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Sloop seized by police
The public pulse leaped 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.

The officer in charge of Operation Tam, Detective Inspector Rob Pope was characteristically conservative in his response to media excitement at the development. He said it definitely wasn’t a breakthrough. “This removal is just part of the ongoing process of the investigation and no suspect is being sought in relation to the find,” he said.

However, Ben Smart’s mother told The Dominion she was expecting the worst following a briefing from police after the yacht was seized. She said it had been the worst day since Ben and Olivia disappeared. On the other hand, Olivia’s mother Jan said she remained optimistic and was determined to stay positive.

Sloop repainted
Police reveal the sloop had been repainted soon after Olivia and Ben went missing. Over New Years Eve, it had been white with brick red superstructure. Some time during New Years Day the superstructure was repainted blue while the yacht was moored at Erie Bay, 13 nautical miles from Furneaux Lodge.

At a large news conference, following the yacht’s seizure, Rob Pope offered a ‘no comment’ to almost all questions, saying it was inappropriate to respond at that time. He rubbished a rumour that someone has been taken into custody and said he was disappointed by such speculation.

Controversially, the seized yacht was a single-masted sloop and not the double-masted ketch police had sought from the outset. The Dominion reported a local yachtsperson’s opinion that a sloop and a ketch could have easily been confused on the night, especially after the celebrations. The fact that it was tied up with other yachts may explain why some people might have thought it had more than one mast. However, Rob Pope told the 14 January news conference that police were still looking for the ketch.

On 15 January, police said the seized sloop had been moored near private property in Erie Bay at about 11am on New Years Day. The media reported the owner of the sloop had worked for the owner of a property there and the search suddenly switched to that area.

The following day police issued a photograph of the seized sloop taken in Endeavour Inlet on New Years Eve to jog potential witness’s memories. There were two people on deck but police obscured their faces and declined to say how many people were on the boat when it was photographed by a member of the public at 4pm on New Years Eve.

Rob Pope told reporters on 17 January that forensic scientists had taken ‘material and matter’ from the seized sloop. The sloop underwent intensive examination including spraying with fluorescent chemical Luminol which will show up bloodstains even when invisible to the naked eye. The scientists had been instructed not to talk to the media, nor would Rob Pope amplify. Auckland industrial chemist Jim Sprott said ‘matter’ usually meant specimens and ‘material’ referred to organic body material such as seminal stains and bloodstains.

The sloop was put back into the water on 19 February. The mast, previously removed by police, had been replaced. Two days later Rob Pope said the sloop had been put back into the water to try to accurately assess its speed and the time it took to sail or motor between various points in the Sounds. Trials included motoring the vessel between Endeavour Inlet and Erie Bay, having allegedly been seen in both places on New Years Day.

Pope said people should not place too much significance on the yacht’s re-launch. It was ‘just another extension of the inquiry.’

The sloop was returned to the owner’s family on 20 March. A hatch had been removed and is still held by police who have replaced it with a new one. Police would not say why the original hatch had been retained.

The Dominion of 18 March says the sloop’s owner was looking forward to getting it back because it had been his living quarters. However, it was not handed directly to him, but to his family. The owner’s lawyer Bruce Davidson QC said his client was ‘not present’ but had given his family authority to arrange for the sloop’s return.

Police had commissioned a marine survey of the yacht along with an expert employed by the Watson family to ensure the vessel had not been damaged while in their hands. However, after the handover, the family told police they were not satisfied with the yacht’s condition. Paint had been damaged. They asked for it to be taken out of the water again so a further marine survey could be conducted. They said they expected police to pay for this and for any repairs.

For more information, refer to any of the 20 aspects isolated by CrimeCo. Sequentially, Yacht owner named is recommended.

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A yacht is taken by police for forensic examination

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