Record of Investigation into Death (Without Inquest)
Coroners Act 1995
Coroners Rules 2006
I, Stephen Raymond Carey, Coroner, having investigated the death of
Basil Alexander LEE
WITHOUT HOLDING AN INQUEST
(a) The identity of the deceased is Basil Alexander Lee (Mr Lee) who died between at a date unable to be determined, but likely on or about 11 – 12 January 2010.
(b) Mr Lee was born in New Zealand on 26 October 1969 and was aged 40 years.
(c) Mr Lee was employed as a fisherman at the time of his death.
(d) Mr Lee’s cause of death is undetermined due to decomposition.
Circumstances Surrounding the Death:
Mr James Collins, owner and company director of Lorjona Pty Ltd owns two fishing vessels. In October 2009 he was contacted by Mr Lee who was seeking work and since that time employed Mr Lee on one of those vessels, the Saxon Progress.
On Thursday 24 December 2009 Mr Collins, Mr Lee and two other crew members berthed Saxon Progress at the Seafish Jetty at Triabunna. The fish on board were unloaded on 2 January 2010 and following that Mr Collins returned to Hobart and Mr Lee stayed in Triabunna. He later returned to collect Mr Lee and take him to Hobart with the intention of them bringing the vessel Corvina to Triabunna for repairs. On board were Mr Collins, Mr Lee, Mr Collins’ two sons and an engineer Mr Gerschwitz. They arrived in Triabunna on 7 January 2010 at which time Mr Lee and Mr Gerschwitz were engaged in working on various cleaning and repair duties on the vessel. On 11 January 2010 Mr Collins states that at approximately 4.30pm he attended the Spring Bay Hotel and consumed alcohol with Mr Lee. At approximately 9.45pm he states that he drove Mr Lee back to the vessel where he was staying the night. He believes that Mr Lee had consumed between 12 and 15 VB stubbies and approximately 6 Southern Comfort drinks. He considered Mr Lee to be "fairly drunk". Mr Lee purchased a "six-pack" of VB stubbies over the bar prior to departing the Hotel.
The Corvina was one of a number of vessels tied up at the jetty. The Corvina was moored second out from the jetty with the "Elidi" between her and the jetty structure. This required anyone waiting to board the Corvina to cross the deck of Elidi to do so. The jetty surface at this point contained many obstacles including water hoses, mooring lines and pumps.
When they returned to the jetty Mr Collins went straight over the Elidi to the Corvina. He did not look for Mr Lee as he assumed he was following behind him. When he boarded the Corvina he started talking to Mr Gerschwitz and five minutes passed before he realised that Mr Lee wasn’t present. He attempted to call Mr Lee’s mobile phone and returned to the car where he had last seen him. He found Mr Lee in the front seat of the vehicle drinking beer. Mr Lee told Mr Collins that he would take care getting on the boat so Mr Collins went back to the vessel and went to bed.
Mr Collins slept until approximately 9.00am on 12 January 2010. He noticed that Mr Lee wasn’t on board and queried Mr Gerschwitz who hadn’t seen him. Mr Collins found Mr Lee’s mobile phone and a can of spray on sun tan lotion on the bonnet of the car. He found 5 full stubbies still in the packet and half a stubby in the centre drink holder of the vehicle. The car was unlocked and the keys were in the ignition. Mr Lee was not visible in the jetty area.
Mr Collins searched the vessel and queried the crew of the Elidi with no result. He returned to the Spring Bay Hotel and was unable to locate Mr Lee. He then spoke to Tasmania Police. When Mr Collins reported Mr Lee missing he was not unduly concerned as Mr Lee had a reputation for drinking heavily and disappearing for a time before returning. When a search failed to locate Mr Lee, Mr Collins at approximately 3.00pm, called Tasmania Police and formally reported Mr Lee missing.
Ms Liza Gadd, employed at the Spring Bay Hotel was working on the night of 11 January 2011. She recalls serving Mr Collins and Mr Lee. She said she served Mr Lee approximately 6 VB stubbies and 6 Southern Comfort and Cokes. She also recalls Mr Lee purchasing a six pack of Boags Draught stubbies when he was leaving. Ms Gadd states that there were no problems between any of the patrons that evening. She states that "I would describe Basil as a seasoned drinker and would say on the night he was intoxicated but nowhere near drunk. He was still holding conversations with myself and others in the pub well and was still beating others at eight-ball". Ms Gadd did not see Mr Lee after he left the Hotel that evening at approximately 9.45pm.
Mr Gerald Green, Director of Seafish Tasmania arrived at the Freestone Point Jetty at approximately 7.30pm on 11 January 2010. He was being accommodated on the Elidi. He recalls that the fishing vessel Corvini was berthed alongside the Elidi. He spent the evening below deck having dinner and watching television. At approximately 11.30pm he heard the gangplank on the Elidi rattle and went up to the wheel house where he noted Mr Collins walking across to the Corvini. He saw Mr Collins’ Toyota Landcruiser parked on the jetty with the passenger side door open. Mr Green states that he could see someone sitting in the front passenger’s seat but could not make out who it was. Mr Green heard the gangplank rattle approximately 15-30 minutes later, which co-incides with the return of Mr Collins to check on Mr Lee.
