Sue Neill-Fraser – evidence went missing

Andrew L. Urban.

It wasn’t only direct, probative evidence of Sue Neill-Fraser’s guilt that was missing in the case that has convulsed Tasmania and concerned the nation. According to Colin McLaren’s new book, Southern Justice (Hachette), evidence went missing during and after the police investigation

In the chapter Interpol, On the Run, Colin McLaren writes: “Each day was filled with searching for and sifting through records, files and court documents to find missing evidence.” Or find that evidence has ‘disappeared’.

To understand the importance of the missing evidence, it is useful to know the context, the basics of the case:

Susan Blyth Neill-Fraser is an Australian from Hobart, Tasmania, who was arrested and charged with murder on August 20, 2009. In October 2010, she was tried and convicted of the January 26, 2009 (Australia Day) murder of her partner Bob Chappell on board their yacht, Four Winds, anchored on the Derwent river in Sandy Bay, Hobart. Chappell’s body has never been found, no murder weapon was produced at her trial, there were no eyewitnesses and there is no forensic evidence linking Neill-Fraser to the murder.

She and Bob Chappell, her partner of 18 years, had brought their jointly owned Four Winds down from Queensland to Hobart just a month earlier. It was a retirement dream.

LEFT: Sue Neill-Fraser pictured on Australia Day, shortly before the prosecution claimed she murdered Chappell.

Her 2012 application for leave to appeal to the High Court was refused. Neill-Fraser’s lawyers wished to recall then 15 year old homeless girl Meaghan Vass (pictured below), whose DNA was found on the yacht, and whose testimony at trial was found to be misleading. The DPP argued that the DNA was ‘a red herring’ and she had never been on the yacht; her DNA was probably transferred onto the deck on the boot of a policeman. Neither the jury nor the appeal court nor the High Court were made aware that the DNA sample came from a pool of fluid about the size of a pancake.

According to the witness who lived in a car on the foreshore at the time of the murder, Stephen Gleeson, Vass was carrying a bag that Gleeson thought contained food.  McLaren joins the dots: “This dovetails with the burglary in Blackmans Bay that same night, when seafood and alcohol were stolen. The police report of this incident was the one in which someone had tried to obliterate the name ‘Megan’. (It’s worth recalling in this context the vomit found in the laundry of Four Winds, samples of which were taken by a forensic scientist for toxicology examination. The samples went missing.”

McLaren identifies another piece of missing evidence, relating to 15 March 2010, when the police investigation was in full swing:

“Maverick’s (pseudonym for the lead detective) next request was for information on calls to and from Meaghan Vass’s mobile phone number. This time, rather than ‘information purposes’, he gave ‘murder’ as the reason for his inquiry. The authorising officer for this request was Inspector Peter Powell, the head of the task force that charged Sue Neill-Fraser with the murder of Bob Chappell. While this frantic search for information about Meaghan was happening, Neill-Fraser was on remand and awaiting trial. Maverick made more requests for information throughout 15 March 2010. Each time, ‘murder’ was cited as the offence being investigated.

“In the file there was also a photocopy of a notebook page dated 15 March, which may have been taken from Maverick’s notebook – it’s impossible to say. The entire entry has been obliterated. All the evidence was pointing towards numerous potential suspects in the death of Bob Chappell.

“Maverick heard back about Meaghan’s phone records. There were ‘10 raised’ results. What were those results? They don’t appear on the file. Who did Meaghan ring, and who rang her around the time of Bob Chappell’s death?”

“Chris Dobbyn, the marine surveyor looking after the insurance broker’s interests, has overseen the response to hundreds of yacht disasters. He also went on board the crippled Four Winds. He recalled seeing a fresh rope burn on the inside surface (the lining wall) of the skylight hatch above the blood-stained lounge suite. It was so fresh that the rope mark appeared white against the tan-stained surface of the lining wall. This is another observation that supports my theory that Bob’s body was hauled through the hatch using a rope. This rope burn was photographed, but didn’t feature in police analysis of the crime scene.”

“Inside the saloon, above the blue lounge suite and about a metre or so above floor level, there were unexplained scuff marks on the wall, way too high above floor level for any normal behaviour. This was near to the barometer and wall clock, where the rope dangled into the saloon. There were fingerprints, too, at the same height. Yet there is no analysis report on these prints. The fingerprints and scuff marks were photographed by police; however, they withheld this information – more than fifty images – from Sue Neill-Fraser’s defence team until 2017when I got to view all the police images.”

