Murder in
the Sounds

A NZME investigation and podcast series

Bobbing in the waters of Waikawa Bay, is the scene of the crime.

Painted white and brown, 26ft long, with a single mast jutting into the skies above Picton.

To the locals walking their dogs along the shore, or kids fishing from the jetty, there’s nothing to distinguish the steel-hull sloop from the dozens of boats moored nearby, or tethered in the marina.

Just another yacht owned by a sea-loving local.

But to utter its name, Blade, evokes memories stretching back to New Year’s Eve 1997.

Marlborough Sounds, Furneaux Lodge, Ben Smart and Olivia Hope.

The friends were among revellers at the century old lodge on the edge of Endeavour Inlet, which has no road access.

As the party wound down in the small hours of New Year's Day, there was no room for the friends to sleep on the Tamarack, a yacht chartered by Olivia and her sister Amelia.

Other "freeloaders" had taken their bunks, so Ben and Olivia were anxious to get back to shore and find somewhere else to sleep.

They hopped on board the water taxi driven by Guy Wallace, who had arrived at the Tamarack to drop off Amelia Hope and a friend, Rick Goddard.

After they set off, a single, mystery man on the Naiad inflatable offered Hope, 17, and Smart, 21, a place to stay on his boat.

Wallace dropped off the friends and the mystery man, then took  two other passengers to a wharf near their bach.

Police said Watson offered Ben and Olivia a place on his boat, the Blade, killed them, then dumped their bodies at sea.

The jury at his 1999 trial agreed. Appeals rejected, case closed.

There is a genuine and ongoing fascination with the Sounds murders which did not end when the jury foreman announced Watson’s guilt.

And the ripples are still keenly felt by those whose lives are intertwined with their fate.

Ben Smart's sister, Rebecca,  second-left, and dad John, centre, at court.

Ben Smart's sister, Rebecca,  second-left, and dad John, centre, at court.

For the families of Ben and Olivia, there will always be a sense of loss. The never-ending sadness of wondering what their young lives could have become.

The convictions brought a little closure, but no consolation for their parents Mary and John Smart and Gerald and Jan Hope.

Gerald and Jan Hope arrive at the Wellington High Court on day one of the trial of Scott Watson for the murder of their daughter Olivia Hope.

Gerald and Jan Hope arrive at the Wellington High Court on day one of the trial of Scott Watson for the murder of their daughter Olivia Hope.

Both families politely declined to be interviewed at length on the eve of the anniversary.

John Smart died several years ago, never knowing what happened to his son.

But right out the window of her two-storey home, Mary Smart is reminded daily about her son’s disappearance.

Mary Smart’s home overlooks where Blade is moored in Waikawa Bay.

Mary Smart’s home overlooks where Blade is moored in Waikawa Bay.

Her stylish house on the hills of Waikawa Bay overlooks where the Blade is moored, less than 100m away.

"I think he is innately evil. I don’t think he should be let out," says Mary, who regularly bumps into Watson’s father Chris at the supermarket.

"You can ask him if he thought his son was guilty," she says. "He was in the same courtroom for three months  and if he doesn’t think he is guilty, he mustn’t have been listening."

Mary Smart can see the Blade from her home in Waikawa Bay.

Mary Smart can see the Blade from her home in Waikawa Bay.

For Chris Watson, there’s a sense of loss too.

He steadfastly maintains Scott is innocent, that the evidence was cherry-picked to build a case around him.

Scott Watson, aged 8 or 9, in a boatyard in Rolleston where father Chris worked.

Scott Watson, aged 8 or 9, in a boatyard in Rolleston where father Chris worked.

But either way, Chris Watson missed out on watching his son grow into adulthood.

"It’s a life wasted pretty much," Watson says.

Scott Watson in his early 20s pictured on his motorbike in Picton in the early 1990s.

Scott Watson in his early 20s pictured on his motorbike in Picton in the early 1990s.

"I don’t know if it’s a sense of loss so much as anger ... It is a slow burning anger."

