The full interview: Gerald Hope and Scott Watsonby Mike White
For 19 years, Gerald Hope wanted to meet Scott Watson, the man convicted of murdering his daughter, Olivia. In November, that meeting took place, in prison, where Watson remains. North & South writer Mike White, who helped organise the meeting, was there.
When it happened, 19 years ago, you’d have killed him if you’d got this close, torn him to pieces. But now things are different, you’re different, and he seems different. Now there are doubts he actually was the murderer. The evidence doesn’t seem so reliable any more, in fact you’ve ruled out much of it. But still, there he is, in his prison clothes, staring back at you.
And imagine this. Here you are, in prison, where you’ve been for 18 years, for a crime you’ve always insisted you didn’t do. Didn’t meet Olivia and her friend Ben Smart. Didn’t meet them, didn’t invite them on your boat, didn’t murder them. And now Olivia’s father wants to front you, question you, hear you plead your innocence. But nobody’s listened to you for 19 years, so why would he? He probably thinks you’re a piece of shit, just like everyone else does – just how the picture has been painted.
There’s about two metres between you, but an unimaginable gulf between where each of you are, who you are. So you say hello, and wait for what he has to ask you, what he’s waited all these years to know.
On December 31, 1997, Olivia Hope and her friend Ben Smart went to a New Year’s Eve party at Furneaux Lodge in the Marlborough Sounds. Early on January 1, looking for somewhere to sleep, they boarded a water-taxi, and a mystery man offered them a place on his yacht. They were never seen again.
Within days, police isolated 26-year-old Scott Watson as their prime suspect. He was arrested in June 1998 and convicted of double murder after an 11-week trial.
Since then, key witnesses have recanted their evidence, doubts have arisen about other planks in the case against Watson, and both the police investigation and trial process have been called into question. One of those doing the questioning has been Olivia’s father, Gerald Hope.
When 17-year-old Olivia and Ben, 21, failed to return from Furneaux Lodge, it was Hope who raised the alarm. It was Hope who continually appeared in the media, keeping his daughter’s plight in front of people as he desperately sought information. He searched the Sounds for six weeks with Ben’s father, John, and countless volunteers. He worked closely with the police, followed up every lead that came to him and, as time slipped away without Olivia or Ben being found, Hope stated that if they couldn’t get their children back, they’d get the bastard responsible for their disappearance.
And that bastard appeared to be Scott Watson. Marlborough police quickly fingered him as a likely culprit and the Canterbury cops who took over Operation Tam agreed. Their hasty profile described him as: a loner; having a chip on his shoulder, an explosive temper and lacking social skills; hating the world; being surly; being a drinker and dope smoker, with a long list of convictions.
The profile was issued on January 11, 1998. The next day, police seized Watson’s yacht, Blade, and hauled it from the water for forensic testing.
That police profile quickly found its way to Gerald Hope, supposedly inadvertently placed among other documents police gave him. You can imagine his reaction – how the quick caricature of Watson reinforced Hope’s worst fears, that his daughter had been abducted and murdered by a malevolent maniac. He put a challenge to Watson: Tell us what you know, tell us where our kids are.
Watson heard this, and the day his boat – which he lived aboard – was seized, he told his lawyer he wanted to meet Hope and tell him he had nothing to do with Olivia and Ben’s disappearance. His lawyer, Chris Clark of Blenheim, has confirmed to Hope that he advised Watson not to contact the victims’ families, and also that he warned Watson the police were not his friends. Watson took his advice, retreated to the fortress of his family, and eventually got out of Marlborough.
At trial, he was willing to take the stand and state just what he did at Furneaux Lodge, but again his lawyers advised him not to give evidence.
In the years after his conviction, Watson heard Gerald Hope express gnawing doubts about the case, and his desire to meet Watson and ask questions. Still, his lawyers advised Watson against it, encouraging him to trust in his legal appeals.
In 2013, Watson’s final appeal was rejected and his lawyers accepted there was little to prevent a meeting with Hope, so contact was made and applications prepared.
However, the Corrections Department had different ideas. Over three years, it repeatedly rejected and opposed the meeting taking place if it involved a journalist. From Watson’s viewpoint, this was a bottom line: given he remained in prison, he believed having a journalist present was the only way to ensure a fair hearing, and airing, of what he had to say.
After successfully challenging the Corrections Department’s decision in the High Court this year, a meeting was finally permitted. That meeting, between Gerald Hope, Scott Watson and the writer, took place over two days in November at Rolleston Prison, south of Christchurch. Both sessions were three hours long, and the first was also attended by Watson’s lawyer, Kerry Cook. This, then, is the story of what happened at that unique meeting.
It was Cup Week in Christchurch. The previous evening, the city had been full of sun-struck punters, men slumped in suits, women wobbling on high heels. By morning, happy revellers had decorated trees and bus shelters with orange road cones and the sun had given way to steel skies and showers.
As Hope, 66, drove out to Rolleston Prison, he reiterated how uncertainties about Watson’s trial and the evidence presented at it left him with doubts about the conviction. He had no expectations the meeting would solve those doubts, one way or the other.
“But we have a duty and a responsibility to Olivia,” he said. “We’re the only voice she has and we owe it to her, that if there’s truth, it’s given the opportunity to be expressed. I’ve looked at her photographs. The most recent photograph we have of her is sitting on Tamarack [the yacht Olivia and friends arrived at Furneaux Lodge on], reading a book called The English Patient, and somebody snapped her. And that’s the final image we have of her. I mean, her life was just snuffed out, and I find that absolutely tragic.”
Hope’s wife, Jan, had travelled to Christchurch with him, but didn’t want to attend the meeting. They’ve been together since college, married 44 years. That morning, Gerald had asked Jan if there was anything she wanted to ask Watson. “No, you’ll have it covered,” she replied.
So here he was, after all those years of waiting and imagining, sitting down for what was possibly his last chance to understand what happened to Olivia.
Kerry Cook tried to lighten the atmosphere with a joke, but everyone knew it was forced. Though the meeting had been mooted for 18 years, and taken three years to arrange, niceties were redundant right then.
