Former Melbourne detective Colin McLaren’s cold case book into the 2009 disappearance of Bob Chappell and the 2010 conviction of Sue Neill-Fraser for his murder comes after years of agitation and disquiet about that conviction. It’s an itch that won’t be calmed. This book will help, though.
Sensational is the most apt word to describe Southern Justice, referring to both the astonishing revelations of institutionalised errors and wrong-doing, chapter after chapter, and the sensation these revelations prompt in the reader. Outrage. And that’s before we consider the intimidation to which the author McLaren and his fellow researchers were (and still are) subjected by Tasmanian police and the office of the DPP, such as a threat to charge him with being an unregistered private investigator (under the Security and Investigations Act 2002, max. penalty $31,800).
Joined in their efforts to hide the truth not find it in the case of Sue Neill-Fraser, key players of Tasmania’s legal system are exposed as variously inept and corrupt, brazenly acting against the interests of justice. The Tasmanian politicians responsible for providing oversight of the administration of the law are shown to be failing miserably in that responsibility.
‘Naively, I compiled a dossier of over fifty pages, highlighting the flaws in the investigation and the mountain of missed evidence. I thought Tasmania’s head lawmakers might welcome having this debacle brought to their attention, and perhaps undertake a fresh and independent investigation.
‘But once my dossier was handed to those in power, they did not accept it. Those high up in the police and political hierarchy ignored what I had found.’
It’s riveting, infuriating, exciting; I couldn’t put it down. Recognised as one of Australia’s finest detectives, task force team leaders and trainer of detectives in the 1980s and 90s, McLaren was also an undercover cop, successfully infiltrating the Australian mafia. He is now a journalist and author.
Effectively blending his ace detective and writing skills, McLaren takes the reader on an urgent journey to thoroughly investigate the people and events surrounding the disappearance of Bob Chappell from his Hobart yacht, Four Winds, sometime on January 26/27, 2009. McLaren’s decades of experience are neatly contrasted in the chapter describing his interview with the professionally underwhelming (now retired) Inspector Peter Powell who led the flawed 2009 investigation.
Ever since the media started asking questions – and there were quite a few of them, from 60 Minutes to 7.30, the Australian and Women’s Weekly to many others right up till today – the Tasmanian legal establishment became aggressively defensive. It began when filmmaker and psychologist Eve Ash produced her feature length documentary, Shadow of Doubt, which had its premiere at Hobart’s State Theatre on July 31, 2013. She had spent years making it, showing up the ineptitude of the police investigation.
McLaren’s book turbo-charges those criticisms and adds a massive payload in the form of evidence the police didn’t find or ignored: hard facts, all corroborated. Such as the crucial issue of the DNA of homeless Meaghan Vass, found on the yacht, which the DPP tried to dismiss as having been transferred on a copper’s boot. What the DPP didn’t explain to the jury – nor the High Court – was that the DNA sample came from a deposit the size of a pancake. And how vital facts led McLaren to a group of thieves who were never – but should have been – considered persons of interest in the investigation. In a nutshell, a yacht break-and-enter that went horribly wrong. He shows why so many believe Sue Neill-Fraser to be innocent, while believing that the killers are still free.
Needless to say, this sort of information makes TasPol fidgety.
Referring to his work on the new documentary series made by Eve Ash (co-produced with CJZ) for Seven Network, Undercurrent, he complains of TasPol being more than fidgety:
‘In 2017, the police were applying pressure to those who dared have a different opinion about the death of Bob Chappell.’
McLaren doesn’t hold back: ‘No other city in Australia pursues the twin ideals of incompetence and corruption with quite the same enthusiasm as Hobart. When it comes to asinine administration,’ snorts McLaren on page 289, ‘the Tasmanian government is in a league of its own.’
As we close the book after the last page, all of them filled with evidence, much of it seeing the light of day for the first time, the title Southern Justice takes on its full meaning; it could just as easily be titled Rough Justice. McLaren wants to see a Royal Commission into the case, as do many others, with over 2,500 already signing a petition at savesue.com
McLaren was cross-examined on February 5 and 6, 2019, by the DPP in the Hobart Supreme Court, over his role in a signed statutory declaration he obtained from Meaghan Vass, admitting her presence on the yacht with ‘two men I won’t name.’
This book goes a long way to solving the crime and showing why Tasmania was not able to, jailing instead an innocent, middle-aged, middle-class grandmother. She and Bob Chappell, her partner of 18 years, had taken possession of their rather magnificent jointly-owned Four Winds just a month or so earlier. It was a retirement dream. In one fell swoop, she lost her partner, Bob, her good name, her liberty, her savings, their yacht and their shared future.
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