Then there are others, crucial witnesses like Guy Wallace and Hayden Morresey, one of the other passengers on the water  taxi, who suffered guilt and anger.

A loss of peace, their lives wracked with guilt. Guilt about not offering Ben and Olivia a place to sleep that night.

And guilt that their evidence was, they claim, twisted by police to put an innocent man in prison.

"I know if Scott wasn’t in there, I would be in there," Wallace says.

"Because they just had to get someone. It’s as simple as that."

Guy Wallace reckons he was the only sober person at Furneaux Lodge that night.

Just the one gin and tonic, maybe two, on a warm summer’s day behind the bar serving drinks on New Year’s Eve 1997.

The 1500 people at the legendary party spot were packed in like sardines at the bar, spilling outside where the live band was playing.

Furneaux Lodge.

Furneaux Lodge.

Then, like every other New Year celebration, the music stopped, the bar closed - the party was over.

Around 4am, Wallace was picking up rubbish when a young couple asked if he could take them home on a water taxi.

Hayden Morresey and Sarah Dyer were staying at Morresey's family bach.  Wallace picked up three more passengers before pushing off the jetty.

Amelia Hope and her friend Rick Goddard needed a ride to the Tamarack, moored in Endeavour Inlet, as well as a single man.

"Beautiful night. Not a breath of wind. Nothing," says Wallace. "Just the stars out."

On reaching the Tamarack, Wallace found Ben and Olivia wanting to go back to shore to find somewhere to sleep.

The single man, who looked "a bit feral"  and was "checking out" Olivia and acting "sleazy" towards the teenager, offered them a place to stay on his boat.

So Wallace dropped them off but felt a shiver, "when you know something’s wrong and you can’t put a finger on it".

"I think about that moment all the time. If I’d just said 'take my bed'," says Wallace, who had a room at Furneaux Lodge.

"It just goes over and over and over. You could call it haunted. It always comes back. What could I have done?"

The disappearance of two young people soon became a major police investigation.

And as one of the last people to see them alive, Wallace quickly found himself at the centre of one of the biggest news events of the time. The public and media pressure was unprecedented and cloying.

Mystery man sketches.

Mystery man sketches.

In his interviews with police, he described the mystery man on the water taxi as being unshaven with unkempt, wavy hair.

Wallace was adamant he took the pair to a ketch; an old-style two-masted timber yacht with brass portholes, a blue stripe on the hull and hemp ropes.

He was grilled by detectives from Christchurch CIB. There were suggestions, he says, that he was somehow responsible for their disappearance, accused of lying and covering up.

"Pressure, pressure, pressure. They put so much pressure on me," says Wallace. "I couldn’t even drive a car after coming out from one of the interviews. It’s disgusting what they do to you."

Wallace said some of the locals turned on him and treated him with suspicion.

"It was horrible. I walked into the Waikawa Bay cruising club and you could have heard a pin drop. Everyone just shut up. People I’d known for a long time just shunned me. They thought I was guilty."     

He said the police were dogged in their efforts to make an arrest.

"I know in my heart of hearts, if he (Scott) wasn’t in there, I’d be doing time. It’s just that simple. They had to get someone."      

Scott Watson, 27, was pinpointed as the prime suspect within days of Rob Pope, a detective inspector from Christchurch, taking over the inquiry in January 1998.

But by April, four months later, no one aboard the water taxi, the last people to see Ben and Olivia alive, had identified Watson as the mystery man.

Wallace, the crucial witness, had been shown Watson's photo at least three times.

Each time, he said Watson was not the mystery man - whom he and bar manager Roz McNeilly had served drinks to at Furneaux Lodge during the New Year's Eve party.

Police then showed Wallace a new image of Watson in a montage of eight photographs.

The "Blink" photo.

The "Blink" photo.

In this new photo, Watson was caught halfway through a blink. This gave the appearance of hooded eyes, a characteristic of the mystery man’s description.

Wallace picked Watson from the "blink" photograph as the single man on the water taxi.

So did Roz McNeilly.