Hope seemed intent on not trivialising the time available, dispensing with any preamble. “Can I interrupt? Scott, we’ve got two-and-a-half hours. Your chance. I’m not sure I’ll be available tomorrow so I’m really going to try and compress what we can say to each other today.
“You’re the key man. I said years ago that it’s an opportunity for you to convince me you’re innocent. So I’d really encourage you today to be honest, to actually express yourself directly to me. I want to hear and I want to know, when I’ve finished our discussion, just what you’re thinking and how were you thinking back in 1998. I mean, I just need to get a very, very clear picture.”
Watson, now 45, stared straight back at Hope and with something resembling restrained intensity replied: “Gerald, I can assure you, I’ve never met your daughter, or Ben, and they were never on my boat. And this whole thing, from day one, has just been a whole bunch of compressed lies, put together in a way to demonise me, to demonise my family.”
Day one was exactly where Hope wanted to get back to, that party at Furneaux, the boozed aftermath, the shining calm of New Year’s morning. He said he didn’t want to relitigate the case – but he certainly wanted to replay crucial bits, recreate it, re-hear it.
GH: “It’s your time. I respect what you say, but there’s questions I’ll be asking today so I really, really need to know we’re getting it from your heart and your head. And it’s got to be absolutely honest.”
SW: “And you also need to be prepared to hear the truth and actually take [it] on board, because you’ve obviously been close to [investigation head] Rob Pope and his cronies. And at the time, you took on his line, and you were standing out there, almost the little media front with them, to create this whole thing.”
taxi to take him back to Blade. On board were young couple Hayden Morresey and Sarah Dyer; Olivia Hope’s older sister, Amelia, and her friend Rick Goddard; a mystery man police insist was Watson; and the Naiad water-taxi driver, Guy Wallace.
The first stop was at Tamarack, the yacht Olivia, Amelia and others had chartered for New Year’s. When they got there, they found Olivia and Ben wanting to go ashore to find somewhere to sleep, because there were no berths left on Tamarack. Amelia and Rick Goddard got onto Tamarack, and Olivia and Ben replaced them in the water-taxi. Once there, the mystery man offered them a place to sleep on his yacht, which the water-taxi stopped at next. They were last seen climbing aboard his yacht, before Wallace continued on to drop off Morresey and Dyer.
Wallace and Morresey described the yacht Olivia and Ben got onto as a larger vessel. Wallace said it was an old-style, wooden ketch (two masts), about 38-40ft long, with ornate ropework. But police quickly decided he must have been mistaken and insisted the mystery man was Watson and they’d got onto Blade, his steel, 26ft single-masted, home-built sloop that had little ropework.
For Gerald Hope, the timing of Watson’s movements is crucial. Watson has always estimated he went back to Blade around 2am, but he can’t be sure of the time – he was drunk, never wore a watch in those days, never cared about clock-
watching. All he knows is that he’d had enough onshore and was the only passenger on the water-taxi that took him back to Blade.
SW: “All these people coming in from the outside saying, ‘It was this time, it was exactly this time’ – no one can do that Gerald.”
GH: “Oh look, I don’t doubt that, but some time between two and four… This is the big hole, isn’t it? You say one thing, the prosecution said another thing, I don’t know.”
People on the two yachts tied up next to Blade remember Watson returning and seeing if anyone wanted to carry on drinking, but they were all in bed and told him to bugger off. Watson says he had a feed and went to bed.
But at his trial, the Crown claimed he went back to shore, before eventually returning to Blade on the water-
taxi where he met Olivia and Ben. It could produce no evidence of how he’d returned to shore – nobody saw him do this – and in fact only raised this “two-trip theory” on the second day of the prosecution’s closing address. The Crown insisted Watson was seen onshore after 2am, proving he’d returned from Blade after initially going back to his boat, and it didn’t matter how he did it.
But for Gerald Hope, being able to believe the two-trip theory is essential – because otherwise it means Watson wasn’t the mystery man on the water-taxi with Amelia and Rick Goddard, and then with Olivia and Ben. It means it’s virtually impossible he was the murderer.
So, how could Watson have returned to shore, between 2am and 4am?
GH: “Did you, as someone suggested, put all your clothes into a plastic bag and swim ashore?”
GH: “I’m not serious, but I’m asking you.”
There were, of course, other ways Watson could have returned to shore. He could have caught a ride with a passing water-taxi or tender, but no water-taxi driver or boatie ever recalled this, nor did anyone else see it happen – just as nobody saw a man swimming ashore or arriving drenched on the wharf.
He could have stolen or used someone else’s tender – but again, nobody reported one missing, or found it mysteriously ashore the next morning. Or he could have used his own dinghy, Hope suggesting Watson could have rowed ashore after 2am, left his dinghy there and caught the water-taxi back to Blade around 4am, then in the morning used Blade to retrieve his dinghy.
SW: “So what’s being said now is, I’ve untied [Blade] and taken it through all these other boats, up to the wharf at Furneaux, where I’m assuming there was already a bunch of boats tied up.
“And then I tie my boat up there, go to wherever I’ve put my dinghy round the beaches or whatever, I’ve left these two people [Ben and Olivia] on my boat to sit there, then I’ve taken my dinghy back to my boat and then buggered off. Is that what you’re saying?”
GH: “It’s not impossible.”
SW: “It’s actually just more nonsense.”
GH: “But it’s not impossible.”
For it to be possible, of course, requires nobody among the nearly 2000 people at Furneaux Lodge for New Year’s, to have noticed Watson doing any of this.
It also presumably requires Ben and Olivia to have already been dead or incapacitated by the time Watson slipped back to Furneaux’s wharf to retrieve his dinghy – meaning he’d attacked or killed them while tied up just feet away from 11 other people on the neighbouring yachts. Or they could have been asleep – though that would have required them to sleep through Watson’s extremely loud diesel engine being started and running just metres from where they lay. Or maybe they woke and accepted Watson’s assurances he was just moving berths or dropping them ashore. Other-wise, Ben and Olivia would presumably have escaped when Watson went to retrieve his dinghy.
