Sounds Like Murder
Seized sloop to be handed back to owner
A sloop seized by police on 12 January, as part of their investigation into the mysterious disappearances of Olivia Hope and Ben Smart’s is soon to be returned to its owner. The missing pair was last seen boarding a yacht in Endeavour Inlet with a mystery man in the early hours of New Years Day.
In the early stages of their investigation police removed the yacht from the water and held it in secure storage at Woodbourne airforce base where it was fine-tooth combed by forensic scientists, presumably looking for any evidence of a link with the young people’s disappearance.
On 19 February, the sloop was put back into Picton’s Waikawa Bay. The mast, previously removed by police was replaced and the yacht was put through sea trials, testing the time it took to travel between key points in the Sounds.
In this latest development in the 11-week-old mystery, police say their examination of the sloop is all-but complete, but won’t say exactly when it will be handed back. The Dominion of 18 March says the sloop’s owner, Scott Watson of Picton was looking forward to getting it back because it had been his living quarters.
Police commissioned a marine survey of the yacht yesterday along with an expert employed by the Watson family. This is to ensure the vessel is returned in the same condition as when it was seized And has not been damaged while in police hands.
So what’s this investigation all about?
One of NZ’s highest-profile investigations
This investigation, probably one of New Zealand’s highest profile operations, began on 2 January 1998 after young friends Olivia Hope and Ben Smart disappeared in the early hours of New Year’s morning. Ben, (21) and Olivia, (17) were last seen by Furneaux Lodge water taxi operator Guy Wallace who ferried them, along with a mystery stranger, to a yacht moored in the Marlborough Sound’s Endeavour Inlet. In spite of massive official and private searches of the Sounds, few clues have been found to indicate what happened to them. Families, friends, police and the public all wondered had they been press-ganged as crew by an itinerant yachtie, had they been abducted and held hostage and murdered or had they run away?
Their pictures published in newspapers and on television show a particularly attractive young couple and their backgrounds established they had real promise.
All these elements combined to give the investigation its incredibly high profile, including;
? Detective Inspector Rob Pope’s media management style. Reporters covering the case found the officer in charge of the investigation enigmatic and frustratingly guarded in his briefings about how the case was progressing.
? Early in the investigation police issued an artist’s impression of a blue and white, ketch (two-masted), with round portholes, which Olivia and Ben were believed to have boarded shortly before they disappeared. However police subsequently focused their interest on a single-masted sloop which they impounded for forensic study. Police said they had doubts the ketch existed and thought witnesses were likely to have been genuinely mistaken – which was strongly publicly denied by two witnesses.
? Police seized and impounded a Picton man’s yacht and subjected it to intensive forensic tests.
? The Hope and Smart families conducted extensive private searches of the Sounds and Gerald Hope, Olivia’s father takes on a high media profile including featuring in an Assignment current affairs TV programme.
? Some members of the public publicly criticised police for what they saw as slow responses in seeking them out for the information they had, after they had contacted police.
? Police attracted criticism from Olivia’s family after an uncomplimentary intelligence report about her was accidentally circulated to some boating clubs and was published in the New Zealand Herald.
? Two senior former senior police officers, now private detectives, are employed to look after the interests of a man whose yacht was seized early in the investigation.
? Olivia’s father, Gerald Hope talks of employing Joe Karam to ‘audit the investigation’. (Karam wrote a book about the Bain family massacre investigation and prosecution, highly critical of police).
The disappearance scenario:
On the afternoon of Thursday, 30 December, Olivia Hope leaves her parent’s Grovetown, Marlborough home to drive to Whatamonga Bay in Queen Charlotte Sound to join a chartered yacht, the Tamarack. (Police name the ensuing investigation Operation Tam after this yacht). There are nine people on board including Olivia and her sister Amelia.
The following day Tamarack returns to Picton and picks up three more people. In the afternoon, Olivia, her sister and friends water-taxi from the Tamarack, now in Endeavour Inlet to Furneaux Lodge to take part in the New Years Eve celebrations, along with 2000 other people.
There she meets her long-standing friend Ben Smart of Blenheim, who is staying in a batch at nearby Punga Cove. In the early hours of New Year’s morning Ben and Olivia catch the Furneaux Lodge’s water taxi back to the Tamarack but find it crowded with 12 people occupying all the berths. Olivia collects her backpack, sleeping bag and other personal belonging and between 4 and 5 am, when the same water taxi returns to the Tamarack with another person, she and Ben leave on it, to find somewhere else to bunk down.
Furneaux Lodge water taxi driver Guy Wallace says the pair at first asks to be taken ashore, but when another passenger in the taxi offers them beds aboard his yacht, they accept. Mr Wallace describes this mystery man as scruffy and drunk. Wallace says the trio board a 12-metre wooden, two masted ketch painted white with a blue stripe and with round portholes. The vessels is tied up among 160 or so other yachts whose owners are there for the celebrations at Furneaux Lodge. It was gone from its mooring by 8-30am on New Years Day. There, at least for now, the trail ends and neither Ben nor Olivia has been seen since.
Pictures of Olivia Hope show a very attractive, intelligent looking young woman who sometimes wears thin-framed spectacles. She has sensitive features and shoulder-length fair hair. She is a talented pianist and intends attending Otago University this year to study law. Her father describes her as a realistic young woman with a strong inner strength.
Olivia’s father Gerald is chief executive of the Marlborough Research Centre and is prominent in local body politics and is a mayoral aspirant. He is to feature in March, on the TVNZ Assignment programme in which gives an insight into Olivia’s intellectually privileged upbringing. Mrs Hope manages a winery and is a partner in a catering company.
