There was nothing outwardly unusual about the young man Grace Millane agreed to meet for drinks in central Auckland one fateful December evening two years ago.
Tall, dark and athletic — judging by his Tinder profile, at least — he’d arranged to meet the 21-year-old English backpacker at Sky City, a vast indoor entertainment complex and casino in the New Zealand city.
She turned up at their rendezvous, next to a large Christmas tree, wearing a little black dress. He chose tight designer jeans and a dark T-shirt under an expensive shirt. After saying ‘Hello’, he leaned in for a hug, wrapping a pair of broad arms firmly around her back.
It was just before 6pm. And given the truly appalling way in which this online date would end, the manner in which Grace was greeted by this complete stranger feels chillingly over-familiar.
Jesse Kempson, 28, strangled Grace Millane, 21, in his studio apartment after the pair met on dating app Tinder in 2018, before burying her body in a shallow grave. Pictured: Kempson at New Zealand’s High Court in November 2019
There was nothing outwardly unusual about the young man Grace Millane agreed to meet for drinks in central Auckland – but within hours of meeting the young British backpacker would be murdered by the man who hid a history of sex attacks behind a wealthy playboy image
By 9.41pm, they were walking to the CityLife Hotel, where the man was living in a £190-a-week third-floor apartment. CCTV footage showed that his muscular arms were once more draped around her neck as they strode towards the front door and entered a lift
Two and a half hours later, the duo were sharing cocktails and a flirtatious kiss in The Bluestone Room, the third and last fashionable venue they would visit.
By 9.41pm, they were walking to the CityLife Hotel, where the man was living in a £190-a-week third-floor apartment. CCTV footage showed that his muscular arms were once more draped around her neck as they strode towards the front door and entered a lift.
Grace, the daughter of a successful property developer from Wickford, Essex, never emerged from that hotel.
For in the early hours of the following morning, the backpacker — who was spending a year travelling after recently graduating from Lincoln University — was brutally murdered by her 26-year-old Tinder date.
A court found that he strangled her during sex, crushing her windpipe for between five and ten minutes until she suffocated.
The killer, Jesse Kempson, then took photographs of her naked body, seemingly for his own gratification, before watching hardcore pornography for several hours. Then he fell asleep.
Footage showed them kissing during their Tinder date in December 2018
Grace’s killer was seen in a lift in the building where he lived and where Miss Millane went to his apartment on the night she died
The body of murdered the British backpacker was dumped in this muddy hole in the ground
Pictures of the bedroom in Auckland where Kempson throttled Miss Millane two years ago
The following night, he stuffed her body into a large suitcase, hired a car, and drove out of town before burying her in a shallow grave in a patch of woodland.
Today, two years after Grace’s murder and nine months after Kempson was sentenced to life imprisonment, the awful events of that night look very much like an accident that was waiting to happen.
Grace’s final hours on the Tinder date that led to her death:
December 1, 2018
5.45pm: Grace Millane was shown arriving in front of the casino’s 20 foot tall Christmas tree, where she stood waiting for her date. She sends a picture of the tree to her parents in Essex. He arrives and they hug.
6pm: The two of them walk into the casino and find Andy’s Burger Bar.He and Grace were seen ordering drinks and finding a table.
7.12pm: The couple left the burger bar and cross the road into the Mexican cafe where they spend the next hour until the defendant came pay the bill with her standing beside him.
8.27pm: The pair were filmed in the distance crossing Albert Street and moving ever closer to the killer’s home. They headed into the Bluestone Room where the accused had earlier been drinking beer alone. They kiss
9.41pm: CCTV shows the couple entering the hotel where the killer was living. They enter the lift and head to the killer’s apartment. In the hours that followed she was brutally murdered, possibly in the early hours of December 2, her birthday.
Her killer, it now emerges, was a warped serial sex attacker who used dating apps to seek out fresh victims, pretending to be a highly successful businessman when he was, in fact, a serial dropout with few assets who had been fired from a string of minimum-wage jobs.
So violent was his temper, and so depraved were the sexual habits that he hid behind that facade, that one ex-girlfriend had secured a legal protection order against him, while an old flatmate kept a knife under her bed in order to feel safe sleeping under the same roof as him.