But both qualified the identification by saying the mystery man had facial hair and wavy, unkempt hair.

Another photograph of Watson, taken on the Mina Cornelia yacht where he partied before heading to Furneaux Lodge on New Year's Eve, shows him clean-shaven with short hair.

Neither Wallace or McNeilly were shown this photo of Watson and now feel they were tricked.

"Yeah I picked him out," says Wallace.

"It was only the blink photo. And how many photos did they take, or film to go through, to get that shot? Because I mentioned the guy had squinty eyes.

Scott Watson with eyes open.

Scott Watson with eyes open.

"I know [Scott] wasn’t the mystery man. He was totally different."

The photo montages were strongly criticised in a 2010 report by the Independent Police Conduct Authority as "highly undesirable, particularly given the importance of suspect identification in this case".

There was also poor record-keeping and this "dearth of information" made it difficult for the IPCA to determine whether there was any deliberate misconduct.

The various failures to adhere to the law and police manuals, according to the IPCA chair Justice Lowell Goddard, "exposed the integrity of the investigation to justifiable criticism and to the drawing of inferences about intention and motivation".

Given the importance of the identification, particularly by Wallace, to the prosecution case against Watson, his support was crucial for his bid for a pardon.

Both Wallace and McNeilly swore affidavits for his application to the Governor-General to exercise the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, which was declined in 2013 on the advice of Kristy McDonald, QC.

Scott Watson on the Mina Cornelia.

Scott Watson on the Mina Cornelia.

Much of the 149-page report by the Wellington-based barrister focuses on what the former Furneaux Lodge staff now say about their evidence.

She concluded it did not meet the legal definition of "fresh evidence" for the case to be sent back to the Court of Appeal.

This was, essentially, because the evidence was available at trial.

Clean-shaven with short hair, Scott Watson did not match the description of the mystery man.

Clean-shaven with short hair, Scott Watson did not match the description of the mystery man.

Wallace said under cross-examination that Scott Watson - as shown in the Mina Cornelia photograph - could not have been the mystery man.

This allowed the defence team to vigorously challenge Wallace’s initial identification of Watson, said McDonald, which they did.

In his interview with McDonald, Wallace went further, to say that, if asked in court now, he would categorically deny Watson was the mystery man.

This is called a "dock identification" but, again, McDonald was not convinced this changed the evidence Wallace gave at the trial.

And while Wallace’s identification of Watson was important to the prosecution case, McDonald said there were other strands of circumstantial evidence the jury relied on to convict him.

The most "compelling" of these, according to McDonald, were two blonde hairs found on a blanket in the Blade. We’ll come back to those later.

But picking Watson from the photo montage, for Wallace, feels like he put an innocent man behind bars.

He’s angry about the photo. And he’s angry about the police  concluding the ketch he says he dropped Ben, Olivia and the mystery man at, did not exist.

And he’s got his suspicions about who the "real" killer is - although he’s too afraid to name them, even privately.

Chris Watson has salt in his veins. His passion for sailing was inherited from his dad and passed onto his son.

When Scott was growing up, his father took the family around New Zealand on a boat for 12 years.

They spent idyllic summers sailing around Tauranga, Napier and Whangarei. Fluff the family dog came too .

But Scott was a troubled teenager and racked up 48 convictions, a record which one day made him a prime target when Ben and Olivia disappeared.

At the age of 20, Scott bought his first yacht and later built the Blade from scratch in the backyard of the family home in Picton.  

Scott planned to sail overseas before he was charged.

But he found it difficult to find an original name, to officially register the boat. There was Caligula, then Mad Dog, but the name Blade stuck.

Even though the boat is notoriously associated with two grisly murders, Chris Watson has kept the Blade.     

And in his mind, Scott is innocent - so why would he get rid of it? Blade is Scott’s boat and he doesn’t want him to leave prison with nothing but $20 in his pocket.

“I’m keeping it for Scott. Hopefully he gets to use it before it rusts away.”

Besides, says Chris, until recently it was the only yacht he had to sail.