Ben Smart’s parents John and Mary live in Blenheim. Mr Smart is a civil engineer. Ben is a Christ College Old Boy who is a keen musico who plays in bands. He was about to start work with his father’s firm on 5 January. Newspapers picture a handsome, tanned young man with sensitive features and dark brown eyes.
Police are told the pair is missing on 2 January 1998. At that stage, while the families are worried because it is uncharacteristic for either not to keep contact with family and friends, they and the police are aware there could be innocent explanations for their absence.
Searches begin on 3 January, initially coordinated by Picton police then, as concern mounts, Blenheim Area Controller Inspector Steve Caldwell takes charge. The airforce and navy are asked to keep an eye out for the mystery ketch, as are commercial fishing vessels, boating clubs and waterside lodges.
Five days after the pair is reported missing, there is unconfirmed media speculation that the ‘missing person’ search is soon to be upgraded to a homicide investigation. Steve Caldwell says if it was, all it means is that additional resources can be brought in. At this stage, the police focus remains on identifying the two-masted yacht Ben and Olivia are said to have boarded.
Police also launch a public appeal for photographs and videos taken by holiday makers moored in Endeavour Inlet on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day to help them identify every boat there and interview the people aboard them. They have an excellent response that eventually allows them to produce a montage giving an excellent perspective of which vessels were there on the evening and the following day A police diver team begins searching part of the Endeavour Inlet seabed. Gerald Hope, Olivia’s father appeals to the public to come forward with information.
‘Enigmatic’ detective takes charge
By 8 January, the National Search and Rescue Centre at Lower Hutt estimates the mystery yacht could have reached Australia or either end of New Zealand. There is still no sign of the missing pair and Detective Inspector Rob Pope, a top CIB investigator from Christchurch take taken charge the previous day. While police make no comment on the status of the inquiry, it is well known that most major homicide investigations are headed by detective inspectors.
Reporters soon note Rob Pope’s distinctive media management style. An experienced and successful investigator, he is economic with words, which serves to annoy and frustrate some reporters and their editors. A Dominion editorial of 13 January sets out to punish him and accuses police of being ‘characteristically tight-lipped’ and says while police appeal for maximum public cooperation ‘they are being uncommunicative themselves’. The editorial is also critical of what it sees as a slow response to the initial report the pair were missing, and of other aspects of the inquiry. It sermonises, “If police want to reduce speculation and enlist the public’s help, they could be more forthcoming themselves.”
However, Rob Pope’s position from the outset has been that he is not prepared to compromise the investigation by revealing too much. His reticence is an understandable response to the legal and operational constraints on police on what they are able to say in such circumstances. The growing intensity of scrutiny of police actions after events, such as occurred with Joe Karam’s attack of the investigation and prosecution of David Bain, led to a warning just before Christmas, from Police Commissioner Peter Doone. In the police in-service magazine TenOne, he reminded staff of the need for meticulous care in conducting investigations.
The Solicitor General has also cautioned police on the need to take great care in its public comment during investigations, because of the risk of jeopardizing prosecutions and attracting contempt of court proceedings.
Interestingly, The Dominion follows its editorial with a largely complimentary Saturday People feature on 17 January on Mr Pope, which is headlined Non-singing detective, and why Rob Pope is playing the police hand close to his chest.
The feature ends, ‘With the mysterious drama being played out in the Marlborough Sounds under the focus of full public attention, and with few facts being initially disclosed, speculation has been inevitable. This has left Mr Pope unhappy and he has regularly asked reporters to ‘back off’ – though without losing his cool in the process. This is a staunch cop. He draws firm boundaries and never budges.’
Commissioner Peter Doone, in an editorial in the police in-house magazine Ten-One of 23 January supports Rob Pope’s handling of the media side of the inquiry. He describes Operation Tam as a classic example of the sort of situations police investigators face. He says it has all the elements that attract maximum public and media attention.
“How police manage this attention can be critical to the eventual outcome of the investigation and any subsequent prosecution. Opinion and speculation can provide material for defence counsel to exploit at a trial in the event that later evidence alters preliminary views or strengthens (or weakens) one or other of a series of options.
“This inquiry should serve to remind all of us, police, media and the public that there are many priorities, some of them conflicting, which must be balanced and that there is a need for patience and trust in professional judgements in resolving these conflicts.
Mr Doone talked about how the highly competitive environment in which the modern media functions puts pressure on an investigation team, particularly the officer in charge.
“It is inevitable that the media will publish a story with or without input from the police. It is in everyone’s interest that media coverage should be as accurate and balanced as possible. Police have a key role in ensuring this is so, yet may, for very good reason, not be able to publicly discuss some aspect of the investigation at a particular time.
“I am very supportive of Rob Pope and his team in threading their way through this particularly minefield.”
Key witness feels pressure
On 6 January, media reports indicated that Guy Wallace, the water-taxi driver who took Ben, Olivia and the mystery man to the yacht was feeling under pressure.
Inspector Caldwell is moved to give The Dominion an assurance Mr Wallace is a “star witness” and not a suspect. Wallace was reported to have finished at Furneaux Lodge and to be working for his father. His father Noel told The Dominion his son had gone on holiday and that the last few days have been long for his son, who does not enjoy the public limelight.
(Later in the investigation (on 4 February) Mr Wallace is reported by The Dominion as feeling he had been set up as a suspect. Although police had earlier announced they thought Mr Wallace may have been mistaken about the craft’s design and had seized a single-masted sloop for forensic study, Mr Wallace remains adamant that the yacht he delivered the missing pair and mystery sailor to, was a two-masted ketch. He is reported as saying he had been interrogated and called a liar, but that he had gone over his story dozens of times and remains convinced he saw a ketch. He says the media has given him the impression that he had been lined up as a suspect, which he says makes him very angry. However, Rob Pope responds quickly, telling The Dominion police have never leveled a finger of suspicion at anyone and that any suggestion of an individual involved in the disappearance has been generated solely by the media).
