The seven-year search for Leo Lipp-Neighbours: 'He was so close, yet so far'

Sherp Tucker was assistant search and rescue co-ordinator for the Tasman police district during the early years of the ...

Sherp Tucker was assistant search and rescue co-ordinator for the Tasman police district during the early years of the Leo Lipp-Neighbours case.

For seven years, the police and search and rescue staff closest to the Leo Lipp-Neighbours case have carried the mystery of his disappearance with them. Now that he has been found and farewelled at a ceremony in Nelson this week, they talk about an investigation that became personal and the process of letting go.

Sherp Tucker never forgets the ones who are still missing.

The former police Search and Rescue assistant coordinator has three unresolved missing persons on his books.

Sherp Tucker, during the Search and Rescue induction weekend in 2014.

Sherp Tucker, during the Search and Rescue induction weekend in 2014.

There's 89-year-old John Isinger, who disappeared on his daily walk from his Tapu Bay rest home, near Kaiteriteri, on Valentine's Day, 1998.

How Leo's car was found
Human remains found in car
Leo's car pulled from wharf

"Every time I go to Kaiteriteri I think of Johnny Isinger," Tucker says. "Chances are he's within 500 metres of me."

Charlotte Lipp, left, and her son Leo Lipp-Neighbours.

Charlotte Lipp, left, and her son Leo Lipp-Neighbours.

There's Ed Reynolds, 39, an American who went missing while tramping in Nelson Lakes National Park in 2009.

These names and cases are on a national list of over 400 people still recorded as missing in New Zealand by police.

Figures released under the Official Information Act show as of September 2016, some 439 Kiwis are still recorded as missing. 

For seven years, Nelson teenager Leo Lipp-Neighbours was one of them.

Ad Feedback

"Those ones you don't get, you haven't got that tick off in the back of your brain."

Tucker says he remembers strange and precise details about the missing. 

"The ones that we go and retrieve, you might remember that search but they don't stay with you. 

"The ones that you don't find stay with you and you keep on looking. It's just part of the psyche of a search and rescue person."

The discovery of Lipp-Neighbours inside his orange Toyota station wagon in the water off the Wakefield Quay wharf on April 2, more than seven years after he disappeared, means that Tucker can finally stop looking.

But a resolution is not always the end. The Lipp-Neighbours case is one that had a lasting impact on many people, including those who were closest to it.

"It wasn't really a weight off the shoulders," Tucker says. "There was a finish of the looking."

The end of the search is the start of another process. Of letting go, and moving on.

Tucker remembers the day he got the call about Lipp-Neighbours.

It was about a week after the 19-year-old Canterbury University student was reported missing from his Nelson flat on January 24, 2010 after a night out drinking.

The last thing he said to a friend was: "I'm going to be at one with nature".

Then he left in his distinctive orange Toyota Corolla station wagon.

Lipp-Neigbours' parents, Charlotte Lipp and Colin Neighbours, had already hired a helicopter to look for their son when Tucker was brought in.

Tucker's first job was to apply lost person behaviour statistics to the information they had about Lipp-Neighbours.

"We didn't have much in the way of stats for youth missing in car."

He sourced generic data from a search and rescue specialist in the United States, which showed that 95 per cent of young people that went missing in their car were found within 590 kilometres of their last known location.

When Tucker drew a circle on a map, the radius went as far south as Queenstown.

The search, involving Lipp-Neighbours' friends, family and dozens of volunteers, spanned from Marlborough to Golden Bay to Murchison.

Tucker says Lipp-Neighbours' parents did a remarkable job of making "the boy with the yellow car" common knowledge across New Zealand.

Alleged sightings of the station wagon came in from all over the country.

And while Tucker and his colleagues found several abandoned vehicles in gullies, forestry blocks and rivers, they never found any sign of Lipp-Neighbours.

"With Leo, the thing was if you find the car you probably find the boy," he says.

"It was very annoying that we weren't finding anything. But then if you've searched properly you can actually take that chunk of dirt off the map and the map slowly gets smaller."

A few weeks into the search, Detective Senior Sergeant Mark Kaveney was brought in as officer in charge of the case.

"Once it was determined that he was missing and no sightings had been found of him, basically it was ramped up to a full-time investigation," Kaveney says.

Detective Sergeant Mark Kaveney, left, with Leo's mother Charlotte Lipp and friend Ben Clark on the night the car was recovered from the water.

