The "Weatherbeaten Man" in the Sue Neill-Fraser Case

Posted by Barbara Etter APM on 9 September 2014 | 0 Comments

During my extensive review of the Sue Neill-Fraser case, a new piece of evidence was to emerge some time ago during a careful analysis of the police investigation. An entry on the Police Investigation Log (PIL) or investigation running sheet for Operation Ransack for 1845 on 27 January 2009 had simply stated:

[A detective] attended …. (blacked out) and obtained statement from [Witness A - name removed] relating to yacht and inflatable dinghy seen 26/1

At first this entry did not attract much attention as it did not appear to add any value to the review. However, I made an application under the Right to Information (RTI) legislation for further material concerning the PIL including the handwritten running sheets which were referred to in an entry on the PIL for 24 February 2009 which stated:

Attention to typing lengthy running sheet from hand written running sheet maintained throughout operation.

As a result of the RTI request, only one handwritten running sheet prepared by one of the detectives for 27-29 January 2009 was provided. I was surprised to read the following on the hand written sheet:

1845 hr Attended …  Napolean (sic) St, Battery Point and obtained a Stat Dec from witness … (blacked out). Spoke to Husband (blacked out) …saw Zodiac leaving area of Yacht 7.45 pm – 8.30 pm 26/1/09. 1 x M on board details obtained. She will Fwd photo of sinking yacht to Sinnitt via email.

This was the first time that I had become aware of such a sighting. I could not recall any such evidence, for example, in the court transcripts. However, upon further examination, I found that two statements by Witness A had indeed been disclosed (formally or informally) to the Defence. The first statement was taken on 27 January 2009. It stated that Witness A had a “clear view” of yachts moored on the Derwent in the area of the Sandy Bay Rowing Club. She stated:

Last night between 7.45 pm and 8.30 pm I was looking out of the living area window and I noticed a light coloured Zodiac dinghy out on the river travelling towards Wrest Point in an arc towards the DSS Yacht Club. I first noticed the Zodia (sic) appear in the vicinity of where a yacht was sinking this morning.

It had an outboard motor propelling it and the rear of it was sitting well into the water. There was only one person on the Zodiac, a 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.

The male was wearing a collared white short sleeve shirt with no obvious pattern or emblem. He was sitting in the rear left hand side of the zodiac steering the outboard with his right hand. It didn’t look like there was anything on the boat at all.

It was travelling at an average speed and I last saw it about half way between the sinking yacht (this morning) and the DSS. (emphasis added)

Then there was a second statement which had not been made until 17 March 2009 in which Witness A stated that at about 6 pm on 28 January she recognised “that same male” leaving the area of the DSS in a “white and blue old motor cruiser”. She said that she was at her house and looked through the telescope which confirmed to her that it was the same male. She also stated that the zodiac that she had seen him in was tied to the back of the boat. She was so concerned that she took photos of the male and the boat. She noticed a second older male on the boat who she thought resembled Bob Chappell. She then stated that she had provided the photos to the police that day. She stated:

I am certain that the younger male on the boat was the one I saw in the Zodiac on 26/1/09. This is due to having a clear view of him on both occasions.

My first concern was why it had taken police nearly 7 weeks to catch up with this witness. I would have thought that after the sighting on 28 January 2009 she would have contacted police, given the high profile of the case. However, there is no mention of any contact on the PIL. The next action by police, according to their PIL, was that on 18 March a detective attended the Derwent Sailing Squadron and spoke to the “bosun” who identified the boat and the younger man as Witness E. Later that morning, the detective is recorded as having phoned Witness E who confirmed that it was his boat and that the elderly male with him was his father. At some stage, police took a statement from Witness E dated 18 March 2009 but in the statement, he stated that he was nowhere near Battery Point on Australia Day and that his dinghy at the time had no outboard. I found the man on Facebook and, if the photo on the site was indeed him, he did not fit the description given of the man on 26 January 2009 at all. In fact, he had a very young, even “baby face” look.

Despite these important points which should have raised doubt in the police officers’ minds about the identity of the person that Witness A saw on the evening of Australia Day, it seems police moved to dismiss her evidence outright. They seem to have never considered that she may simply have made a mistake in her identification of the man, as being the same man, on 28 January 2009.

And so the very real question remains, who was the “weatherbeaten” man in his late 40s to early 50s between 7.45 and 8.30 pm on Australia Day?

Witness A's evidence, other than her photo of the sinking Four Winds, was never presented at the trial. Her description was also not to appear on the dinghy sighting sheet (entitled “Descriptions of Dinghy”) prepared by the Crown and marked for identification during the trial.

Who was the person in the similar dinghy to the Four Winds near the yacht at this time of the day? What was of significant concern was the level of detail lurking in the handwritten running sheets that had not been transposed faithfully onto the formal typed PIL. This handwritten running sheet was to contain other critical information that had also not been faithfully transposed onto the Police Investigation Log.

But what is really interesting about the "weatherbeaten man" is that the way police treated this critical evidence is clearly indicative of the "tunnel vision" that they appeared to exhibit during the investigation.

As seen from the above information, police wrongly dismissed this “weatherbeaten” man as being the man that Witness A had seen with his father on 28 January 2009. But worse than this, and quite incredibly, in their own timeline, which was acquired under RTI legislation, Police made the following comments in relation to the weatherbeaten man:


[Witness A] observes an inflatable dinghy – she believes is the zodiac- leaving the area of the Four Winds. States that she believed a male was driving it towards the casino. Male described as:


-weather-beaten sailor look

-wavy thick reddish brown hair

-white collared short sleeve (or rolled sleeves) shirt

The person was sitting in the rear left of the dinghy steering the outboard with his right hand. Person fits description of Sue Neill-Fraser – witness was some distance from dinghy and presumed it was a male due to the way the dinghy was sitting low in the water at the rear. (emphasis added)

Such comments clearly demonstrate the lack of objectivity and critical thinking in this investigation.

Further, it seems that once they had formed a view as to Sue’s involvement, even the process of taking statements from key witnesses and following up lines of inquiry became compromised. This apparent tunnel vision continued after Sue’s arrest. A further example of this is the failure to take statements from those on board the yacht with the anonymous witness P36 who came forward in November 2009. She gave quite detailed evidence as she went within 50 metres of the Four Winds at around 5 pm on Australia Day and saw a large mid grey inflatable dinghy tied to the Four Winds. She is now one of four people who saw a grey and different dinghy tied to the Four Winds between 3.55 pm and 5.30 pm on Australia Day.

We also have one of the older homeless men, who we believe should have been a person of interest to be further investigated, seen by an informant to police near the toilets on the Marieville Esplanade foreshore at 8.30 pm on Australia Day 2009 (as noted on their own Police Investigation Log). This person possibly fits the description of the "weatherbeaten man". Was it this man that was seen in the outboard similar to the Four Winds in the vicinity of the yacht between 7.45 pm and 8.30 pm?

One needs to be concerned about the objectivity and thoroughness of the Tasmania Police investigation into the Bob Chappell disappearance/death.

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