And while a number of people on board the yachts rafted up to Blade heard Watson come back around 2am, curiously nobody heard him return with Ben and Olivia around 4am – something Hope also questions.
“There wouldn’t have been silence. We accept that people climbing on to a new boat – there would have been comment, ‘Mind your head… step down…yadda yadda’, and there would have been a bit of clattering around to find a place to sleep.”
Watson says the police and prosecution had to invent the two-trip theory because they couldn’t prove he’d done anything, and even Hope admits it was “a hand grenade lobbed in there – everyone was shocked when it was mentioned.”
GH: “They wanted a prosecution, Scott. The stakes were high, the costs, the most expensive trial in New Zealand’s history up to that time.”
SW: “I can assure you, Gerald, that I didn’t go back ashore, at any stage.”
GH: “Put yourself in my position. I’m presenting to you the evidence and reviewing the evidence that convicted you. So some of the stuff we’re going over, it’s not necessarily what I believe, but it’s the fact of what was presented in court.”
SW: “But they weren’t facts.”
GH: “I accept that, I accept that point.”
Gerald Hope has been on Blade. Not long after it was seized and trucked to Woodbourne Air Force base, near Blenheim, police allowed him on board. He went before dawn, to get a sense of how it would have appeared early on New Year’s Day. And he admits it wasn’t a space where Olivia would have wanted to go, especially given she tended to get claustrophobic.
But she was with Ben, and she’d spent enough time in the Sounds to know boaties were a trustworthy lot.
“And it was just a bed for a couple of hours before dawn. So I had to accept that she would possibly have been comfortable, being bloody tired, enough to take up the offer and gone on board – last port of call, last berth in the bay.
“She would never have gone on there by herself. She wouldn’t have left Tamarack, which was fatal for her, with all the freeloaders on Tamarack. So our family suffers the consequences of freeloaders on board Tamarack. It’s very annoying – that’s understating it.”
The other thing Hope stresses is that Olivia trusted people. “She’s 17 years of age. She’s eager to get on with her life in the big wide world. I’ve got to be honest about it, she wasn’t streetwise. She didn’t know whether there was danger there or not.”
SW: “I was never there… I didn’t anchor there, I didn’t park there, I didn’t stop there.”
GH: “What I find difficult is that that was so clear and confirmational by the witnesses that described your boat as being there and you being on it, and you state you weren’t there, you never stopped.”
SW: “I never stopped. I just didn’t. Seriously, I didn’t.”
Hope noted that if it wasn’t Watson, then police have never been able to trace who it was the witnesses saw.
Watson’s best estimate is that he arrived at Erie Bay between 10am and midday, and spent most of the day ashore with the caretaker and his two children. The following day, he was given paint by the caretaker, to paint the sides of Blade’s cabin.
However, the police scenario is that Watson actually went out into Cook Strait, dumped Olivia and Ben’s bodies, and didn’t return to Erie Bay until after 5pm. The initial statements made by the caretaker and his children say Watson arrived, as he maintains, late morning or lunchtime. But after police found 250 cannabis plants behind the caretaker’s house, the story of when Watson arrived at Erie Bay gradually got later and later over progressive meetings with police, until it was after 5pm – thus fitting the police theory of Watson’s movements.
Again, for Gerald Hope, clearing up this discrepancy in times was vital to getting greater certainty on whether Watson is innocent or guilty.
GH: “We’ve got a whole day to fill in, Scott, before you get to Erie Bay at 5pm. So, where the hell were you?
SW: “Nah, I got there midday at the latest.”
GH: “Doesn’t stack up though – who’s telling lies?”
SW: “Well, the police are telling lies. They’ve concocted this whole thing.”
But as Hope pointed out, Marlborough’s harbourmaster was in Erie Bay on the afternoon of New Year’s Day and says he and other passengers didn’t see any other yachts there before he left at 5pm.
SW: “He’s mistaken. He’s seriously mistaken. Or, like a lot of the witnesses in this whole thing, the police [were] suggesting certain things to certain people in the way they did their questioning.”
Hope accepted that the evidence of the caretaker and his children shifted Watson’s time of arrival by up to seven hours, after the caretaker’s dope patch was discovered.
GH: “That’s the way the case and the witnesses were.”
SW: “All manipulated and lied to, Gerald.”
GH: “Your words.”
SW: “Yeah, they are my words. But what do you think of it? Do you think everyone was manipulated or not?”
Hope acknowledged he knew it had happened – to his other daughter, Amelia. Initial statements from Amelia don’t give any real description of the mystery man on board the water-taxi with her when they left Furneaux Lodge and headed to Tamarack. However, in later statements and in court, she crucially recalled the mystery man had a receding hairline – similar to Watson’s.
“It was grooming,” admitted Gerald Hope, candidly. “Totally. I can’t lie about that – and Jan will stand by it. Amelia had no clear recollection. I spoke to her, for god’s sake, early on: ‘You’re on the Naiad, tell me what you saw, who was there’ – they were the first questions I asked.
“The thing that’s not known is Amelia has an amazing accuracy for detail. If she had seen someone, she would remember the detail of it… She would have sat on the boat, hunched, going back to Tamarack, not really taking a lot on board. And that’s how she described it – she didn’t know.”
Hope says in the process of preparing for the court case, Amelia “had her mind focused. It corrupted her most probably against what she recollected. And she was definitely groomed, to look for certain key features.”
The hairs were supposedly discovered on a tiger-patterned blanket on Blade, and testing showed they were almost certainly Olivia’s. Even Rob Pope admits that without them, it would have been hard to bring a case against Watson.
But even this critical evidence was surrounded by controversy. Around 400 hairs were taken from the blanket, mostly short and dark. On an initial examination, an ESR scientist failed to notice any matching Olivia’s long, blonde hair. But, six weeks later, after reference hairs had been taken from Olivia’s clothes, the scientist re-examined the blanket hairs and discovered 15cm and 25cm blonde hairs that ultimately proved to be from Olivia or someone from her maternal blood line.
