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EXCLUSIVE: Gerald Hope and Scott Watson meet for the first time

The father of Olivia Hope comes face-to-face with the man convicted of murdering his daughter and her friend Ben Smart.
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Gerald Hope: “I respect what you say, but there are questions I’ll be asking today so I really, really need to know we’re getting it from your heart and your head. And it’s got to be absolutely honest.”

Scott Watson: “And you also need to be prepared to hear the truth and actually take it on board, because you’ve obviously been close to [investigation head] Rob Pope and his cronies. And at the time, you took on his line, and you were standing out there, almost the little media front with them, to create this whole thing.”

For 19 years, Gerald Hope wanted to meet Scott Watson, the man convicted of murdering his daughter, Olivia and her friend, Ben Smart, who disappeared after boarding a yacht with a stranger in the Marlborough Sounds in the early hours of New Year’s Day, 1998.

For 19 years, Scott Watson has maintained his innocence, and been open to meeting Gerald Hope.

Last month that meeting finally took place, in prison, where Watson remains.

There were never going to be handshakes. There were moments when the gulf between them seemed as wide as it was nearly 19 years ago. The suspicion, the cynicism, the different worlds they lived in. And then there were times when there was an understanding, where they saw things the same way, where there was concession and common ground.

Scott Watson.

Hope: “You and I are both victims. You believe you’re a victim.”

Watson: “I know I’m a victim – I know I’m a victim.”

Hope: “We’re a victim. We never got the truth. We haven’t got the truth yet. Most people have got the comfort of the police, the legal system having done their job, so that’s why you’re in here. That’s the bottom line. Most people just get on with their lives, they don’t want to have anything change what’s already been decided. And I know that, I understand that.”

In two meetings, over two days, the still-grieving father and the man he’d once declared had snuffed out his 17-year-old daughter’s life, relived and “relitigated” the events of that fateful New Year’s Day.

Among key pieces of evidence they wrestled with was the Crown’s controversial “two-trip theory”.

The Crown insisted Watson was seen onshore after 2am (even though he’d been identified back on his boat Blade around that time) and it didn’t matter how he got there. Watson had to return to shore to get a ride on the water-taxi where he met Ben and Olivia.

For Gerald Hope, being able to believe the two-trip theory is essential – because without it, it means Watson wasn’t the mystery man on the water-taxi at 4am with Olivia’s older sister Amelia and friend Rick Goddard, and then with Olivia and Ben. It means it’s virtually impossible he was the murderer.

So how could Watson have returned to shore, between 2am and 4am?

Hope: “Did you, as someone suggested, put all your clothes into a plastic bag and swim ashore?”

Watson: “Seriously?”

Hope: “I’m not serious, but I’m asking you.”

Watson: “No.”

There were, of course, other ways of Watson could have returned to shore.

He could have caught a ride with a passing water-taxi or tender, but no water-taxi driver or boatie ever recalled this, nor did anyone else see it happen – just as nobody saw a man swimming ashore or arriving drenched on the wharf.

He could have stolen or used someone else’s tender – but again, nobody reported one missing, or found it mysteriously ashore the next morning. Or he could have used his own dinghy, Hope suggesting Watson could have rowed ashore after 2am, left his dinghy there and caught the water-taxi back to Blade around 4am, then in the morning used Blade to retrieve his dinghy.

For it to be possible, it of course requires nobody among the nearly 2000 people at Furneaux Lodge for New Year’s, to have noticed Watson doing any of this.

It also presumably requires Ben and Olivia to have already been dead or incapacitated by the time Watson slipped back to Furneaux’s wharf to retrieve his dinghy – meaning he’d attacked or killed them while tied up just feet away from 11 other people on the neighbouring yachts.

Or they could have been asleep – though that would have required them to sleep through Watson’s extremely loud diesel engine being started and running just metres from where they lay. Or maybe they woke and accepted Watson’s assurances he was just moving berths or dropping them ashore. Otherwise, Ben and Olivia would presumably have escaped when Watson went to retrieve his dinghy.

And while a number of people on board the yachts rafted up to Blade, heard Watson come back around 2am, curiously, nobody heard him return with Ben and Olivia around 4am.

Watson says the police and prosecution had to invent the two-trip theory because they couldn’t prove he’d done anything, and even Hope admits it was “a hand-grenade lobbed in there – everyone was shocked when it was mentioned.”

Hope: “They wanted a prosecution, Scott. The stakes were high, the costs, the most expensive trial in New Zealand’s history up to that time.”

Watson: “I can assure you, Gerald, that I didn’t go back ashore, at any stage.”

Words: Mike White

For more on this story, visit Noted and follow North & South on Facebook.. Read the full story in North & South, on sale December 12.

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