Yesterday, it was revealed that the predator was also recently convicted of raping a second young Englishwoman whom he had met via Tinder.
A court was told that the crime occurred a few months before he killed Grace. Having persuaded the unnamed victim to come for drinks, he plied her with alcohol at fashionable bars on Auckland’s waterfront.
Kempson then persuaded her to take a ride in his BMW, claiming they would visit a liquor store to stock up on drinks. But instead he took the girl to a motel, where he was living at the time.
Although she kissed him, the girl refused to take things further, at which point he lost his temper and attacked her.
‘He started to get mad at me,’ she told the court. ‘He said what was my problem, why was I denying myself to him after he had treated me like a princess.
‘His voice was getting louder and his eyes were getting bigger. He was getting really mad at me. I asked him to be quieter, to not shout so loud at me.’
Although the girl wanted to go home, she had by this stage lost both her wallet and keys and was unsure where exactly she was. So she reluctantly decided to stay at the motel, and got into bed fully clothed.
‘We both got into the bed and I tried to stay as far on one side of the bed as possible but he put his arm around me and pulled me into him,’ she recalled.
‘He started to touch my bum with his hands and started pulling me more into him and touching me and I had already said that I didn’t want to do this stuff and I was just really upset about not being able to go home. He started touching me more and kissing me more. I was scared if I pushed him off he would get angry and start shouting again.
‘I’m pretty sure then he got on top of me, then he started having sex with me… I was just frozen and I let him do what he needed to do so I could try and go to sleep or go home as soon as possible.’
The victim went home the next morning and attempted to forget all about the traumatic episode. However, coverage of Kempson’s arrest on suspicion of killing Grace Millane that Christmas persuaded her to contact police.
He was convicted of murdering Ms Millane (pictured, left and right) by strangling her in a hotel in Auckland after meeting her via Tinder on December 1, 2018 – the day before her 22nd birthday
Kempson was sentenced to life behind bars with a non-parole period of 17 years for murdering Grace in his Auckland apartment in December 2018
A similarly ugly tale was told by Kempson’s ex-girlfriend, who gave evidence in a third trial which concluded last month.
It saw him convicted on multiple counts of physical, sexual, emotional and financial abuse prior to their separation a few years ago.
In court, she dubbed him a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ who regularly ‘flipped’ after they briefly moved into an apartment together.
‘The first time he hit me we were having an argument and he just slapped me across the face,’ she recalled of the ‘scary’ incident. ‘I can’t escape. I’ve just put a lease down on this place, moved in, how the f*** am I supposed to get away?’
Kempson, she said, had had a variety of jobs during their relationship, working at a pub, a clothes shop and collecting for charity.
But he lost them all and scrounged increasing amounts of money from her, repeatedly breaking promises to pay her back, which prompted confrontations.
Grace Millane’s killer Jesse Kempson is described as an ‘oddball’ by former friends
‘We had these two big butcher knives and whenever he got angry, like I said the Jekyll and Hyde, something inside of him snapped, she said. He would go straight to the kitchen, get one of those knives and hold it to my throat.
‘I could never understand why he got so angry towards me. I just loved him and I just wanted him to love me like I loved him.’
Matters came to a head when Kempson told her he had been sent by the CIA to kill her and, with a knife to her throat, told her ‘you are going to die today’ before ordering her to perform ‘ghastly’ sexual acts.
After the ordeal, Kempson told her he had been drugged and demanded she order him a pizza. ‘I have never been so scared in my life,’ she said.
Although the ex-girlfriend was told there was not enough evidence to charge Kempson at the time, she was able to get a legal protection order against him.
Following his arrest for killing Grace, prosecutors agreed to file criminal charges. The two additional convictions mean he will serve another 11 years concurrently with the 17-year minimum sentence he received for murder.
After reading psychological reports, Justice Geoffrey Venning told Kempson: ‘Your mother rejected you; that may go some way towards explaining your attitude towards women.’
Details of his judgment can only now be reported, after New Zealand’s Supreme Court lifted a ban preventing the killer from being named to avoid prejudicing the other cases.