Complicating this was the fact that the scientist had examined the sample hairs from Olivia’s home and the tiger-blanket hairs, on the same day at the same table, leading to concern about accidental contamination. Doubts about the hair evidence were further compounded by the discovery of an unexplained 1cm slit in the bag holding Olivia’s reference hairs, the scientist only able to suggest she’d inadvertently cut the bag when using scissors to open the envelope it was in.
Contamination could have been ruled out, but frustratingly, police never counted the number of hairs they collected from Olivia’s home and then sent to ESR, so there was no way of knowing if any had somehow ended up among the hairs taken from the tiger blanket.
Watson asked Hope how he felt about this evidence.
“I feel pissed off about the hairs. Really pissed off about the hairs, Scott. It could have either put you away for the right reasons or it would have not gone to court because they had a lack of evidence.”
Hope found it hard to believe the two long blonde hairs wouldn’t have been noticed during the initial examination, and there was doubt how they could have ended up on Watson’s blanket.
“That was the strongest piece of evidence and they stuffed it up. If those hairs had been found clean on your blanket, game over for you.”
SW: “They got the result they wanted.”
GH: “You’re entitled to think that. I’m saying, from my side, if they hadn’t been so sloppy, there would have been more certainty… And I’m the first to say, today, that it wasn’t sound enough for me, because of cross-contamination or sloppy laboratory practice.
“I just think when it comes down to people’s lives – it’s not a perfect world, I accept that – this is not a perfect case. There’s too much circumstantial evidence and there always has been and this is why I’ve met with Scott – and one way or another, it’s about removing doubt.”
When Blade was examined, police found holes in two of the squabs. Watson said the one on the rear squab had paint spilt on it and he cut out the hard patch. The hole in the front squab happened when he fell asleep and the cigarette he’d been holding burnt through his bedding and into the foam squab.
Watson said he picked out the burnt foam, and then turned over the squab cover, so he wasn’t sleeping on a hole. Police, however, posited Watson may have removed foam that had forensic evidence on it and then reversed the squab cover to conceal it. An ESR expert said the edges of the squab cover showed signs of burning and there was sign of melted foam in the hole.
However, Hope says he found this evidence chilling.
“It goes without saying that if Scott Watson was involved in a rape and murder, seminal fluids, or blood from Olivia’s period… could leak through whatever bedding or blankets.”
He questioned how burning could have created such a large hole, “without putting a blowtorch to it.”
GH: “Shit, it was a big cigarette. Must have been a big reefer.”
SW: “It was just a smoke.”
Watson insists it happened after he came back from a Guy Fawkes party in Whangarei, and the smouldering bedding and foam eventually woke him up, and left his hand blistered.
But Hope can’t help but see something more sinister in the rough gouge in the foam: he sees his daughter being attacked; he sees Watson having gone to great lengths to dig out the hole; he sees an explanation he just can’t buy.
“Scott, please, I asked you at the beginning about honesty and things like that – now’s your chance, here I am, and I said at the start, convince me you’re innocent and I’ll back you. I said that a long time ago.”
“I didn’t kill your daughter,” Watson replied. “Or Ben. They never went on my boat. And I can’t convince you of anything – you believe what you believe. But if I can help you, I will.”
Everyone was standing by now, folders and photos tucked under arms.
“We may see you tomorrow,” Hope said. Watson held out his arm to shake Hope’s hand.
“No, we’ll leave it for the time being,” Hope replied, still wrestling with the thought that proffered hand had killed his daughter.
“What’s for lunch?” Hope threw out.
“Shit,” Watson replied, with the disdain of a man who’s faced prison food for 18 years, and the lassitude of someone dulled by the monotony and restriction of life inside.
Hope had been unsure whether he wanted this second visit, feeling he’d asked most of what he wanted of Watson, wanting to get home to Marlborough. But he understood there were many questions Watson wanted to ask him – about statements Hope had made, about what he’d been told, about how Hope had been convinced he was guilty of murdering Olivia.
Watson felt he’d been demonised ever since Blade was seized, and vilified by police, lawyers, and the Hopes and Smarts. His past had been trawled, his relationships dissected, his private conversations recorded and exposed. He’d been made a monster, and his family portrayed as ferals harbouring him.
All the rumours got back to Hope via the police: that Watson’s boat was missing its anchors and these had been used to weigh down the bodies. (Police knew there were three anchors on board but did nothing to counter these suggestions.) That Watson was involved in the disappearance of a woman on Great Barrier Island. (Watson was never interviewed about the murder of Nancy Frey and the officer in charge of the investigation acknowledged he was never a suspect.) That his mum was a Rottweiler. That Watson was sleeping with his sister, Sandy.
“I can confirm we were told about your bad background,” Hope acknowledged. “Bad behaviour, dislike of this, that and the other. Anti-social. That’s true. In a nutshell, dysfunctional family, that’s the impression we got.”
However, Hope pointed to secret recordings made of Watson family discussions when he was under suspicion, which refer to killing Rob Pope and how it would be done.
SW: “Black humour. What were you going to do? Laugh or cry.”
It was the incest rumour, one of the vilest smears available, that understandably still angers Watson the most. Police deny responsibility for it, and investigation head Rob Pope insists his officers wouldn’t have spread it. But Watson says the day they seized Blade, “they dragged my sister [in] as well and they put it on her that her and I were fucking each other.”
GH: “That’s correct. We were told the same story by police.”
SW: “And who were you told that by? Which policeman?”
GH: “I could tell you but I won’t. I just don’t think it serves any purpose, but I can verify that’s correct. It was a slur and it came directly from the police.”
SW: “Respectfully, we’re here for some honesty and you’ve said that, and I don’t want to get off on the wrong thing with you…”
GH: “Look, I found it offensive at the time, but I’m just verifying that… I’ll swear an affidavit to that.”
SW: “But the thing is, the whole reason why I’ve just spent 18 years in jail, are all these tiny, niggly things – death by a thousand knives, from day one. They just lied, one thing after another, boom, boom, boom, boom. ‘Watson’s done this, Watson’s done this,’ it went on and on and on.
