Andrew L. Urban.
Eleven years ago this month, at 12.10pm on Friday, January 28, 2009, a day after her partner Bob Chappell had disappeared from their yacht, Four Winds, Sue Neill-Fraser began making a Statutory Declaration at her Allison Street home in Hobart. It contained information – clues – that would have been useful to the police investigation, but were ignored. Read it below.
The shock of it all – her loving partner of 18 years had disappeared, perhaps … probably … hurt, their new dream yacht was damaged and sinking, … her world suddenly empty and uncertain. But she had always been undemonstrative, calm and reserved. There was no hysteria or weeping. Maybe there should have been.
At her trial in September/October 2010 for murdering Bob, her undemonstrative nature was made to seem like she was a cold and calculating woman, who had no feelings for Bob. At one stage her defence lawyer objected to the prosecutor framing a question that way, telling the judge: “what the jury are going to be asked is no doubt to form some opinion that the accused is a harsh woman, uncaring, because this witness (a crew member) didn’t see her showing any obvious emotion about her partner being in hospital,” (for chronic nosebleeds on the yacht while sailing down from Queensland.)
The Stat Dec was standard procedure. She had not requested to be accompanied by a lawyer. She had no concerns that she would need a lawyer. No one, not the police, had then thought Chappell had been murdered. No one, not the police, imagined Neill-Fraser was a murderer. Her straight black hair and upper middle class presentation, a steady small business with her horses and her middle class circle of friends all spoke silently of a woman who never stepped out of line.
That Stat Dec was presented at her trial on October 1, 2010. It should never have got to court; the statement contains enough raw information to establish that strangers had been aboard the yacht. The police missed the value of the information completely. Or ignored it. The DNA found on the deck of Four Winds, later matched to a homeless 15 year old girl, was hard evidence that seemed to correlate with Neill-Fraser’s statement. It was a significant piece of forensic evidence. It was dismissed at trial by DPP Tim Ellis SC as a ‘red herring’.
But such clues led former ace detective Colin McLaren to a group of thieves who were never – but should have been – considered persons of interest in the police investigation. What happened to Bob Chappell? “In a nutshell, a yacht break and enter that went horribly wrong,” he writes in his book that details his own research into the case for his book, Southern Justice (Hachette), published last year. “On the day Bob went missing, Sandy Bay locals told police about their boats being broken into and their dinghies stolen in the days and weeks preceding Bob’s disappearance.
* Neill-Fraser’s Stat Dec, witnessed by Detective Sergeant Simon Conroy of TasPol:
My full name is Susan Blyth Neill-Fraser. This is the second statement I have made regarding the disappearance of my partner, Robert Adrian Chappell. This statement is regarding my observations from viewing my vessel, the Four Winds, last evening. At the request of police I attended the vessel, which was moored at Constitution Dock 27/1/09. I noticed a number of things which were not as I knew them to have been left or that were in my opinion highly unusual.
These are – At the back of the boat it appeared to be the gate had been lifted off and pulled back quickly with the bottom latch out of its seat. Having been on the boat in heavy weather and the gate not moving this had to have been purposely moved in my opinion.
At the entrance to the wheelhouse there was new damage to the running board which supports the sliding hatch or the framework around the hatch. The damage appeared to be from a rope being under load and running over the timber work. The green self pearling sheet (rope) should have been tied up in storage at the back of the boat instead it was tied around the winch on the rear mast and had been cut. Secondly, the green main mast boom sheet (rope) should have been in a rope bag to the right of the cabin entrance instead it was on the deck and appeared to have been threaded off the winch. From the damage to the timber work it appeared that this was the cause –
The next points noticed were at the main mast. A black sheet (rope) was out of place. It should have been in a locker at the back left of the boat which was attached to a cleat at the mast, the rope had been freshly cut and a substantial length of it is missing. Secondly, at this point there is a red sheet slightly thinner than the black it had also been cut. It was attached to the smaller winch at the front of the mast; in place was a winch handle. This winch handle should have been stored either in a basket on the rear wall of the wheelhouse or in the locker at the rear of the vessel.