By 8 January, Mr Wallace is reported as saying he is having difficulty coming to grips with his role in the disappearance. He says he’s had little sleep and the last week has been a torment. He has been propelled into the public’s eye and pursued by the media. He says he’s had to go into hiding and he wishes people would leave him and his family alone.
Mystery man pesters women
By 9 January the media carries stories of witnesses seeing a man from the mystery ketch pestering young woman at Furneaux Lodge on New Years Eve. A bartender tells The Dominion a man answering the description of the person who invited Olivia and Ben to sleep on his yacht had been trying to pick up young women. He was allegedly ‘doing it all night’. Another witness says the sleazy man in the bar gave her ’a creepy feeling’. He was alone in the bar, eyeing people up, she says.
Police issue a more detailed description of the mystery yachtsman and distribute it to police stations throughout New Zealand. He is described as European about 32, 1.78m (5ft 10in) tall, of medium build with brown, medium length wavy hair.
He was wearing blue jeans, possibly training shoes and a Levi short-sleeved shirt that had a red tab on the left breast pocket and was possibly green. The following day police issue two identikit pictures of a man they seek. One is from a description supplied by water taxi driver Guy Wallace, the other of the man described as acting ‘sleazy’ at the Furneaux Lodge bar on New Years Eve and believed to be the man who invited Olivia and Ben aboard his yacht.
Rob Pope is becoming increasingly annoyed at the media, saying there had been too much speculation about the inquiry including from witnesses who have spoken to reporters about the mystery man police want to identify. Mr Pope says speculation is not helping the investigation and might be distracting people from the facts.
He says police had asked witnesses to be more circumspect. (This rebuke follows The Dominion’s front page lead on 9 January describing the actions of the man seen pestered women at Furneaux Lodge on New Years Eve.)
A week has now passed since the pair was reported missing and the fact that neither the ketch nor the man has been identified, occasions speculation about whether the descriptions are accurate. Rob Pope tells the media that police remain convinced the ketch exists but says neither photographic evidence had been found nor has there been any reports of its whereabouts. People have supplied a great deal of photographic and video material but no one has captured the ketch on film. Police have developed a montage of boats moored off Furneaux Lodge. They issue an artist’s impression of the suspect ketch showing its two masts, white hull, with blue trim and between five and seven round brass-framed portholes. The ketch is well maintained with a lot of ropes on it. Its stern is bulbous and it has low profile, possibly cream cabins. Police admit the description fits hundreds of boats.
Police say overseas forces have been advised of the pair’s disappearance through Interpol in the hope they might turn up at some foreign port. South Pacific ports in particular, are asked to keep a lookout. Police also study satellite pictures of territorial waters supplied by weather tracking stations in the hope the vessel might be spotted.
Hoax radio call angers
The lost pair’s parents are angered by a 9 January hoax marine radio call saying police were taking two bodies to Picton. Police told them of the call rather than have them hear about it from other sources. Ben’s father John Smart says the hoax is appalling and that whoever is responsible should be ‘severally treated.’
Now one of the South Island’s biggest investigations:
By 10 January Operation Tam staffing has risen from 29 to 44 including SAR personnel, making it one of the biggest South Island investigations for some years. Staff from brought in from Wellington, Christchurch, Auckland and Dunedin. Over the next weeks, some 23 detectives, on average will work on the inquiry, assisted by up to 10 based at Christchurch, another 10 in Wellington, three or four in Auckland and another in Dunedin.
The inquiry base is being flooded with calls from people offering information ‘from Northland to Southland.’ The extra staff is needed to process and follow up that amount of information. Meanwhile the ground searches continue and 70 volunteers from airforce, search and rescue, deerstalkers, police and Red Cross comb dense bush between Punga Cove and Tawa Bay.
Screaming and shouting heard
On 12 January police release information from two independent sources about hearing screaming and another of shouting, around the time the pair was last seen. One source said screaming had been heard and another spoke of a male shouting and swearing. According to police, the screaming was unintelligible but the shouting included swear words. People hearing the shouts had been on board moored yachts in Endeavour Inlet and had put the time at between 4 and 5 am on New Years day about the time Olivia and Ben were last seen.
By now police have interviewed some 300 people who had been at Furneaux Lodge on New Years Eve. Their objective is to contact and speak to possibly up to 2000 people said to have been there. Land and sea searches continue including aircraft, from Endeavour Inlet to Cape Jackson, Arapawa Island and Queen Charlotte Sounds islands. “There are huge numbers of areas to be covered in which we consider likely spots where Ben and Olivia might have been,” Rob Pope comments.
Ketch seen leaving sounds
The media reports a charter boat operator who had seen the ketch leaving Queen Charlotte Sound on 2 January with people on board who could have been Ms Hope, Mr Smart and the mystery man. The Sunday Star Times quotes the operator, one Ted Walsh as saying, as he anchored off Cannibal Cove that day (2 January), he saw the ketch pass by, heading for the open sea. It was under motor with no sails. “What was distinctive was a young, blond-headed girl sitting in the cockpit at the back of the boat. A guy with very short hair was sitting beside her, very close,” he said. At the time of the sighting, Mr Walsh did not know the pair was missing. He said the two sitting so close together seemed strange and they did not return the waves from him and his passengers, which was ‘uncharacteristic of boaties.’ He say, however, there was no way he could say the pair was the missing couple.
