January 1 1998 - The Murder of Ben Smart & Olivia Hope


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WHAT HAPPENED?


Ben Smart (21) and Olivia Hope (17) attended an all-night party the night of December 31st, 1997 in the Marlborough Sounds of New Zealand (1). They were celebrating the beginning of a new year – a year they unfortunately only experience mere hours of.


After they were done at the party, they got on the boat of Guy Wallace, who was serving drinks at the party and also drove a water taxi. Smart and Hope boarded the boat where 5 other people were: Hayden Morrsey, Sarah Dyer, Amelia Hope (Olivia’s sister), Rick Goddard, and an unidentified single man. (2)


Reportedly, Olivia was getting anxious about finding a place to sleep and was trying to go back to shore to find a place to crash for the night(2). That is when the unidentified single man offered Smart and Hope a place to crash on his yacht (1).


Wallace dropped them off at what he described as a “ketch with 2 masts” that was 38-40ft long. He dropped the 3 off, and continued taking the other passengers to their destinations(1).


That was the last time either Ben Smart or Olivia Hope were seen.

Hope’s parents reported them missing on January 2nd, 1998, and investigations began. It took 2 weeks to identify the unknown man on the boat(1).


He was identified as Scott Watson, who had 48 criminal convictions at the time of his arrest. They were mostly from his teenage years (including burglary, theft, drugs, weapons, assault), but they had diminished significantly within the 8 years leading up to his arrest(1).


Scott Watson was charged with murder, even without having ever found the bodies, and sentenced to life in prison with a minimum non-parole of 17 years. He claims his innocence, but further appeal attempts have been fruitless(1).

DIGGING DEEPER

At the surface level, that’s the story. A young couple gets on a boat with a strange man, he kills them, dumps their bodies, is identified and charged and put in jail for life. But the further you look into it, you realize how it has become potentially one of the “greatest miscarriages of justice” in New Zealand history(2).


Guy Wallace, the water taxi driver who dropped Smart and Hope off, was a key witness in the case. As mentioned, he described the yacht the couple was dropped off at as a ketch with 2 masts that was 38-40ft long. However, the police quickly dismissed this description, though it was corroborated by Morrsey, another passenger on the boat.


In fact, any subsequent sightings and information about the ketch were turned away or not followed up on(1). There were numerous sightings, many by people with enough experience to understand the distinctive ketch described by Wallace, but it was “effectively ruled out”(2). Two experienced charter boat operators came forward, detailing that they’d seen it on New Year’s Eve and a few days later, but the police dismissed them regardless of how hard they tried – they essentially told them they were making it up(1).


Perhaps that’s because Scott Watson, their suspect, didn’t have a 40-foot 2 masted ketch – he had a 26-foot single masted steel sloop(2).


Additionally, Wallace had identified the man on his boat as an unshaven man with wavy, medium-length hair. Scott Watson was clean shaven with short hair. Wallace was shown images of Watson 3 different times and every time, he insisted he was not the man that was on his boat(2).


Eventually, they showed a photo of Watson that was a bit distorted because he had been blinking during the photo – Wallace said it did look more like him, but his hair and face still looked off. Another witness, the bar manager Roz McNeilly, identified him using the blinking photo as well, but admitted the man she remembered had longer hair and stubble(2).


Though the police tried to say that he could have gotten a haircut since that night, a photo taken on the night in question shows Watson shaven with short hair. McNeilly did not see that photo until trial, and then “immediately realized Watson was not the man she’d seen at the bar”(2).


The “blink photo” remained one of the crucial pieces of evidence presented, though Wallace still believes he is innocent and had previously insisted the photo wasn’t of the man who was on his boat. He still insists he dropped them off at the ketch he described initially(2).


There were also 2 “secret witnesses” who claim that Watson confessed to the murders while in prison(2). Witness A recanted his statement, saying that he was threatened in prison and said his testimony was “nothing more than an act”. He changed his story twice more before being considered untrustworthy(1). Witness B, who never shared a cell with Watson and had a violent history, received an “arguably light sentence” on charges he faced. (Additionally, the journalist who wrote the article that much of this is pulled from spoke to him, and admitted that she didn’t really believe what he told her.)(2)


Another key piece of evidence was 2 hairs found on a blanket on Watson’s boat that matched Olivia’s. Though, they were not found on the first review and there was an unexplained slice in the bag that had Olivia’s hair – so contamination is thought to have occurred(2).


A HIGH PROFILE CASE

This was a very high-profile case in New Zealand, with “unprecedented” media and public interest that lead to pressure coming from all sides to find the killer. The police, led by police officer Rob Pope (who is now the Deputy Commissioner of Police) made some questionable decisions throughout the investigation(2).


There were rumors that were stirred up that Scott Watson was having an incestual relationship with his sister – a rumor Gerald Hope (Olivia’s father) insists was started by the police to tarnish his public perception. The police also handed out damning information about Watson, including his extensive criminal record, to members of a search party. Though it was intended to be handed back to the police, it ended up in the media(2).


Rumors also swirled that anchors were missing on Watson’s boat – anchors that would have been used to hold down the bodies. Despite this, there were anchors in plain sight and were all accounted for. It was said that the police allowed this speculation to continue even once proven otherwise(2).


An interrogation of Wallace lasted almost 3 hours, where he was accused of lying and covering something up and even being involved in the deaths. Olivia’s sister, Amelia, left her interview in tears after being “grilled”(2).


THE TWO-TRIP THEORY: A SUCCESSFUL HAIL MARY

During the trial, Watson said that he went to his yacht around 2am. A water taxi driver confirmed he took someone matching his description to that location around that time. Several people confirmed that they heard him coming back to his boat alone around that time(2).


However, 3 months of the trial later, a new theory came out of nowhere: He did return to his boat at around 2am like he said, but then he went back out. That is when the events of the night began(2).


Nevermind the fact that they couldn’t find any boat taxi drivers who said they drove him back out. Or that if he swam, he’d be soaking wet and people would have likely remembered that. Or if he took his own boat and Wallace’s yacht back, his boat would still be at the party. Or if he stole someone else’s boat, there would have been some sort of report. The two-trip theory stood(2).


IN CONCLUSION

After an 11-month trial, Scott Watson was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole for 17 years. Watson’s parents have paid over $600,000 in legal fees in attempt to free their son who’s innocence they insist. Olivia’s father believes that they might not have the right man for the murder of his daughter(2).


Mike Antunovic, Watson’s lawyer, believes his innocence and “won’t change his thinking until the day he dies”.


Regardless of what happened that night, 2 young people with their whole lives ahead of them lost their lives. The heartbreak their families must feel even 22 years later, longer than either got a chance to live, must be impossible to live with.


However, another family’s life was shattered that night too. If you agree he is guilty, then it is hard to see Watson and his family as victims – but if you see him as someone who was simply at a party, went home to his boat, and was later arrested for a crime he had nothing to do with – there were more than 2 victims in this story.


And we may never know.


WANT TO LEARN MORE?

- Journalist Keith Hunter has written a book on this case titled Trial by Trickery that challenges the case even further.

- The article cited below, written by journalist Mike White, delves deeper into the case.


REFERENCES:

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_Ben_Smart_and_Olivia_Hope

2. https://www.noted.co.nz/currently/currently-crime/sounds-of-disquiet-what-happened-to-ben-and-olivia

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