In the early hours of New Year’s Day 1998, the calm waters of Waikawa Bay became a crime scene.
Two young New Zealanders, Ben Smart and Olivia Hope, boarded a stranger’s boat. They were never seen again.
Although their bodies were never found and there was little evidence a crime had been committed, a local man was charged, and later convicted, of their murders.
He has always maintained his innocence.
With a lack of evidence, an unlikely suspect, and rumours of a police conspiracy, the case is often referred to as New Zealand’s very own Making A Murderer.
On January 31, 1997, Ben, 21, and Olivia, 17, were bringing in the New Year at a party at Furneaux Lodge in the Marlborough Sounds. They then returned to the Tamarack, the boat they had planned to stay the night on.
As the New Zealand Herald reports, after discovering the Tamarack was overcrowded, the pair boarded a water taxi with the hope of finding alternative accommodation back on the mainland.
They would never make it back to shore.
The Mamamia Out Loud team deep-dive on the year that was true crime. Post continues.
Guy Wallace, the water taxi’s driver, said a mysterious stranger offered to let the pair stay on his vessel overnight.
They accepted the offer and Wallace dropped the three of them off at what he described as a two-masted ketch. That was the last time anyone ever saw Ben and Olivia.
On January 2, 1998, the pair’s parents reported them missing. The local police began looking into the case and interviewing witnesses.
Then on January 5, Detective Inspector Rob Pope, arrived from Christchurch to take over what was now known as Operation TAM.
During his interviews, Wallace told police about the mysterious man and his two-masted wooden ketch. He described him as being unshaven and having medium-length, wavy hair.
He also described the two-masted ketch as being 38-40 feet long.
Witnesses at a local bar also described the mysterious man as unshaven with long, wavy hair.
By Sunday January 11, Pope had narrowed in on a local man named Scott Watson as a person of interest.
Watson was clean shaven and had short hair on the night in question. He also owned a 26-foot single-masted steel sloop, not a two-masted wooden ketch.
According to Mike White at Noted, Pope said Watson began to “stick out like dogs’ balls” and had the “the right sort of agenda and pedigree” to commit the crime.
While Watson did have a police record from his teenage years, he hadn’t had a brush with the law in a long time.
Despite numerous people describing the two-masted wooden ketch, Pope concluded he was “fairly certain” the boat did not exist.
The police then lifted Watson’s yacht, Blade, from Waikawa marina and transported it to Woodbourne Air Force base for examination. They also searched Watson’s parents, Chris and Beverly’s home, and the home of his sister Sandy.
Soon a rumour began circulating around the small town that Watson was sleeping with his sister. A rumour that some, including Olivia Hope’s father Gerald, allege the police did nothing to stop.
“There was always whispering here and there, dropping seeds into us about this and that like the incest stuff and the dysfunctional family. ‘Bloody family, they’re all bloody cop-haters and anti-social types’, that sort of thing,” Gerald told Noted.
“And for us middle-class people who don’t run families that way, I was suddenly confronted with the fact there was somebody at Furneaux Lodge capable of doing what was supposed to have happened. That’s why I remember saying, and I hate having said it, ‘If we can’t have our kids back then we’ll nail the bastard’.”
The police then ramped up their efforts to convict Watson.
Without any witnesses directly pointing the finger at Watson, the police then showed Wallace, the water-taxi driver, a photo of Watson with his eyes half closed in a montage of eight photos.
Wallace said the photo did resemble the man but he had longer hair and an unkempt appearance.
Another potential witness also pointed out the hooded-eye photo but insisted the man had longer hair.
The police also began tipping off the media about any advancements in the case. The night before Watson was arrested, the media knew and were ready to print their stories. He was later charged with Smart and Hope’s murder, despite the police never locating their bodies.
The only evidence was the hooded-eye photo and two hairs found on a blanket on Watson’s boat which matched Olivia’s DNA.
After a drawn-out, dramatic court case Watson was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment with a non-parole period of 17 years. He remains behind bars today.
Over the years, public sentiment around the case in New Zealand has changed. People have become uneasy and wonder whether the wrong man is behind bars.
A 2002 poll found that 59 per cent people believed Watson was guilty. By 2005 that figure had dropped to 44 per cent and by 2007 it was just 42 per cent.
Twenty years later no one really knows what happened to Ben Smart and Olivia Hope on the calm waters of Waikawa Bay that night.
And perhaps no one ever will.