Monday marks the 20th disappearance of Ben Smart and Olivia Hope, two young people who were celebrating New Year's Eve in the Marlborough Sounds. Their bodies have never been found and Scott Watson was later jailed for their murders - crimes he and his supporters maintain he never committed. Twenty years on, Herald reporters Carolyne Meng-Yee, Jared Savage and Mike Scott have teamed up to produce Chasing Ghosts -Murder in the Sounds; a podcast series and extended feature talking to many of those involved in the case that shocked the nation. Today, we look back at the case against Scott Watson, speak to his father, who has helped lead the fight for his freedom, and hear from some of those who were also at Furneaux Lodge near where Ben and Olivia were last seen.

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 sunny 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-hulled sloop from the dozens of boats moored nearby, or
tethered in the marina.

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Just another yacht owned by a sea-loving local.

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

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

The friends were among 1500 revellers at the century-old lodge on the edge of Endeavour Inlet, which has no road access.

But as the party wound down in the small hours, there was no room for them to sleep on the Tamarack, a yacht chartered by Olivia and her sister, Amelia.

Freeloaders had taken their bunks, and Ben and Olivia were anxious to get back to shore and find somewhere to sleep.

So 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 man on Wallace's Naiad inflatable offered Olivia, 17, and Ben, 21, a place to stay on his boat.

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Ben Smart and Olivia Hope.
Ben Smart and Olivia Hope.

Wallace dropped the friends at the yacht with the mystery man.

They were never seen again.

Their disappearance led to one of the biggest police investigations in New Zealand history.

To the police, there was no mystery man. It was Scott Watson.

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

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

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There is a genuine, 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 have become intertwined with the fate of Olivia and Ben.

For their families, there will always be a sense of loss. The constant pain 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.

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, from the window of her two-storeyed home on the hills of Waikawa Bay, Mary Smart is reminded daily of her son's disappearance. Her house overlooks the spot where Blade is moored, less than 100m away.

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She believes Scott Watson is "innately evil". "I don't think he should be let out."

Mary says she regularly bumps into Scott'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."

Chris Watson, father of Scott Watson. Photo / Mike Scott
Chris Watson, father of Scott Watson. Photo / Mike Scott

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.

"It's a life wasted, pretty much," he says. "I don't know if it's a sense of loss so much as anger... It is a slow burning anger."

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There are others, crucial witnesses — such as Guy Wallace, Hayden Morresey, who was also on the water taxi, and Eyvonne Walsh, who claimed to have seen the mystery ketch — who have suffered guilt and anger.

Guilt about not offering Ben and Olivia a place to sleep that night. And guilt that their evidence was twisted by police, they say, 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."

"I suppose we were treated like criminals. The way they treated us was disgusting. We were only there to say we saw the ketch but they kept saying 'No you didn't'. They called us liars," says Walsh.

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, serving drinks behind the bar on New Year's Eve 1997.

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

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

Around 4am, Wallace was picking up rubbish when a young couple, Hayden Morresey and his girlfriend, Sarah Dyer, asked whether he could take them to their family bach on a water taxi.

Endeavour Inlet. The disappearance of Ben Smart and Olivia Hope from Furneaux Lodge on New Years day 1998, has been one of the most controversial murder cases in NZ history. Photo / Mike Scott
Endeavour Inlet. The disappearance of Ben Smart and Olivia Hope from Furneaux Lodge on New Years day 1998, has been one of the most controversial murder cases in NZ history. Photo / Mike Scott

Before pushing off the jetty, Wallace picked up three more passengers: Amelia Hope and her friend Rick Goddard — who needed a ride to the Tamarack, moored in Endeavour Inlet — and a single man.

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

On reaching the Tamarack, Wallace found Olivia and Ben, who wanted 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.

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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. As one of the last people to see them alive, Wallace found himself at the centre of one of the biggest news events of the time.

The public and media pressure was unprecedented.

In his interviews with police, he described the mystery man on the water taxi — whom he had also served in the bar earlier — as being unshaven with unkempt, wavy hair.

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

Guy Wallace was the taxi boat driver who delievered Ben Smart and Olivia Hope to their final destination and was a key witness during the court case that convicted Scott Watson. Photo / Mike Scott
Guy Wallace was the taxi boat driver who delievered Ben Smart and Olivia Hope to their final destination and was a key witness during the court case that convicted Scott Watson. Photo / Mike Scott

He was grilled by the detectives from Christchurch CIB. There were suggestions he was somehow responsible for the pair's disappearance, he was 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."

He says 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."

Wallace says the police were dogged in their approach to make an arrest.

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"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."

That month, within days of Christchurch Detective Inspector Rob Pope taking over the inquiry, Scott Watson, then 27, was pinpointed as the prime suspect.

Scott Watson, convicted killer of Ben Smart and Olivia Hope.
Scott Watson, convicted killer of Ben Smart and Olivia Hope.

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

Wallace, the crucial witness, had been shown Scott's photo at least three times. Each time he said Scott was not the mystery man to whom he, along with bar manager Roz McNeilly, had served drinks to at Furneaux Lodge.

Police then showed Wallace a new image of Scott in a montage of eight photographs. In this new photo, Scott was caught halfway through a blink, giving the appearance of hooded eyes. The mystery man had been described as having hooded eyes.

Wallace picked Scott from the "blink" photograph as the single man on the water taxi.
So did McNeilly.

But both qualified the identification by saying the mystery man had facial hair and wavy, unkempt hair. A photograph of Scott Watson, taken on the Mina Cornelia yacht where he partied before heading to Furneaux Lodge, shows him clean-shaven with short hair.