“And they got all these witnesses in a little room and they basically got them to say whatever they wanted them to say. The big boys from Christchurch turned up and they talked a bunch of people into making outrageous accusations.”
But Gerald Hope wanted to know more about his formative years, what inspired him, what interested him.
SW: “I loved sailing. I liked fixing boats. I liked everything to do with the sea. I loved fishing. I did anything to do with boats.”
GH: “To your credit, you built a boat. Scott, why I’m asking this is because this is sort of the guts of why you think you’ve been fitted up, because they’ve taken a personality like yours and wrapped a double murder around it.
“Okay? Do you get that? So if you peeled your jacket off today, and we look at the photos they took of you in those days – tattoos – they say a lot about a man.”
SW: “Do they?”
SW: “What do you want to know about my tattoos?”
GH: “You tell me. Why did you choose certain tats?”
SW: “Because when I was a teenager, I was a little shit.”
GH: “Well, tell us about it. Tell us where you went wrong. I want to hear first-hand because this is what branded you.”
SW: “I was just a little shit, a little juvenile delinquent if you want to call it that. We used to drink, go to the pub, hang out with your friends. Punk music. Yeah, okay, I was a little punk rocker, skinhead guy in Christchurch. Didn’t like the police. This is age 15 to 18. But I just got to the stage where, well, this isn’t going anywhere, this is giving me nothing, this is pointless.”
Watson showed Hope his tattoos: the Union Jack, and word “Skin” on his arm, the small SS symbol on his left index finger, the neo-tribal designs on his shoulder he’s got while in prison. There’s a story that gained currency that Watson had a swastika tattooed on his scalp. There isn’t one. But there is a man’s face with horns – supposedly the devil – he had done when he was 16.
SW: “But that doesn’t make me a bad man.”
GH: “No, you’ve missed the point. What I’m saying is, they all add up to putting a label on you.”
SW: “I had my thing when I was a teenager and I was a little shit and I did whatever I wanted to do; hated your parents – a lot of teenagers do that. Did you have a rebellious period? When you couldn’t be bothered listening to your dad, but the fact was, he was right?”
GH: “Yeah, I understand that.”
SW: “But I got over it. I grew up. I had an epiphany one day. I was in Invercargill prison when I was 18 and it was the shortest day of the year and it was freezing cold and I thought, shit, I need to go and do something instead of this.”
So when he got out, he went to work on a commercial boat in Northland. He bought a couple of yachts and then built Blade by himself, in his parents’ backyard, launching it in 1997, and it became his home.
But all the bad bits, fed to the Hopes and Smarts during the investigation and trial, inevitably created a negative image of Watson.
GH: “I think, in our naivety, we believed the police were doing what was necessary because they had got the man, so they were building a case around it. And putting that in context, people were wanting a result, there’s no doubt about that.
“So I guess police went to the extent of their powers and people who were witnesses were trying to assist in whatever way possible, a) to get something to court, b) to get a conviction, and Scott Watson was the man… there was a lack of evidence.
“There’s a real lack of evidence as to the justification for a conviction, and that was their problem.”
“If you and I were sitting here 18 years ago, we wouldn’t have been having a conversation,” said Hope. “As a father, I was wound up and I wouldn’t have hesitated in actually taking you out there and then. That’s how fired up I was. That’s the feeling I had, the intensity of getting you and disposing of you was powerful. That’s how a man feels about the loss of a child.
“From your point of view, you were wrongfully accused, wrongfully arrested and all this stuff was fabricated. From our side of it, we had confidence in the police that they would get the man and they went about their business to get you. That’s what we saw at the time. Because we had to accept, which took a long time, that Olivia wasn’t coming back – she’s gone for good. And we don’t know to this day where she is, let alone what the circumstances were for her death. And from her mother’s point of view, that’s hard to swallow.
“To know the fear a 17-year-old would have in those final moments. That is so, so hard for a woman. A man can tough it out, and I toughed it out, and I remember saying quite clearly that if we can’t have our kids back, we’ll nail the bastard responsible. Because we were focused on getting an outcome. Lost kids, get the bastard who did it. That was then… So I’m sitting here now with you, and I’ve heard you say this is just a stitch-up, I’ve been framed, it’s fabrication.”
SW: “It’s been proven – it’s not even a question anymore.”
The fact the hatch was able to be secured only from the inside, the fact the scratches extended to the edges which couldn’t be reached when closed, and the fact there is no door to the forward compartment that could be locked to imprison Olivia, were dismissed by the police and presumably the jury.
Hope recalls how influential this evidence was at trial.
“All I had in my mind was my daughter, trapped in Blade, while you’re out the back doing something, trying to get out of that hatch… That was nonsense. At the time, it was chilling – it ripped my heart out. But I looked at it later and believe it was, as you say, your nieces.”
Watson reminded Hope that, at trial, he’d given evidence about Olivia’s fingernails and whether they could have caused the scratches, and it all aided the prosecution’s case.
GH: “Yep, we were played like a violin. I accept that.”
But other things he finds harder to accept. Like the marks on Blade’s hull where weed had been wiped away. The suggestion was that Watson had wrapped up Olivia and Ben’s bodies, possibly in a sail, weighted them down, and dumped them at sea – however, somehow as he was doing this, they’d floated up and rubbed against the hull. Watson insists the scrub marks came from where he’d swum along the hull to clean weed from around the stern and propeller and reduce drag. He remains incredulous that anyone could think weighted objects could float up and rub against the hull.
GH: “Waiting for air to move from the sails, because air does cause floating.”
SW: “What you’ve said is just outrageous.”
GH: “No, it’s not. I stand by that, if that’s what you did. You would actually use the sleeping bag. Sleeping bags, bound, weighted possibly, or you need to allow the water to seep in for the air to be dispelled for there to be enough weight for something to go to the bottom.”
SW: “That’s just outrageous.”
GH: “You asked me my opinion, and that’s the fact.”