Tasmania Police conducted a thorough search of the vessel and immediate area and seized the mobile phone. A search of Mr Lee’s personal quarters revealed nothing suspicious with all personal items being present. Crew members of the other vessels corroborated Mr Collins’ account of the previous evening. There were no reports of conflicts or arguments.
On 13 January 2010 a Police Vessel was tasked to conduct a thorough search of the eastern shore of Spring Bay to Orford and back to Triabunna. The western shore is very shallow and not navigable. A police dive team conducted a search of the area around the vessels moored at Seafish Jetty including a thorough clearance of obstacles below the waterline to the bottom, a depth of approximately 7 metres. Vessels in the area were advised to be on watch for a person in the water. Airline and Spirit of Tasmania bookings were searched with no results.
On 16 January 2010 vessel searches were suspended due to a severe weather warning. Land searches continued. No activity was noted on Mr Lee’s bank account or cards. The vessel search resumed on 18 January but were suspended again on 19 January due to a further weather warning.
At approximately 10.15am on 2 April 2010 Ms Tania Castle and her husband were walking their dog on the beach area on the eastern side of Spring Bay. Mr Castle noticed a polystyrene buoy on the sand and next to it they saw what they believed to be a human skull with no lower jaw, hair or skin attached. A few metres away they saw what appeared to be a human body laying in weeds and covered with sand. Ms Castle states that "it was very decomposed and looked as if it had been there for some time". They returned home immediately and notified Police.
Tasmania Police attended the scene and noted that the remains were heavily decomposed, partially buried in sand and weed and partly clothed. The skull was detached from the body and had no hair or flesh attached. The lower jaw was missing. The upper jaw contained no teeth which was consistent with the description of Mr Lee who wore false teeth. A small hole was located in the centre of the shirt on the remains. The remains were transferred to the Royal Hobart Hospital. Testing of this hole revealed nothing sinister and it is presumed to be a cigarette burn.
Enquiries with Mr Lee’s family confirmed that Mr Lee had sustained a broken right clavicle in December 2005 and this was consistent with one found on the remains.
A forensic DNA sample was obtained from Mr Lee’s biological mother, Ms Evelyn Lippert in Dunedin, New Zealand. Dadna Hartman, Manager, Molecular Biology, Chief Molecular Biologist, Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine reports that:
"No differences were detected between the mitochondrial DNA of the Bone Sample (1002018/6) and that of Evelyn Joan Lippert. Mitochondrial DNA is maternally inherited. That is, all siblings have the same mitochondrial DNA, which is the same as that of their mother. Cousins through a maternal line would also have the same mitochondrial DNA."
Dr Christopher Lawrence, Director of Statewide Forensic Medical Services Tasmania carried out the autopsy of the located remains. Dr Lawrence reports:
"This 41 year old man Basil Alexander Lee’s cause of death is undetermined due to decomposition". Autopsy reveals a caucasoid male between 30-50 years of age, of below average height with brown hair. The appearances are consistent with those of Basil Alexander Lee and the stage of decomposition would also appear to be compatible with this. During the investigation a defect was found in the sweatshirt which was initially thought to be possibly a projectile defect. Subsequent examination of this suggests this may represent a cigarette burn. The underlying chest wall is intact which would rule out any form of projectile or penetrating injury. The bones show no convincing ante-mortem or peri-mortem injury.
The diagnosis of drowning is based on history and the finding of a number of fairly non-specific pathological findings. It is impossible to make a diagnosis of drowning in a body that is this decomposed. I cannot identify any other apparent cause of death and there is no convincing evidence of traumatic injury.
The most likely cause of death is drowning, however, I am unable to make this diagnosis on the material that I have seen. I am also unable to do any meaningful toxicology because of the state of decomposition."
I am satisfied that a full and detailed investigation has been undertaken in relation to the death of Mr Lee and that there are no suspicious circumstances.
I am satisfied based upon the mitochrondial DNA comparison with Evelyn Joan Lippert together with the physical findings and the general circumstances of Mr Lee’s disappearance and the finding of his remains, that those remains were in fact Mr Lee.
During the course of the investigation some concern was raised that Mr Lee had very minimal personal clothing in his possession. I am satisfied that the explanation for this was due to the excess baggage costs from Melbourne to Hobart that led Mr Lee to freight several bags back to Port Lincoln.
This case sadly highlights yet again the danger in boarding a vessel whilst significantly affected by alcohol. I encourage relevant organisations such as MAST, Professional Fisherman’s Association and recreational boating clubs to highlight this risk.
I wish to conclude by conveying my sincere condolences to the family of Mr Lee.
DATED: 3 May 2011 at Hobart in the State of Tasmania.