Mysterious Chappell case closed
Saturday, October 16, 2010 » 09:39am
By Patrick Caruana
The disappearance was mysterious. The case was circumstantial. The verdict was unequivocal.
The disappearance of Bob Chappell finally had a solution on Friday, when his de facto wife Susan Neill-Fraser was convicted of his murder.
Mr Chappell, a 65-year-old radiation physicist at the Royal Hobart Hospital, was last seen alive on the afternoon of Australia Day, 2009.
At some stage that afternoon Neill-Fraser, his partner of 18 years, left him on board the couple's yacht the Four Winds at its mooring in Hobart's Sandy Bay.
The next day he was gone, and the yacht had been sabotaged, found partially submerged but still on its mooring.
The yacht's dinghy was bobbing against rocks near the Sandy Bay Rowing Club.
The exact fate of Mr Chappell remains unknown, as the jury were not asked to determine how, why or at what time he was killed.
They were asked whether they could be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that Neill-Fraser murdered Mr Chappell.
Neill-Fraser hardly expressed emotion during her trial.
Her body language was difficult to read both in court and in her recorded interviews with police.
But she seemed to bristle at the suggestion that Four Winds, a 53-foot ketch bought for $203,000, was a lemon.
The couple searched marinas 'from Hobart to Cairns' in search of the right boat, she told police.
It was to be their shack, and it had to be able to cope with Tasmanian conditions.
When they first saw the Four Winds at Brisbane's Scarborough Marina, they 'knew it was it', Neill-Fraser said.
Neill-Fraser endured a difficult voyage delivering the vessel to Tasmania, enduring a bout of sea sickness, a string of delays because of a series of costly mechanical and electrical problems, and arguments with her hired crew.
To make matters worse, Mr Chappell had to leave the voyage before the boat even made it out of Queensland when he was taken to hospital with a severe nosebleed.
Despite all this, Neill-Fraser made it to Hobart two days before Christmas 2008 in good spirits and was told her yacht would make her the 'envy of Hobart'.
A matter of weeks later and she was at the centre of a little city's biggest mystery.
It was made more interesting because of its links with the usually genteel yachting world, and the location: Sandy Bay is the island state's answer to Mosman and Toorak.
In the months following the disappearance, police came to suspect Neill-Fraser of murder, and she twice agreed to be interviewed by officers.
Suddenly every detail of her behaviour and relationship with her partner came under the glaring spotlight of police suspicion. In particular:
- Her decision to leave Mr Chappell on the yacht without means of getting ashore.
- Her admitted lie about not going back to Sandy Bay on the night of January 27.
- Her changing story about visiting a Bunnings hardware store the day he was last seen.
- Her visit to Mr Chappell's lawyer just three days after his disappearance.
- Her running joke with Mr Chappell about leaving him or throwing him overboard.
- Her apparently telling at least three people her relationship with Mr Chappell was over.
But when the trial began the focus also turned to the police investigation.
Defence lawyer David Gunson SC said police were 'totally fixated upon the accused and failed to consider the possibility that other people were on board that boat'.
Midway through the trial, Detective Sergeant Simon Conroy, who led the investigation, was almost embarrassed into re-interviewing a witness who told the court he saw a large, grey dinghy near the boat at 4pm on Australia Day.
Neill-Fraser's dinghy was white and blue.
She denied going back to the yacht that night, but a witness testified seeing what he thought was a woman heading in the direction of the Four Winds' mooring on January 26.
There were some elements of the trial that were strange, and some that bordered on the ridiculous.
Strange was the testimony of Phillip Triffett, a former friend of Neill-Fraser's, who said she had tried to enlist his help in killing Mr Chappell more than a decade ago.
Strange was the fact he didn't tell police until he himself was accused of possessing stolen property, and asked police if his statement might 'help him with those other charges'.
Strange was the fact police spent two days dusting the yacht for fingerprints, and could not find a single one matching Neill-Fraser.
Stranger still was the phone call Neill-Fraser received on the night of January 26 from Richard King, a friend of Mr Chappell's daughter Clare.
Clare, who had a history of mental illness and paranoia, said she was concerned something bad would happen to him on the yacht.
Then there was the 16-year-old homeless girl, whose DNA was inexplicably found on the yacht's deck.
It was only matched to her by chance - as her DNA had been gathered by police in relation to another incident after Neill-Fraser was in custody.
During the trial, the girl testified she had never been on board the boat, nor had she come anywhere near it when it was docked in Hobart.
Strange was Neill-Fraser suggesting to police her yacht had been used as a drug-smuggling vessel, saying the boat had been entered in Queensland and in Hobart.
The idea was dismissed by police and called a 'red herring' by Director of Public Prosecutions Tim Ellis.
But strangest of all was the discovery on the day the jury retired of 465 kilograms of cocaine on a yacht at Scarborough - the very marina where Neill-Fraser and Mr Chappell had first seen Four Winds
There is no suggestion the seizure had relevance to the case, but it seemed an appropriate ending to a bizarre case.
Body of lies sinks murderer DANIELLE McKAY | October 17, 2010 08.54am
THERE was no body, weapon or witness, just a woman who couldn't quite get her story straight.
Susan Blyth Neill-Fraser began spinning a web of deceit from the moment her partner Bob Chappell vanished from the couple's yacht on Australia Day 2009.
But as police investigations intensified, focusing on Neill-Fraser, her lies slowly unravelled and led to only one conclusion: the alluring and refined Hobart grandmother had murdered her partner of 18 years.
Neill-Fraser, 56, has maintained her innocence.
Just months before the murder, the seemingly happy couple bought Four Winds, a 53ft ketch that would see them sail into their dream retirement.
