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The Investigation
Police were told that 17 year-old Olivia Hope and Ben Smart (21) were missing on 2 January 1998. The friends had not been seen since being delivered by water-taxi, along with a mystery man, to his yacht moored in Endeavour Inlet, in the early hours of New Years Day. At that stage, while the families were worried because it was uncharacteristic for either not to keep in contact with their parents, they and the police were aware there could be innocent explanations for their absence.
Searches began on 3 January, initially coordinated by Picton police then, as concern mounted, Blenheim Area Controller Inspector Steve Caldwell took charge. The airforce and navy were asked to keep an eye out for the mystery ketch, as were commercial fishing vessels, boating clubs and waterside lodges.

Five days after the pair was reported missing, there was unconfirmed media speculation that the ‘missing person’ search was soon to be upgraded to a homicide investigation. Steve Caldwell said all it meant was that additional resources could be brought in. At that stage, the police focus remained on identifying the two-masted yacht Ben and Olivia were said to have boarded.

Police also launched a public appeal for photographs and videos taken by holiday makers moored in Endeavour Inlet on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day to help them identify every boat there and interview the people aboard them. They had an excellent response that allowed them to produce a montage giving an excellent perspective of which vessels were there on the evening and the following day

A police diving team began searching part of the Endeavour Inlet seabed. Gerald Hope, Olivia’s father appealed to the public to come forward with information.

By 8 January, the National Search and Rescue Centre in Lower Hutt estimated the mystery yacht could have reached Australia or either end of New Zealand. There was still no sign of the missing pair and Detective Inspector Rob Pope, a top CIB investigator from Christchurch had taken charge the previous day. While police make no comment on the status of the inquiry, it is well known that most major homicide investigations are headed by detective inspectors.

A week had passed since the pair was reported missing and the fact that neither the ketch nor the mystery man has been identified occasioned speculation about whether the descriptions were accurate.

Initial reports were that the trio had boarded a (two masted) ketch. Rob Pope told the media that police remained convinced the ketch existed but said that no photographic evidence had been found nor had there been any reports of its whereabouts. People had supplied a great deal of photographic and video material but no one had captured a ketch on film. The debate here was whether the yacht the trio boarded was a (double masted) ketch or a (single masted) sloop.

Police developed a montage of boats moored off Furneaux Lodge. They issued an artist’s impression of the suspect ketch showing its two masts, white hull, with blue trim and between five and seven round brass-framed portholes. The ketch was well maintained with a lot of ropes on it. Its stern was bulbous and it had low profile, possibly cream cabins. Police admitted the description fitted hundreds of boats.

Police said overseas forces had been advised of the pair’s disappearance through Interpol in the hope they might turn up at some foreign port. South Pacific ports in particular, were asked to keep a lookout. Police also studied satellite pictures of territorial waters supplied by weather tracking stations in the hope the vessel might be spotted.

Now one of the South Island’s biggest investigations:

By 10 January Operation Tam staffing had risen from 29 to 44 including SAR personnel, making it one of the biggest South Island investigations for some years. Staff were brought in from Wellington, Christchurch, Auckland and Dunedin. Over the next weeks, some 23 detectives on average worked on the inquiry, assisted by up to 10 based in Christchurch, another 10 in Wellington, up to four in Auckland and one in Dunedin.

The Operation Tam inquiry base was flooded with calls from people offering information ‘from Northland to Southland.’ The extra staff were needed to process and follow up that amount of information. Meanwhile the ground searches continued and 70 volunteers from airforce, search and rescue, deerstalkers, police and Red Cross combed dense bush between Punga Cove and Tawa Bay.

By now police had interviewed some 300 people who had been at Furneaux Lodge on New Years Eve. Their objective was to contact and speak to possibly up to 2000 people said to have been there. Land and sea searches continued, (including aircraft) from Endeavour Inlet to Cape Jackson, Arapawa Island and Queen Charlotte Sounds islands. “There are huge numbers of areas to be covered in which we consider likely spots where Ben and Olivia might have been,” Rob Pope commented.

The public pulse leapt on 12 January when police seized a yacht similar to the one sought in connection with the disappearances of Olivia Hope and Ben Smart. The friends were last seen boarding a yacht in Endeavour Inlet with a mystery man in the early hours of New Years Day.

Police lifted the yacht from Picton’s Shakespeare Bay and took it to a Woodbourne airforce base hanger for secure storage pending a forensic examination. Police had boarded it in earlier in the day, wearing gloves and protective clothing. Four police and one scientist from Environmental and Science Research (ESR) in Wellington and another from Christchurch subsequently fine-tooth combed the sloop.

Ketch seen leaving sounds
The media reported a charter boat operator who had seen ‘the’ ketch leaving Queen Charlotte Sound on 2 January with people on board who could have been Olivia, Ben and the mystery man. The Sunday Star Times quoted operator Ted Walsh as saying, as he anchored off Cannibal Cove that day (2 January), he saw the ketch pass by, heading for the open sea. It was under motor with no sails. “What was distinctive was a young, blond-headed girl sitting in the cockpit at the back of the boat. A guy with very short hair was sitting beside her, very close,” he said. At the time of the sighting, Mr Walsh did not know the pair was missing. He said the two sitting so close together seemed strange and they did not return the waves from him and his passengers, which was ‘uncharacteristic of boaties.’ He said, however, there was no way he could say the pair was the missing couple.

Rob Pope emphasised police were keeping an open mind on what occurred and on who might have been involved in the pair’s disappearance. He said police were firming their thoughts and were making progress, but he was not drawing any conclusions and remained optimistic of achieving a result.