Yacht seized for forensic study
The public pulse leaps on 12 January when police pull a yacht similar to the one sought in connection with the disappearance of Ben and Olivia out of Picton’s Shakespeare Bay and take it to a Woodbourne airforce base hanger for secure storage pending a forensic examination. Police had boarded it in earlier in the day, wearing gloves and protective clothing, at pains to ensure no evidence was contaminated.
Detective Inspector Rob Pope is characteristically conservative in his response to media excitement at the development. He says it definitely isn’t a breakthrough. “This removal is just part of the ongoing process of the investigation and no suspect was being sought in relation to the find,” he says.
However, Ben Smart’s mother tells The Dominion she is expecting the worst after a briefing from police after the yacht was seized.
She says it has been the worst day since Ben and Olivia disappeared. On the other hand, Olivia’s mother Jan says she remains optimistic and is determined to stay positive.
Police have little to say to the media about developments. At a large news conference, Rob Pope offers a ‘no comment’ to almost all questions, saying it is inappropriate to respond at that time. He rubbishes a rumour that someone has been taken into custody and says he is disappointed by such speculation.
Controversially, the seized yacht is a single-masted sloop and not the double-masted ketch police had sought from the outset. The Dominion reports a local yachtsperson’s opinion that a sloop and a ketch could have easily been confused on the night, especially after the celebrations. The fact it was tied up with other yachts may explain why some people might have thought it had more than one mast. However, Rob Pope tells the 14 January news conference that police are still looking for the ketch.
Media names seized yacht’s owner
On 14 January the media reports locals identifying the seized yacht as that of Scott Watson of Picton. Neighbours say police arrived at Mr Watson’s house early on the morning of 12 January but he was not at home. The neighbours describe Watson (30) as a quiet person who keeps to himself and would not go out of his way to say hello.
In spite of the media ‘disclosure,’ Rob Pope steadfastly refused to enter into any public discussion with journalists about Mr Watson. It is as if he does not exist. At no stage do police refer to the sloop’s owner’s name, address, sex, or characteristics, a legally sound practice that appears likely to continue throughout the investigation.
On 15 January, police say the seized sloop was moored near private property in Erie Bay at about 11am on New Years Day. The media reports Mr Watson had worked for the owner of a property there and the search suddenly switches to that area.
In a new twist, police say the mystery ketch said to have been moored in Endeavour Inlet has been eliminated from police inquiries, as it probably did not exist, but this conclusion is strongly, publicly rejected by ferry taxi driver Guy Wallace.
Police reveal the seized sloop was repainted soon after Olivia and Ben went missing. Over New Years Eve, it had been white with brick red superstructure.
Some time during New Years Day the superstructure was repainted blue while the yacht was moored at Erie Bay, 13 nautical miles from Furneaux Lodge. Four police and one scientist from Environmental and Science Research (ESR) in Wellington and another from Christchurch are fine-tooth combing the sloop.
On 16 January police issue a photograph of the seized sloop taken in Endeavour Inlet on New Years Eve to jog potential witness’s memories. There are two people on deck but police have obscured their faces and decline to say how many people were on the boat when it was photographed by a member of the public at 4pm on New Years Eve. Media reports say the forensic examination of Watson’s sloop and its dinghy is complete but the analysis of material will take some time.
The last planned police search is underway with 40 volunteers combing the area surrounding Furneaux Lodge from Punga Cove to Ship Cove. Police say that any further searches will depend on what information comes to hand.
Sloop’s owner ‘not a suspect’
Rob Pope wisely continues to sit on the media management fence. He continues to his long-established position that everyone is being treated as a witness. He never mentions Scott Watson in his comment to the media and steadfastly insists no one is being treated as a suspect but says the seized sloop remains at the centre of the inquiry. (For obvious legal reasons including the defamation risk, it is extremely rare for police to publicly name someone as a suspect. The exception might be if someone is a fugitive and police have sufficient information to arrest the person when located). However, an Assignment programme on Operation Tam, broadcast on 12 March reveals that an offender profile was distributed to staff at an early pre-search briefing. This named a man, included two photographs and provided background information on him. At this time, police were saying publicly that everyone in the inquiry was being treated as witness – none as suspects. Later, they will explain that some 50 different ‘suspect profiles’ have prepared during the course of their investigation.
(The term ‘suspect’ is literally inaccurate police jargon. A more accurate description of people on such lists is ‘those who need to be eliminated from the inquiry,’ – people with possible motives, opportunities, histories or propensities to commit a crime of the type being investigated). Dozens, sometimes hundreds could fit into this catergory.
Rob Pope emphasises police are keeping an open mind on what occurred and on who might have been involved in the pair’s disappearance. He says police are firming their thoughts and are making progress, but he is not drawing any conclusions and remains optimistic of achieving a result.
On 16 January the Hope and Smart families mount a private aerial search of Endeavour Inlet. Some 50 of their friends also search the shoreline in their own boats. A number of boats used are from the North Island’s Mana Boating Club.
On 17 January Rob Pope tells reporters that forensic scientists had taken “material and matter” from the seized sloop. The sloop has undergone intensive examination including spraying with fluorescent chemical Luminol which will show up bloodstains even when invisible to the naked eye. The scientists had been instructed not to talk to the media, nor will Rob Pope amplify.
Auckland Industrial Chemist Jim Sprott says ‘matter’ usually means specimens and ‘material’ refers to organic body material such as seminal stains and bloodstains.
Although Rob Pope says the investigation will continue at full strength for at least another two weeks, by 21 January Operation Tam, probably by police design, begins to fade from the media spotlight.
Police have identified some 1400 people who were in the Endeavour Inlet on New Years Eve and hope many will be seen over the next fortnight. Mr Pope says the enquiry has established a platform to enable more focused investigations and periodic ground searches depending on information received.