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Neither Wallace or McNeilly were shown this photo of Scott 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 ... to get that shot? Because I mentioned the guy had squinty eyes.

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

McNeilly says she regrets helping the police. "My statement sounds like I have put an innocent man in jail.

Inside the bar at Furneaux Lodge. Photo / Mike Scott
Inside the bar at Furneaux Lodge. Photo / Mike Scott

"Well [the mystery man] had long, scraggy hair. He looked like a sailor. His hair was windblown, he hadn't combed it. It was definitely not short like Scott's, it was longer.

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"The man I served behind the bar wasn't Scott. Your hands are tied and you are trying to do the best you can — but it hasn't helped anyone. In fact I wish I'd said nothing. I would stop and think carefully if I came forward again."

The photograph 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.

According to IPCA chairwoman Justice Lowell Goddard, the various failures to adhere to the law and police manuals "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, for the prosecution case against Scott Watson, the support of Wallace and McNeilly was crucial for his bid for a pardon.

Both 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.

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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.

Wallace conceded 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 Scott, said McDonald, which they did.

In his interview with McDonald, Wallace went further, saying that, if asked in court now, he would categorically deny Scott 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.

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And though Wallace's identification of Scott 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 Blade. But picking Scott from the photo montage, for Wallace, feels like he put an innocent man behind bars. He's angry about the photo. He's angry about the ketch, which police say did not exist. And he has his suspicions about who the "real killer" is — although he's too afraid to name them, even privately.

So for 20 years, Wallace has felt anger and guilt. Not just over Scott, but also Ben and Olivia. "I wish I never dropped them on that ketch."

Endeavour Inlet. Photo / Mike Scott
Endeavour Inlet. Photo / Mike Scott

And he has a message for the mystery man: "These people need their kids laid to rest. If you have done something with them. Be a man and grow a set."

Chris Watson has salt in his veins. He inherited a passion for sailing from his dad and passed it on to his son.

When Scott was growing up, Chris 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 that made him a prime target when Ben and Olivia disappeared.

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

Before Scott was charged he had planned to sail overseas.

He had to register his boat but found it hard finding a name that was original. He chose Caligula, and Mad Dog but Blade stuck.

Chris Watson has kept Blade, even though people associate it with the murders. And he believes Scott is innocent — so why would he get rid of it? Blade is Scott's boat and Chris 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, until recently it was the only yacht Chris had to sail.

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Not that he's sailing much these days. Chris turned 70 in March and retired a few weeks ago.

He finds it easier to propel Blade through the clear, blue waters of the Marlborough Sounds using the noisy diesel motor.

The softly spoken father sitting at the stern with his hand on the tiller is still fighting to clear his son's name.

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

His mother, Beverley, died of leukaemia five years ago. She did the "fluffy, emotional stuff" in interviews, says Chris, who is keen to avoid being painted as a biased parent.

"I don't believe [Scott] has it in him to do that — but I am not going to go down the track of being the emotional parent who is going to back his son no matter what." He prefers to focus on the evidence.

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"I know he didn't [kill them]," says Chris, 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
common sense."

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

It was here, 20 years ago on New Year's Day 1998, that Scott arrived on the same boat, in the same sailing conditions. According to the Crown case, he came to disguise Blade with a new paint job after disposing of Ben and Olivia's bodies in Cook Strait.

A Cook Strait Ferry arrives into Picton. Photo / Mike Scott
A Cook Strait Ferry arrives into Picton. Photo / Mike Scott

Then he lied about the time he arrived in Erie Bay.

At first the "Caretaker" — the man who gave Scott the paint for the boat, who has name suppression — told police that Scott 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 Scott was not in Erie Bay until 5pm.

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This fitted better with the Crown case. They had a witness claiming to see Scott in 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.
If the sighting of Scott in Cook Strait at 4.30pm was true, says Chris, there's no way Blade could get to Erie Bay by 5pm. They've tested the trip — something police have never done — in similar conditions and it took two hours 30 minutes to cover the 11 nautical miles.

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

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

And many other "sinister" strands in the prosecution case had mundane explanations, he says.

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

Consistent with a scrubbing brush, says Chris. And some of these marks were on parts of the hull it was impossible for a body to rub against.

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

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

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

Then there are the jailhouse confessions Scott purportedly gave to secret witnesses.

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"Secret Witness A" recanted his testimony in 2000, saying he'd lied, retracted his recantation when re-interviewed by police, then recanted his retraction.

Scott 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 Scott told him, a virtual stranger, about murdering Ben and Olivia.

The pair never shared a cell, the confession was allegedly through a peephole, and — despite claims to the contrary — "Secret Witness B" received a phone and car from police.

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

Waikawa Bay in Picton. Photo / Mike Scott
Waikawa Bay in Picton. Photo / Mike Scott

Most evocative of all was the scratching of rubber material inside the forward hatch. The Crown said this was evidence of Olivia desperately clawing at the hatch to escape her killer, Scott Watson.

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

The defence has always maintained Scott's nieces scratched the hatch.

Chris 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."

Which leaves the two blonde hairs, found on a blanket with a tiger pattern retrieved from Scott'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 Scott 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.

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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 sample.

The circumstances of the examination raise the possibility of accidental contamination.

But a new report — by forensic scientist Sean Doyle, commissioned by the Watsons — questions whether the hairs even belonged to Olivia.

Doyle's 22-page report says 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."

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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 Scott Watson — or possibly another dead end.

"I'm feeling tired. It would be really nice to see an end to this," says Chris, 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."

• See the full digital feature at nzherald.co.nz/murderinthesounds

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