The eccentric Mr Chappell was only one year from retiring from his life's work as the Royal Hobart Hospital's chief radiation physicist.
Neill-Fraser was semi-retired, working part-time managing farming properties she owned in Tasmania's Midlands.
Their sailing dreams stretched as far as a transPacific voyage to visit Mr Chappell's sister in Ecuador, but first they would learn the ropes in home waters.
Having scoured almost every marina along Australia's eastern seaboard the couple knew they had found the one the moment they lay eyes on Four Winds in 2008.
In December the couple set off on the near-1000-nautical-mile trip from Brisbane to Hobart with the hired help of experienced yachtsmen Peter Stevenson and David Casson.
Two days later the yacht's engine was plagued by a fungus known as the black death and they were towed into Southport by the Coast Guard.
At the same time Mr Chappell's nose began to bleed uncontrollably, forcing his admission to a Queensland hospital.
After only a couple of hospital visits, Neill-Fraser continued on the voyage south, raising the suspicion of Mr Stevenson and Mr Casson.
Once they left Southport, Neill-Fraser told the sailors her relationship was on the rocks.
"She had said to us in general conversation that their relationship was strained and over, and had been for some time," Mr Stevenson told the Supreme Court during the murder trial.
"She said to me at one stage that she would like to borrow $100,000 from her mother to buy out his share of the boat."
Despite the broken journey, Neill-Fraser was energised, speaking constantly of desires to sail.
It alarmed Mr Chappell's daughter Kate, who couldn't see where her dad fitted in Neill-Fraser's plans.
"I was concerned with that comment and the feeling I got from Sue," she said. "I just felt Sue would have liked to have sailed in a much bigger way than my father."
After the yacht's arrival in Hobart, the couple worked tirelessly almost every day, finally taking time to enjoy it on January 25, 2009, when they took Mr Chappell's sister, Caroline Sanchez, on a day trip to Bruny Island.
The next morning Ms Sanchez unknowingly spoke her final words to her brother, passing an incidental "good morning" as she made a cup of tea.
Though the evidence presented by the prosecution was circumstantial, the jury accepted that Neill-Fraser's desire for Mr Chappell's million-dollar estate or her hatred of what their relationship had become was consuming her.
The prosecution claimed that while Mr Chappell was working on Four Winds, she boarded the yacht, took up a wrench or similar tool and struck him from behind. The force of the alleged blow spattered his blood throughout the yacht.
She had then hauled his limp body into a dinghy using a rope and winch arrangement.
Under the cover of darkness Neill-Fraser was said to have weighted the body, possibly with a fire extinguisher, before dumping it in the depths of the Derwent River.
In a desperate bid to cover her tracks she had used her intimate knowledge of the yacht to sink it. She had severed a pipe and opened a seacock after switching off the bilge pumps and alarms.
By the time police arrived about 7am on January 27, waves were crashing over the deck of the $203,000 yacht, which was estimated to have been sinking for between nine and 12 hours.
Blood, a knife and engulfing water confronted the lone police officer who was first to board the sinking yacht.
The officer called out to see if anyone was aboard, but no one answered.
Mr Chappell's body was never found, despite intensive police searches.
Before too long what began as a missing person case had become a murder investigation.
Within months Neill-Fraser was the prime suspect.
Her constantly changing account of her whereabouts the night Mr Chappell disappeared meant police could be sure of one thing only: she was lying.
She gave police false leads, including claiming that Four Winds had been used to traffic drugs and smugglers had entered the yacht in Brisbane and Hobart.
"She told police lies and gave police information that was later proven to be untrue -- why would an innocent person do that?" Hobart CIB Inspector Peter Powell said.
On August 20, seven months after Mr Chappell's disappearance, Neill-Fraser's lies caught up with her when she was charged with his murder.
The highly circumstantial prosecution case -- and Tasmania's first murder trial without a body -- appeared to face hard going to secure a conviction.
However, as more than 50 witnesses presented evidence in the four-week trial, the evidence mounted against Neill-Fraser.
The jury of five men and seven women heard that Neill-Fraser had told a former friend of her past plots to kill Mr Chappell in an eerily similar scenario to that which unfolded on Australia Day.
Perhaps most damning was Neill-Fraser's three-day stint in the witness box.
She showed little emotion and even laughed at propositions made by Director of Public Prosecutions Tim Ellis SC.
Under oath her story changed yet again, as details she couldn't recall during police investigations came back to her.
She claimed to have been suffering from shock, that she had seen a psychiatrist for memory loss.
"I can't explain the confusion in my mind," she said.
"I actually began to get mental blackouts -- that's the best I can describe it."
Neill-Fraser's defence counsel David Gunson SC failed to convince jurors that the police investigation was "appalling".
He claimed police had failed to properly investigate a grey dinghy seen moored alongside Four Winds late on Australia Day.
"They could not recognise the possibility that a person other than the accused was aboard Four Winds," he said.
At one point Mr Gunson claimed that a 16-year-old homeless girl, whose DNA was inexplicably found on Four Winds, was involved in Mr Chappell's death.
But his efforts were in vain.
After a night sequestered at a city hotel, and an exhausting 18 hours of deliberation, the jury decided Neill-Fraser's fate.
Late on Friday night, the jury delivered a unanimous decision, convicting Neill-Fraser of murder. Without expression, Neill-Fraser shook her head.
Her daughters, Emma Mills and Sarah Bowles, gasped in shock, before crying as their mother was taken to prison minutes later.
While many believed she was guilty, few thought that a jury could reach unanimous agreement, none more than Neill-Fraser.
Sentencing will begin next week, but an appeal is expected.