife – an outing they had documented with photos.
But while he said his wife liked the ocean he did not think she could swim.
On November 21, one of her phones was found in the lost property at Wellington Police Station.
Police would later know that on November 17, about 11.30am, two cellphones belonging to Sonam were found near two concrete jetties on the beachfront.
The phones were unearthed in about a metre of water by people who had been swimming at the beach.
One was handed into police. The other to Vodafone.
Divers were used to further scour the water.
Police would look into Sonam’s phones as well as her husband’s in the hunt for clues.
The coroner’s report noted police said he had “assisted the enquiry at every opportunity” and consented to a number of searches on his vehicle and bedroom as well as the phone.
“There is no evidence Mr Shelar was involved in his wife’s death,” Fitzgibbon said.
Sad discovery made by surfers
On November 21, Shelar’s body was found by teenage surfers on the Wairarapa shoreline several kilometres south of the white rock that the beach is named after.
The isolated black sand beach, part of which is only accessible by private farmland, has no cellphone service.
But initial reports indicated to authorities it was likely Sonam.
Drift pattern analysis from marine mapping deemed it was “entirely probable” someone entering the water at Island Bay on November 17 could have drifted there by November 21.
Formal identification was completed by Sagar Shelar on November 24.
Police were unable to determine how Sonam entered the water, however the location of her cellphones indicated it was at the western end of the beach.
A post-mortem examination was performed by forensic pathologist Dr Katherine White who believed drowning was the cause of death.
“These injuries are consistent with drowning in a turbulent sea,” Fitzgibbon said.
“Doctor White did not identify any definite evidence of assault-type injuries.”
The coroner’s report dated May 7 and released to the Herald recently, was long-awaited by Sonam’s family in India.
While her cousin Gauri Rane felt they finally had more answers about what happened that day, their grief was still raw.
To Rane the pages of the coroner’s report speak of isolation and loneliness.
“She must have felt alone.”
The coroner's finding
“On the basis of the available evidence, I am not satisfied Sonam Shelar’s actions were self inflicted and amount to suicide,” Fitzgibbon said.
There was no note and her intentions at the time she entered the water cannot be established, she said.
If an accident was not established that did not mean a suicide was, she said.
She added: “Suicide must not be presumed merely because it seems on the face of it to be a likely explanation”.
There was nothing to suggest any other person was involved or responsible for her death, she said.
Fitzgibbon ruled Shelar had entered the water at Island Bay on November 17 and drowned.
“I would like to take this opportunity to extend my condolences to the family and friends of Sonam Shelar for their loss,” her reported ended.
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