Watson explained the weed was scrubbed away from areas around the propeller and rudder that any floating object simply couldn’t have got to.
GH: “There’s always a counter-argument to what you’re saying. Yes, you put something over the side, yes it rubbed, and yes, to cover up, you went over the side to make it look as if you’d attempted to scrub [the hull]. That’s the other argument.”
SW: “It’s the wrong argument. It doesn’t actually make sense. The fact you can’t get into all the little nooks and crannies where I’ve scrubbed. Objectively and logically, it can’t happen.”
Hope also questioned why only part of the hull had been scrubbed clean, why Watson had done such a “half-arsed job. It’s unlike you not to finish the job.” Watson replied it wasn’t a great job to do, he’d got tired of it, and there was only so long you could spend in the water with a scrubbing brush.
Watson’s cleaning of Blade’s interior was also a pivotal issue at trial. The Crown suggested he had extensively cleaned the boat, wiping down hard surfaces and even inside cassette covers to remove any trace Ben and Olivia had been on board. Watson said he’d cleaned Blade thoroughly after a rough 10-day trip from Tauranga to Picton in December 1997. Witnesses recalled this occurring, and at trial an ESR expert said only 30 to 50 per cent of hard surfaces had actually been wiped down, and only half the cassettes.
However, the picture remained, of Watson desperately trying to wipe away fingerprints or any evidence of Ben and Olivia. It was an image Gerald Hope accepted – along with the suggestion from police that Watson’s sister, Sandy, had helped him with the clean-up, when they went sailing after January 4.
GH: “My recollection is quite clear, police implicated Sandy in the whole scenario, the whole clean-up. They were quite emphatic about that.”
SW: “So why didn’t they call her as a witness, or put that to her?”
GH: “I don’t know, I don’t know, to be honest.”
SW: “Can I assure you again that that’s just more propaganda put to you. And it was put to you for the same reason everything else was put to you. My boat was thoroughly cleaned – after a 10-day trip at sea, your boat becomes a mess. It’s what you do after a trip in a boat, you ask any yachtie.”
GH: “I accept that, in the context of normal maintenance of your boat. But at the time it was put to us, Scott, it was do with you being the accused – it was about a clean-up, not a clean-down – being a thorough, meticulous double-murderer. That’s the way it was presented to us.”
SW: “Well, it was presented to you misleadingly. It was put to you wrong… what I’m saying to you is, all these little things that these policemen put to you were the reason at the time that you built a picture of me.”
SW: “That you still hold now, of disliking me as a human being. And that’s what they did in the court case.”
GH: “The answer is yes. But I’m here to listen.”
And despite considerable concessions made by Hope during the meetings, sometimes Watson felt like it didn’t matter what he said, he’d never be able to completely convince Hope he was innocent. Like the scrub marks on the hull: he could explain how he’d genuinely cleaned his hull, but Hope could always claim this was covering up for where the bodies had rubbed weed off the hull. How could you ever counter that logic?
And he always knew that he was at a disadvantage, trying to explain his side of things to someone as polished and fluent as Hope.
“I’m me as a person,” he told Hope. “I’m not a politician, and I didn’t go to university. I like to call a spade a spade. And I’m not as articulated as you, and I’ve also lived in jail for the last 18 years, where, if you want to be articulated, it has its own ramifications.”
Given Hope had challenged him to prove his innocence, Watson raised numerous elements of the case which he said were wrong, and seemed surprised Hope often didn’t know more about them.
GH: “I don’t get into the detail. I’m not relitigating the case. I have to accept that we lost our daughter and the Smarts lost their son. I’m not an investigator and I’m not a lawyer. So out of respect for me, I didn’t want to sit down and pore over this stuff – it’s too hurtful. You’re the innocent one you say, your father believes so, it’s for your family to do that work – and you’ve done that obviously for 10 years, you said.”
SW: “I understand your position, but I just get the feeling from you that you’re not willing to take on board anything that doesn’t involve me.”
GH: “Can I just reassure you, I’m sitting here with an open mind and I’m making notes, I’m listening carefully. And I think I was quoted making a huge concession recently, saying I was sitting on the fence – which is a long way from where I was 18 years ago.”
SW: “I don’t mean any disrespect to you, Gerald, and I don’t want you to walk out of here, but you’re a politician. And you talk like a politician. That’s just my feeling, that’s all. But I’m glad you’re here, though.”
GH: “I’m not offended. I’m not a politician. I sit on the [Marlborough District] council. I’m not a professional politician. Through my life, I’ve been a lot of things, from a shed hand to a labourer, to where I am now, so I’ve had a mixed background. I come from a very ordinary, very working class family. I never grew up with a silver spoon in my mouth. Everything I’ve got I’ve worked for. So there’s no bullshit on our side of the family. We basically got together as a man and a wife, had two daughters, one of whom has been murdered. So, tough as it is, that’s the reality.”
By the time of the trial, everyone, even the government, wanted a resolution to the case. “Everybody was charged. You wouldn’t have got a straight jury in New Zealand at that time, most probably – or an impartial jury, I should say,” said Hope. “The police were out to get their man, we were out to get the man, everybody was focusing on the conviction and they did what it took to do it.
“I can accept all that. And there are parts of the evidence that I believe were inadmissible in some cases, certainly shouldn’t have been believed. But overall it comes back down to a jury having convicted you. That’s the challenge, isn’t it? How do you change that round?”
There is of course one way, and it’s a way Hope has imagined and studied ever since Olivia and Ben disappeared: find the ketch that water-taxi driver Guy Wallace and passenger Hayden Morresey described dropping Ben and Olivia onto. Police received hundreds of sightings and tips, but decided within days the witnesses were mistaken, the ketch didn’t exist, and Ben and Olivia actually climbed aboard a much smaller sloop – Scott Watson’s Blade.
Gerald Hope and John Smart searched the Sounds for weeks for the ketch or signs of their kids. Since then, Hope has accumulated boxes of information with supposed sightings or theories.
