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.’ ”