Mum wouldn't do this to us

Written By miftah nugraha on Minggu, 03 Februari 2013 | 19.55

WHEN the Royal Hobart Hospital's chief radiation physicist disappeared from his yacht at Sandy Bay on Australia Day 2009, two families were plunged into a controversy that rages still.

Bob Chappell, 65, had owned the $200,000 yacht Four Winds with his lover of 20 years, Susan Neill-Fraser.

By the time police arrived about 7am on January 27, waves were lapping over the vessel, which was estimated to have been sinking for between nine and 12 hours.

An officer found blood aboard but there was no sign of Mr Chappell.

Despite extensive searches of the River Derwent, neither his body nor a murder weapon was ever found.

In 2010 Neill-Fraser was found guilty of Mr Chappell's murder.

At the time of sentencing, Hobart Supreme Court judge Alan Blow said he was convinced the then 54-year-old had attacked Mr Chappell, weighted his body with a fire extinguisher and dumped it overboard before sabotaging their yacht to cover her tracks.

Mr Chappell's family, including his son Timothy and daughter Kate, had appeared as witnesses during the trial but were not present when the verdict was handed down.

Neill-Fraser was sentenced to 26 years behind bars, with a non-parole period of 18 years.

Last March the sentence was reduced on appeal to 23 years, with a minimum 13-year term.

The convicted killer remains locked up in women's minimum security at Risdon Prison and, because she is still unwilling to admit guilt, will probably be kept there until she has served the maximum penalty.

Her daughters and supporters cannot accept this.

They, and a legal team made up of prominent freedom-fighters Barbara Etter, Greg Barns, Madeleine Ogilvie and Tom Percy QC, are working on a petition for mercy and have launched a bid for a full and public coronial inquiry in the hope it might clear Neill-Fraser's name.

Her family insists the whole truth is yet to come out.

Sarah Bowles, 28, and expecting her first child next month, is adamant her mother is innocent.

"Yes I'm her daughter, but I'm also a thinking person," Mrs Bowles said.

"Our primary concern is to find the truth about what happened to Bob. There are many unanswered questions and disturbing aspects surrounding the police investigation. The best way to now resolve this is through a coronial inquiry.

"We are confident in Mum's innocence. I've seen all the evidence. I don't believe they have proof Mum is guilty beyond reasonable doubt and as such, I believe there has been a miscarriage of justice.

"I think humans are capable of doing bad things, but Mum would never put us through this. I believe an innocent person is sitting in prison."

Neill-Fraser's supporters list a raft of issues they believe were never fully explored before the jury that convicted the accomplished horsewoman and keen "yachtie".

"Mum was not physically capable of carrying out the crime she has been accused of," Mrs Bowles said.

"She loved Bob and when he disappeared she was frantic, absolutely distraught.

"She was waiting for him to come through the door and my husband and I moved in with her because she wasn't coping with the grief.

"Then, suddenly, there was a change in the community's perception ... people who'd never met Mum accused her of being cold, detached, but when we hear that it's like they're talking about a different person. Mum is warm, loving.

"There is so much inaccurate gossip and rumour circulating in the community and I'm worried this influenced the court case. Despite Mum's first husband attending every court appearance in her support, people still say to me that they heard that she murdered him also. It's just incredible to hear when he is standing right there beside me offering support."

Mrs Bowles and her older sister, Emma, grew up with Mr Chappell.

Mrs Bowles was just 24 when he disappeared and holds power-of-attorney for her imprisoned mother.

Instead of riding horses or cooking meals with her mother, these days they spend their precious time together under guard in a stark prison.

The family accepts Mr Chappell is most likely dead.

Any suggestion he deliberately absconded does not resonate with those who knew him.

"Bob would never see Mum go through something like this. It doesn't make sense but it's very hard with no body," Mrs Bowles said.

"I still find myself looking for him in crowds."

On top of living with the public stigma of being Neill-Fraser's daughter, Mrs Bowles and her sister have essentially had two parents taken from them.

Emma gave birth to her second child last month.

Mrs Bowles will give birth to her first child without her mother beside her.

Mrs Bowles said her mother had made the best of her situation, mentoring other prisoners and planting a vegetable garden.

"I lean on my husband, Mark, a lot," she said.

"But for Mum, at the end of the day there are those four concrete walls around her, and then they shut the door and it's just her."

The family is down to its final options after an application for leave to appeal to the High Court was rejected.

If the coroner refuses their request, they intend to petition the Attorney-General.

That is it.

Asked if it would not just be easier to accept Neill-Fraser was guilty, Mrs Bowles is considered in her response.

"Mum was 54, a middle-aged mum. She wasn't capable of carrying out the steps they said she would have had to.

"But if someone had something really compelling, something that said she did it beyond reasonable doubt, then at least I would then know what had happened to Bob ... I wouldn't look for him in crowds anymore.

"Whatever happened, I would like to know the truth. I hope a coronial inquest can help bring closure to what actually happened to Bob."

"I don't think there's ever been a major miscarriage of justice exposed in this state and we realised too late how naive we were.

"We have this mentality that the police are the good guys, if they think someone's done something, they probably have. And maybe that's true most of the time.

"But the problem is what happens if they get it wrong?"

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