“That is, and was, unfinished business. There was no way beyond reason that a ketch didn’t exist, in my mind. It was never, ever eliminated 100 per cent. There was still a possibility for a boat to arrive late and leave early. And that was never proven, other than a few photographs they had, and the fact they couldn’t find it, therefore it didn’t exist. To my logical mind, it could have existed, [but] it wasn’t found.
“I can confirm with you, they dismissed the ketch far too soon. It’s not what I would have done. I would have been thorough, I’d have continued looking. But unless there’s some hard evidence, we can have this discussion for days and weeks – it just goes around and round. Getting out of a hole is a judicial process based on whatever evidence comes to light. That’s the key, always has been. Either a confession, new evidence, or the ketch miraculously turns up and is proved to have been at Furneaux on the day of the 1st. That’s how simple it is in my mind.”
It is that simple. But then again, it’s not.
If it was that straightforward, Gerald Hope and Scott Watson wouldn’t have been sitting across from each other nearly 19 years after Ben and Olivia disappeared, with a slew of doubts and diverging scenarios, a multitude of claims and continuing controversy.
In January 2016, author Ian Wishart published the fifth book written about the case. In Elementary, he claimed Watson was indeed guilty, but came up with a new theory as to what he’d done, which included an unidentified accomplice and taking the bodies ashore near Picton.
Watson was aggrieved Hope gave the book credibility when he’d been interviewed on its release. However Hope said elements were “revelationary” and he had to consider the new information.
“But I’m now sitting in front of the man who’s been convicted of murdering my daughter. I’m hearing first-hand. So who do I believe: Ian Wishart – Scott Watson? It’s your call.”
SW: “Well, you should believe me.”
GH: “That would be the logical response I’d expect. He wasn’t there, you were.”
SW: “So what do you think of his book, honestly?”
GH: “I’ve read it and a lot of it’s just regurgitation with an interpretation and he’s again selected statements to fit his story line.”
SW: “Can you see similarities between what Pope did and what Wishart did?”
GH: “Yes I can. It’s selective use of evidence. I agree with you. We talked about that yesterday and also I accepted witnesses were groomed. They were fed information which clouded their recollections. So therefore they changed what they recalled, enough to fit the prosecution case. That I accept.
“But to me, meeting Scott Watson is far more important than an author who is noted for his conspiracy theories, his solo investigations, his commercial exploitation of tragedy – so that’s the commercial world he lives in, he writes and publishes books. Did he provide anything additional to provide us with the comfort of knowing exactly what happened? No, he’s most probably clouded it, took us off on another tangent, which you’ve said, ‘No, not the case, it wasn’t me.’ So that’s where it lies.”
Wishart made much of Watson’s criminal background and supposed propensity for violence. And Hope cited passages from Watson’s 2015 parole report that he had a high risk of violent reoffending, and he asked whether drugs and alcohol could have made Watson a different person on New Year’s Day, 1998.
GH: “Some people change a lot. They become quite bloody fiendish animals and do terrible things they may well live to regret.”
SW: “Well, I didn’t.”
GH: “There are people out there who think you should never be released, because you’re a psychopath, a sociopath… the lack of remorse, and the fact you’ve killed twice, probably more often.”
SW: “Well, the fact is I haven’t killed twice – I haven’t killed at all.”
The drawing is a sketch of a mythical coastline with various locations marked on it: Satans Reef; Wolfs Lear – with a house with a swastika above it; Death Camp, with something that looks like barracks; Slave Bitch; Five Dead Pigs; Floating Dead Horse. There are small houses on one side labelled, Hope House, Smart House and Pope House. On the other side are larger houses marked Scott House, John Lydon House and Ian Stuart House. (Lydon was lead singer for punk group the Sex Pistols; Stuart was a neo-Nazi British musician.) There is a large area labelled Hunting Ground, with a dagger drawn alongside it. There is an anchor, two boats, and a whale swimming in Pleasure Bay.
Watson had drawn it soon after he was arrested in 1998 and was on remand in prison before his trial. He said it had been taken from his cell by a prison officer. Somehow it had made its way to Hope.
Watson seemed surprised that Hope suggested it was a window into his personality.
SW: “Really? My art tutor told me it’s therapy to do some black humour art, to stop me being so angry, and that’s what I did.”
GH: “You go through this and you see a whole lot of stuff which looks pretty dark, pretty sinister, pretty evil when you look at it carefully.”
SW: “Well, it’s just black humour of the situation I was in. And I got told by a tutor to try and do this as therapy, to not walk round so angry in prison… I was just angry, angry about being accused of everything, maligned. And then I was put in prison where I’ve got to walk around with a bunch of angry people.”
GH: “It’s not a holiday camp.”
SW: “And you have to adapt to it, to your surroundings, otherwise you don’t survive… you’ve sort of got to find things to do, when you’re locked in a little room for ages. You do art, you write letters. You’re in a box a third of the size of this [room].”
Watson said he couldn’t remember if the drawing was based on any actual bays or headlands, or anywhere in the Marlborough Sounds.
SW: “It was a bit of art I did.”
GH: “Pretty dark.”
SW: “Dark or whatever, is it an issue?”
GH: “Yeah it is. It’s like a window into your soul. I’m just asking, how the hell do you explain that crap there. It is crap. It’s evil.”
SW: “It was just art. I did some art. I did a lot of art there.”
Hope said there seemed a huge difference between what he read in the parole psychology reports and the drawing, and how Watson appeared now.
GH: “Yep, I accept you’re angry, but you’re capturing things like, Slave Bitch House, Satans Reef.”
SW: “You can read all these things out and make them…”
GH: “I’m trying to get you to explain it.”
SW: “Well, I can’t explain it – it was 18 years ago.”
GH: “What I’m saying to you is, when I see ‘Slave Bitch’, I say to myself, there’s some pretty sick thinking going on here with regard to women. Slave Bitch means what to you?”
SW: “It means nothing to me, Gerald.”
GH: “What did it mean to you then?”
SW: “I don’t recall.”
