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Complaints regarding Operation Tam

13 August 2010

The Independent Police Conduct Authority has concluded its investigations of complaints regarding Operation Tam, the Police investigation of the disappearance and murders of Ben Smart and Olivia Hope in the Marlborough Sounds on New Year’s Eve 1997.

The complaints were received from Mr Keith Hunter, a journalist, and Mr Chris Watson, the father of Scott Watson. No complaint has ever been received from Scott Watson himself, either by the Independent Police Conduct Authority or its predecessor the Police Complaints Authority. Scott Watson has never provided a definitive statement about the matters raised and the Authority has not interviewed him.

The Authority Chair Justice Lowell Goddard said that apart from three aspects that had no significant bearing on the outcome of the investigation, Operation Tam was conducted reasonably and rationally and the Police officers who led it remained open-minded throughout.

“The Authority’s investigation was completed and reported on by way of letter to the complainants on 17 May 2010. However, Mr Hunter subsequently sought an opportunity to make further submissions to the Authority, which was granted,” said Justice Goddard.

Having received and considered those further submissions, the Authority has confirmed the results of its investigation as reported in its letters of 17 May 2010.

Justice Goddard said the Authority’s review of the Operation Tam investigation was exhaustive, involving many hundreds of hours work by investigative staff and legal analysts, who examined some 25,000 documents.

“At the time, this was the largest investigation file ever compiled during a criminal investigation by New Zealand Police,” said Justice Goddard. “Approximately 1650 people who were in the Marlborough Sounds at the time had to be traced and contacted. More than 100 vessels were identified and traced.”

“On the basis of what Detective Inspector Rob Pope knew, it was reasonable and appropriate for him to focus resources on investigating Scott Watson: indeed, he would have been remiss had he not,” said Justice Goddard.

“Operation Tam was conducted in a small community in which many people knew each other and discussed the case openly. The inquiry also took place in an environment of intense, and probably unprecedented, media scrutiny. Witnesses, and those who knew Scott Watson, were also frequently interviewed by the media. The unprecedented and unrelenting nature of the media focus throughout the inquiry can only have served to make an already complex and difficult investigation even more so.”

“In these difficult circumstances, some actions of Police fell short of best practice, some mistakes were made, and these were compounded by the actions of others, in particular the media and members of the community who openly discussed the investigation with each other and with reporters.”

“However it must be noted that many of the issues raised in the complaint to the Authority, including as to photograph identification, DNA samples, Police handling of witnesses, prejudicial media coverage, the identity of the ‘mystery man’, the existence of the ketch, and scenarios for disposal of the bodies, were available to Scott Watson’s defence team to raise at trial and on appeal. The conduct of the trial and appeal are not matters within the Authority’s jurisdiction.”

The Authority does not intend to release the full correspondence with the complainants but a summary is provided below.

Summary of the ten Heads of Complaint, and the Authority’s findings:

1. Summary of Mr Hunter’s complaint:
Photos and photo montages used for identification placed Scott Watson at a disadvantage by depicting him with half closed eyes.
Summary of finding:
The construction of the montages and the method used to show them to witnesses were highly undesirable and fell short of best practice. However a lack of documentation meant the Authority was unable to determine how decisions were made about the montages, and by who.

2. Summary of Mr Hunter’s complaint:
Allegation that Detective Inspector (now Deputy Commissioner) Rob Pope gave orders to cease searching for a ‘mystery ketch’ despite receiving numerous eyewitness accounts of it.
Summary of finding:
There is no evidence to conclude that Detective Inspector Pope and his team deliberately ignored relevant evidence. On the contrary, Police went to considerable lengths to identify, locate and eliminate all vessels in the vicinity of Furneaux Lodge.

3. Summary of Mr Hunter’s complaint:
Allegation that Detective Inspector Pope formed the view within five days that Scott Watson was guilty of the murders and ignored any evidence or indication to the contrary.
Summary of finding:
On the whole, Operation Tam was conducted reasonably and rationally, and the Police who led it remained open-minded throughout.

4. Summary of Mr Hunter’s complaint:
Allegation that Detective Inspector Pope created and circulated false rumours about Scott Watson.
Summary of finding:
The Authority can find no basis for this allegation. A number of so-called ‘rumours’ were circulated by the media, contrary to the urgings of Police. The provision of a “suspect profile” of Scott Watson to a community group by a member of the investigation team (not by Detective Inspector Pope), was highly undesirable.

5. Summary of Mr Hunter’s complaint:
Allegation that Detective Inspector Pope told a ‘strategic lie’ to media about whether Scott Watson was a suspect.
Summary of finding:
There is no evidence of a ‘strategic lie’ or a breach of the sub judice rule. There is no evidence of misconduct in Detective Inspector Pope’s dealings with media during Operation Tam.

6. Summary of Mr Hunter’s complaint:
Allegation that Detective Inspector Pope swore false oaths in an affidavit in order to obtain interception and search warrants.
Summary of finding:
There are errors in the document, which cause the document as a whole to fall short of the high standard of accuracy required in applications for warrants. However there is no evidence that Detective Inspector Pope or any other officer intended to mislead, nor that he knew any part of the document was inaccurate when he swore the affidavit. The errors do not strike at the heart of the document and do not constitute misconduct or neglect of duty.

7. Summary of Mr Hunter’s complaint:
Allegation that Detective Inspector Pope ‘bought’ the testimony of secret witnesses who were prison inmates.
Summary of finding:
There is no evidence that Police acted unlawfully or improperly. The use of secret witnesses is always fraught with risk but those risks are usually exorcised through challenge at any subsequent trial, as was the case here.

8. Summary of Mr Hunter’s complaint:
Allegation that Detective Inspector Pope coerced a witness into giving false evidence, by threatening his access to his children.
Summary of finding:
The Authority has found no evidence to support these allegations and is satisfied that Police acted professionally and appropriately in all respects in their dealings with the witness.

9. Summary of Mr Hunter’s complaint:
Allegation that Detective Inspector Pope did not conduct a test of the duration of a voyage by the vessel Blade because he knew it would contradict the Police case against Scott Watson.
Summary of finding:
Police were not obliged to carry out such a reconstruction and there is no basis for criticism of their failure to do so. It is highly unlikely that such a reconstruction would have been admissible in evidence because of the impossibility of replicating the wind conditions, tide, and weather on New Year’s Day 1988.

10. Summary of Mr Hunter’s complaint:
Allegation that DNA evidence was either ‘planted’ on a blanket from Scott Watson’s boat, or poor Police practices resulted in accidental cross-contamination.
Summary of finding:
The Authority has found no evidence that Police deliberately contaminated the evidence, nor is there any evidence of accidental contamination.

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