The inside story of the troubled inmate who befriended Sue Neill-Fraser ‘inside’ – and how the police used her.
On August 8, 2017, Risdon prison inmate Karen Keefe was arrested and removed from the prison. The same day, detectives raided Jeff Thompson’s house (a pro bono lawyer helping with the Sue Neill-Fraser case), seized his computer and privileged legal files. Unusually, the warrant was signed by a police officer rather than a magistrate. Both were charged with perverting the course of justice and pleaded not guilty.
Karen, a recovering drug addict, returned to Risdon’s Mary Hutchinson Women’s Prison (MHWP) 10 days later; she had been kept isolated for days in a dirty cell, only allowed out for 20 minutes walk each day, refused showers, visits, and her normal mental health counselling sessions, before being moved to the Launceston Remand Prison at the other end of the state. “Ten days in hell” was how she later described the experience. “Unheard of treatment for a minimum rated inmate,” says Sue Neill-Fraser.
During this time, she also endured hours of rigorous questioning by two detectives, and despite repeatedly asking for a phone call to her lawyer (and mother to ask about a sick child), wasn’t able to make one. Only after her lawyer finally located her and insisted on speaking with her, was she able to make the calls. The detective leading her interrogation was Shane Sinnitt,
not disclosed to the Defence
The Etter/Selby papers (revealing new exculpatory evidence in the Sue Neill-Fraser case) state that “It was clear from witness Peter Lorraine’s first statement to police (as noted by Sinnitt, the police officer, who took handwritten notes during the phone call that Lorraine made to police on 27 January, 2009) that he did not see the Four Winds yacht or its dinghy. Peter Lorraine’s evidence about sighting the Four Winds‘ dinghy on the Australia Day afternoon was incorrect. He didn’t see any of the Four Winds, its dinghy, or Bob Chappell. He saw another yacht, another dinghy, another person. The notes of his first contact with police make that quite clear. But those notes were not disclosed to the Defence.” (The Etter/Selby papers were provided to the Attorney-General and tabled in Parliament on August 30, 2021.) See ‘What a difference a dinghy makes’
“you’re just collateral damage”
According to Keefe, Sinnitt had made no secret of the fact that the real purpose of her arrest related to Neill-Fraser’s latest bid for justice, telling her, “This is not really about you, it’s about Sue,” and “It’s not even about whether she’s innocent or guilty. The state can’t afford to let her out, it’ll cost $120 million. Karen, you’re just collateral damage.” (Jeff Thompson can sympathise with that!)
Karen said a ‘deal’ was offered conditional upon her agreeing to lie and say, she’d been complicit in coercing Meaghan Vass into saying she’d been on Four Winds for money. If she agreed to help them, she would only serve 12 months, otherwise they would make sure she served 10 years. The prospect of spending the next decade in prison was too much to face. “I’m so sorry Sue, I just couldn’t bear it any longer so I told them I’d say anything they wanted to hear just to be able to come back (to MHWP).”
Sinnitt said they had proof there was money involved due to things she’d said on a recorded prison phone. It turned out Keefe had talked about money. A reward had previously been offered by concerned private citizens to anyone who came forward with information leading to the reopening of the case (before the latest appeal). Someone had suggested Karen ought to be eligible for it. However, at the time she’d been adamant, she didn’t want any money. “I’ve done a lot of bad things in my life, and now I’ve got a chance to do something good just because it’s the right thing to do. Anyway, I can’t have money. I’d only stick it up my arm.”
The reward in question was $40,000, a relatively small amount. Unfortunately, Keefe had wildly exaggerated both the amount and provenance when speaking with her associates on the recorded system, with the result police were able to use the information to exert pressure on her. She told Sinnitt the tapes didn’t reflect the truth, but he refused to listen.
Due to her not guilty plea, Karen was re-remanded. In June, 2018, she became distressed again after Detectives Shane Sinnitt and Jamie Hart, had visited her family home, armed with a search warrant and “turned the place over.” Keefe’s mother and small children were very upset by the experience.
* Sue Neal-Fraser’s last appeal was heard March 1-3, 2021; the judges’ decision is still pending. She was convicted in 2010 of murdering her partner Bob Chappell on Australia Day 2009, on board their yacht Four Winds. Chappell’s body has never been found.