The seven-year search for Leo Lipp-Neighbours: 'He was so close, yet so far'
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.
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.
"Every time I go to Kaiteriteri I think of Johnny Isinger," Tucker says. "Chances are he's within 500 metres of me."
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.
"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."
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- Sunday Star Times