Retired Hobart police Inspector Peter Powell has come out of the woodwork trying to discredit the 90 page Etter Selby dossier, critical of the 2009 police investigation which he led, into the now controversial case of Sue Neill-Fraser. But his claim of being misquoted in the dossier has been contradicted by the filmed evidence and inadvertently shone the spotlight on what the police knew and didn’t want the court to know.
The Etter Selby dossier was tabled in Parliament on August 31, 2021; Powell’s claim of being misquoted was reported six months later (March 2, 2022) by The Australian’s Hobart reporter Matthew Denholm, who accepted without checking what Powell claimed. But what Powell told filmmaker Eve Ash on camera in 2012 matches the dossier. Indeed, the dossier based its claims on such hard evidence.
The police inspector
Powell’s disclosure in that 2012 interview about police information that then homeless 15 year old Meaghan Vass, was associating with young crims breaking into boats in the Hobart area is at odds with what police witness Detective Sinnitt told the court at the 2010 trial. Vass’ DNA was found on the deck of the Four Winds, where she had witnessed a bloody fight between the late Bob Chappell and her two male associates who had boarded with her, thinking the yacht was unattended, as the dinghy was missing (taken ashore by Chappell’s partner, Neill-Fraser).
Under cross-examination by Neill-Fraser’s defence counsel David Gunson SC, Sinnitt did not reveal any police knowledge of her associating with young crims:
Did you try and look for her associates, any known associates, just tell me ‘yes’ or ‘no’?…….
You didn’t question any associates of hers known to you?…….
All right. Did you check police records to see whether she had what’s colloquially known as ‘associates’?…….
And you couldn’t find anything?…….
The article “Murder dossier was ‘loose with the truth’”, by Denholm on page 3 of The Australian (March 2) raises the question: Why did the retired Powell pop up with this claim six months after the dossier was delivered (and publicised)? The article does not address that question and contains serious inaccuracies; it is misleading, as is the headline, according to filmmaker Eve Ash.
Denholm quotes Powell: “I may have indicated that Vass being a young homeless girl was associating with young male offenders,” he said. “I do not believe I ever said they were known to have or been guilty of breaking into boats.” Yet he describes them as ‘offenders’ …
Powell was recorded on camera on June 27, 2012 saying that, “Meaghan Vass had some associations with some young, male offenders, underage offenders, that have been in the past guilty of breaking into boatyards and stealing things off boats.” The recording is clear and it can be heard in the newly released podcast Who Killed Bob (2022).
The Etter Selby dossier states: “…there seems to have been an inadequate canvassing or acquiring of intelligence about the theft of dinghies in the area, about boats that had been unlawfully entered, or broken into, or people trespassing on boats moored off Sandy Bay or Battery Point.”
Powell told Denholm: “I think it important to note that there were no reports of boat burglaries at Sandy Bay for about the three months leading up to the 26 January 2009.” The following examples support the dossier’s criticisms:
- Local yachtie Grant Maddock, in a 2017 affidavit, told of weekly break-ins in the Sandy Bay area in the year before the murder: “In late 2008, early 2009, I was moored off the Royal Yacht Club about 200 metres from the marina. I sometimes also moored at Constitution Dock in the city. The Four Winds yacht was moored about 200 metres off the Battery Point public jetty. Around 2008 to 2009, I would hear of break-ins weekly. It was opportunistic theft from vehicles, boats and yachts, on land and on the water, both in the yacht club yards and in the marinas and moorings. I recall some of the thefts related to all of the dinghy sheds at the Derwent Sailing Squadron sheds over one night.”
- Another local, Stephen Catchpool, who lived closest to the beach and the crime scene, reported his dinghy stolen to detective Shane Sinnitt on January 27, 2009; he says it had happened 7-10 days before (it was left on the beach a day later). He told Tom Percy QC (counsel for Neill-Fraser) at the leave to appeal hearings in 2019 that no statement was taken by police.
- Sandy Bay resident Ted McCulloch reported to police the attempted theft of his boat a couple of days before the Australia Day murder; thieves (possibly interrupted) had left tools and blood stains. The report is listed on the Police Investigation Log of January 29, 2009.
Curiously, the statement of Detective Sergeant Conroy, dated November 13, 2009, says: “Police records do not indicate any break-ins on boats in the area around this time or in months previously.”
The headline assertion that the dossier was “loose with the truth” is ironically wrong and the suggestion that Powell has quashed a key claim in the dossier is wishful thinking.
The police knowledge of Meaghan Vass associating with young male offenders known to steal from boats was not made available to the defence, denying the jury a chance to consider alternative possibilities consistent with the innocence of the accused. The presence of Vass on the yacht indicates the involvement of other persons in the murder and excludes Sue Neill-Fraser, as Vass has testified.
Speaking of the March 2 article, Ash says: “The dossier claims that the significance of this unguarded comment post-the 2010 trial (of Neill Fraser, found guilty of Chappell’s murder) is that police never disclosed this information to the crown, and hence the defence too did not know about it.” Powell said he suggested to Ash that Ms Vass’s DNA may have been deposited on the yacht, the Four Winds, after the murder, when it was stored in a dry dock in Hobart’s north. The prosecution has always dismissed the DNA as a ‘red herring’.
“If Mr Powell’s personal theory that Ms Vass’ DNA way have been deposited on the yacht after the murder is to be reported in a reliable newspaper, he must be asked to provide a rational explanation for Ms Vass later inserting herself into the case as an eye witness to the murder on the yacht, at considerable risk to herself and at considerable inconvenience – for no gain whatever,” says Ash.
After Ash complained, Denholm wrote a follow up article (Cop, filmmaker spar over yacht murder audio, March 26, 2022), which defended Powell, who “cast doubt on whether he was correctly quoted in the dossier and insisted the comments were in the context of break-ins at a northern suburbs dry dock where the yacht was kept days after the murder.”
Denholm wrote: “Provided with Ms Ash’s audio grab, Mr Powell told The Weekend Australian: “Having done hundreds of media interviews over the years, I have been the victim of selective or edited reporting on several occasions.”
Ash commented: “I am furious that Powell has used Denholm and The Australian as a megaphone to mislead the public, even after I complained.”
This is the latest bizarre development following the 2010 conviction of Sue Neill-Fraser, which Tasmania’s legal establishment is determined to protect – but which Neill-Fraser hopes the High Court will overturn, if it grants her leave to appeal.
“Lies don’t usually outlast the truth…” – Anonymous