How was Leo Lipp-Neighbours found after seven years missing?
How was Leo Lipp-Neighbours' car discovered just off the Nelson coastline after evading searchers for seven years? CHARLES ANDERSON reports on an unlikely string of coincidences that led to the find.
Through the muddied water commercial diver Bruce Lines could see it clearly. It was definitely a car. It was upside down. But it wasn't new. It was a station wagon covered in sea life and it had been there for some time.
Out of curiosity he rubbed his hand over the car body to clear it of some of the silt. Then he saw the colour – a curious yellowy orange.
"It was the first thing that sprung to my mind," Lines said.
He had not been involved in any of the searches for Leo Lipp-Neighbours but he was well acquainted with the case. He knew Leo had disappeared one night in 2010. There had been exhaustive searches of the top of the South Island and misguided reports of seeing that exact coloured vehicle hidden in bush throughout the region. They had all come to nothing. But could this be it?
If the weather forecast for last weekend was better then Leo Lipp-Neighbours' car might still not be found.
It was a curious string of events which led police to the spot, just off a main wharf at Port Nelson, on Tuesday.
John Baudier, Yacht Services New Zealand, had been enlisted by the owners of the superyacht Fidelis to organise their stay in the city.
Last Saturday there was meant to be a strong northerly blowing which led the Fidelis crew to putting down a "breast anchor" to stop it blowing into the wharf.
So crew members donned scuba suits to place the anchor about 20 metres away from the 56-metre yacht.
"It was there just in case they needed it," said Baudier.
But the expected weather never came and the crew decided to cast off on Monday. The divers went down again and put airbags under the anchor to bring it to the surface without dragging mud and silt over the yacht. Similarly, the divers worked to bring up the chain.
"It was an effort to keep things clean," Baudier said.
But as the divers were picking up the chain, one of them saw something. He thought it was a tyre through the murk. But he wasn't sure.
"When the diver went in the water we were thinking some teenagers had run a stolen car into the water and run off laughing."
Baudier called Port Nelson and reported a potential hazard in the water.
"That's a normal thing to do when we see something like this," Baudier said. "In low water a yacht could get snagged on it."
The port regularly does "depth soundings" of the area to make sure there are no such hazards but Baudier believed the area where the tyre was seen fell just outside commercial shipping lines.
Then the harbourmaster showed up. The port called in Lines, a veteran commercial diver, who coincidentally was doing some other work only 50 metres away.
He was the man the port used to check everything from hazards to potential biosecurity breaches. Lines had searched close to the area before for that exact reason.
"There's not much of the port we haven't dived," he said.
However, there had never been a search of an area where the tyre was because there had never been a suspected biosecurity breach relating to a big enough yacht. If the tyre had only been a few tens of metres closer to port operations it may have been noticed years ago.
Lines suited up and went down. At first he assumed it might have been a new car. So police were called, just in case.
It is understood that police divers did search parts of the port but not this area.
Lines came back up to the surface and looked up images of the car on his phone - comparing it with what he had seen. He noted the mag wheels and the shape of the car.
He confirmed to police that it all seemed to match.
From then the whole operation ramped up. A command vehicle was set up and Nelson's most senior police officers were on the scene. Later that afternoon Leo's parents, Charlotte Lipp and Colin Neighbours arrived.
Lines and his team went down and secured the car as he would with any salvage operation.
"Definitely there was a sense of eeriness knowing that the poor fella could still be in the car but excitement in that we could be helping a family."
Usually he deals with salvaging larger objects but this job had to be considered.
"We needed to be reasonably sure [it was Leo's car]," Lines said. "That changed how we approached it - if it wasn't we would be strapping it up and pulling it out."
The car could have corroded and it was also a potential crime scene.
So it stayed there on the sea floor, ready to be lifted. It would be hours until the police dive squad arrived on Tuesday morning and worked to confirm what Lines already knew.
The dive squad pumped out silt and grime from the vehicle and searched for items of interest.
Then, at about 7.10pm the car was finally lifted out of the sea and onto the wharf. Soon after the family gathered around, inspecting it. Police confirmed that human remains had been found in the car.
Lines said it was emotional to be part of the discovery, especially considering how close it was to not being found at all.
"It just snuck under the radar. Everyone will look back and think we should have searched there but retrospect is a wonderful thing."
Baudier said it was "serendipitous" that the car was found. The crew of the Fidelis, who have since left Nelson, were following the developments and happy they had a part to play in the discovery.
"I told them that this was a sad thing," Baudier said. "But it is a good thing you have done for this family and this community."