He says the search for Lipp-Neighbours was prolonged and meticulous.

"Obviously they were also mindful of the fact he may have wanted to be missing and didn't want anyone to find him."

He says the publicity around the case resulted in a large number of leads from members of the public to psychics to convicted prisoners "wanting to confess about things".

"We had to sift through them and determine what could be followed up and what couldn't."

As time went on, speculation grew as to what happened to Lipp-Neighbours.

"The longer it goes on there are people in the community that wanted to have their 10 cents worth and wanted to say things. As it turned out, they were just talking rubbish."

In 2014, police received a tip-off that led them to believe that Lipp-Neighbours was a victim of a "serious crime". 

Police searched three rental properties in Blenheim and seized computer equipment and other electronic items.

Kaveney said at the time that police were looking for a silver watch that with an engraving that said: "Happy Birthday Leo, love mum and family."

He can't talk about details of the investigation, but the searches never provided the breakthrough police were hoping for.

Searches had to be scaled back and Tucker moved on from the police, but Lipp-Neighbours' parents never stopped searching and the case remained open.

"The family, all through this, has shown a resolve that was never-ending and always positive that they were going to find their son," Tucker says.

In the weeks before Lipp-Neighbours' car was found, Kaveney says he was still hearing from people who were looking for it while driving around the region.

"It struck a chord," Kaveney says of the case. "This 19-year-old boy — bright, healthy, his life to lead in front of him just gone off the face of the earth."

It was a special case for Kaveney, too.

"This one particularly was close because I did spend a lot of time with both Charlotte and Colin and talking with them about the case. It got quite personal," he says.

"I wanted him found, definitely. One way or another, I wanted the family to know where their son was.

"If something's open like this we're always living it.

"I was very hopeful that we would find him one day."

Kaveney was there, standing with Charlotte and Colin, on the night that the orange station wagon was craned out of the water, covered in sea life.

"It was pretty emotional for everyone to be honest."

At that stage, police and the family knew that there were skeletal remains in the vehicle, later to be confirmed as Lipp-Neighbours'.

A small ceremony was held on the wharf. Leaves were placed inside the vehicle.

After working the case for seven years, Kaveney finally had his breakthrough.

His thoughts, however, were with the family.

Tucker didn't go down to wharf to see the car he'd spent months searching for emerge.

Kaveney gave him a call to tell him the news.

"It seems surprising that he was so close and yet so damn far. In its own way, it's a brilliant resolution for the family," Tucker says.

"I've seen families over the years, they basically get destroyed because they don't have an answer. As time goes on the realities in their mind become more and more weird. You get innuendos, gossip, things like that always makes bigger exaggerations of what possibly might have happened."

Mark Janssen, a friend of Lipp-Neighbours and his parents, recalls sitting on that very wharf eating hot chips and watching the ships come and go.

"The number of times I went down there and there he was all that time. It's just crazy."

Mark Janssen, left, completed Leo's off-road trophy truck project ahead of the sixth anniversary of his disappearance. Pictured with Lewis Christie, Colin Neighbours and Charlotte Lipp.

He was overseas when Lipp-Neighbours' car was found and returned home to voice messages on his phone and stories in the news.

"I was really emotional about it. It just kind of floored me because he's found.

"I'm so pleased for Charlotte and Colin. It's sad, but it's also really good because now the car's been found and Leo's been found as well. It kind of just fells some of those awful stories that were bandied around about him. At least they can have some closure now."

Janssen helped with the early search operation and says Lipp-Neighbours was always in his mind when he was driving around the Nelson region.

"That story's closed now. So that's quite a weight off your shoulders."

Kaveney says it's not unusual to find missing people near to their last known location. In this case, Lipp-Neighbours was found a little over two kilometres from where he was last seen, metres from one of Nelson's busiest arterial roads.

It was an area that police divers never searched.

"It's just one of those things. I'm sure people have been down there having fish and chips on the wharf there and he's just 20m away," Kaveney says.

"So close, but yet so far."

Flowers left at the wharf where Leo's car was pulled from the water.

The police are still working through its investigation on behalf of the coroner, who will later determine how Lipp-Neighbours came to be in the water.

"Even though the case will be closed and the paperwork gone, I think the case will remain in our minds for probably the rest of our careers if not longer," Kaveney says.

"It's just one of those things. It's a very sad outcome to be honest."

On Tuesday afternoon, family, friends, searchers and helpers will farewell Lipp-Neighbours at a private service near to where he was found.

