The case against Scott Watson
Twenty years ago, journalist Andi Brotherston was on duty in TV3’s Wellington newsroom when Ben Smart and Olivia Hope went missing from the Marlborough Sounds. She covered the story from start to finish, including the trial of Scott Watson, the man convicted of murdering the young couple. Watson continues to protest his innocence from jail, but Brotherston has little doubt Watson is guilty.
It was a Sunday morning, around 9am, when I called the Blenheim police to find out about the one-paragraph fax they’d sent out, asking for sightings of two young people who had gone missing from Furneaux Lodge four days earlier.
I was put through to the inspector, who confirmed they were still missing but insisted it wasn’t a story. “It’s just a couple of young people who have gone off on a holiday fling and have forgotten to call their parents.” I asked if my name and number could be passed to the parents anyway.
Less than five minutes later the phone rang. It was Gerald Hope. He asked us to come over and do the story. He knew something was wrong. I’ll never forget the desperation in his voice.
We’re all familiar with what happened next. Ben Smart, 21, and Olivia Hope, 17, never came home. Scott Watson was convicted of their murders and sentenced to life in prison, with a minimum parole period of 17 years.
I covered the story for TV3 from the very beginning to the very end and was one of the 13 journalists on the media bench who sat through the entire trial. Unlike the jury, we didn’t have to keep an open mind. In fact, at the beginning of the trial most of us thought the Crown was on a hiding to nothing and Watson would walk.
It took three months to present and test the evidence and at the conclusion, the jury returned a unanimous guilty verdict. While the jury deliberated, we conducted an anonymous poll of the media bench. Twelve of us believed Watson was guilty, one wasn’t convinced.
Campaigners chip away
Watson’s almost run out of options to overturn his conviction. But his campaigners continue to chip away at the public’s confidence in the police investigation by selectively re-litigating the case.
Some of the key evidence has been cited out of context so often it has become misleading, while other evidence that undoubtedly influenced the jury has long been forgotten.
It seems relevant to re-introduce background information and context that was presented in court.
There is ongoing debate about whether the ketch that water taxi driver Guy Wallace says he dropped Ben, Olivia and the Mystery Man off at, after a night of partying at Furneaux Lodge, ever existed.
This is important because although Scott Watson’s yacht was moored in the exact place Wallace dropped Ben and Olivia, Watson had a single-masted sloop not a double-masted ketch. The focus of this circular discussion has centred on the validity of the endless ketch sightings from New Year’s Day onwards.
But in the end, what proved that the ketch didn’t exist was the absence of sightings of it on New Year’s Eve. There were no reports, witness accounts or evidence that could answer the following questions:
—When did it arrive in Endeavour Inlet?
—Where did it sail from?
—Where did it moor or anchor on New Year’s Eve?
—Where are the witnesses who saw it before New Year’s Day?
—Of the thousands of photos police collected from the 1500-plus people at Furneaux Lodge that night, why wasn’t there one single photo of it?
There were more than 100 boats moored off Furneaux Lodge that night – most of them skippered by their owners or experienced boaties.
If anyone was going to notice this distinctively ornate ketch then it would have been those boaties. Police interviewed all of them. None of them did.
Several reported seeing a very similar boat – a ketch-rigged scow anchored off the Furneaux jetty which was ruled-out early in the investigation. No-one saw the ketch.
Wallace described a 40-foot ketch with brass portholes and ornate roping – a beautiful yacht. If it sailed in and sat off Furneaux it would have been seen. It would be like a 1965 Mustang convertible in mint condition sitting amongst the Toyotas, Hondas and Suzukis on the lot at Turners car auctions. Sure, some car-buyers wandering through wouldn’t notice it but classic car lovers would. They'd probably photograph it too – just as the boaties in Furneaux Lodge that night would have.
Even if the ketch slipped in after dark, there were people moving around all night – between vessels, to and from the Lodge, and sitting on their boats until 4am – but no one saw it.
Ketch mystery deepens
Further, Wallace reported dropping Ben and Olivia and the Mystery Man to a vessel that was in a raft of three yachts. All the moorings off Furneaux Lodge were in use that night, so some shared a mooring by tethering to each other – a technique known as ‘rafting up’.
That means Ben, Olivia and the Mystery Man were dropped off at a yacht that was tied up and adjacent to another yacht, and that yacht was tied up and adjacent to another. Boats are closely connected in a raft – you can climb over the railings from one to the other.
Yet, no skipper, or indeed any of those on-board any of the vessels, saw the ketch arriving or reported being asked by the ketch to raft up at any stage during the night.
What this means is that Guy Wallace was the only person who saw this ketch before Ben and Olivia disappeared.
Now, here’s the key thing about Wallace’s description of the ketch.
In his first interview with police on January 3, before the relationship between Wallace and the police broke down, police asked him to draw the yacht. In the sketch in this story, Wallace writes the words “38-40 foot ketch?” (note the question mark and the word ketch is underlined twice).
That indicates that on January 3 he wasn’t sure if it was a ketch or not. He drew two masts on the yacht – one taller than the other. Wallace recalled seeing two masts but he wasn’t sure, or couldn’t remember, whether they were both on the same yacht or if the second mast belonged to the adjacent yacht in the raft.
So, crucially, on January 3, Wallace drew a yacht, but wasn’t sure if it was a ketch or a sloop. He describes it as being blue and white, with portholes and lots of rope.