Eight police divers operating from Wellington’s police launch the Lady Liz, search Erie Bay on 22 January for bodies, without success. Rob Pope, who has steadfastly refused to call Operation Tam a homicide enquiry says he does not like using the term bodies, but he ‘had to be realistic’. “Clearly we are on the lookout for anything we can connect with Ben or Olivia, including bodies, persons, whatever,” he says.
Police inadvertently sent out an intelligence report on Olivia and Ben to boat marinas a few days earlier which, much to Rob Pope’s disgust, was published in the New Zealand Herald. The report included some uncomplimentary observations about Olivia that were never intended to be made public. Just one copy of the ‘police eyes only’ profile was accidentally included among notices police sent out with a request that they be copied and more widely distributed. It subsequently went to 28 marinas.
The New Zealand Herald particularly incensed Rob Pope. One of its reporters obtained a copy and phoned the Hope family for comment without prior discussion with police. When contacted later by a New Zealand Herald, reporter Mr Pope tried to persuade the editor not to published comments about the victim. However, the editor decided ‘the public’s right to know’ argument was more persuasive than the effect publication would have on the family. Mr Pope says he accepted the police mistake should have been reported, along with the apology he had immediately, personally tendered to the family, but he considered publishing the profile’s contents unethical and insensitive – and many would agree with him.
(In an Assignment programme on TV1 on 13 March, Olivia’s father Gerald will again strongly criticise what he described as ‘the unprofessional’ police profile which describes her as spoilt, emotional, a drinker and sexually active. He will reject these labels and paint a different picture of his daughter).
On 22 January, Ian Holyoake, Assistant Commissioner Crime and Operations at Police National Headquarters in Wellington and Rob Pope apologised to the Hope family saying it was an unfortunate error. “We are truly sorry for the embarrassment it has caused to Olivia’s family, Mr Holyoake says.
‘Expect the worst’
On 23 January, a private search organised by the families comb Long and Blumine Islands and other parts of the outer Endeavour Inlet. The following day police divers complete their last planned search of Erie Bay, Moioio Island and bays off Queen Charlotte Sound and Kaipakirikiri Bay (where the seized yacht had been seen) and return to Wellington. On the same day, Olivia’s father Gerald Hope tells The Dominion his and the Smart families refuse to give up hope that the pair are still alive despite police conceding to them, that they are looking for bodies. He says police had been advising them for almost a week to expect the worst and inquiry head Rob Pope said publicly a few days earlier that divers were looking for bodies.
Rob Pope asks the public and the media on 27 January, to have confidence in the police investigation. He says the operation is huge and he asks people to bear with police. On the same day, Gerald Hope makes an appeal through the New Zealand Herald, to the owner of the seized sloop to ‘tell us if he knows anything.’ “The obvious thing for him to do is to come to our house or pick up the phone and tell us if he knows anything.”
Frustration with media and criticism of police
Rob Pope’s frustration at some media actions surfaces again on 27 January when he warns reporters not to ‘re-interview’ witnesses in the search for Olivia and Ben saying they could harm the inquiry. He is concerned at comments made on television the previous night by a teenager who was among the last to see Olivia and Ben, that the yacht seized by police was not the boat the missing pair boarded. He was sure they got onto a two-masted ketch. Rob Pope says reporters speaking to witnesses could never compare to the systematic identification and interviewing of people done by police.
Mr Pope says police inquiries indicate some witnesses might been genuinely mistaken when they identified some boats. He gives an assurance police are keeping an open mind on the ketch angle, but are focusing their attention on the sloop and boats that, from the information gathered so far, were moored off Furneaux Lodge on New Years Eve and New Years Day. He says only one boat remains unidentified out of the 137 then moored off the lodge and this was an aluminium runabout. (By early March Mr Pope will say categorically that the ‘mystery ketch’ does not exist and that the investigation would continue to remain on a sloop. Mr Pope will say witnesses convinced they saw a ketch might have been confused. Police tested those accounts against relevant, established facts and it has become clear some interviewees had been genuinely mistaken).
Witness still ‘waiting to be interviewed’
Criticism through the media, of aspects of the police approach is a feature of the investigation.
A Wellington woman who heard the yelling and screaming in Endeavour Inlet at about the time Olivia and Ban went missing calls The Dominion newspaper on 29 January saying she is still waiting to be interviewed by police in spite of having contacted them on several occasions.
She complains of ‘repeated botch-ups’ by police when she tried to report what she had heard, including losing a statement she’d written out herself. (Police say the screaming had been reported by three independent witnesses and later, that they had identified the source of the screaming and shouting and it was not associated with the disappearances).
Her approach to The Dominion had been triggered by reading a report the previous day about a woman who had seen a man resembling the identikit picture sitting on the Furneaux Lodge wharf the morning the pair disappeared. She says she tried to tell police about it but they didn’t want to know!
Police blame the scale of the inquiry and the large numbers of people they have to see, for the delay in some people being interviewed. The task continues to grow as more witnesses are spoken to. But Detective Sergeant Tony Smith of Wellington invites anyone who believes they have relevant information to talk to him directly. (As at 12 February police have identified some 1400 people with an estimated 500 more to see).
New photos released
Media interest in the investigation is revived on 11 February when police call a 1pm. news conference at which they release photographs of four young people who had been in the same area as Ben and Olivia just before they disappeared. Rob Pope says the two young men and two young women photographed were in no way under suspicion but had been on the jetty about the same time the mystery man got into the water taxi. Police say there were other people in the area and if they see the photographs of who else was on the jetty, they might remember seeing the mystery man. Two of the people photographed were on the water taxi when Olivia and Ben were dropped off at a boat in Endeavour Inlet and were also offered a bed on the man’s boat.
