The Not So "Golden Hour" in the Sue Neill-Fraser Case - Get it Wrong Early and the Community Pays the Price

Posted by Barbara Etter APM on 7 September 2014 | 6 Comments

The “Golden Hour” principle is well known in policing – it is absolutely critical in the early stages of an investigation to capture and record all important information. Effective early action can result in securing significant material that would otherwise be lost. See my blog posting and link to the UK Murder Investigation Manual 2006 (MIM) at:

The principle is described at page 42 of the MIM as follows:

Experienced SIOs [Senior Investigating Officers] often use the term the Golden Hour to describe the principle that effective early action can result in securing significant material that would otherwise be lost to the investigation. Where the police are informed of an incident shortly after it has occurred, offenders may still be in the area. Locating them can provide forensic opportunities that could otherwise be lost, the testimony of witnesses can also be obtained while the offence is still fresh in their mind, CCTV images and other data can be collected before it is deleted and action can be taken to secure scenes before they become contaminated. Even where the incident happened some time before the police are alerted, effective early action can often lead to the recovery of material which enables the investigation to make rapid progress. The importance of immediately following up on obvious lines of enquiry cannot be overemphasised. (emphasis added)

In the Sue Neill-Fraser case, the Four Winds yacht was found sinking early in the morning of 27 January 2009. The first few hours or days of the inquiry, it is argued, were not so “golden”. It seems that signifcant Persons of Interest may well have been overlooked, particularly now that the Crown theory of the case has been significantly challenged by independent expert reports concerning DNA found on the boat and the luminol testing of the Four Winds dinghy.

Indeed, as a member of the jury in the trial of Sue Neill-Fraser in 2010, wouldn’t you have expected that:

  • Statements would be taken from homeless persons living rough in the immediate vicinity or frequenting the Marieville Esplanade foreshore and that criminal histories of such persons would have been carefully checked; 
  • Statements would be taken from those persons who had been the subject of intelligence reported to the police immediately after the incident. For example, on 30 January 2009, an anonymous person rang and informed police about a suspicious person living in a car on the Marieville Esplanade foreshore; 
  • A statement would have been taken from the man, not a person of interest, whose yacht was normally moored nearby Four Winds and who was out on the water in a dinghy at around midnight, possibly on the night of Bob Chappell’s disappearance (see Police Investigation Log (PIL)). Was it this man that was seen by Mr Hughes between 11.30 pm and midnight on Australia Day?; 
  • Statements would have been taken from the persons who were swimming at the Derwent Lane Jetty between 11.30 pm and midnight on Australia Day 2009 and who heard or saw nothing suspicious – the critical time at which Hughes was said to have seen Sue Neill-Fraser going out to the Four Winds yacht in a dinghy and the time when she was possibly killing Bob, cleaning up after the incident and winching his body from below decks;  
  • Statements would have been taken at an early opportunity from all relevant persons concerning the coincidental, prophetic and disturbing phone calls received late at night by both Sue Neill-Fraser and Tim Chappell on Australia Day 2009 about Bob Chappell’s estranged daughter, from a man that they had never met before; 
  • Notes and records would have been kept of key briefing meetings and critical decisions made. An RTI response from Tasmania Police dated 18 September 2012 advised that “All investigation team briefings were verbal and tasks allocated on whiteboard (no permanent record exists)”. See
  • Intelligence about possible related incidents in the area and persons with criminal histories of personal violence who lived in the vicinity would have been promptly collated and assessed; 
  • That all leads reported to police would have been followed up including that referring to the “girl with dark hair” who had watched Sue Neill-Fraser tie up her dinghy near the RYCT on the afternoon of Australia Day 2009, details of which had been reported to police. See
  • A proper forensic examination (including crime scene photography) would have been conducted of the yacht prior to allowing Ms Neill-Fraser and her family to board and examine the yacht on the afternoon of 27 January 2009 at Constitution Dock. It was Sue that actually pointed out that the boat needed further forensic examination as things were amiss; 
  • Potentially valuable forensic opportunities would have been acted upon by police, such as the DNA testing and fingerprinting of the opened water bottle in the saloon of the yacht, in light of the fact that Bob never drank bottled water;
  • Statements would have been taken from all first responders (including fire officers and civilians), particularly as to whether their activities or equipment might have caused the burn marks on the timber near the entrance way to the yacht or involved interference with the ropes or winches etc; 
  • The clothing and shoes of Sue Neill-Fraser would have been seized for examination as soon as she was considered a Person of Interest or suspect and particularly after the alleged phone call to the lead Detective Sergeant at 9.30 pm on 27 January 2009 by a GD’s Constable about the injury to Sue Neill-Fraser’s thumb which had not been evident on Australia Day. The Detective stated in his statutory declaration of 13 November 2009 regarding the impact of the late night phone call on 27 January 2009 “At the conclusion of my duties on this day I had grave concerns for the life of Robert Chappell”. History checks were also being made on Sue Neill-Fraser as early as 8.40 am on 28 January 2009; 
  • Statements would have been taken from a man living in a house on Marieville Esplanade foreshore with a bird’s eye view of the area about the coming and going of people in the area, including in dinghies, for example, and that a statement would have been taken from the same man about the theft of his own dinghy from the Marieville Esplanade foreshore in the lead up to Australia Day 2009. The Judge and jury were not made aware by the Crown of this information; 
  • Steps would have been taken to properly corroborate and verify the information provided by the informer, Phillip Triffett, after he came forward on the afternoon of 28 January 2009 with stories of Sue previously asking him to kill Patrick, her brother, and Bob, some 11 years previously in a similar fashion to what was alleged to have occurred to Bob;  
  • Steps would have been taken to identify the motivation for Mr Triffett coming forward including the letter or note that had been written many years previously by Bob and Sue implicating him if anything suspicious happened to either of them, which he mentioned in his own statement to police (but which was not drawn by the Crown to the attention of the court).  The Detective Sergeant who led the investigation stated in his November 2009 statement “I found that the accused had mentioned to persons in the past that she and her partner Robert Chappell felt their lives were at risk… It was outlined to Emma and Sarah that in 2001 her mother revealed to persons she believed hers and Roberts (sic) lives were at risk. Both said that they believed there was a letter with a lawyer and if anything ever happened to their mother or Robert Chappell the letter would reveal the persons responsible”;  
  • Records would also have been kept about Phillip Triffett’s motivations and reasons for coming forward when he did, so soon after the incident, particularly when he stated “Will this help me with those charges?” to an interviewing detective. This information was not contained in material provided initially to the court and was only disclosed mid trial after an anonymous tip off to the then defence counsel;  
  • Evidence of a “weatherbeaten man” (described as male, stocky/solid build, late 40’s to early 50’s, weatherbeaten sailor type look, short reddish brown hair, but not close shaven. The hair was possibly a bit wavy and was fairly thick), who was seen zipping around in a dinghy similar to the Four Winds dinghy in the vicinity of the Four Winds by an eyewitness between 7.45 pm and 8.30 pm on Australia Day 2009, would have been properly investigated and not wrongly dismissed (although the police later claimed in their timeline acquired under RTI that this man was in fact Sue Neill-Fraser!); 
  • A statement would have been taken from the woman who heard a "distressed mature male voice" late on Australia Day (see the PIL).  The Duty Allocation Sheet obtained under RTI states that she heard the male voice between 11.00 pm on 26 January and 1.30 am on 27 January 2009; 
  • The names and details of those persons spoken to at the Derwent Sailing Squadron by detectives on the evening of 29 January 2009 would have been kept, particularly the details of one on one meetings;  
  • A check would have been made of the Visitors' Book at the RYCT and people spoken to about relevant observations on or around Australia Day 2009;
  • A check or inventory would have been conducted as to possible missing items from the yacht, particularly such things as alcohol;
  • There would have been an early and thorough follow up of the reported grey dinghy that was seen by Paul Conde (and Thomas Clarke) tied up to the Four Winds at 3.55 pm on Australia Day - Conde made his written statement to police on 29 January 2009 but reported his sighting on 28 January 2009;
  • Notes would have been made about where the family’s mobile phone was located on the Four Winds yacht; 
  • An official crime scene log would have been commenced and maintained as soon as practicable about those persons coming and going from the yacht and details centrally logged about what changes had been made to the original state of the crime scene including ropes, winches, hatches etc; 
  • Critical evidence such as the cut pipe near the toilet and the knife found on the floor of the yacht would have been protected and seized, in particular to determine whether the knife had been used to sever the pipe (Indeed the PIL states “Pipe to be collected when vessel is secured for comparison with carving knife); 
  • Photos would have been taken of the alleged injury or cut to Sue Neill-Fraser’s thumb which was said to have caused great concern on 27 January 2009; 
  • Details of all phone calls made by members of the public (particularly potential eyewitnesses) to police in relation to the incident would have been recorded and logged onto the PIL or another separate record; and 
  • Records of all doorknocking and the information obtained therefrom would have been carefully managed, recorded and provided to the investigative team. See