And sometimes, it was a case of ignoring evidence before it could hurt the prosecution’s narrative that targeted Sue Neill-Fraser:

“Gleeson voiced his frustration at the way his evidence had been repeatedly ignored: in 2009, when he walked into Hobart Police Station a couple of weeks after Bob’s disappearance and told a policewoman that he suspected his best mate, Pablo (pseudonym), was involved in his murder; and in his 2012 police interview with Detective Inspector Powell, when he repeated this belief. He was blunt. ‘The purpose of the interview [in 2012] is to twist it [his evidence] around … it clearly shows that it was corrupt and designed to stop me from telling the court what I’m telling them now … I’d call the interview a threat … an attempt to scare me off from this case.’ ”


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31 Responses to Sue Neill-Fraser – evidence went missing

  1. Many decades ago I was involved in a failed rescue of a 22 year old girl who had been blown of a jetty in Wellington harbour ,at night. A man was in the water supporting her. There were 10 men available, the electric winches and derricks of a ship, the Harbour Masters rescue boat and an ambulance on stand by. You would think we could lift the girl out of the water. After 1 hour the girl had drowned , the rescue boat had sunk, the man in the water was close to death from the cold. If you think a woman could lift a body through a hatch using a hand operated winch at night ….you must be either a half wit or the DPP.

  2. Tony Lucas says:

    I am puzzled by the last paragraph in the article that was copied from Southern Justice.

    The implication is that Police ignored Gleeson repeatedly “in 2009, when he walked into Hobart Police Station a couple of weeks after Bob’s disappearance and told a policewoman that he suspected his best mate, Pablo (pseudonym), was involved in his murder; and in his 2012 police interview with Detective Inspector Powell, when he repeated this belief.”

    How does one overcome the public knowledge that in 2016, Gleeson provided an affidavit to Sue Neill-Fraser’s then solicitor, Barbara Etter. The sentencing remarks by the Supreme Court Judge who sentenced Gleeson for the perversion of justice made the following comment:

    “On 13 September 2016 Ms Etter took an affidavit from you in which you confirmed your earlier statements that you were intoxicated on the night of 26 January 2009, and slept in your car on your own. You did not state that you had seen any people that night, or that anyone was in the car with you.”

    The above remark by the Judge is basically in agreement with what Gleeson told Police in 2009 and in 2012. Why did McLaren totally ignore Gleeson’s 2016 affidavit to Sue’s then solicitor?

    • Felix Greenwood says:

      Excellent question (Why did McLaren totally ignore Gleeson’s 2016 affidavit to Sue’s then solicitor?).

  3. Kerry says:

    I lived in Hobart ..Tasmania is a beautiful place but found the mindset of the population in general was dismal. This case all aspects should have been investigated ..circumstancial evidence is a tad similar to the history of burning witches .
    The whole case has so many question marks .It should be taken over by the Australian Government and re trialled.

    • MM says:

      Thanks for the link Aldo. Very informative. I just watched Undercurrent and wondered if the DNA evidence had been tendered yet.

      The court of public opinion says “She lied! Guilty! End of Story!”. However, I have been in the unfortunate situation of being a suspect before (a car accident that police aimed to turn into a criminal offence for no other reason than to appease the public) and all I thought at the time is “Deny or don’t answer until a lawyer is present”.

      It wasn’t until recently that I discovered this only applies in America. Anything you say (or don’t say) to Australian Police can and will be held against you irrespective of the presence/advice of legal counsel. There is a valid reason it is law in America, no? And perhaps this case is a shining example??

      Edwards v R [1993] HCA 63; (1993) 178 CLR 193; at 210 – 211.
      In such a case, the jury should also be instructed that there may be reasons for the telling of a lie apart from a realisation of guilt. It may be told out of panic, to escape an unjust accusation, to protect some other person, or to avoid a consequence extraneous to the offence.
      (Or watching too much American TV?!?!)

      To the public, I would argue Ms Vass lied too – for what reason remains a mystery. She claims she had never boarded the 4W but the presence of her DNA proves she had – or at least had been in the area which she also denied. I’m certainly NOT buying the story that someone stood on Ms Vass’s spit/blood/sweat and walked it all over town then onto the boat.

      As for Neill-Fraser allegedly planting her own DNA as a deliberate ‘red-herring’, I’m not buying that either. She was co-owner of 4W and on board regularly. Handling the winch is part of owning/sailing a yacht. I’d be surprised if they didn’t find her DNA in/on any part of the yacht.