The picture that emerged in court was that of a Walter Mitty figure, who lied endlessly to women about his life and career, and used his athletic physique and practised charm to lure online dates into casual sexual encounters.
Born to teenage parents in 1992, Kempson grew up around Wellington on New Zealand’s North Island. Aged nine, his parents separated and his mother moved overseas with his brother.
After leaving school, he worked as a barman and labourer before being booted out of the family home in 2013 amid arguments about him lying and allegedly stealing from relatives.
Initially, he headed to Queensland in Australia where his mother and brother lived in the suburbs of Brisbane. But, unable to build a relationship with them, he settled in Sydney, nearly 600 miles away.
There he worked in a beach-clothing store at a shopping mall, and for a while he even had a steady girlfriend, an attractive blonde graduate with whom he holidayed at the beach. They reportedly had a child together but separated in 2015.
Shortly afterwards, he drifted back to New Zealand and began living in shared accommodation in Auckland, where he worked a series of casual jobs.
There his odd behaviour began to spiral. Flatmates and casual acquaintances were told a series of lies and half-truths about his existence. He told some his mother had died and others that he’d recently undergone treatment for cancer.
Potential dates he talked to online were told he was a high-flying supermarket manager, or the cousin of a famous All Blacks rugby star. With tattoos on one arm, he also claimed to have gang connections.
Teammates on an amateur softball side he played for, meanwhile, described him as an ‘oddball’ and ‘loner’ who claimed variously to have a law degree and be a successful businessman.
‘He was creepy towards girls. His life revolved around girls, talking to girls,’ one recalled.
One female flatmate told reporters that he moved into her property, which she shared with two other young women, after responding to an ad on Facebook, and took a stream of Tinder dates there.
Miss Millane’s parents Dave and Gillian speak outside the High Court in Auckland last year
She claimed he was prone to angry outbursts after drinking, prompting them to soon ask him to leave. He responded by sending messages threatening to ruin their lives.
‘Most nights he would drink his whole mood would change,’ she said. ‘It didn’t take long to realise he was not who he said he was.
‘Once, I came home around 11pm. My flatmate messaged me and asked me to come into her room. I went in and she had a knife in her bed. She told me he had been drinking and that she felt uncomfortable around him.’
Kempson then moved to the CityLife hotel in central Auckland, where he had boasted to the landlord that he was a manager for Woolworths.
In fact, he had recently lost jobs as a barman and retail sales assistant, and was claiming benefits. ‘He appeared to have been a pick-up artist,’ the landlord told the New Zealand Herald.
‘It seems like that [picking up women] was his full-time job, like it was all he did.’
Yet another brief period of employment, in telephone sales for business training courses, had ended in dismissal.
‘Jesse had targets set for him and he met them by writing fake invoices and calling his own phone,’ said a former colleague. ‘He was forever going missing, then trying to claim commission on made-up jobs.’
He left that job on the very day he met Grace. But she too was spun tall tales about his fantastic wealth.
In a text to a friend, Ameena Ashcroft, the excited young backpacker said she was ‘getting smashed’ with a man and the evening was ‘really good’, adding excitedly: ‘Mate, he lives in a hotel … I click with him so well.’
Trusting him was, of course, a terrible mistake.
When Kempson woke up the following morning, he used his phone to Google ‘rigor mortis’ along with potential ways to dispose of a body, including ‘flesh-eating birds’ and ‘the hottest fire’.
Then, remarkably, he logged on to Tinder, where he arranged to meet a young woman that afternoon.
Over drinks, he told his date a bizarre story about a ‘friend’ who’d had consensual rough sex involving strangulation with his girlfriend but had ended up killing her, claiming: ‘It’s crazy how a guy can make one mistake and go to jail for the rest of his life.’
‘In hindsight, it was as if he was using this date to process what he’d done in a rather roundabout way,’ recalled the girl, who believes he was ‘testing theories on me to see which version seemed most believable’.
After finishing the date, Kempson waited for darkness to fall before disposing of Grace’s body. A few days later he was arrested.
It will, thank goodness, be many years before this violent sexual predator is free to date again.
Additional reporting: Richard Shears