Andrew L. Urban
The broken promise that caused Meaghan Vass to contradict herself in court and damage the appeal against the murder conviction of Sue Neill-Fraser, as revealed by Vass confidante, Andrea (Andy) Brown.
Albert was licking her belly button, a favourite sign of affection that this shiny little sausage dog had developed into a habit. Meaghan Vass was relaxing on the lounge at the suburban Hobart home of her long time friend and supporter, Andy Brown, laughing at being tickled by Albert. Albert and Flojo are the dogs in Andy’s life, to whom she is as loyal as she is to Meaghan Vass.
It was Sunday, February 28, 2021, the evening before Vass was to appear as the key witness in the appeal Sue Neill-Fraser is hoping will overturn her conviction for the murder of her partner Bob Chappell on Australia Day 2009. Vass was ready to testify, confirming what she had stated in a sworn statement provided to the court in July 2020 (sworn in 2019). It echoed her statements to Liam Bartlett on 60 Minutes which aired (except in Tasmania) on March 10, 2019, shortly before Justice Brett gave Sue Neill-Fraser leave to appeal – largely on the Vass testimony.
By the Thursday of that week, with the appeal adjourned and the judges’ decision reserved, when this interview was recorded with Andy Brown, the media had published the names of men who Vass named in court when asked to do so, as her companions on the Four Winds, where she witnessed the fight that led to Chappell’s death. Her testimony to that effect mocks the Crown case at trial, which was the speculation that Neill-Fraser bashed Chappell to death below deck, winched him up, bundled him into the dinghy and dropped him in the Derwent – where he was never found – all on her own. Just like that.
While she is no longer homeless as she was in 2009, Vass is still fragile and frightened – of pretty well everyone. “She’s scared of the people that walk down the street that go, ‘You fucking murderer.’ She’s scared of the people who did do it…their family. And they’re a well-known family around the place. She’s scared of just the ones that she doesn’t see coming. All of it, the community at large. I mean, yes, it was known that people had been named in the 60 Minutes affidavit, but the whole world didn’t know who they were, and now she’s got that to deal with as well. I mean, she’s never, ever confident walking down the street or going anywhere. I mean, she nearly links arms with me everywhere.”
It’s a surprise when Andy says that “over the years, Tas police have never, ever, ever pursued her for questioning. People seem to think that Tas police have questioned her and she’s denied, denied, denied (that she was on the yacht). In actual fact, they’ve never gone near her. They’ve never sat her down and questioned her about it…ever since the trial (in 2010).”
TasPol released a statement on the Monday after 60 Minutes aired (though not in Tasmania), to the effect that Vass had recanted her story as told to the program. That was not true. (As shown in the transcript of her brief appearance in court on a cannabis possession matter on April 18, 2019, in which the prosecutor refers to the police interview where Vass was alleged to have recanted.)
the broken promise
In the lead up to the appeal, Meaghan, Andy and her newly attached lawyer Stuart Wright met. “It was me, him and Meaghan in the room; there was an affidavit from 2012, one from 2019, and all Meaghan said was, “Can you guarantee me, promise me that what’s said in these or mentioned about anything in these and the names will not get out to media and it will be kept in here?” And he said, “I can 100% guarantee it.” He stood there with his one hand on one document, one hand on the other, leaned over the table, he goes, ‘I can 100% guarantee it, Megan.'”
On the Tuesday, March 2, 2021, the Mercury reported on the start of the long awaited appeal, revealing the names in a front page headline ‘SAM DID IT’, Vass was inconsolable and hysterical in the witness box (actually a separate room connected by videolink to the court).
That failure to have the names suppressed was the single biggest mistake, the broken promise that undermined the appeal, by its consequences: Vass was exposed publicly in court and the media (not the same as in a book, perhaps) as the ‘snitch’, in crim terms, which terrified her.
When contacted, Wright declined to comment.
The court issued a suppression order immediately on the Tuesday, but of course, it was too late. Vass, traumatised when facing cross examination by DPP Daryl Coates SC, tried to undo the damage, agreeing to propositions by Coates that made her out to be a liar, her earlier testimony contradicted. No, she did not go on the yacht, no those young men were not with her, no she didn’t remember anything, no she had never been on a yacht …etc.
Police belatedly offered Vass protection services on Thursday, two days after publication of the names.
Nobody had informed Vass in advance that she could not have Andy Brown sit with her in the separate witness room while testifying. It had to be a court sanctioned support person. Someone she had never met. In her ultra fragile state, this simply magnified her fears, adding to the drama. It was playing out on the giant screens around the court, the three judges, the five barristers and their team watching Vass melt down, and the courtroom full of Neill-Fraser supporters aghast. And in the separate media room, the scent of strong copy.