That’s it. End of description. That was all the detail he could remember.
Wallace becomes more certain
In subsequent police interviews, Wallace adds more detail, including the brass portholes and ornate roping, and becomes adamant it was a ketch.
Why did Wallace embellish the details during each interview and become more certain, rather than less certain of his description, over time?
I spent a few hours with Wallace in early 1998. He was deeply affected by Ben and Olivia’s disappearance. It consumed him. Even though it wasn’t his fault in any way, I think he felt personally responsible for helping them into the hands of their killer.
I also think he desperately wanted to help police find Ben and Olivia, by trying to remember details of the yacht. By replaying the night over and over in his mind, he appears to have transposed a lot of the detail onto the ketch from the elaborate ketch-rigged scow.
In January 1998, Wallace was under sustained scrutiny from police. He was also subject to unrelenting pressure from the national media, while heinous rumours spread like wildfire around Blenheim and Picton about him that were deeply distressing to him and his parents.
Few people have endured that inner circle of hell. The stress is unimaginable – it’s no surprise he may have got it wrong.
Repainting the sloop
The significance of Watson repainting his sloop in early January is often dismissed by people saying that Watson wouldn’t have been stupid enough to paint it the same colour as the ketch police were looking for. That statement is silly in the extreme, for several reasons:
—When Watson painted his sloop, on January 1 or 2, the police weren’t looking for a ketch. They weren’t even looking Ben and Olivia by then.
—The first description of the ketch wasn’t released until well after Watson finished the painting.
—Watson knew there were lots of photographs taken at Furneaux Lodge that evening and eventually one would emerge of his yacht. He would have expected it to be described as ‘brown and white’ not ‘blue and white’.
—Watson was given the paint, so he didn’t have a choice of colour anyway.
Olivia’s hair on Watson’s blanket
There was only one piece of physical evidence in the Crown case – but it was a show-stopper. DNA tests of two long blonde hairs found on a blanket recovered from Scott Watson’s sloop were highly likely to have been Olivia Hope’s. This put Olivia in Watson’s sloop – powerful evidence of Watson’s guilt.
The defence drew the jury’s attention to a one-centimetre snip in the corner of an evidence bag containing samples of Olivia’s hair required for DNA matching.
While it was theoretically possible for evidence to escape, the snip was tiny and it seemed unlikely.
It was of little consequence at the time but much continues to be made of this. The snip became a rip and then a hole. Now the suggestion is that the scientist was working with the sample bag while standing over the evidence (the blanket) and Watson was a victim of forensic incompetence.
Suggesting a forensic scientist would carelessly breach basic protocol to prevent evidence contamination is the same as suggesting a surgeon would forget to scrub before an operation.
It’s beyond stupid.
Evidence of guilt
Only the members of the jury will ever know what convinced them all of Watson's guilt, but there were a couple of compelling things that must have influenced them.
What Watson didn't do or didn't say, rather than what he did, is likely to have played a part in their decision-making. Watson’s behaviour often seemed inconsistent with innocence.
When Watson was first interviewed by police he lied about what he was wearing on New Year’s Eve. Later, photos emerged of him in totally different clothing than he’d described to police. He was pictured in a chambray shirt and denim jeans. Police asked him to bring those items into the station. He didn’t.
He told police he couldn’t find them because he’d moved around a lot and they could be at quite a few different places.
The context is this: If you were innocent and had nothing to hide, you’d find the clothes. If you were innocent, had become the prime suspect and were going down for a double murder, you’d go to the ends of the earth to find those clothes. The Crown alleged Watson didn’t want his clothes to be found and tested forensically.
Bugged phone calls
The phone calls police intercepted and recorded between Watson and his former girlfriend was the evidence that appeared to slam the cell door shut.
It’s also evidence that only those in court have ever heard in full – it’s been forgotten, yet it’s the most compelling.
Police recorded 70-plus hours of Watson’s phone conversations and during that time they regularly fed Watson’s former girlfriend questions to ask.
Both the prosecution and defence had full access to the tapes and both sides could have used them to support their case. Only the prosecution did. The court listened to 40 minutes of edited conversations secretly recorded across several months.
My opinion was that Watson’s manner was odd. It was unnerving. The word that I keep coming back to is ‘smug’. The whole thing seemed like a game to him.
His responses to her questions were rehearsed or fudged. He toyed with her and obfuscated.
As the tape played, it became increasingly clear we were listening to a man completely devoid of compassion.
Lack of denial
But what was really striking was his lack of denial. He never once said: “I didn’t do it.”
At the time, this was glaring and telling. It seemed profoundly important to me and I doubt it was lost on the jury.
My thoughts on this were reinforced recently when I read about the CIA’s ‘spy the lie’ programme. It’s an international best-practice tool, used by law enforcement agencies all over the world to identify lies/liars during interviews with crime suspects.
The CIA has identified ‘failure to deny’ as a key indicator of guilt.
Former CIA agent Susan Carnicero says: “The most important thing to an innocent person is to deny they did something; the truth is their biggest ally.”
So, in summing up, no matter how the case continues to be selectively re-litigated, I believe Watson was found guilty for one very good reason – because he is guilty.
Andi Brotherston was Communications Manager in Auckland for the New Zealand Police between 2002 and 2004.
Newsroom is powered by the generosity of readers like you, who support our mission to produce fearless, independent and provocative journalism.