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.


Journalist verdict on Scott Watson

The case against Scott Watson has been getting plenty of attention again recently. One journalist who covered the entire case and trial is convinced the jury verdict was correct, and most other journalists who covered the trial agreed.

Andi Brotherston: The case against Scott Watson

I covered the story for TV3 from the very beginning to the very end and was one of the 13 journalists on the media bench who sat through the entire trial. Unlike the jury, we didn’t have to keep an open mind. In fact, at the beginning of the trial most of us thought the Crown was on a hiding to nothing and Watson would walk.

It took three months to present and test the evidence and at the conclusion, the jury returned a unanimous guilty verdict. While the jury deliberated, we conducted an anonymous poll of the media bench. Twelve of us believed Watson was guilty, one wasn’t convinced.

That doesn’t guarantee that Watson is guilty but it is a strong corroboration of the jury verdict.

Only the members of the jury will ever know what convinced them all of Watson’s guilt, but there were a couple of compelling things that must have influenced them.

What Watson didn’t do or didn’t say, rather than what he did, is likely to have played a part in their decision-making. Watson’s behaviour often seemed inconsistent with innocence.

When Watson was first interviewed by police he lied about what he was wearing on New Year’s Eve.

Being found to have lied doesn’t look good.

Later, photos emerged of him in totally different clothing than he’d described to police. He was pictured in a chambray shirt and denim jeans. Police asked him to bring those items into the station. He didn’t.

He told police he couldn’t find them because he’d moved around a lot and they could be at quite a few different places.

The context is this: If you were innocent and had nothing to hide, you’d find the clothes. If you were innocent, had become the prime suspect and were going down for a double murder, you’d go to the ends of the earth to find those clothes. The Crown alleged Watson didn’t want his clothes to be found and tested forensically.


The phone calls police intercepted and recorded between Watson and his former girlfriend was the evidence that appeared to slam the cell door shut.

It’s also evidence that only those in court have ever heard in full – it’s been forgotten, yet it’s the most compelling.

Police recorded 70-plus hours of Watson’s phone conversations and during that time they regularly fed Watson’s former girlfriend questions to ask.

Both the prosecution and defence had full access to the tapes and both sides could have used them to support their case. Only the prosecution did. The court listened to 40 minutes of edited conversations secretly recorded across several months.

My opinion was that Watson’s manner was odd. It was unnerving. The word that I keep coming back to is ‘smug’. The whole thing seemed like a game to him.

His responses to her questions were rehearsed or fudged. He toyed with her and obfuscated.

As the tape played, it became increasingly clear we were listening to a man completely devoid of compassion.

Watson may have sounded devoid of compassion, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he was guilty of the murders.

But what was really striking was his lack of denial. He never once said: “I didn’t do it.”

At the time, this was glaring and telling. It seemed profoundly important to me and I doubt it was lost on the jury.

My thoughts on this were reinforced recently when I read about the CIA’s ‘spy the lie’ programme. It’s an international best-practice tool, used by law enforcement agencies all over the world to identify lies/liars during interviews with crime suspects.

The CIA has identified ‘failure to deny’ as a key indicator of guilt.

Former CIA agent Susan Carnicero says: “The most important thing to an innocent person is to deny they did something; the truth is their biggest ally.”

So why don’t defence counsels advise their clients to deny guilt? Perhaps they do. But it would be risky if guilty, because the jury may perceive a lack of  credibility in the denial.

So, in summing up, no matter how the case continues to be selectively re-litigated, I believe Watson was found guilty for one very good reason – because he is guilty.

Brotherston’s account of the case adds weight to Watson being guilty, but I don’t know enough, and certainly didn’t see any of the trial, so can’t judge the verdict for myself.

From Pora to Watson

The lawyer and the investigator who were instrumental on getting Teina Pora freed and compensated are now working on the Scott Watson case.

Newshub: Team that freed Teina Pora now working on Scott Watson’s case

The team that helped free Teina Pora has now turned its attention to the case of convicted double-murderer Scott Watson.

Lawyer Jonathan Krebs helped quash Pora’s conviction for the 1992 murder of Susan Burdett. He is now working on Watson’s application for a Royal Prerogative of Mercy, which, if successful, could re-open the case of the Sounds murders.

Private investigator Tim McKinnel, who also helped to clear Pora’s name, will be involved in Watson’s application.

I don’t know enough to be able to conclude whether Watson is guilty or innocent, but there do seem to be some real issues of concern regarding his conviction.

By world standards we have a relatively robust legal system but it is not without it’s weaknesses.

One of those seems to be a strong reluctance to revisit cases where there are obvious problems with the case and the verdict.

Wishart: Watson murdered with accomplice

Ian Wishart will be dishing out to media through the day on his book launch and claims about who murdered Ben Smart and Olivia Hope.

He started the day with Breakfast:

Next, it’s the double murder case that’s gripped NZ for more than 18 years. Journalist Ian Wishart is in studio next with his revelations

“Scott Watson had an accomplice in murdering Olivia Hope and Bed Smart”-Ian Wishart

“It wasn’t until I found the police file and went through the court statements that I realised we’d missed something really big”.

“I’ve always been a sceptic regarding jail house witnesses”.

“He’s hanged himself by his own hand.”

“We have never had the allegation previously that there was an accomplice… yet the evidence clearly proves it”.