Police say two days later, that they received no response to the photographs. Rob Pope is not surprised – because most witnesses had been ‘screened’ already – and showing the photographs was a backup to ensure there was no one they had missed. By now police estimate they have still to interview 400 to 500 witnesses, some of whom have yet to be found and are known to the inquiry team only by nicknames. He says a team of 45 officers would take another three to four weeks to speak to all witnesses. Police have worked seven days a week for the past six weeks.
An interesting feature of the investigation has been the unprecedented high profile of Olivia’s father Gerald. Early in the inquiry he shows a determination to pursue any angle available to him including utilising the media. On 6 January he makes his first appeal through the media for people who may have information beneficial to the inquiry to contact police.
On 11 January he appeals through the media for the ‘mystery man’ to return their daughter and Ben. He asks the man to call him anonymously; even on marine radio, saying police will be unable to track him down from that.
In spite of the trauma the families are experiencing, they make themselves available to the media including for family photo shoots. They would understand that their cooperation would be helpful to the investigation, adding interest and public sympathy, which can be very persuasive in motivating witnesses to come forward.
Soon after official police searches finish, led by Gerald Hope, the families mount their own using aircraft and boats operated by volunteers. Mr Hope says the private searches are integral because police do not have the resources to cover such a huge area. (Blenheim Lions Club assisted in fund-raising to help finance the private searches).
As late as 17 January Gerald Hope is telling The Dominion he refuses to believe or comprehend the worst, even though the pair has been missing for 16 days. He says he and the family refuse to look into the possible black side of their daughter’s disappearance. “We don’t think in a criminal way, we don’t have criminal minds,” he says. “It is not in the nature of our human spirit to think that way and we won’t until it is proved otherwise.” However, his views will change as the inquiry extends into long weeks.
He describes Olivia as having inner strength that will help her in whatever situation she found herself – ‘a wonderful young woman, and a wonderful daughter’ - and he says he will not give up hope that she will come back to them. A week later the families are still refusing to believe Olivia and Ben are dead. Gerald Hope says the families were not giving up. “It’s not naïve optimism. It’s just that we really find it hard to believe our daughter went down to share New Years Eve with friends and hasn’t returned.” This, in spite of the fact police have been telling the families for almost a week to expect the worst.
Families ask for high tech help
In early February a month after the disappearances, the families approach Police Minister Jack Elder and ask him for high-tech underwater equipment to search deep areas of the Sounds. Gerald Hope is reported as asking Mr Elder to approach Australian defence agencies if the technology is not available in New Zealand. He also asks Mr Elder to lobby Cabinet for more funds for the investigation.
Seized sloop sea tested
On 19 February, the seized sloop, under guard at Woodbourne airforce base since 12 January, is put back into the water at Picton’s Waikawa Bay. The mast, previously removed by police is being replaced. Rob Pope says the boat is to be tested on the water. Characteristically he won’t say why – just that the investigation has become ‘more specific’ and that he ‘has to be careful over any comment he makes for fear of compromising the inquiry.’
Two days later Rob Pope says the sloop has been put back into the water to try to accurately assess its speed. The sloop has been returned to its seaworthy condition and police are interested in the time it takes to sail or motor between various points in the Sounds. Trials included motoring the vessel between Endeavour Inlet and Erie Bay, having allegedly been seen in both places on New Years Day.
Wisely, in terms of keeping the Solicitor General happy, Rob Pope delivers the message to readers not to place too much significance on the yacht’s re-launch, saying the trials were ‘just another extension of the inquiry.’
Former police enter mystery
In a surprise development, on 20 February two ex-detectives enter the case. Scott Watson, the man whose sloop was seized by police in January, during the course of their investigation, is reported to have hired the ex-detectives to ‘get the story clear before there are any further developments.’
Former detective inspector and head of the Wellington CIB, Quentin Doig and ex-detective sergeant Carl Berryman are reported in The Dominion of 21 February, to be heading for Picton to conduct inquiries on behalf of Mr Watson. Messrs. Doig and Berryman disengaged from the police last year and are principals in Corporate Risks, a private investigation service.
The Dominion says Mr Watson had voluntarily made comprehensive written statements on 8 and 12 January to investigating police and volunteered blood samples.
Lawyer Bruce Davidson, acting for Mr Watson, is reported as saying, “Notwithstanding Scott Watson’s cooperation with the authorities, in view of the reported statements that continue to be made about him and his sloop, Scott Watson has retained the services of solicitors, investigators and counsel to advise him in connection with his rights and in particular, with his rights concerning the return of his property.”
Rob Pope gives an impression, understandably perhaps, that he is not happy with the entry of the two private detectives.
Quentin Doig told Radio New Zealand he intending paying Mr Pope a courtesy visit on Monday and that he ‘did not intend to get in the way of police investigators.’ In the radio interview Mr Pope says he is surprised talk of the visit has been reported. He tells Radio New Zealand he does not intend publicly discussing what he might say to Mr Doig. Nor does he want to enter into any public discussions about them, saying their presence is irrelevant to the police inquiry
Olivia Hope’s father Gerald says the appointment does not surprise him – he had reached the stage where nothing does – but he understands it is not unusual for lawyers or barristers to use private investigators.
Operation Tam a million dollar plus operation
By 20 February Operation Tam has cost a million dollars. In spite of resources put into the search, the officer in charge, Detective Inspector Rob Pope says police still have no idea whether the pair is dead or alive.
