Andrew L. Urban.
At around 6 minutes from the start of the final episode of Undercurrent (7 Network, Wednesday, March 6, 2019), a nervy Meaghan Vass arrives for a crucial tell-all interview with Colin McLaren in a Hobart hotel room, cameras rolling. She almost immediately turns round and tells McLaren she’s going out to her ‘family’ for 10 minutes “just so I can get a quick thing to calm me down.” In a nutshell, this moment captures the essential drama at the heart of the documentary series investigating the 2009 Bob Chappell murder – of which Sue Neill-Fraser has been convicted: getting a terrified Vass to tell the whole truth.
It was then homeless 15 year old Meaghan Vass’ DNA that was found on the yacht after Chappell had disappeared overnight on January 26/27, 2009, but it was not until March the following year that the match of the sample popped up in the DNA database, after
she had been arrested for an unrelated matter. By then, Chappell’s partner of 18 years, Sue Neill-Fraser, had been arrested for his murder and was on remand, awaiting trial. Yet, as we now know, the unidentified DNA was ignored but even the match to Vass didn’t propel the police or the DPP to re-examine their case against Neill-Fraser. (Trick question 1: What do TasPol do when they find a strong DNA deposit of an intruder at a crime scene? Answer: Nothing. Trick question 2: What does the Tasmanian DPP call such a DNA deposit? Answer: a red herring.)
The Hobart hotel meeting had been excruciatingly difficult to set up (as we saw in earlier episodes) and everyone was on edge. It was to be the culmination of the investigation, in which Vass would tell McLaren face to face what she had already told him by phone – what actually happened on the yacht that day.
A reasonable person could well form the view from the manner of Vass’ highly strung, almost hysterical behaviour and her words – and her evident anguish about the fate of Sue Neill-Fraser – that she does know what happened but is torn and terrified about disclosing it. Of whom she is more afraid, the police (who seem to be protecting their case, not seek the truth) or the underworld assailants from the yacht, Vass doesn’t say.
The filmmaking team (pictured: Colin McLaren and Eve Ash) continue to seek a statement from Vass that confirms her presence at the crime scene, complete with her signature – to be witnessed by solicitor Jeff Thompson. The episode – like the rest of the series – comes across as a combination of day-to-day real life crime investigation and personal crusade, run by filmmaker Eve Ash, Neill-Fraser’s most fervent advocate for justice, aside from the family.
TasPol detectives have seen all the footage. (Trick question 3: What have TasPol done now in the wake of the conviction, having found new leads, new information, all on camera? Answer: Charge or threaten to charge those who collected the information, but take no action to use the information in re-examining the case.)
The episode also records how the filmmaking team – accompanied by acclaimed Melbourne barrister Robert Richter QC – who back on May 11, 2017 delivered a 50 page dossier of their findings (and the basis for Undercurrent) to Tasmania’s top politicians responsible for the law – Premier Will Hodgman, Tasmania’s Acting Attorney-General Matthew Groom and Solicitor-General Michael O’Farrell. (Trick question 4: What do these leaders do with the information? Answer: You won’t believe it…)
The questions raised by Episode 6 – and indeed the whole series – will continue to reverberate around Tasmania’s legal system until answered. And the story of the case continues …
By fateful coincidence, this final episode will go to air (except in Tasmania) just about the time that Justice Brett delivers his ruling on Neill-Fraser’s seeking leave to appeal. One way or another, the bells are ringing for a reckoning. The end is nigh for all concerned, from Neill-Fraser’s hopes of a full – and successful – appeal to TasPol’s reputation.
It would not surprise if the called-for Royal Commission – a call which this series does much to turbocharge – views Undercurrent footage with greater interest in the search for the truth than TasPol ever did.