"It's just a relief for the family. He's home," Kaveney says.

"They can now do their grieving. He won't be forgotten by all the people who looked for him and have been involved in some way, but people can hopefully, possibly, move on."


Lifeline (open 24/7) - 0800 543 354

Depression Helpline (open 24/7) - 0800 111 757

Healthline (open 24/7) - 0800 611 116

Samaritans (open 24/7) - 0800 726 666

Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Youthline (open 24/7) - 0800 376 633. You can also text 234 for free between 8am and midnight, or email

0800 WHATSUP children's helpline - phone 0800 9428 787 between 1pm and 10pm on weekdays and from 3pm to 10pm on weekends. Online chat is available from 7pm to 10pm every day at

Kidsline (open 24/7) - 0800 543 754. This service is for children aged 5 to 18. Those who ring between 4pm and 9pm on weekdays will speak to a Kidsline buddy. These are specially trained teenage telephone counsellors.

Your local Rural Support Trust - 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)

Alcohol Drug Helpline (open 24/7) - 0800 787 797. You can also text 8691 for free.

For further information, contact the Mental Health Foundation's free Resource and Information Service (09 623 4812).

 - Sunday Star Times

Ad Feedback
special offers

Steel win game of two halves

Southern Steel player Jhaniele Fowler-Reid with the ball against Northern Stars GK Sulu Fitzpatrick, left.

The Southern Steel juggernaut rolls on with an 82-58 win over the Northern Stars.

Woman with lupus faces deportation

A woman's suffering from lupus has had her application for judicial review declined.

The woman has had $192,000 of treatment in New Zealand and if she was to stay would cost more, court says.

Sunday crash snarls motorway

The crash involving two cars caused minor injuries to the occupants, Auckland police said.

It's not only the week days where Aucklanders have to put up with traffic.

We could have beaten the Lions

Sid Going played for both Northland and the All Blacks against the Lions - then would return home to his family's ...

The Lions' arrival in Whangarei promises old-style billeting, post-match beers – and memories of the triple-scissors move.


All you can carry

28052017 News photo Monique Ford / FAIRFAX NZ
The Food Show Wellington @ Westpac Stadium 
beverage vendor business ...

Some filled suitcases with goodies as roughly 14,000 whet their appetites at The Food Show.

Boardwalk to the bay?

26042017. News. Photo Supplied
Artist impressions of the proposed Shelly Bay development being undertaken by Taranaki ...

A cantilevered walkway could feature in Shelly Bay development but ratepayers look set to foot some of the bill.

Quake stretched steel

36 Customhouse Quay had steel stretch during the Kaikoura quake.

Some tenants of 36 Customhouse Quay have relocated pending a closer look at an engineer's report.

Seven months to fix tip

T&T Landfills will take seven months to do remediation work to stop contaminating Owhiro Stream.

Do the work and worry about the paperwork later, Wellington council tells landfill operators.


Winston's cathedral pledge video

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters is pledging to restore Christ Church Cathedral.

Splash more cash on quake-damaged cathedral, NZ First tells Govt.

Diver death questions

William Viliamu, known as Wira, was a respected haka leader, beloved teacher and senior member of Nga Manu a Tane. He ...

Eight men have died diving in New Zealand waters this year. Experts say mistakes are being repeated.

Lawyer: 'I'll die in debt'

A 52-year-old Kiwi lawyer is considering bankruptcy to wipe his $85,000 student loan debt.

Chch man came home from UK to find his $16k student loan had ballooned to $85k.

Mystery over missing builder

Michael Craig McGrath went missing on May 21.

Police resume search for Michael McGrath, whose disappearance 'doesn't fit the pattern'.


Earthworks start on city park

Earthworks are happening as construction gets under way on the Victoria on the River project.

Construction on a new Hamilton park by the river in the central city is well under way.

Tourists' $160m bill

District health boards spent about $160 million treating patients ineligible for public healthcare between 2013 and 2016.

Crook overseas visitors put the squeeze on health budgets. And a third of the bills are written off as bad debt.

Four Square jumping video

Thames Four Square owner Sukhpal Singh was a happy chap on Sunday morning.

Four Square owner Sukhpal Singh could not be happier after selling a $27 million Powerball ticket.

How to spend $27m in Thames

All the windows look out on the sea from this multi-million dollar home in Whangamata.

You could buy a lot with that cash. How about an air hangar, and a plane to put in it?