Mr Pope gives an assurance through The Dominion on 20 February, that even though there had been no police searches in the previous two weeks, the investigation is continuing and police have not give up on finding them. As good as his word, police return to the Sounds on 26 February, in response to information from the public. Police conduct shore-line searches in and around Erie Bay, Wharehunga Bay, Te Rua Bay, Wharehunga Bay, Ship Cove, Cook Cove, Marine Head and Bakers Bay.
Mr Pope says information from the public includes disturbed ground and someone behaving in an unusual manner. Nothing of relevance is found, however, Mr Pope says all information received from the public is followed up, but has to be prioritised. The latest searches are the result of information that did not require immediate follow-up. Mr Pope says on TVNZ on 26 February that police would continue to search as long as people provided information that warranted follow-up.
Suspicious actions attract attention
The Dominion of 3 March again features criticism of police, this time from a Richmond man who says significant information he supplied to police in mid-January was not followed up for at least six weeks.
Garth Watson – no relation to Scott Watson the seized sloop’s owner – says he saw two men in a dinghy some distance from a yacht moored in Onapuha Bay, one bay over from Erie Bay at about 7am on 2 January. Mr Watson says he and his brother waved to the two men in the dinghy as they passed in their runabout. They did not wave back as is usual and appeared to try to hide their faces. They had what looked like a large canvass-type bag between them. Mr Watson and his brother wondered if they might be marijuana cultivators anxious to avoid being recognised. He says a single masted yacht was moored nearby which could have been the one seized (Watson’s) but he could not really remember.
Mr Watson phoned the police when he returned from his holiday in mid-January but says he didn’t hear from them for six weeks. Police say the volume of witnesses to be interviewed causes delays in responding but contacts are prioritised and details seen as urgent are acted on quickly.
Who hit the girl at Furneaux Lodge on New Years Eve?
The police television programme Crimescene of 3 March features Operation Tam and is used to reveal information about an assault by the ‘mystery man’ at the centre of the inquiry on a ‘mystery girl.’ Police say they have information that the man hit a teenage girl near the Furneaux Lodge jetty the same morning Olivia and Ben went missing. Mr Pope says police have reports of a girl asking the man why he hit her. The victim was seen between the toilets and the diving shed at about 2am on New Years day. Police say they have not identified this person and ask that she come forward.
She is in her late teens, between 1.67m and 1.72m (5ft 6in to 5ft 8 in) wearing a white linen, long-sleeved shirt over a dark ankle-length dress. Rob Pope says police believe the man who assaulted the girl was the mystery man with Olivia and Ben when they were last seen boarding a yacht moored in Endeavour Inlet.
The following day police say they will interview about 80 people who called Crimescene. They received a possible lead on who the mystery girl was and suggestions where bodies could have been dumped. Police say fresh searches are likely including following up by Garth Watson’s sighting of two men acting suspiciously in Onapahu Bay on 2 January.
Police confiscate an aluminium dinghy on 6 March and also remove a forward hatch from the seized sloop but won’t say why, other than that the hatch is part of the ongoing examination. Rob Pope says police have yet to establish who owns the dinghy taken from Picton’s Shakespeare Bay, but some time in 1997, it was associated with the seized sloop. Police took possession of a plywood dinghy the day after they the sloop was impounded and it was towed behind it during police sea trials.
Three days later police say they have received very little information in response to their appeal. (The aluminium dinghy is a 1.8m (6ft) Parker Craft with two Parker Craft and one Takapuna Dive Centre stickers on it. It is riveted and has a red and white upper edge).
Gerald Hope features on a TVNZ Assignment programme on 12 March dealing with the personal aspects of Olivia’s disappearance. The Smart family was invited to participate According to Assignment, they supported Mr Hope’s decision to participate but chose to maintain their low media profile.
On the programme, Mr Hope gives a glimpse into his own character and that of Olivia and an insight into the highly supportive and intellectually privileged environment in which she was nurtured. He describes her as highly motivated and super-active, sharing an excellent relationship with her parents.
The accidental release of the police personality profile on Olivia early in the investigation and the publication of details by the New Zealand Herald is described by presenter Kerry-Anne Evans as one of the family’s darkest moments. The profile described Olivia as ‘emotional, spoilt, sexually active and a drinker’. Mr Hope says the profile is ‘inept and unprofessional, an unethically irresponsible piece of documentation which in no way describes or reflects her character.’ Head prefect at her college, a gifted musician about to start at law school, Olivia had just earned a school report describing her as someone who would succeed in anything she applied herself to. The report is said to be ‘one to make any parent proud.’
Mr Hope’s determination to find out what happened to his daughter and her friend has seen his involvement in the case to an unprecedented degree, including organising and coordinating private searches and exploring media opportunities to keep up the case profile in the media. He says he needs to be busy rather than just wait. He says, at the end of the day they won’t go away…’until what happened is irrevocably determined’, but agrees this could be some time off. He says the families have become frustrated because something should have turned up by now. “There should by now, be hard evidence of death or information to support another line of inquiry – neither has happened and we need to ask if we are on the right track,” he says.
He is strangely silent about the police. Having been closely associated with them since Olivia’s disappearance, viewers might have expected comment on whether he has confidence in the investigation team or an appreciation or otherwise of their commitment to Operation Tam. The only time he edges into the matter of the investigation, is to say he has twice met informally with Auckland businessman Joe Karam, who, in his book David and Goliath, cast serious doubts on police competence and methods in investigating and prosecuting the Bain family massacre. He says Mr Karam has offered help but the families have not yet decided if they will employ him.
Mr Hope says comment from Mr Karam have been sobering. “He has said not to take things at face value – ask – probe – don’t accept what we have been told is absolutely correct.” He says Mr Karam might be able to ‘audit’ the investigation. (This disclosure on the programme comes as a complete surprise to Detective Inspector Pope).
