Q&A: The Leo Lipp-Neighbours case

Stuff.co.nz

Human remains have been found in Leo Lipp-Neighbours' car.

Leo Lipp-Neighbours was last seen leaving his Nelson flat about 4am on January 24, 2010. He was driving an orange Toyota Corolla station wagon.

His disappearance sparked a major search operation and became one of New Zealand's most high-profile missing person cases.

The search spanned the top of the south region, from Golden Bay to Marlborough, but Leo left no trace.

Leo Lipp-Neighbours was missing for seven years.
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Leo Lipp-Neighbours was missing for seven years.

On Monday, the orange station wagon was found submerged in the water in Nelson Harbour. Police recovered the wreck on Tuesday night.

And while finding the vehicle provides some important answers for Leo's loved ones and police, it also raises more questions.

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Where are you Leo?

Leo's Toyota corolla was recovered from a Nelson harbour on Tuesday night.
SUPPLIED

Leo's Toyota corolla was recovered from a Nelson harbour on Tuesday night.

How was the vehicle found?

Crew members on a super yacht berthed at the Port Nelson wharf off Wakefield Quay were diving in the area on Monday morning. They were inspecting the yacht's anchor when they came across the vehicle submerged about 7 metres under the water. Police were then advised and commercial divers went down to make a closer inspection of the vehicle. 

Why wasn't it found there before?

The wharf is a heavily-used, public area so it does seem strange that a car went undiscovered for seven years. The Nelson Port does "soundings" of the area every year to make sure the water is deep enough and there are no dangers under the surface. However, nothing of concern had shown up. Harbourmaster Dave Duncan said the vehicle may have been under the mud, which would have prevented it from being detected.

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How could a vehicle get into the water there?

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. The gate to the wharf is often left open for public access.

Was Leo inside the vehicle?

Police have found "what are believed to be skeletal remains" in the vehicle, but it will take some time to identify them. Other "items of interest" were found inside the vehicle that will be forensically examined by a specialist team on Wednesday. 

Was that area searched previously?

Divers were used in other areas during the search for Leo, but that area of water was never previously searched. It's understood that the area was inspected from the Wakefield Quay wharf, but divers never entered the water there. Divers have worked in that area on unrelated matters, such as inspecting boats or cleaning up trash, but remarkably the vehicle was never detected.

Has foul play been ruled out?

In 2013, police said they believed someone had "committed a serious crime" against Lipp-Neighbours. On Tuesday night, police said the investigation was ongoing and they were keeping an open mind as to what happened.

Why did it take so long to recover the vehicle?

Over the years, the vehicle had become full of sediment and sea life. Police used a vacuum system to suck sediment out and filtered it through sieves searching for anything of interest. Trying to lift the vehicle out while it was full of sediment could have caused it to break up. The process of craning the vehicle out of the water and onto the wharf was also a delicate process.

TIMELINE

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

 - Stuff

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