The Mystery Skull

"I want to know why it wasn't looked at three years ago, using the best of science to eliminate Olivia straight away. That is the real story here, why has it taken three years?"

Gerald Hope


Skull’s Secrets Sought

Barnacles attached to a female human skull may reveal some of the secrets of its owner’s demise following analysis by University of Otago experts.

The skull was pulled from the sea near the mouth of the Waimakariri River, north of Christchurch, by a trawler three years ago, but its owner was never identified, Sen. Constable Graham Lawson, of Christchurch, confirmed yesterday.

 In June this year Lyttelton Police handed it to Otago University skeletal anatomist, John Dennison.

 As a result of Mr Dennison’s assessment, it emerged that the skull belonged to a female.

 Mr Dennison said he discussed the case with professor Jules Kaiser, of the dental school, and the pair concluded the victim was a young woman. She was likely to have been in her late teens or early 20s and probably Caucasian.

 “We looked at the shells on it and professor Kaiser came up with the bright idea that a friend of his new a bit about shells and we should take it to him”, Mr Davison said.

The skull went to Dr. Phil Bishop of the zoology department.


Christchurch Press 22/8/02   NZPA         


The above news article was the first indication that anyone in the Marlborough area had of the existence of this skull and even though it falls within the parameters of Olivia Hope no information about it had worked it's way into the Operation Tam file. The skull was found (from the information available) slightly before or during Scott Watson's trial. Investigation by Police - NIL, until some three years later.


Hope unhappy about delay in examining skull

Gerald Hope, father of murdered Blenheim teenager Olivia Hope, wants to know why it has taken three years to forensically test a skull retrieved from the mouth of the Waimakariri River near Christchurch.

Uncovered by a fishing trawler in 1999, the skull was originally thought to have belonged to one of two fishermen who had gone missing in the area. Later tests showed that it belonged instead to a Pakeha woman in her late teens or early 20s.

Yesterday a Sunday newspaper reported it was to be examined to determine if it could belong to 17-year-old Olivia, who went missing at a New Year's Eve party in the Marlborough Sounds in 1998, with her friend 21-year-old Ben Smart.

Scott Watson is serving a 17-year non-parole sentence for the murder of the friends.

Their bodies have never been found.

This morning Mr Hope said he was disappointed to hear through the media that the skull was possibly linked with his daughter. He was also upset that it had taken three years for anyone to consider the possibility that it could be Olivia's.

"I want to know why it wasn't looked at three years ago, using the best of science to eliminate Olivia straight away. That is the real story here, why has it taken three years?"

The skull, discovered in 1999, did not have teeth, flesh or hair.

Otago University academic Phil Bishop, who examined barnacles on the skull, said preliminary results indicated it had been on the seabed since about 1995.

But to determine the barnacles' age more precisely, about 10 mammalian animal skulls would have to be left where the skull was found for four years to ensure the barnacles had not grown faster than usual, he said.

Mr Hope said there was still unfinished business surrounding the murders.

"We are still positive about there being a final resolution. We recognise that this (Ben and Olivia's) disappearance was high profile and that conjecture is rife about what happened. It's unsettling when things like this happen because it brings back unpleasant memories. But we will persist, because one day it may be the one thing that brings us resolution.

Marlborough Express 02 September 2002 


   The Skull has no teeth and so dental examination is not an option. This leaves dating or MtDNA analysis. The dating so far can only say that the skull had been in the water for up to five years. This does not eliminate it as being that of Olivia Hope. 

   Another approach is to look at the female people between the ages of 15 and 25 who are listed as missing within the area of the find. The Watson family have taken this approach and requested that the police supply this information under the Official Information Act. Here is the police response:



  Friday, 13 September, 2002

  Mr C Watson

Box 336





I acknowledge your letter of 2 September 2002 and the request that you have made.

  In respect of the information pertaining to the Kaikoura and Marlborough areas the request has been referred to the Area Controller in Blenheim.

  In respect of the missing females in the Banks Peninsular area there it would take an estimated three hours for Police to locate the information you want, process it and ensure that the applicable requirements of the Official Information Act and the Privacy Act are complied with.  There will be copying costs as well incurred.

  The payment for this information will need to be lodged with the Police here before the request will be researched.  The costs are:

  There is no charge for the first hour.  Additional time is charged at a rate of $ 28.00 per half-hour or part thereof.  In addition, copying charges are payable, at a rate of 20 cents for each page after the first 20 pages.

  I do not know just how many pages would need to be copied but if payment of $112.00 is lodged your request will be actioned up until 20 pages have been copied.


  Inspector B J McGurk

  Acting District Commander



   This rather mean spirited letter means that the Watson family is requested by the police to pay for the privilege of doing the work that the police have had three years to do and have not.

   Considering the money that police have spent in the past on computer equipment it would be thought that there would exist a national database for missing persons, allowing instant access to this information. This obviously does not exist.

   There were a number of sightings of ketches in the Kaikoura - Banks Peninsular area during early 1998. Not all of them identified. It has also been pointed out in the media that the currents on the east coast flow to the north (Remember the "Rose Noel")

   The probability of this skull being that of Olivia Hope is small. The possibility that it is that of Olivia Hope remains. Nothing found to date has positively eliminated it from contention.


Reply from Blenhiem Police:

 30 September 2002



P 0 Box 336



Dear Mr. WATSON 

Official Information Act Request 

I have been asked to respond to your request relating to female persons between the ages of 15 and 25 missing within the Kaikoura and Marlborough areas between 1993 and the end of 1999. 

I have checked our records and find that the only outstanding missing female in this area is Olivia HOPE.  She was reported missing from Endeavour Inlet on lst January 1998. 

I hope this assists. 

Yours sincerely 

Richard Rolton



Further response from Canterbury Police:

7 October 2002 


Mr C J Watson

PO Box 336



Dear Mr Watson


 In response to your letter dated 14 September 2002.


The records relating to the missing females for this area have been searched and no females aged 15 - 25 from the Banks Peninsular area reported missing between 1993 and 1999 are missing now.


Thank you for your cheque for $112.00 (the receipt is attached).  The time spent in obtaining and supplying this information was in excess of two hours.  In view of the result no further charge will be made for the extra time.


Yours sincerely 


Superintendant S J Manderson

District commander



The latest update on the skull is that it could have been in the water for up to 25 year. This still does not eliminate the possibility of the skull belonging to Olivia Hope.


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