Events have eroded Mr Hope’s earlier trust in human nature and he says he is now reflecting on whether he prepared Olivia adequately to be aware of risk. “We did such a good job in developing her character – and it was still developing –that she was probably more trusting than some of her city peers would be. What happened opened our eyes beyond our middle-class existence. I was naive, so how could I warn Olivia to be more careful if I was not aware of what was out there?”
“There are so many people out there (in the Sounds) with interesting backgrounds known to police - fifty out of 2000 people with criminal histories.” He says society needs to review just how much trust a young person should place in other people. “Should we get a police printout on who is going to be there?” he asks.
He says if the pair have been murdered, there will be no forgiveness. In the first two weeks of the investigation all he wanted to do was find out who did it and dispose of them in the quickest and most effective way he could think of. He says it’s time to get tougher – ‘an eye for an eye’. “If their deaths have been caused by someone, there will be no compensation (for the families) by incarcerating them”…. “Society has had a gutsful. Life should be life, not 10 years.” ….“They need to be put away so they are no longer a risk to society.” While he does not say so directly, he indicates losing his earlier abhorrence of capital punishment.
Mr Hope says whoever killed Olivia won’t get away with it. “I am absolutely convinced the truth will come out,” he says.
Police sift garbage for evidence
Radio New Zealand’s Lauren McKenzie, reporting from the Picton tip on Thursday 12 March says police had received information that something relevant to the enquiry may have been dumped there, and this ‘seems to have given tired officers an injection of enthusiasm.’ She says the investigation had been a long, hard slog with few dramatic breakthroughs. “Staff have been away from their families for weeks, working long hours and are tired, and this tip-off has been good for them,” she says.
Police and airforce personnel began searching the tip on Wednesday 11 March. Inquiry head Rob Pope says information from a member of the public triggered the search for something dumped there in the past seven to 10 days. He says they are not looking for bodies or body parts but won’t elaborate further. Media reports say police are believed to be looking for something Ben or Olivia might have had with them when they disappeared, but Rob Pope describes this as mere speculation.
Fourteen airforce personnel and two detectives wearing white boiler suits, gloves and masks spend two days in foul conditions midst ‘an incredible stink’ sifting through 300 cubic metres of wet refuse. They leave the tip late on Thursday afternoon with several bags of rubbish in council and supermarket bags to dry the contents and examine it further. Searches do not find anything of direct relevance but will make a further evaluation once the rubbish had been dried and sifted.
Lauren McKenzie, reporting for Checkpoint says police have not revealed the source of their information or specified what it was, but she says it seems to be fresh and not historic and police consider it important. The material is said to have been dumped within the last seven to 10 days. Up to 22 truckloads of household rubbish are dumped there each week, but Rob Pope says it’s ‘not quite like looking for a needle in a haystack.’
Maritime search equipment considered
Friday 13 March brings media coverage that police are considering using sophisticated underwater searching equipment. Rob Pope says police are still considering where they want to search, and what equipment they might need, including that which would be necessary for staff safety. He says they would like to eliminate everything, but that is not feasible. He hopes a decision will be made in the next few weeks.
He won’t get involved in discussing a suggestion put by The Dominion that police want to find an anchor said to be missing from the seized sloop, saying police had not completed an inventory.
An anonymous letter handed to police by private investigator Quentin Doig alleges police are ignoring a tip about who took Olivia and Ben. The letter describes a white person living with a ‘chick’ and a former Black Power member who had a reputation for using knives and who sold drugs from a yacht that had been disposed of in January. The letter, made up of words clipped from a newspaper was sent to the private investigators and also to TV3. While Me Doig says the letter might be important, Rob Pope says the allegations are ‘not consistent with the facts’ and till it had been assessed, police gave it no particular weight.
‘Mystery man’ was fighting
Maybe someone ‘put something in the water’ at Furneaux Lodge on New Years Eve that caused at least 24 altercations. And according to police, the ‘mystery man’ central to their investigation may have been involved in several of the fights. This man is also believed to have assaulted a young woman on the walkway to Furneaux Lodge just after 2am that morning. In spite of an appeal on the police Crimescene television programme and other publicity, she hasn’t come forward. Police did not say if the man had fought with men or women, saying they are ‘a little confused and need to firm that up.’
The Dominion of 14 March says Detective Inspector Pope ‘has admitted’ police are close to identifying the man, but says it would be pre-emptive to say they were close to charging anyone.
He is reported as reaffirming there were no suspects, ‘only profiles’ and the inquiry team had prepared over 50 of these since New Year. He was responding to the accidental release of a particular ‘suspect’ profile, referred to on a recent Assignment television current programme.
Seabed search reveals nothing
Police divers search the seabed at Tawa Bay near Marine Head in Endeavour Inlet on 16 March. Dive boss, Senior Constable Bill Humphries of Wellington says the Bay is 46 metres deep in some places. The sloop seized by police in January was sighted in this area between 9am and 9-45am on New Years Day. Mr Humphries says the search was as a result of information received and that the investigation team was ‘picking odd spots’ because it would be impracticable to search the whole area.
Quiet confidence breeds hope
Operation Tam is an investigation that along with the Hope and Smart families, every New Zealand wants solved. Often, the longer an inquiry continues the less likelihood there is of a satisfactory outcome. By 17 March, police estimate they have identified 1600 people who were at Furneaux Lodge and environs on New Years Eve and day and there are about 300 more to see. Rob Pope’s doggedness and his guarded approach to media comment does inspire a quiet hope that he knows a lot more than he is letting on and that one day an arrest will be announced.
A key element may be the outcome of the forensic examination of the sloop seized on 12 January and perhaps a significant find among the rubbish recently taken from the Picton tip.
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