“I had to con her and coax her for a long time and say to her, says Brown, “You’ve just got to do it.” Because she’s yelling and crying and saying, “If there’s no Andy, I’m not doing it, I’m not doing it, I’m not doing it,” for ages. And in the end, I said to her, “Look, the sooner we get this done, the sooner we can leave.” And then I had to promise, I had to leave my handbag, my phone, everything in the room with her, because she thought she was going to open that door, and I was going to be gone, and she wasn’t going to be allowed to leave. Because she’s always been led to believe that she would be locked up if Sue got out. That’s what the police have always told her. “Sue gets out, you’re in.” So therefore she was thinking, “Well, they’ve got me in this room now, now I’m not allowed to have Andy, what if the door doesn’t open? What if I…”
Meaghan had previously confided in Andy, her trusted friend. “She’s told me that everything in that affidavit and on that 60 Minutes stint was true. But she said the only thing she has a problem, she can not remember leaving the boat. She remembers getting to it, the shit that happened on it, but she could not remember how she left or where she went. And she said, “And I’ve tried, and I’ve tried, and I’ve tried,” and it does do her head in.”
Brown has known Vass for some seven years, originally through a bikie, Ronald Mackenzie, known as Sharkie. “I’ve been friends with him for 20 odd years, I would say. And I met her through him when she was scared stiff. Sharkie just said to me, ‘That’s the girl from the subject matter that you’re interested in,’ because I’ve gone to every documentary, I’ve been to the rally things, I’ve just been interested in (the Sue Neill-Fraser case) from the start. I’ve read the 1500 pages from the Supreme Court….
“He sort of said to her, ‘Look, I’ll look after you and make sure nothing happens to you.’ As the years went on, obviously I’ve become quite close to her, but she sees me more as a mum figure than a best mate, if you know what I mean? Anything goes wrong in life, she’ll run to me.”
Perhaps that’s understandable, given the history of Meaghan’s relationship with her mother. Andy recalls one incident as an example: “Sharkie and I organized for her mum to come up to my house just so we could talk shop about maybe getting Megan to a doctor because we thought that they’re always going to bring mental health into any shit with her, and she’s not bonkers, and she’s not crazy, and she’s not drug addled, she’s just scared. And we got her mum up here, and we were all having a lovely little chat and a cup of tea, and then she goes, “Look, you guys are more than willing to help, but I’m over it,” and walked out. “So, that’s where I stand with that,” she adds, in regards to Meaghan’s mother.
Meaghan left home at 13. “She left,” says Andy, “she kept leaving, but there was a bit of an issue with her being sexually assaulted. Family didn’t believe her, she was called a liar and she left. So her relationship with her mother’s always been superficial. I’ll say that.”
Andy always said to her she “would stick by her as far as all this goes, because it needs to be sorted. And I’m not Meaghan’s friend because I want to try and get her off the hook or out of sticky situations, I just know that Sue (Neill-Fraser) didn’t do it, and Meaghan knows, and I just want the outcome that it needs to be. I’m not on anyone’s side, but I’ve formed a relationship with Megan that has made me feel sorry for her, that has made me think I’m not going to leave your side on this.”
As she had wanted to do in court. Had she been allowed to remain by Vass’ side during the cross examination, Andy reckons Meaghan would have responded differently. “Definitely. Definitely. She didn’t even want the lady that was there with her. I mean, she liked her. Don’t get me wrong, she thought she was a nice lady, but she didn’t know her from Adam. And that lady said to her, “You just stare at the carpet, don’t even look at the TV,” which then made it come across like she was being ignorant, wasn’t even looking at what was going on…. the only person that is shot in the foot is Sue, which is the saddest part about it.”
Meaghan & Johnny
Andy likes Meaghan’s company. “Oh, she loves to be loved. If you walk into a room and me especially, I say hello to her, instantly has a hug. Loves to cuddle, loves to feel wanted. She’s funny. She doesn’t say many funny things, but when she does, it’s an absolute corker, and I just look at her and think, “Oh my God.” She doesn’t expect much out of life. She’s done it tough, and she doesn’t whinge about that. People think, ‘Oh, she’s homeless because she wants to be.’ Well, she’s not homeless because she wants to be, she finds it safer that way.”
Even now, living with her boyfriend Johnny (most of the time), Vass likes to move about occasionally. “And she hasn’t got a lot of the life skills that a normal person her age would have, because she’s never had a house, she’s never had normality. So, when it comes to say cooking or… She just doesn’t know how to do things, because she’s never been situated where people cook dinner, and sit down at a table and eat, for instance. It’s funny, there’s lots of facets of her life that this has ruined, not just the main ones.”
Vass and Johnny have been together for some six years now, and Andy says Megs (as she calls her) will never leave Johnny. ” They’ve been through a lot together she’d be a lot to put up with at times too. And he’s got a lot of mental health issues going on, but he maintains that he takes his meds and that he’s got it together now.”
Andy Brown is the carer for her bright and smiling 22 year old wheelchair bound daughter Lily, who is doing a Zoom session for her university course in the room next door. She wants to be a professional editor. Andy herself is in the middle of a university preparation course, “because I want to do advocacy for the disability sector.”
At the end of our interview, Brown calls Vass on my behalf, to see if she’s willing to be interviewed. It’s only two days after her traumatic court appearance. Vass quietly declines. Later, perhaps …