On 16 January the Hope and Smart families mounted a private aerial search of Endeavour Inlet. Some 50 of their friends also searched the shoreline in their own boats. A number of boats used are from the North Island’s Mana Boating Club.

Although Rob Pope said the investigation woul
By 10 January Operation Tam staffing had risen from 29 to 44, making it one of the biggest South Island investigations.
d continue at full strength for at least another two weeks, by 21 January Operation Tam, probably by police design, began to fade from the media spotlight.

Police had identified some 1400 people who were in the Endeavour Inlet on New Years Eve and hoped many would be seen over the next fortnight. Mr Pope said the enquiry had established a platform to enable more focused investigations and periodic ground searches depending on information received.

Eight police divers operating from Wellington’s police launch the Lady Liz, searched Erie Bay on 22 January for bodies, without success. Rob Pope, who had steadfastly refused to call Operation Tam a homicide enquiry said he did not like using the term bodies, but he ‘had to be realistic’. “Clearly we are on the lookout for anything we can connect with Ben or Olivia, including bodies, persons, whatever,” he said.

‘Expect the worst’
On 23 January, a private search organised by the families combed Long and Blumine Islands and other parts of the outer Endeavour Inlet. The following day police divers completed their last planned search of Erie Bay, Moioio Island and bays off Queen Charlotte Sound and Kaipakirikiri Bay (where a yacht seized by police as part of their investigation had been seen) and returned to Wellington.

On the same day, Olivia’s father Gerald Hope told The Dominion his and the Smart families refused to give up hope that the pair was still alive despite police conceding to them, that they were looking for bodies. He said police had been advising them for almost a week to expect the worst and inquiry head Rob Pope had said publicly a few days earlier that divers were looking for bodies.

Rob Pope asked the public and the media on 27 January, to have confidence in the police investigation. He said the operation was huge and he asked people to bear with police. On the same day, Gerald Hope made an appeal through the New Zealand Herald, to the owner of the sloop seized by police on 12 January to ‘tell us if he knows anything.’ “The obvious thing for him to do is to come to our house or pick up the phone and tell us if he knows anything,” he said.

Frustration with media
Rob Pope’s frustration at some media actions surfaced again on 27 January when he warned reporters not to ‘re-interview’ witnesses in the search for Olivia and Ben saying they could harm the inquiry. He was concerned at comments made on television the previous night by a teenager who was among the last to see Olivia and Ben, that the yacht seized by police was not the boat the missing pair boarded. He was sure they got onto a (two-masted) ketch. Rob Pope said reporters speaking to witnesses could never compare to the systematic identification and interviewing of people done by police.

Mr Pope said police inquiries indicated some witnesses might have been genuinely mistaken when they identified some boats. He gave an assurance police were keeping an open mind on the ketch angle, but were focusing their attention on the sloop and boats that, from the information gathered so far, had been moored off Furneaux Lodge on New Years Eve and New Years Day. He said only one boat remained unidentified out of the 137 then moored off the lodge and that was an aluminium runabout.

By early March Mr Pope said the ‘mystery ketch’ did not exist and that the investigation would continue to focus on a sloop. Mr Pope said witnesses convinced they saw a ketch might have been confused. Police tested those accounts against relevant, established facts and it became clear some interviewees were genuinely mistaken. (Ferry taxi driver Guy Wallace who took the trio to the yacht, strongly and publicly rejected this conclusion, but may since have modified his view).

New photos released
Media interest in the investigation, previously flagging, was revived on 11 February when police called a 1pm news conference at which they released photographs of four young people who had been in the same area as Ben and Olivia just before they disappeared.

Rob Pope said the four, two men and two women were in no way under suspicion but had been on the jetty about the time the mystery man got into the water taxi. Police said there were other people in the area and if they saw the photographs of who else was on the jetty, they might remember seeing the mystery man. Two of the people photographed were on the water taxi when Olivia and Ben were dropped off at a boat in Endeavour Inlet and were also offered a bed on the man’s boat.

But two days later police said they received no response. Rob Pope was not surprised because most witnesses had been screened already. Showing the photographs had been a backup to ensure there was no one they had missed. By then police estimated they had still to interview 400 to 500 witnesses, some of whom had yet to be found and were known to the inquiry team only by nicknames. He said a team of 45 officers would take another three to four weeks to speak to all witnesses. Police had worked seven days a week for the past six weeks.

Operation Tam a million dollar plus operation
By 20 February Operation Tam had cost a million dollars. In spite of resources put into the search, Rob Pope said police still had no idea whether Olivia and Ben were dead or alive.

Mr Pope gave an assurance through The Dominion on 20 February, that even though there had been no police searches in the previous two weeks, the investigation was continuing and police had not given up on finding the missing pair. As good as his word, police returned to the Sounds on 26 February, in response to information from the public. Police conducted shore-line searches in and around Erie Bay, Wharehunga Bay, Te Rua Bay, Wharehunga Bay, Ship Cove, Cook Cove, Marine Head and Bakers Bay.

Mr Pope said information from the public included disturbed ground and someone behaving in an unusual manner. Nothing of relevance was found, however, Mr Pope said all information received from the public was followed up, but had to be prioritised. The latest searches were the result of information that did not require immediate follow-up. Mr Pope said on TVNZ on 26 February that police would continue to search as long as people provided information that warranted follow-up.

The last planned police search was underway with 40 volunteers combing the area surrounding Furneaux Lodge from Punga Cove to Ship Cove. Police said any further searches would depend on what information came to hand.

For more information refer to any of the 20 topics isolated for you by CrimeCo. Sequentially, Rob Pope is recommended.

Next related article: Forward to Dectective Inspector  Rob Pope assigned to head investigationDectective Inspector Rob Pope assigned to head investigation
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Overview of the Police Investigation

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