As is being called for in the high profile Rayney murder case in WA, an independent review of the investigation by someone external to the jurisdiction would be most helpful in identifying overlooked Persons of Interest in the early stages of the investigation. Such a review could also identify important areas for ongoing improvement and may well assist in solving a number of outstanding cold cases in this jurisdiction.


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  • Hi Barbara: re your
    "... the woman who heard a "distressed mature male voice" late on Australia Day (see the PIL). The Duty Allocation Sheet obtained under RTI states that she heard the male voice between 11.00 pm on 26 January and 1.30 am on 27 January 2009;":

    Can I ask whether that RTI document was appropriately redacted, and if so, whether you could make it available (privately or via this blog)? If not, would it be possible to quote extracts from it which would give us an idea as to why the info on the Duty Allocation Sheet/PIL was recorded as for the period between 11:00pm and 1:30am? Was it a single instance within that time period? Why those specific times? Was the woman who heard it on land, or on the water (and if so, whereabouts?)? Did she mention the direction that the sound came from, was it far or distant etc? Was (in the opinion of that woman) the 'distressed mature male' on land or on/in the water?

    I hope that you might have a free moment to let you get back to me on this.
    - Garry.

    Posted by Garry Stannus, 03/12/2016 2:08am (1 year ago)

  • Sorry, Mark. Others trampled over the boat while it was moored in Sandy Bay and water was being pumped out; the sniffer dog didn't like the water and couldn't give a result if drugs had been on board or not. Sue did not board until the afternoon when it was at
    Constitution Dock.

    Posted by Lynn Giddings, 28/07/2015 10:26am (3 years ago)

  • The person who trampled all over the 'golden hour' was SNF herself. Now why wod that be?

    Posted by Mark Hawkes , 14/09/2014 10:58am (4 years ago)

  • That is a very busy hour

    Posted by Tim Tierney, 13/09/2014 9:08am (4 years ago)

  • A truly amazing - and shocking! - list of missing potential evidence that could have answered many vital questions in this case...and either confirmed that the conviction of Susan Neill-Fraser was correct, or else led to a completely different culprit, who could now be out among us ready to "disappear" someone else!

    Posted by Ziggy, 09/09/2014 3:59pm (4 years ago)

  • There are so many lessons to be learned from this case - for police, lawyers, judges and the media. As in investigations of air crashes and other disasters, this one must be fully investigated at every level to provide the learnings and changes needed to ensure continuous improvement of the systems that safeguard our society.

    Posted by Eve Ash, 08/09/2014 1:26pm (4 years ago)

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