      Even a money motive raises more questions than it answers. It seems they both contributed financially to the purchase, so why would Neill-Fraser agree to buy a yacht if, in her mind, the relationship was over? And, if it is alleged that buying the yacht was part of the murder-plot, why would she put another $40,000 into it? Repairs don’t increase the insured value.

      And lastly, I may have misinterpreted but, I read several news articles reporting that the very person who connected the DNA to its owner was later prosecuted for falsifying this evidence. If the DNA does belong to Ms Vass, which appears to be the case, then how is it “false” evidence?

      • Aldo says:

        Neill-Fraser gave evidence that the yacht had been illegally entered on Jan 10, most likely by Vass which would account for her DNA. My perception is that Vass is a compulsive liar which makes her totally unreliable. It is also clear that Neill-Fraser’s responses to questions by investigators were spurious.

        When one looks at all of the evidence as a whole then it’s not hard to see why the jury found her guilty. The fact that the Supreme Court of Appeal dismissed her appeal and the High Court refused to grant special leave to appeal speaks volumes.

        Emotive responses by armchair critics don’t make her any less guilty. Juries and judges are required to reach a verdict dispassionately and objectively based on the whole of the evidence and in my view justice was served.

      • Andy says:

        The DNA was already known to be Meaghans. And she was prosecuted for trying to cash in the reward money. Threatening to put Meaghan in the boot of a car if necessary

        • MM says:

          I’m pretty sure I made it very clear I was presenting arguments to the armchair critics.

          Section 59 Part 3.4 of the uniform evidence legislation provides: The circumstantial evidence [ie lies as consciousness of guilt] will only be admissible if the guilty explanation is the most plausible explanation.

          If you re-read the Edwards precedent, more-over how it is applied…

          … one can’t help thinking that an equally plausible explanation is that it was a robbery gone wrong.

          If you can’t bring yourself to imagine this as an equally plausible explanation, then you obviously are not familiar with Mariner security and gates or the reasons for such provisions.

      • MM says:

        One more thing… I did find that Australian states do provide that you can refuse to participate with police interrogation until a lawyer is present. Although I have found no cases where this defense served to assist anyone in a meaningful way.

        Again, I have been in the unfortunate situation where calling my lawyer first was seen by the prosecution and the judge as a guilty act.

  4. Geraldine Allan says:

    Gus, increasingly I am ‘curiouser and curiouser’ re the Richard King phonemail, and source of his knowledge. I do not accept any 6th sense or premonition, sayso.

  5. Gus says:

    By todays standards it seems farcical that Sue is even in prison, without anything but circumstantial evidence, it seems highly more probable that 2 males (most likely) boarded the yacht in search of contraband of some description, and not expecting to see anyone on board, so be it the rest is unfortunate history. Also obviously Richard King is a key witness, how do you phone someone to effectively warn them something bad was going to happen on the yacht the not of Bobs disappearance, you were either involved or knew of or even simply overheard something, if someone phoned me at home to warn me my natural instinct would be to go and check on the yacht/Bob also, I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that Tasmania’s murder/solving murder percentage is pretty good I doubt there’s to many unsolved murders down there, my point is sometimes perfect records and success can sometimes blind important facts and maybe even hastily make critical errors, going off what I’ve seen I hope Olivia Newton John has a rock solid alibi or she’ll potentially be behind bars if the Hobart detectives had anything to do with it.

    Good Luck to the families with the investigation, and if we ever figure out how to clone people can Colin McClaren be the first and we’ll put one in each state and territory.

  6. Geraldine Allan says:

    As a general observation, I consider that if I were “Maverick” at this point in matters of issue, I would be carrying a spare pair (or two) of underpants in my pocket.

  7. Peter Innes says:

    As a water person i have problems with any weight given to a fire extinguisher being able to hold a body down for any length of time.The defence should have done a practical test in ocean conditions.Something stinks.

    • Robin Bowles says:

      Yes Peter, this is the fist time I’ve seen this issue raised. Why wasn’t this much-mooted theory tested? During research for my book, Death on the Derwent, out 19 Feb, I emailed more than 100 forensic scientists (members of the Aust Inst.of Forensic Scientists) asking about that very point. The replies were many and varied, but the one that seemed to summarise the argument was from a couple, who ‘argued’ over the concept for hours, they said. In the end they came back to me saying’ ‘Think of a half-empty Coke bottle …’ and also ‘ it would also depend on whether the person was dead or alive, as if unconscious, air in the lungs would have assisted flotation for some period of time’. Another issue is that the tide was still coming IN at around midnight (1.04m for you fisherfolk and weather enthusiasts) and there were NO stars or moon until 4.30am (approx). Black sea, black sky, Mr Hughes (who saw ‘a probable female’ motoring out) must have 20/20 vision! Has his eyesight been checked? So a floating body/fire extinguisher would be carried UP stream at first, then, if still floating, down to the sea when the tide turned. My belief is there was NO fire extinguisher, has any cord/rope/ chicken wire —Triffitt’s evidence!, been found on 4W, other than the usual sheets (ropes)? The reason I say it became obvious to me that disposing of Bob was a ‘2 man job’ was that when I sat in the saloon it was obvious that the steps don’t line up.
      (Photo in my book).
      For Sue to pull Bob up this way would have been a much greater degree of difficulty than a straight haul, especially with Sue’s bad back (documented), body snagging on stuff and in the timeframe allocated. Much easier and plausible for two guys to head and toe him, carry him up and chuck him overboard. The current would have done the rest. Anyway, the extinguisher was a red herring, in my view.
      The prosecution’s OWN TIMETABLE, put to the jury, was that Sue had about 20 minutes (Hughes alleged sighting at midnight, car CCTV heading home at 12.25am) to board 4W to kill Bob, set up the complicated winching device, get him up the companionway, lash him to a fire extinguisher, drop him into dinghy, motor out and toss the body, go back and clean up and scuttle boat, leave dinghy on shore loose, walk to car and drive up Sandy Bay Rd. Impossible and why Gunson didn’t point that out? Who knows? But that’s why three books, a movie and a TV series, none connected with Sue before starting, are ALL asking these questions! (My surname IS Bowles, but I’m no relation, for the record.)

      • Gregory W says:

        A photo doesn’t lie – Photo 7 of the crime shows that the winch on the main mast had a rope going to the skylite hatch. The winch had a handle in it. The body was likely winched through the hatch. One person can do that.

        • Geraldine Allan says:

          Codswallop, in this given situation and the context of overall evidence including but not limited to, all photos.

        • MM says:

          Teehee! A photo doesn’t lie?? Have you not heard the expression “Photoshopped”?? Not that I think this is the case but yeah, photos CAN lie.

          To answer the question: do fire-extinguishers sink or float? I don’t think it’s necessary to go into such detail as given by the experts. Sue isn’t a scientist/expert.

          If she did, indeed, use a fire-extinguisher to weight a body down she only had as much hindsight or knowledge as you or I have. And the fact is: none of us know with any certainty so how could Sue know with any certainty?

          Assuming the extinguisher is completely full (something Sue could not know unless she herself purchased a new one) and that it was not an older style Soda-Acid foam extinguisher (again, Sue could not know one way or the other unless she purchased it), then the simple answer is demonstrated here:

  8. Aldo says:

    Having read the Court of Appeal judgement i really don’t see any probative value in the missing images nor Vass’s DNA. The evidence against Neill-Fraser is compelling and damning. There is no silver bullet that i can glean from any of the points raised in Undercurrent and given McLaren’s comments in the TV investigation i’ll take any revelations with a grain of salt.

    • Craig the sailor says:

      It was pointed out recently that Colin Maclaren’s book doesn’t mention the winch on the main mast that had a winch handle in it and rope going to the skyline hatch. Keep this in mind when watching Undercurrent.

    • Geraldine Allan says:

      Aldo, I am curious as to what in particular in the CCA decision leads you to consider no probative value to the missing evidence?
      My view is that considering the current application before the court as it relates to “fresh & compelling” evidence and how that it interpreted in the legislation, the “revelations” as you above-refer are critical, surely?

      • Aldo says:

        There’s no shortage of unproven speculation by the show’s producer re a number of issues. If the so-called fresh evidence was compelling then the courts would need to re-investigate but that’not the case in my assessment.

  9. Shane Sinnitt says:

    Indicative of how little Colin McLaren and Andrew urban actually know about the truth of the Neill-fraser case, she was charged with the murder in August 2009, so what is all this about march 2010?

    How could two author’s of books on that very case, in all of their research, get that so wrong? Is it deliberate?

    I have not previously read any of these posts, now I know why.

    I won’t bother again either.

    • andrew says:

      Thanks for the note Mr Sinnitt, but I can’t find the error you allege. The DNA found on the yacht was matched to Meaghan Vass in March 2010, when Sue Neill-Fraser was awaiting trial. If that is not correct, please advise.

      • Beverley CJ says:

        What Sinnitt is saying that whatever March 2010 evidence you are talking about is irrelevant to the reason and the evidence on which Sue was charged.

        • Geraldine Allan says:

          I’m confused Beverley since I didn’t interpret the Sinnitt somewhat vague comment as have you.

