When did a large, two-masted ketch turn into a small, single-masted sloop? When the Police were framing Scott Watson for abduction and murder.
He has spent the last 20 years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. A few weeks ago he went to a Parole Board hearing at Rolleston and was told that he would have one more year behind bars. His case is a huge black mark against the New Zealand Police and one of the worst miscarriages of justice in our history.
The disappearance of Olivia Hope and Ben Smart in the Marlborough Sounds was the big news story of 1998. Now 22 years later the case against Scott Watson is going back to the Court of Appeal.
Watson was the main suspect for the police from early on in the investigation, and he was subsequently tried and sentenced, for a crime he had nothing to do with.
This is possibly the worst case of police duplicity in our history. Detective Inspector Pope, later Deputy-Commissioner, and his team
~ twisted, and in some cases falsified, the evidence to fit their prime suspect
~ ignored possible leads and evidence linking a mystery man to the crime
~ harassed Watson family members, including his sister and father, and bugged their homes
~ pressured witnesses into changing their stories
~ manipulated the media.
A 2016 docudrama Doubt: The Scott Watson Case, showed up what most people, who had studied the case closely, had known from the start: he couldn’t have committed the crime. Then a detailed article in the January 2017 edition of North and South provided further reinforcement of Watson’s innocence.
One of the worst features of this case, is that the person(s) responsible for the abduction got away with it, and may well be living in Australia or beyond.
Scott Watson was not a “Mr Nice Guy”, and at the time of the disappearance of the young couple, already had a significant police record, mainly from his teenage years. He freely admits that was a little shit when he was younger.
He was at Furneaux Lodge on the fateful night, had a single-masted sloop moored there and was involved in some boorish behaviour during the New Year’s Party. He left early the following morning, but could not have had the young couple on board because they had been delivered by Guy Wallace to a two-masted ketch the previous night.
Guy Wallace described dropping off Olivia and Ben to a 38’- 40’ wooden ketch (two masts) with portholes, while Watson’s yacht was a 26’ homebuilt steel sloop (one mast) without portholes. Mike White, Stuff 1 August 2020
A large number of people testified that an unshaven “mystery man” was present at the party and that he climbed up on to the ketch along with the young couple.
The police pressurized Guy Wallace to change his evidence, but the water taxi driver, and four other people in Wallace’s boat, were adamant that Ben Smart and Olivia Hope, as well as a mystery man, were definitely dropped off at a ketch.
In the weeks that followed, there were over a hundred sightings of a two-masted ketch in the Marlborough Sounds area, and the people who saw it duly reported their observations to the authorities. Some claim they actually saw two young people on board.
Many commented, as Guy Wallace did, about the brass work around the portholes and the blue strip of paint along the outside. (Watson’s sloop had no portholes and was partly painted red at the time.)
But the police were not interested in other lines of inquiry, as they were convinced that they had their man. Their case was built on the young couple leaving the waters off Furneaux Lodge in Watson’s small one-masted sloop “Blade”, not on an inconvenient two-masted ketch.
The police said many times that they had no interest in the ketch and Detective Inspector Pope even claimed it didn’t exist! This is equivalent to several witnesses saying that someone was run over by a large four door, blue Mercedes, and the authorities saying No, it was a two door, red Volkswagen.
North and South’s in-depth article put a strong case for Scott Watson’s innocence. This thoroughly researched, investigative piece emphasised that:
~ it was the ketch rather than a sloop that should have been the focus of inquiries
~ there were some dodgy witnesses involved in the court trial, including a secret prison witness who later retracted his story
~ there had been pressure put on others to change their stories, based on being shown a photo of a dishevelled Watson taken later while he was in custody. (On New Year’s Eve at Furneaux Lodge, Watson was clean-shaven and had tidy short hair, and police did have another photo of him on the night which they did not show witnesses.)
Two key witnesses at the trial were unnamed prisoners, who testified that Watson confessed to them in jail that he had committed the crime. One of these “secret witnesses” later admitted that he had lied and the other was bribed by the authorities. Watson has always maintained his innocence.
Basically there was no solid evidence that Watson was the abductor: he had no motive, no access, no weapon, no bodies, no scratches and was on the wrong boat.
The crown case was based on very flimsy threads such as:
~ two hairs, that might have been Olivia’s, “found” on a blanket in Watson’s boat. These were only discovered after the prosecution insisted on the forensic expert having a second look at the evidence. How could she fail the first time, to miss the two fair hairs among the black, which her eagle eyes would have searching for?
~ scratches on the hatch cover of Blade that were claimed to be the result of Olivia attempting to escape. However, it was explained by the defence that the scratches went right to the edge of the cover which was inaccessible when closed.
~ Watson repainting his boat early in 1998.
People watching the 2016 docudrama, who were not in New Zealand at the time of the case or who had not studied it, would have been incredulous about the outcome of the trial.
No-one saw the couple getting on Watson’s boat, but a large number of people saw them get into the water taxi heading for the ketch, and five testified that the two young people actually climbed on to that boat with an unknown long-haired man. (Watson has tidy short hair that night.)
To have abducted the pair, Watson would have had to come back from his boat and entice Olivia and Ben off the ketch.
The Police and the prosecution were in a world of fantasy and Justice Mahan’s comment from the Erebus inquiry comes to mind: ... an orchestrated litany of lies.
Scott Watson had been in trouble with the police many times in the 1980s and 1990s, and seemed like an obvious suspect. However, on the basis of the evidence outlined above, he should have been quickly eliminated as the probable perpetrator of the crime.
However, the police were under a lot of pressure from the media and the public to come up with a culprit for the crime of abducting the two students.
As Olivia’s father Gerald said later: The police were out to get their man, we were out to get the man, everybody was focusing on the conviction and they did what it took to do it.
This was a shocking case of getting the evidence, by fair means or foul, to fit the suspect. Watson clearly didn’t have a motive, the opportunity or the access to the young couple who were on a different boat at the time.
Only one person knows for sure what happened to Olivia Hope and Ben Smart, and that is the mystery man who got off scot free.
One telling element of the docudrama was that the police were not prepared to take part and justify their findings. For them the case is closed: end of story.
But this story will not go away until a man who has been wrongfully imprisoned for 20 years is exonerated. Hopefully it will happen at the Court of Appeal next year.Roger Childs is a writer and freelance journalist. He is a former history and geography teacher, who wrote or co-authored 10 school textbooks.