FeaturesFebruary 2, 2016

Excerpt – Ian Wishart on Scott Watson


Ian Wishart’s new book Elementary went on sale last week, promptly got pulled from bookstores scared off by a threat of legal action, then was put back on the shelves. The following excerpt makes it clear that Wishart believes people have been duped into thinking Scott Watson is innocent of the murders of Ben Smart and Olivia Hope.

In 1999, I co-wrote and published the very first book on the Scott Watson case. It was called Ben & Olivia: What Really Happened? The title was rhetorical, because as readers discovered we didn’t know what had really happened – even after a court trial and guilty verdict.

Jayson Rhodes, my co-author on the case, was a TV3 journalist who’d been assigned by the network to cover the High Court trial of Scott Watson on double murder charges. So Rhodes was on the case, day in, day out.

It was my job to review the daily reports he was filing for us, edit them, work in some context from media coverage at the time of the disappearance, and guide the narrative plot of the book.

Like many New Zealanders, I came away from that trial with a distinct sense of unease. Based on the timings given in evidence and cross examination, it seemed like there was volumes of room for reasonable doubt. Scott Watson could not have been in two places at the same time, and the witnesses were wildly divergent on differences between the scruffy unshaven ‘mystery man’ and the clean shaven, short haired Watson.

Even key witnesses like Guy Wallace were spooked, admitting under cross examination that if the clean-shaven photo was really Scott Watson on the night then he can’t have been the mystery man.

For those of us who were hardened crime reporters, the trotting out of secret jailhouse witnesses was a sure sign prosecutors were clutching at flash to make up for the lack of substance in their case. Tension-inducing testimony about harrowing scratch marks made by fingernails on the inside of the hatch cover on Scott Watson’s yacht Blade gave way to ridicule when it emerged the scratches extended beyond the accessible boundary of the lid when it was closed, meaning the scratches could only have been made on an open lid.

The Crown’s sole piece of forensic evidence was a sample of two of Olivia’s hairs found on a tiger blanket of Watson’s. The problem was, those hairs had not been found on the original forensic examination and only turned up the same day that a ripped bag of Olivia’s hair samples arrived at the ESR desk where the blanket was being examined.

It didn’t look good. The conviction didn’t look safe.

We originally titled the book Ben & Olivia because that’s how people remembered the case. Over the years, the victims have become mere footnotes to a bigger headline: ‘Scott Watson is innocent’. Today, Scott Watson is the brand, the name people talk about in the same breath as Arthur Allan Thomas as an example of miscarried justice.

Yet if you go back and read that first book, you’ll know we never gave Scott Watson a clean slate – there was no get out of jail free card. We floated the possibility that he was involved, somehow, even if the missing pair had disappeared on a ketch.

Over the following 17 years since, I’ve leaned heavily to the belief that Watson could not have killed the pair, not if they were alive on the back of a ketch sailing out of Cook Strait on 2 January 1998 while he was happily painting his boat at Erie Bay.

One thing differentiates Elementary from its predecessor. The first book was primarily coverage of the actual court trial. The quotes were taken from evidence given.

We asked for but received no cooperation from the police – no access to the Operation TAM files. That privilege was reserved for Prime Minister Jenny Shipley’s press secretary John Goulter, who decided to do his own book with the full cooperation of Rob Pope.

That book, however, Silent Evidence, was also largely a rehash of the trial from the police perspective.

What I can now say is that every book written on the Scott Watson case up to now, including Ben & Olivia, is wrong. Every news article written on this case has been wrong. For reasons that will become disturbingly clear, events did not transpire the way we all thought they did.

Elementary breaks new ground on the Scott Watson case, and it does so because it is the first book ever to fully peer review the police files, previously unavailable to us when we published Ben & Olivia.

I had asked Scott’s father, Chris Watson, for access to the police files the defence team had. There was umming and ahhhing, it was too big, it was all too hard, and I never pushed the issue further.

Waiheke yachtie Mike Kalaugher did, obtaining an electronic copy of the police database from the Watsons which he used for his 2001 book The Marlborough Mystery, arguing Watson’s innocence. Kalaugher did the best he could, but he was not an investigative journalist.

Keith Hunter was, though. He too obtained access to the police files and produced a TV documentary, Murder on the Blade, then a book, Trial by Trickery.

I had no intention by then of revisiting old ground. But over the years I’ve had pressure from some quarters to reinvestigate. I couldn’t see the point—what could I possibly uncover that Hunter and Kalaugher had missed?

Then, eventually, in late 2015, the Defence legal files from this case were sent to me. You will be stunned when you read what’s in them.

This is the story of the Scott Watson case that has never been published before. You won’t believe what you are about to read, but it is – as documents buried deep within the police files show – almost certainly the real story of what happened to Ben Smart and Olivia Hope. The information has come from long-overlooked witness statements from eighteen years ago. Sightings have been cross-checked, corroborated and, in many cases, published in expanded detail so you can see the full context.

No matter which side of the debate you are on, you will find the content of this book confronting – to say the least. But this book is not about tribal allegiance, it’s about using the intelligence gathered by police to shed new light on the key issues.

The police witness statements are much more useful than court testimony. When a crime first happens, dozens of police officers fan out and simply collect evidence. The officers on the ground don’t know initially what will be relevant and what will not – that’s a job for prosecuting lawyers down the track – so all they do is vacuum up as much information as they can. Witness statements are a goldmine, a treasure trove taken when witnesses’ memories are still fresh, which is why John Goulter, Mike Kalaugher and Keith Hunter have relied on them previously. Statements only half-explored, however, only tell half the story.

Up until now, the police file has only been half-explored. All that is about to change. This is the story you have never been told.

Keep going!