          In the context of (i) Colin McLaren’s book, (ii) the current application before the Supreme Court, the March 2010 “evidence”, is in my understanding, indeed relevant.

          Furthermore, relating to that date, I find the specified details in the original post alarming, worrying and — in need of serious examination/explanation.

    • Andrea Brown says:

      And maybe because of your last name…. So please explain the lack of interest in Meaghan, discounting wroe and gleeson as anything but drunks. Footprints on the knife and hair and skin in skylight on boat belonging to Bob, or even the DNA on the cloth that was tested yet not put into database. What about all that…. And you are worried about conflicting dates?

  10. LB says:

    Andrew, I attended the High Court for the SNF matter. It was an eye opener. The size /volume of the said DNA deposit (frustratingly) was NOT described. A number of extraneous issues WERE presented when the hearing (as I understand it) was meant to be about a point of law! I am still appalled that this snow – balling scandal has not been fully exposed – despite numerous articles, documentaries and advice from eminent Counsel; where is the transparency, fairness and the requirement to assist the court(s) ? In my view, the whole sorry saga has been plagued by inaccuracies, incompetence and a dogged unwillingness to even consider any review. UNACCEPTABLE.

  11. Garry Stannus says:

    Andrew, with regard to your statement, “Neither the jury nor the appeal court nor the High Court were made aware that the DNA sample came from a pool of fluid about the size of a pancake” :

    The trial transcript records that Debra McHoul said in XNN that the area was “slightly smaller” than 210 by 260 millimetres in size.”

    I had had difficulty with Colin McLaren’s ‘dinner plate’ descriptor for the area of the Vass deposit, and likewise I had thought your “about the size of a pancake” was problematic. That was because I had thought that within the area sprayed with luminol, only some “possible drops” had given a positive reaction. In my mind this was in opposition to describing the area of the Vass deposit as being the size of a ‘dinner plate’.

    However, I have returned to the trial transcript and, after checking the following passage (672 39):

    “Now give me the size of the area that tested positive….Yes, well approximately 210 by 260 was the size of the area that I drew, so the actual area that was posited would be slightly smaller than that.”

    I suggest that the word ‘posited’ which appears in the trial transcript, might actually have been ‘positive’ … which rendition would fit both the context of the question and that of the answer. In either case, however, I now accept that the ‘Vass deposit’ was not just of some apparent drops, but was of an area of approximately 210 x 260 mm which included the “possible drops”.

    Your ‘pancake size’ descriptor, and likewise Colin McLaren’s ‘dinner plate’ are both appropriate.

    I understand – possibly sourced from McLaren’s book – that samples from certain ‘vomit rags’ taken from the Four Winds are now missing, though I think that the actual rags might still be in the possession of the authorities. I believe that the defence sought to have them tested, though I have heard no mention of this having been done.

    Having both heard and read examination of witnesses by counsel, I realise again that such examination and cross-examination is not framed to simply understand the evidence that the witness is giving, rather, it is often designed to ‘corral’ the witness into supporting/destroying the narrative constructed by either counsel.

    In my opinion, our court system is not about establishing the truth, it’s about ‘having a winner’. It’s time, Andrew, for an inquiry, for a Commission to establish that truth, to find out what actually happened. Regardless of what decision Brett J will bring down, and regardless of what an Appeal Court or Retrial Court might find, should Brett allow the application for leave to make a second appeal, we still will need to know what actually happened.

    • andrew says:

      Thank you Garry, fine observations. I suggest that the scientific evidence concerning the size of the deposit was not highlighted. The measurement would have been inconsequential to the jury at the time, unless they were alerted to the significance of its size in the context of the suggestion that it was ‘probably carried aboard on a policeman’s boot’. The High Court should have been asked to refer to this evidence when considering the leave to appeal. If truth is the first casualty in war, it is also the first casualty in an adversarial justice system.

      • Geraldine Allan says:

        Andrew, even if it [“… the DNA sample came from a pool of fluid about the size of a pancake”] had been clarified to the jury — as well it ought have been, I reliably add that having been in a jury room during which somewhat muddled and confused discussion re DNA evidence took place, I can assure you that generally speaking, ordinary members of the public (the jury) find difficulty comprehending the reality of this complex scientific evidence.

        Nevertheless, had it been offered to the jury in plain-speak, as you put it, “… the DNA sample came from a pool of fluid about the size of a pancake”, there is a reasonable possibility it may have been more clearly understood and considered quite differently to how it seems it was at the time of trial.

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