Scott Watson’s father Chris Watson:

“A number of people have had that police disclosure and none have come up witha theory like that”.

“After all this time it would be hard to sort of pin the boat down”.

“I think he’ll laugh about that”-Chris Watson on how Scott Watson will react to Ian Wishart’s book.

“This accomplice thing is a dollar each way… it’s just strange”.

The onus will be on Wishart to provide a compelling argument today.

Gerald Smart (Olivia’s father) has already seen Wishart’s book and is reported as saying there is no ‘smoking gun’ in it.


“The book that solves an 18 year long murder mystery”

Ian Wishart is doing some full on promotion of the release of his book Elementary next Friday (29 January).

He claims to have solved the case involving the disappearance of Ben Smart and Olivia Hope in the Marlborough Sounds in 1998.

If evidence clears convicted murderer Scott Watson as Wishart implies are book sales more important than justice for Scott Watson?

The Herald reports Wishart: Sounds case solved

Publisher Ian Wishart says a new book will finally solve the infamous Marlborough Sounds murder case.

Wishart will next week publish the book, Elementary — The Explosive File on Scott Watson and the Disappearance of Ben and Olivia.

Wishart said he was “pitching” the book as “solving the case”.

“Finally we know the truth, solving an 18-year-long mystery,” he told the Herald on Sunday.

He also distributed a press release stating: “A new book on the controversial Scott Watson case will be released on Friday, with never-before published information on the killings and what happened to Ben and Olivia.

“A news conference will be scheduled for Friday morning, and details will be provided this week.

“No further information is being released at this point, beyond what is contained in a video trailer that went live this afternoon.”

The video trailer:

Wishart’s Investigate site promotion:

Elementary by Ian Wishart



The book that finally identifies the “mystery ketch”. The book that finally cracks the case. Ben Smart. Olivia Hope. Scott Watson. Unmissable. Unprecedented. Unexpected.

All other details about what’s in this book remain confidential until the moment of its release in a fortnight. No hints. No exceptions.

So we will find out of Wishart’s hype stacks up next Friday, perhaps.

One comment on doing this by book – while commercial interests and seeking attention for himself may be Wishart’s primary aim if he does ‘crack the case’ he will have had the evidence for some time.

Scott Watson remains in prison while Wishart has written, printed and now promotes his book.

Sales and self promotion seem to be taking precedent over timely justice, if that in fact justice can be achieved by whatever evidence Wishart has.

Scott Watson interviewed

Debating convictions in high profile cases is a common pastime. Mark Lundy’s case had another burst recently and David Bain is a favourite (to debate).

One of the few that seems get almost universal support is Peter Ellis in his bizarre conviction in 1992.

Scott Watson’s conviction in 1999 for alleged murder over the Malborough Sounds disappearance of Ben Smart and Olivia Hope has been another controversial case.  The victiom’s bodies (presuming the are dead) have never been found.

Watson is still serving a life sentence with a minimum non-parole period of 17 years. He was granted approval to have an interview about his case with North and South journalist Mike White. This is in the latest edition of North and South, available from today (the old fashioned way, you need to but the magazine).

Watson says “I don’t know where Ben and Olivia are. I’ve never met them, never seen them. They definitely never came on my boat and I definitely didn’t murder them.”

North and South on Facebook link to Woman’s Weekly coverage (this is the first time I’ve linked to Womans Weekly):

In his first-ever interview, ‘Sounds murderer’ Scott Watson tells his story

After 18 years of maintaining his innocence, infamous Sounds murderer, Scott Watson has broken his silence for the first time in an interview with North & South magazine.

The man convicted for the deaths of Marlborough teenagers Ben Smart and Olivia Hope doesn’t hold back in sharing his side of the story throughout the 17-page feature. A story the authorities tried to prevent from happening.

“They’ve basically dumped me in jail for half my lifetime, it must be coming up, for something I haven’t done. It’s destroyed my family and my life,” says Watson.

Watson maintains it was a case of ‘wrong place, wrong time’, expressing his shock at finding himself the main suspect in the case which remains one of the most controversial in New Zealand’s history.

“I think it was because I had a criminal record and I was at Furneaux [Lodge – where the teenagers went missing] alone and I left alone. Basically I was an easy target for them. I was the easiest person that they could pick,” says Watson.

Mike White on his story:

The North & South story, written by Mike White, who has reported on the case since the very beginning, covers what happened that fateful night, Watson’s teenage crimes, his experience of the trial and his years in jail. It also offers a unique new insight into the perplexing case that divided New Zealand.

“You don’t judge a person on how you perceive them,” says White, who has also covered the Mark Lundy case in-depth.

“You judge them on what you know of the case and the evidence you can rely on. Into that, we can now add what Scott Watson has said. The only thing that I can say is that nothing he told me in Rolleston Prison [where Watson is incarcerated] has eased my enormous disquiet about this case and the many, many flaws and holes in it.

I have read a bit about the Watson case and there seems to be odd aspects to it and I can see how there are questions about the verdict.

But I haven’t looked at it in any depth and haven’t seen all the evidence as presented to the court. I have no informed opinion on whether Watson is guilty or innocent.

An appeal by Watson in 2000 was rejected by the New Zealand Court of Appeal, which found there was no new evidence to recommend a second trial.

In 2003 the Privy Council found no grounds for further appeal.