Not that he’s sailing much these days. Chris turned 70 in March and retired a few weeks ago. It's easier to use the noisy diesel motor to propel Blade through the clear, blue waters of the Marlborough Sounds.

Sitting at the stern with his hand on the rudder, the softly spoken Chris Watson is still fighting to clear Scott’s name.

While other high-profile killers in New Zealand had articulate and well-resourced champions to help quash their convictions, Scott Watson had his mum and dad.

His mother Beverley died from leukemia five years ago.

She did the "fluffy, emotional stuff" in interviews, says Chris, who is keen to avoid being painted as a biased parent. He prefers to focus on the evidence.

"I know he didn’t [kill them]," says Chris Watson, when told of Mary Smart’s comments.

"And not from anything he’s told me. I’ve looked at it and used my intelligence and commonsense."

He switches off the engine to talk, slowly and surely, about the evidence and the Blade drifts slowly in the tide at Erie Bay in Tory Channel.

Chris Watson with his second wife Jo.

Chris Watson with his second wife Jo.

It was here, 20 years ago on New Year’s Day 1998, that Scott Watson arrived on the same boat and in the same sailing conditions.

According to the Crown case, Watson came to disguise the Blade with a new paint job after disposing of Ben and Olivia’s bodies in the Cook Strait.

He then lied about the time he arrived in Erie Bay.

At first, the man who gave Watson the paint for the boat - a caretaker, who has name suppression - told police he arrived between 10am and midday. This was corroborated by his children.

But over the coming weeks, the caretaker’s estimate, and that of his children, changed gradually until Watson was not in Erie Bay until 5pm.

This fitted better with the Crown, who had a witness claiming to see Watson in the Cook Strait around 4.30pm.

Coinciding with this new 5pm time, were serious cannabis growing charges against the caretaker. He ended up getting a light sentence.

Chris Watson has no doubt this influenced the caretaker’s changing statements to police.

As for the sighting of Scott Watson in the Cook Strait at 4.30pm, if that was true says Chris Watson, there’s no way the Blade could get to Erie Bay by 5pm.

They’ve tested the trip - which the police never did - in similar conditions and it took 2 hours 30 minutes to cover the 11 nautical miles.

As for painting the Blade in a deliberate attempt to disguise the murder scene, the evidence of the caretaker was Watson had arranged for the paint some weeks in advance.

"Of course, that was made out by the Crown to be sinister."

So many other "sinister" strands to the prosecution had mundane explanations, says Chris Watson.

Mysterious marks on the hull near the stern, suggested to be when Scott Watson lowered the bodies into the water?

Consistent with a scrubbing brush, says Watson, including  on some parts of the hull which it was impossible for a body to rub against.

Thorough cleaning inside the Blade, even cassette covers, supposedly to wipe away the evidence of two murders?

Evidence of ESR scientists at the trial said only half of the hard surfaces inside the cabin were wiped down, which Scott Watson said he did after a stormy trip in December 1997.

Cleaning tapes was normal in boating circles, says Chris Watson, because salt will wreck the cassette player.

Then there’s the supposed jailhouse confessions Watson gave to Secret Witnesses A and B.

Secret witness A recanted his testimony in 2000, saying he’d lied, then retracted his recantation when re-interviewed by police. Then recanted his retraction.

Watson had been warned about jailhouse snitches and kept his silence throughout the investigation, even to his girlfriend, who was secretly reporting to police.

Secret witness B claims Watson told him, a virtual stranger, about murdering Ben and Olivia.

The pair never shared a cell, the confession was supposedly through a peephole, and despite claims to the contrary, witness B received a phone and car from police.  

Secret Witness B also received a light sentence for the charges he was facing.

Most evocative of all, the scratching of rubber material inside the forward hatch. This was Crown evidence of Olivia desperately clawing to escape the killer Watson.

But the scratch marks go right to the edge of the foam, impossible to scrabble at if the hatch is shut - suggesting the marks could only be made when it was open.

The defence always maintained Watson’s nieces scratched the hatch.

