An erie series of events associated with Erie Bay

A story by ODT this week details an intriguing series of at least semi-related events, involving several disappearances and deaths at sea – including the Scott Watson case – with a common link, a remote 169-hectare Erie Bay property in the Marlborough Sounds, owned by Christchurch businessman Alasdair Cassels.

The story centred on convicted multi-million dollar Otago Hospital fraudster Michael Swann…

Nicknamed ‘Mr Moneybags’, Swann spent almost $11.6m on properties, boats, and flash cars, including a Rolls Royce. He is subject to a $6m pecuniary order. Millions of dollars more remain unaccounted for.

…and a family’s accusations of (unproven) foul play over disappearance of a missing Marlborough Sounds charter skipper – Swann, friend questioned over missing boatie

Cassels and convicted fraudster Mike Swann have been questioned by family members of being involved in the disappearance of a missing Marlborough Sounds charter skipper.

Accusations of murder or foul play were alleged by the children of William Kerry Blair during a coronial inquest into his March 2014 disappearance.

However, coroner Marcus Elliott, along with police who investigated Blair’s disappearance, found no evidence to support the family’s suspicions.

Both Cassels (67) and Swann (56) have vehemently denied the allegations.

But that is just one of a number of cases that could be simply coincidental, but are connected to one place in the Marlborough Sounds.

Ben Smart’s and Olivia Hopes disappearance presumably at sea on New Year’s Day 1998

Cassels previously employed Scott Watson at the Erie Bay property to work on his boats.

He sacked Watson days before the disappearance of Ben Smart (21) and Olivia Hope (17), who were last seen in Queen Charlotte Sound on New Year’s Day 1998.

Watson was found guilty of their murder in 1999.

During the high-profile double-murder trial, Cassels gave evidence to say that Watson had phoned him after police had seized Watson’s yacht, Blade.

Cassels told the court that Watson had asked him whether police had dug up anything at Erie Bay. Cassels said he didn’t know how to interpret the phone call. He also said he’d sold Watson an anchor, anchor winch, and a chain.

Richard Rusbatch’s disappearance at sea in February 2012

A skipper who used to be employed by Cassels at Erie Bay, disappeared at sea two years before Blair vanished.

Experienced sailor Richard Rusbatch’s unmanned yacht Honfleur was found with the engine still running, doing circles in the Bay of Plenty, north of Tauranga, in February 2012. The yacht’s stereo was blasting at high volume. His body was never found either.

Coroner Wallace Bain found it was likely that Rusbatch fell overboard and drowned.

“There is nothing to indicate anything had occurred on board the boat by way of injury,” Bain said.

The latest case: William Kerry Blair’s  disappearance at see in March 2014 .

Four scenarios to explain the 55-year-old’s mysterious case were explored during the inquest: suicide, medical mishap or accident, foul play, and faked death.

In his findings, Coroner Elliott all but ruled out foul play or a staged disappearance, concluding it was possible that Blair either went overboard or that he took his own life.

Blair was last seen at Cassels’ idyllic, remote 169-hectare Erie Bay property in the Marlborough Sounds – where he worked for Cassels for eight years as engineer and skipper on his 27m luxury motor yacht, the Galerna – on Saturday March 8, 2014.

Cassels told the coroner his theory: “Well the theory is, I mean it’s not a theory, I know in my heart what he did, and he went out, you know, probably sometime later on that afternoon on the Sunday he threw himself in the water, probably aiding his demise with my shotgun that went missing as well.”

A 12-gauge pump action shotgun went missing from Cassels’ Erie Bay property around the time Blair vanished. It’s never been found.

The Swann connection – to Cassels:

After his release from prison on parole in 2013, Cassels put Swann up in his Governors Bay mansion, overlooking Lyttelton Harbour.

Later, Swann was living in a house bus at a heritage-listed century-old home also owned by Cassels at the hillside Clifton suburb above Sumner. It was destroyed two years ago in a fire that police say was an arson attack.

To Erie Bay and a woman:

Blair had been in a sexual relationship with Coplestone while they both lived at Erie Bay, the inquest heard, but it had ended well before his disappearance, with Coplestone saying he’d become “demanding”.

Around 4-5 months after he disappeared, Coplestone – who was the last person to see Blair at Erie Bay – and Swann got together, they told the inquest.

“Yes, he’s my boyfriend,” said Coplestone, who also strongly denied allegations of foul play, which was supported by the police and coronial findings. “You don’t get many blokes out in Erie Bay so when you do you make the most of them.”

And to Blair’s disappearance:

When the Blairs’ lawyer asked Swann during the inquest if he had “rubbed shoulders with a lot of unsavoury characters” in prison, he accepted that he had. He admitted that he still wrote to inmates he’d met behind bars.

Pressed on whether he’d had anything to do with Blair’s disappearance, Swann, now a project manager, said: “I was not involved in the disappearance of Mr Blair.”

Davis suggested that if Blair had overheard Swann talking about “the missing millions”, then he would have had a motive to disappear, which Swann rejected.

That seems to be pure speculation. There has been a lot of talk and speculation in Dunedin over the years about Swann’s fraud, his lifestyle funded by it, and the “missing millions”. Known assets when Swann was convicted:

swann asset

Swann and presumably associates went to great lengths to hide assets, and Swann refused to co-operate with the police over recovery of assets – see ‘It wasn’t anything to do with me’ (ODT).

I don’t know how Swann became associated with Cassells, who employed him when he left prison – Swann freed, but where is he?

Fraudster Michael Swann was released from prison on parole yesterday.

Under his parole conditions, Mr Swann (51) was ordered to live with Christchurch businessman Alasdair Cassels.

Last night, a Department of Corrections spokeswoman said: ”Corrections is managing this offender in accordance with his release conditions.”

One of those conditions was for Mr Swann to reside only at an approved address – Mr Cassels’ Govenors Bay property.

Parole conditions 
• Released to an approved Christchurch address; cannot reside elsewhere without the written approval of Probation.

That was October 2013.  Blair disappeared in March 2014.  “Around 4-5 months after he disappeared” (July/August 2014) Swann and Coplestone “got together”. Coplestone: “You don’t get many blokes out in Erie Bay so when you do you make the most of them.”

So Swann seems to have also at least been visiting Erie Bay, although it sounds like more than that.

Swann employed on $2m project (ODT):

Mr Swann spent four years and eight months in jail for his part in defrauding the former Otago District Health Board of $16.9 million. He was released from jail in July 2013.

“He’s got a lot of friends. Obviously, I’m friends with him, or I wouldn’t have given him a job,” Mr Cassels said.

“Swann’s got a skill set. He wasn’t employed by the [Otago District Health Board] for however many years it was … in a mediocre position. He was a contract manager there. That’s what he did. He looked after things.

“He exhibited a bad criminal side to his character, but he’s still got those skills.

“If he uses those skills the right way, he’ll go somewhere,” Mr Cassels said.

The one thing that seems to ring true about all this – Erie Bay seems aptly named. Thinks haven’t turned out well for three boat skippers associated with the place.