Observations from within the vessel are as follows –
As you enter the wheelhouse on the right we had mounted a new EPIRB, it is a 406 and registered to our vessel, the EPIRB was mounted by Bob. He knew how to properly remove it from its bracket. The release tab was broken from the bracket. To do this the EPIRB must have been forcefully pulled away from the bracket –
Next moving into the saloon I immediately noticed that the flooring was missing. This would not have floated free when the vessel flooded, it had to have many screws taken out to lift it up. Bob knew that this was a difficult job and had no reason to remove the floor. I’m sure he would not have removed the flooring. In the hole left were two screwdrivers, these were from our toolkit. The floor is covered by carpeted pieces. There were around eight square pieces of carpet which were square pieces. The spare pieces were possibly stored in the laundry. Just before the laundry door was a mounted fire extinguisher. This fire extinguisher was an older style, it was bracketed in place and I think out of commission. Rather than worry about it we simply purchased newer and lighter extinguishers for the vessel. This particular extinguisher was very heavy. It was secured in place and again had survived rough seas on our journey from Queensland so I knew it – so I know it hasn’t come loose in the flood – there was obvious damage to the pipe leading from the seacock to the toilet.
This pipe had been cut through – from the galley I cannot locate two knives, a Wiltshire knife is missing, this would have had a round with a six to seven inch blade. It was originally mine, have had it a long time. Another similar knife is also missing. I remember when I went to the boat on Monday we ate some fruit cake. I used one of these knives to cut the cake. I can’t exactly recall if I passed the knife through to the wheelhouse from the galley and cut the cake there or if I sliced the cake in the galley. I will recognize this knife again, they came with the boat – I believe a fire extinguisher may be missing, I’m sure there were three on board but I only think I saw two when I was looking last night – regarding the electrical circuitry we were paranoid about the boat being damaged or sinking, we always checked the circuit boards to make sure that the switches were correctly positioned.
The circuit breakers for the bilge pumps were always to be positioned in the on position and bilges on automatic. If the circuit breakers were off the bilges would not work. Bob would absolutely not turn off the circuit breakers for the bilges off. I cannot think of any circumstance where he would turn them off. When I left Bob on the vessel I took the tender dinghy, this was usual practice. Bob did not like to have to get in and out of the dinghy unless totally necessary. It was usual practice for me to take the dinghy. It was simply Bob’s preference that this is the way it was done. Bob was not terribly nimble about the boat or the tender dinghy, it was actually safer for me to take the dinghy than for him to operate it by himself and try to get aboard the bigger boat. The actual location I tied the tender to was outside the Royal Hobart Yacht Club. It was near a steel ladder from the dock in the area where the Royal have their small club yachts on moorings. I am now sure I secured the dinghy properly with three knots.
Bob and my financial arrangements were largely separate. We often transferred money between bank accounts. As Bob was the primary income earner he would transfer five hundred dollars per fortnight to me for our living expenses. Costs for the boat we split fifty fifty. Sometimes one paid in full and the other reimbursed. The EPIRB on the boat came with the boat, it was new and still in the box when we picked it up. Bob mounted it. I registered it last week with AMSA via the internet.
Further thought has been given to my timings on the 26/1/09. We firstly went to the yacht in the morning about 9:00am. We had a cup of tea and cake for morning tea. This was around 10:00am to 10:30am. I returned home at about 11:00am to 11:30 and had a shower. Time from then on is difficult as my mobile phone is the only source of time and I left it with Bob. Anne, Bob’s sister and I went to the Royal Hobart Yacht Club for lunch. Lunch was not being served so we had a drink and a pie there. We then took photos on the dock. I then drove Anne home at around 1:00.
I then returned to Marieville Esplanade. The wind was getting up and I thought I’d better get to the boat and see if Bob wanted to leave the boat. When I got to the tender the outboard was buried and I needed help getting it free. This was near the rowing club, a different position from the Royal where I later tied it. The wind was up and the chop got me very wet. I tied the tender up to the side of the boat, the leeward side, which was the right hand side. I did not stay onboard very long. Bob was a bit snappy. I was of the opinion Bob could have come off the boat due to the weather. Bob had checked the chart and said the wind would drop out and said he had decided to stay on the boat. In the end I left him the mobile. I asked if I should pick him in the morning for work. He said he may not even go to work. So I left it at that and thought he would ring me if he wanted. I was sure he would change his mind later and call me to get him.