How hard was it always going to be for Gerald Hope to reconsider the image of Watson as a murderer, loosen his grip on the certainty that he killed Olivia? Because once you loosen that grip, you’ve nothing to hang on to, no certainty, no finality, no sense of justice.
How hard was it always going to be for Scott Watson, to trust someone who’d crucified him publicly in the past and urged the Parole Board to keep him locked up? How hard was it going to be to see things through Hope’s eyes, when Watson’s reality was having spent the best years of his life in jail for something he insists he didn’t do?
Hope said he couldn’t walk out and proclaim Watson innocent. Only the legal process could do that. But if the time the Crown said Watson returned to Blade, when he left Endeavour Inlet, and when he arrived at Erie Bay, could be shown to be inaccurate, then it would change things hugely for him.
GH: “Some of the stuff you’ve talked about has to be proven to be correct. Otherwise nothing changes, our conversation doesn’t go anywhere.”
SW: “Yeah, I also know that. But I’ve also learnt that no matter what you decide or take away from this about me, good or bad, nothing will actually be done about it. That’s how I feel. I’ve seen you a couple of times say, ‘prove to me Scott [that you’re innocent] and I’ll back you.’ But you think too much of your own powers and the influence you’ll have over the powers-that-be. Because they’re a different machine. And the moment you did say you’d back me, you’d have so many people drop you like a hot potato.”
GH: “Do you know why people want it that way?”
SW: “It’s a result, finality.”
GH: “Yeah, quite right. You’re absolutely right. You and I are both victims. You believe you’re a victim.”
SW: “I know I’m a victim – I know I’m a victim.”
GH: “We’re a victim. We never got the truth. We haven’t got the truth yet. Most people have got the comfort of the police, the legal system having done their job, so that’s why you’re in here. That’s the bottom line. Most people just get on with their lives, they don’t want to have anything change what’s already been decided. And I know that, I understand that.”
SW: “I don’t know what happened to your daughter, Gerald. I’m being honest with you. And if you want me to guess, I can guess, like everyone else – but I don’t know. And I’m definitely not covering up for anyone else.”
Watson had one last question. He asked Hope if it was easier to believe he was the killer, as Ben’s mother Mary Smart and her late husband John had always maintained, becase the alternative was too painful to contemplate with its what-ifs and if-onlys.
GH: “The easiest option for me was to leave you where you were and get on with my life. That’s the simple option. I’ve chosen not to. And I accept that by meeting you, and whatever comes out of this...”
SW: “I’m glad I’ve met you Gerald.”
GH: “Whatever comes out of this, I know that if, for argument’s sake, you were exonerated, then that leaves the question of what happened. And it doesn’t change – it makes it worse. So I’m aware of that as well. So I came in with my eyes wide open.
“But as for the lies, the storytelling that went on, I can’t do much about that. That’s the way it was, police were doing what they believed was the right thing. We cannot replace the time we’ve lost, we cannot replace it, that’s for all of us. You’ve lost hair, and I’ve gone grey.”
Watson encouraged Hope to talk to people who knew the case and evidence. “Talk to Wishart. But also, if you’re going to talk to Wishart, talk to Keith Hunter [who wrote Trial by Trickery, arguing Watson was innocent]. Only one of them was out to make a whole bunch of bloody money out of it.”
Watson said when he went back to his cell, he’d remember a hundred things he’d wished he’d said. Hope suggested he write them down and send them to his lawyer.
SW: “Take care, Gerald. It’s good to see you.”
GH: “It’s taken a long time.”
SW: “Look after yourself.”
You swing out of Rolleston Prison and on to SH1. The 30-minute drive back to Christchurch gives you time to wind down a bit, reflect a bit. There’s lots of building going on out this way, out west where it’s meant to be safer, and Hope noticed the pipes and machinery and subdivisions. He mused that he couldn’t live in Canterbury: too flat, devoid of relief. “I like references.”
References, anchors, certainty – it’s what gives us all a platform to balance life on, some sense of security.
But his mind was still back in that room at Rolleston, with Scott Watson at the end of the table – either the man who raped and murdered his daughter, or a man whose conviction has deceived him for 19 years.
“I felt conflicted today, hugely – what I’ve believed for so long, with what I was being confronted with. And I was trying to gauge that body and say, inside those eyes, inside that brain, are we getting a very well-rehearsed lie? There are doubts, whichever way you look at it.”
And perhaps that’s the cruellest thing. It’s not enough that Gerald Hope lost his daughter, or that they’ve never found her body, but that in so many respects there’s nothing clear about what happened or who was responsible. You can sift through the evidence and arrange it to fit whichever story you want to tell. Witnesses’ memories are fickle, facts unreliable, certainties few.
Hope has sometimes said he wanted to meet Watson so he could move on with his life. In a sense, it was part of doing everything he possibly could to understand what happened to Olivia, going down every side road and turning every stone. “Basically that’s the way I’ve led my life – I don’t just accept things necessarily for what they are.”
For years, people warned him against meeting Watson, predicting Watson would just fool him. But those people’s opinions usually rely on a thin understanding of the case, gut instinct, and pen sketches. Few know as much about the case as Hope, and none have experienced it as he has. And none have met Watson, as he has. It’s easy to judge from the wings but much harder to confront the man in the middle of it all.
"I don’t regret doing it. I always knew there was a risk I’d come out with greater uncertainty, and that greater uncertainty still leads to no closure, no certainty as to where Olivia is. And that’s kind of the end game."
A diary of adventures in the volatile Middle East is diverting but hardly illuminating, writes Peter Calder.Read more
The most interesting books on climate change.Read more
As the Government spends millions reforming the criminal-justice system, Paul Wood says crime would be reduced if we taught our children emotional...Read more
A New Zealand-made documentary about those who walk the 800km Camino trail is heartbreaking, blistering and terrific.Read more
Five-part series Funny As: The Story of New Zealand Comedy shows just how far our humour has come.Read more
If flashes of light or spooky shadows suddenly appear in your vision, see your optician or doctor without delay.Read more
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has stopped short of committing to a declaration of climate emergency in Parliament.Read more