Steampunk races - whacky fun video

Andrew Butturini hat maker and goggle extraordinaire shows his fine hat ware.

Small rural town hosts Steampunk Taranaki Teapot Racing Championships.

E-coli in the water

E-coli has been discovered in Waverley's water supply.

Residents advised to boil all water used for drinking, brushing teeth or for food preparation until further notice.

Company helps workers kick habit

McKechnie employees take on the quit smoking challenge and win with the help of Tui Ora quit smoking coach George ...

Quit smoking programme a success for McKechnie employees.

Medicinal horseradish and garlic

Winter's here, and with it the dreaded lurgy.

OPINION: The trick to beating a cold - and worse.


Lifetime of work destroyed

John Bramley, with his dog Moose, lost 50 years worth of woodturning work and equipment in a shed fire at his Palmerston ...

It was a shed holding half a century of his life. It was gone in minutes.

Three-car pile-up

Police were called to a minor car crash at George St on Saturday.

A person is in hospital after three-car pile-up at a busy Palmerston North street.

Shot theory no joke

Jim Morton lost his left eye, on the right of this photo as you look at it, in a shooting incident. A Fish and Game ...

All hunters should wear safety glasses, says man who claims shot can ricochet off ducks.

Fed up in Foxton

Wednesday morning's floods at the Blue Bell motel on SH1 in Foxton.

Frustrated residents say Foxton's stormwater system can't cope, after repeated floods.


Waimea Combined stun Nelson College

Waimea Combined Schools celebrate their stunning UC Championship rugby win over Nelson College on Saturday.

Waimea Combined score a stunning upset win over Nelson College.

Right to protest

Lewis Staton aka Hone Ma Heke at the protest at the 1903 Square during Saturday's protest, having recently been released ...

Former prime minister calls on the council to withdraw a draft bylaw that would require a permit to protest.

Suburbs step up in second spell

Suburbs striker Ben Wright broke the deadlock in Sunday's 4-0 win over Universities.

Nelson Suburbs beat Universities by scoring four goals in the second half.

The waisted years

There's no real mystery to middle-aged spread.

OPINION: Middle-aged spread has turned up uninvited.


The church needs saving

The future of St Oswald's Anglican Church, near Wharanui, has yet to be decided.

The distinctive stonework church has been a lasting sight on the South Island's east coast. But it's in trouble.

Just doing my job, sir

Seizing overpriced wine was part of the job for Justices of the Peace 700 years ago. (File photo)

Seizing overpriced wine was once part of the job for Justices of the Peace.

Moutere reach semifinals

East Coast No 8 Billy Collins, right, is tackled by Marist loosie Ryan Dafel in Seddon on Saturday.

Moutere will be the only Marlborough-based side contesting the Tasman trophy semifinals.

Life-saving drug comes at a cost

Maddy Cooper took Herceptin after being diagnosed with breast cancer. She says the drug worked well for her.

It costs more than $100,000 to treat cancer sufferers, but is credited with saving many lives.

South Canterbury

Dredge on final visit to Timaru video

The Pelican Dredge has dredged the sands of the Timaru Harbour for the last time.

After almost 30 years the Pelican Suction Dredge has sailed out of Timaru for the last time.

'Deeply concerned'

Ara Institute of Canterbury's Washdyke training farm.

Polytechnic to meet with key stakeholders over "deep concerns".

Family Works under pressure

Counsellor Glenn Smith works with adults who have addiction problems. Smith thinks a three-month wait for family ...

Three-month wait list for Family Works' counselling service prompts DHB assistance.

'Out of character'

Timaru police are looking for 53-year-old Murray Wall, missing since Thursday.

Police urge public to report sightings of missing Timaru man Murray Wall.


Te Anau fights for maternity centre

A large crowd of supporters turned out in Te Anau on Saturday afternoon to march.

The Te Anau community bands together to fight for better rural maternity funding and to save the Lumsden Maternity Centre.

Budget 2017 


Clutha-Southland candidates discuss their high and lowlights of Budget 2017

Your chance to cast a vote

Cyclist Eddie Dawkins.

Your chance to have your say for the 2016/2017 Southland Sports Awards.

Busman's holiday gets beached video

Jeff Leeden got his 1964 VAL Bedford bus, Chubby Cheeks, stuck in the sand on Oreti Beach.

Aussies thought they'd take their housebus for a jaunt on the sands. This was nearly its final stop.

Ad Feedback