Given the wind, I decided not to take the tender to Marieville Esplanade, I decided to take it to the Royal Yacht Club where it would be easily managed. From tying it up I went to Bunnings Hardware on the Brooker then came home. Anne was not home by then, as it was getting late. Anne had gone to Bruny Island for the night. She was being picked up after 4 pm I am sure when I got home it was starting to get dark. I stayed out at Bunnings for a long time. I did not buy anything but browsed. I drove our Ford Falcon Station wagon. I stayed alone at home that night. I made several phone calls and received a call from Richard King over some family matters. It was ten thirty pm when I got off the phone. The following morning I was notified that the Four Winds was sinking by the police radio room. I then went to Sandy Bay.
Sue Neill-Fraser made this statement the day after the Four Winds was found to be slowly taking water, Bob Chappell missing. A detective worth his or her salt would have seen the value of the information to the investigation.
1 – Neill-Fraser’s description of damage to the boat – the rear gate lifted off, new damage to the running board, disarranged and cut ropes, damage to the timber work, EPIRB release tab broken and the unit forcibly pulled from the bracket, missing flooring, cut pipes, missing knives, bilge pump circuit breakers disarmed – is a clear, multi-pronged clue that stranger/s had caused the damage.
2 – The apparent violence that caused some of the damage is a clue to the nature of the stranger/s; aggressive and/or drunk, perhaps. (It was the tail end of Australia Day, the Hobart Regatta and Chinese New Year.)
3 – The difficult task of removing some of the flooring, using two screwdrivers abandoned at the scene, is a clue that the stranger/s were perhaps looking for something. The aggression exhibited could have been caused by a combination of frustration (at not finding it) and alcohol.
4 – Her visit to Bunnings, very clear in her statement made a day later, was dismissed and ridiculed by the prosecution because she wasn’t seen on any of the CCTV cameras at the store. She lied, prosecutor Ellis said – he said it several times. Bunnings was mentioned dozens of times during the trial. As if it mattered. He treated her claim as if it were a claim for an alibi, which it clearly was not. But he planted that seed in the jury’s mind as part of the character assassination that was central to the Crown’s case. The prosecution’s case actually suggested that Sue Neill-Fraser returned to Four Winds around midnight to execute her plan to murder Bob Chappell.
5 – Taken as a whole, the statement can not be reconciled with the illogical and unproven proposition put to the jury that she murdered Chappell, damaged their new yacht and tried to sink it, on the night of January 26/27, 2009.
Instead of properly assessing and following up these clues, the police acted in direct contradiction of them and soon focused on Neill-Fraser as their only suspect. They finally arrested her on August 10, 2009. It took over a year to get to court, while she was on remand in jail.
At the trial, Det. Sgt. Conroy gave the following evidence under examination by DPP Tim Ellis SC, about Neill-Fraser’s inspection of Four Winds in the company of Conroy, on the afternoon of January 27 – the very day the disappearance was discovered, when the police considered it a mystery not a murder.
ELLIS: Did she note anything about the floor?
CONROY: She did. The floor was – like only – the floor wasn’t screwed – wasn’t down to the ground it was opened it, there were holes – boards had been lifted up and she stated that they should have been screwed down and that her partner, Mr Chappell, wouldn’t have done that, wouldn’t have unscrewed them.
ELLIS: Did someone talk about drugs being on board or a possibility of it?
CONROY: Yes. It was mentioned to me in my initial briefing that the vessel had possibly been entered on two occasions, at least two occasions previously. Whilst down in the saloon the accused made mention of the break-ins and possible relationship to it. It was apparent to her that something heavy may have been lifted out. And that she believed it was drug smugglers and that Mr Chappell may have been on board when they came back to the boat.
In the preceding 20 months, the police had spent enormous effort and resources (including bugging the Neill-Fraser house) investigating her, without any clues having been found pointing to her as the murderer.