Chris Watson adds: "It’s impossible to lock the hatch from the outside … it would be frowned upon in boating circles if you could, because it’s your escape hatch ... if you’re in trouble you’d need to get out quickly."

Chris Watson looking down through the Blade's hatch.

Chris Watson looking down through the Blade's hatch.

Which leaves the two blonde hairs found on a blanket, with a tiger pattern, retrieved from Scott Watson’s bunk.

They were matched to Olivia by DNA and described as "compelling", if the jury accepted them, in Kirsty McDonald’s report.

In a circumstantial case, the hairs were the only physical evidence linking Watson to the missing pair.

About 400 strands of hair were taken from the blanket. No blonde hairs were found on the first examination in January 1998.

In March, after samples of Olivia’s hairs were sent to the ESR laboratory, the tiger blanket strands were checked again.

They were examined on the same day, by the same scientist, on the same table as the reference hairs from Olivia. There was also a cut in the bag holding her hair.

This time, two strands of blonde hair - one 15cm long, the other 25cm - were found in the blanket example.

These circumstances raise the possibility of accidental contamination. But a new report commissioned by the Watsons, by forensic scientist Sean Doyle, questions whether the hairs even belonged to Olivia.

Doyle’s 22-page report claims there were significant weaknesses in how ESR handled the hairs and identified the DNA.

"The hair and DNA evidence falls some way short of current standards and, in some respects, fell short of standards at the time."

The Doyle report forms part of a second application for the Royal Prerogative of Mercy lodged with the Ministry of Justice in November.

Yet another legal avenue for Watson, possibly another dead end.

"I’m feeling tired. It would be really nice to see an end to this," says Chris Watson, of his 20 years of protesting his son’s innocence.

"I feel angry about it. It might not be a rage but it’s a slow burning anger that these people have got away with this. They’ve got away with it for so long."

Rob Pope.

Rob Pope.

Rob Pope and John Rae have heard it all before.

Twenty years ago, Pope was the detective inspector in charge of Operation Tam and Rae his right-hand man.

"I think 20 years on, the memories, the hurt and loss in terms of what both the Smarts and Hopes have been through is probably the most indelible reflection and constant thought from my perspective,"  says  Pope.  "It would be very hard-nosed not to actually reflect that two young lives were lost through an absolutely abhorrent act. I do think about them and equally their families."     

Nothing has changed their minds about Watson’s guilt, although Pope - who went on to become the Deputy Police Commissioner - diplomatically acknowledges high-profile cases will always attract criticism.

"To be quite frank I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s one of the great values living in a democratic country like New Zealand and having a judicial system which is sound, fair and transparent."

John Rae.

John Rae.

Rae, who retired several years ago, is more blunt.

"There are a few champions for the cause of Scott Watson for which I have no time. In actual fact, I have no doubt in my mind that he is guilty.

"I’m sure he knows where the bodies are. I doubt whether they are in the Sounds," says Rae.

They dismiss the "tunnel vision" criticism of the investigation to say there were 119 suspects - only Watson could not be eliminated.

As for the mystery ketch? It did not exist, at least not in Endeavour Inlet on the night in question.

Pope says "very, very extensive" efforts were made to identify around 750 ketches spotted around New Zealand and overseas.

When compared to other witness accounts, and the movements of Ben and Olivia on New Year’s Eve, Pope said police decided to discard the ketch as a lead.

"The reality is that, even though many people will continue to dispute this, the ketch really did not exist."

The other criticisms of the case - the identification of Watson, the two hairs, the jailhouse snitches, the Erie Bay trip, the innocent explanations for the Blade evidence - were all covered in the 1999 trial.

Since then, the Court of Appeal has rejected Watson's case and the Privy Council in London - then the highest court available to New Zealanders - refused to hear it. The IPCA criticised the photo montage to identify Watson, but rejected most of the other allegations against the investigation.

And the report of Kristy McDonald found most of the issues raised in Watson’s application were not "fresh". They had been raised at the trial where the jury convicted him.

Rob Pope at the 1999 trial.

