Human remains found in harbour after seven-year search for Leo Lipp-Neighbours
Police have confirmed that skeletal remains have been found in Leo Lipp-Neighbours' orange station wagon recovered from Nelson harbour. The car was hauled out after a seven-year search but it is still unknown how it got there. Jonathan Carson and Charles Anderson report.
Charlotte Lipp began to sing.
As the station wagon was carefully laid onto the Port Nelson wharf, the family and close friends of Leo Lipp-Neighbours gathered around.
A blessing was made by Anglican Archdeacon Harvey Whakaruru and then Lipp, who had waited for her son for seven years, sang the words: "You are my sunshine."
It was about 7.10pm on Tuesday when the vehicle first came into view as it was craned from a boat onto the Port Nelson wharf in Wakefield Quay.
It was covered in seaweed and brown grime, but it was clear that it was a station wagon and around the rear, passenger-side wheel you could see that it was orange.
Nelson Bays area commander Inspector Mat Arnold-Kelly said police have found "what are believed to be skeletal remains" in the vehicle.
Identification of the remains will take some time, he said.
Leo's parents, Charlotte Lipp and Colin Neighbours, were watching as the car was winched upside-down into the air and lowered onto the wharf.
They inspected it closely, pointing and nodding. They knew it was their son's car, missing for seven years, finally found. It was about 2km from where he was last seen.
A small crowd had gathered at the wharf, where Nelson College for Girls' leavers jumped off every year to celebrate school's end. The onlookers hoped to catch a glimpse of the car - hoping to put an end to the mystery that has gripped the Nelson region for seven years.
Arnold-Kelly confirmed that it was Lipp-Neighbours' vehicle.
He said he couldn't comment on whether or not Leo was found in the vehicle.
He said there were "items of interest" in the vehicle that police would be examining on Wednesday. He would not comment on what those items were.
In the days, weeks and months after Leo Lipp-Neighbours disappeared, posters appeared throughout the region featuring a young man and a distinctive, bright orange station wagon.
The posters were plastered in Nelson's shop windows and street bollards. There were websites and media reports all featuring those same images.
They all asked the same question: Had anyone seen Leo or that station wagon?
It was unknown what happened to him after he walked out of his friend Ben Clark's flat at 4am on January 24, 2010.
Police fielded calls from across the region from people who thought they had driven past that car, or saw it down a bank in an obscure part of the country.
Searchers scoured the entire region - from Golden Bay to Marlborough. There were helicopter searches looking for glimpses of orange in the bush. It was one of the largest searches in the region's history.
After a review of the case in 2013 police believed that Leo may have found himself in wrong place at the wrong time and that someone had caused him harm. That theory seemed to fade too.
But as the years went on and the searches slowed Charlotte Lipp would still head out by herself - going down steep banks off main roads - just in case her son might just be out of view.
"We have looked around searching, and we still don't know which direction he headed or how far he went," she said last year. "We could so easily have missed him. There must be a car somewhere. Always, we have to ask ourselves, why can't we find it?"
On Monday, they did.
A superyacht that was testing out its anchor had caught something, 7 metres below the water. Commercial divers were dispatched to the scene but police told them not to remove it themselves.
Port harbourmaster Dave Duncan said the port did "soundings" of the area every 12 months to make sure there was enough water depth and no dangers in the water. However, nothing of concern had shown up, leading Duncan to believe that the car must have been under the mud.
Police divers were tasked with securing the scene, gathering evidence and removing some of the years of silt and sea life that had built up.
Police initially refused to say whether it was Leo's. However, Leo's parents were notified and later seen waiting inside the police cordon at the wharf.
Diners sat at Styx restaurant, seemingly oblivious to the goings on around them.
By 5pm, a crowd had gathered at the harbourside and murmurings of questions filtered through. It was here all this time? How do they know it's his? Is he inside? How did he get there?
As Ben Clark said earlier that morning as he stopped by the wharf on his way to work: "It raises more questions."
A yellow, metal barrier that now blocks vehicle access to the edge of the wharf was not there in 2010 and it would have been possible to drive onto the wharf's edge.
Arnold-Kelly said it was still an "open investigation" and officers would continue on Wednesday removing evidence from the car.
"There will be a lot of investigating into the circumstances of how the vehicle got to be there."
Clark put his arm around Charlotte Lipp as the prayers were said. They all laid laid leaves on the front seat.
"The overall feeling was that we are glad he is home," said Clark.
January 24, 2010: Nelson student Leo Lipp-Neighbours, 19, who had been out with friends at a Nelson club, is last seen in his distinctive orange Toyota Corolla station wagon at 4am driving away from a Washington Valley flat. A missing person investigation is launched by police.
January 28: Police follow up on a reported sighting of Lipp-Neighbours, but still hold grave fears for his safety, saying his disappearance was out of character and they have concerns about his state of mind at the time he left his flat.
January 30: Mr Lipp-Neighbours' family hire a helicopter to search for him, and scour roads for any sign of his car. They are worried he may have lost control while driving on a remote road.
February 1: Mother Charlotte Lipp issues a tearful plea for information on her son's whereabouts. More than 30 friends and helpers search Queen Charlotte Sound, Golden Bay and St Arnaud, Murchison and Lewis Pass. By this time three helicopter searches have also been made.
February 13: Friends describe Lipp-Neighbours as being in a "dark" mood on the night he went missing.
February 17: The Wakapuaka sewage ponds are searched for any trace of Mr Lipp-Neighbours or his car.
February 24: Police move their search focus to the Marlborough Sounds, in and around Port Underwood.
March 20: Search and Rescue volunteers search the Whangamoa area.
June 12: Lipp-Neighbours' friends reveal his last words before he disappeared were: "I'm going to be at one with nature."
January 22, 2011: A year on from the disappearance, the case suffers from a complete lack of leads. Police appeal to the public to come forward with more leads.
June 29: A $10,000 reward for information on Lipp-Neighbours increases to $50,000.
January 21, 2012: On the second anniversary of his disappearance, Lipp-Neighbours' parents again call on the public for information, saying their intuition leads them to believe he died shortly after he went missing, but that they remain hopeful.
January 24, 2013: On the third anniversary, police say they have not ruled out foul play in Lipp-Neighbours' disappearance, with a detective saying he believed there were people in the community who knew more than they were saying.
September 6, 2013: Police announce they believe someone had "committed a serious crime" against Lipp-Neighbours.
January, 2014: Police raid properties in Blenheim in an unsuccessful search for property belonging to Lipp-Neighbours
April 3, 2017: Divers from a super yacht berthed at the Port Nelson wharf find a car submerged in the water while inspecting the yacht's anchor.
April 4, 2017: Police recover the vehicle from the water and confirm it's Lipp-Neighbours' station wagon and that "items of interest" were found inside.