Rob Pope at the 1999 trial.

Pope says the 12 jurors sat through 11 weeks of the trial and thousands of pages of evidence.

"That provides the most balanced and fair presentation of what actually the prosecution case was about," says Pope.

"It’s very easy to read a book or a series of books that may focus on a particular aspect but a circumstantial case relies on consideration of the totality, not just the elements or snippets of it.

"There is no such thing as a 100 per cent watertight case. If there was I would be looking very suspiciously at that."

Watson was a "psychopath", says Rae, whom he had no doubt had the capacity to kill again.

And the Parole Board agrees  that Watson, now 46, still poses a risk to the public.

He "fell within a group of offenders who show an elevated rate and speed of recidivism, particularly relative to violence", according to a psychologist’s report for his most recent bid to be released from prison in December 2016.

While Watson maintained his innocence, the Parole Board noted its function was not to usurp the role of the court system.

"The person who committed these crimes was a cold-blooded killer. His victims must have died in terrible circumstances. Mr Watson has been found to be that man beyond reasonable doubt."

For Watson to be released from prison, he needs to show the Parole Board he is willing to change.

Scott Watson at the 1999 trial.

Scott Watson at the 1999 trial.

But because he mistrusts the justice and prison system, this could become a "block" to forming a relationship with his counsellor.

There are "two Scotts", according to an experienced prison officer who has known Watson through most of his time behind bars.

One who is "happy go lucky", "very helpful", and "not a threat to us in the unit [or] to other prisoners" when everything is going his way; the other, who is "very manipulative", "withdraws into himself", is "standoff-ish" and "doesn’t tend to engage unless he has a support person with him", when he doesn’t get his own way.

For these reasons, the Parole Board did not think Watson would be able to reduce his risk of reoffending quickly.

Scott Watson in the High Court at Christchurch, May 2015.

Scott Watson in the High Court at Christchurch, May 2015.

His next parole hearing was postponed for four years. By December 2020, he’ll have been inside for 22 years.

It’s a long wait for his partner Christina. They met years ago when Scott visited his grandmother on the West Coast, where Baker grew up.

She is "deeply private", visits Watson weekly and doesn’t believe he is capable of murdering  Ben and Olivia.

"Never," she says.          

There’s no sympathy from Pope or Rae.

But there is regret: the bodies of Ben and Olivia were never found.

"To me that was our biggest failure," Rae says.

Pope: “My whole team would dearly have loved to bring home Ben and Olivia so that John and  Mary, Jan and Gerald, could actually properly grieve.

“We all dearly would have loved to have brought finality.”  

There is no resolution for the Hope and Smart families, not now.

Twenty years after their lives changed forever, horribly, and still no closer to any answers about what happened to their children.

It’s not an anniversary, say Mary Smart and Gerald Hope. There’s nothing to celebrate.

"It’s something very sad to think what would he be doing now," Mary says of Ben.

"He would probably be married with children and things like that, you think about. But nobody wants to talk about it anymore."

Not even the articulate Gerald Hope, who for many years questioned the evidence against Watson.

He even listened to Watson, over several days in Rolleston Prison, in meetings organised by North & South journalist Mike White.

But the door is closed now. Hope thought Watson’s explanations were rehearsed and insincere.

"There has been so much of our lives taken up with this and there is nothing more for us to say.

"The only thing we would ever be involved with was if more evidence came to light. That’ll be a long shot now."

It’s in the evidence where Chris Watson hopes to find finality for his son.

He remarried after the death of Beverley; he and his new wife Jo were brought together by a love of sailing and cryptic puzzles.

If they’re ever to see Scott Watson at the helm of the Blade, there’s a new urgency to solving the puzzle which him in prison.

His father has been diagnosed with prostate cancer; the prognosis is grim.

While the Hope and Smart families want to move on, Chris Watson wants to "keep the pot boiling" as he puts it.

Even if he’s no longer around to fight the injustice, as Watson sees it, friends and family will carry on after he is gone.

“People are interested in this case. There are a lot of questions which need answering.”