Family and friends of Leo Lipp-Neighbours came together on the 20th of February 2016, to unveil a completed off-road buggy that Leo started working on back in 2010, but never had a chance to finish. The reason he never finished it, is because shortly after he began the project back in 2010, Leo disappeared. Six years on, he's still missing.
January 24th 2010
Leo Lipp-Neighbours, a 19-year-old engineering student, has spent the night drinking with friends at the Phat Club in Nelson's CBD. After leaving the Phat club, Leo accompanies two of his mates, Ben Clark and Lewis Christie, back to their flat in Watson Street, Washington Valley. Leo suddenly announces that he is going off to be "one with nature," which his friends take to mean that he is going out to pee in a bush or something. But Leo doesn't head for any bushes, he gets into his car instead, and is last seen driving his distinctive orange 1987 Toyota Corolla station wagon away from the Watson Street address at around 4am.
The flatmates find no sign of Leo the next morning, calls to his phone go straight to voicemail and he doesn't return to either of his parent's homes. On January 26th, police launch a missing persons investigation and photos of Leo and his car are distributed to the media. By the 28th, leads are starting to come in and a possible sighting in Christchurch is investigated.
Those of you who are old enough to remember the disappearance of Ben Smart and Olivia Hope, will probably remember the difficult task that police and searchers are faced with in conducting a missing persons search in the Marlborough Sounds region. But for those of you who aren't familiar with that case, or the area I'm talking about, lets turn to Google Earth for some assistance...
|You can see more maps and images of Marlborough here.|
Viewed from above, it looks deceptively flat, but those darker green areas are all hilly, rough terrain with narrow, winding roads, many of them unsealed once you get off the main highway system. Some of these roads have steep slopes on one side and nothing but air on the other, with switch-back turns and sharp corners where the speed limit drops to 30kms. If you drive off the road...well, lets just say it's a bit like the ending of Thelma and Louise. The few people who live among all those inlets and isolated beaches mostly get around by boat, not by car.
The other thing that isn't visible in this image is just how heavily forested the region is. Those hills are covered in vegetation; rainforest as you get closer to the west coast, pine plantations for logging on the eastern side, and vast tracts of thick native bush across the Abel Tasman and Nelson Lakes National parks. Not the easiest place in the world to search for somebody.
By the end of January, Leo's family have hired a helicopter to conduct an aerial search of some of the more inaccessible areas of the region. They also scour the more remote roads of the area from the ground, looking for a possible crash site. Police and volunteer searchers are now spread out across the wider Marlborough area, searching Queen Charlotte Sounds, Golden Bay, Murchison and the Lewis Pass, but to no avail. There is no sign of Leo, or his orange car, amidst all the greenery.
At this early stage of the missing persons investigation, police don't believe there is anything suspicious about Leo's disappearance. The general consensus is that he has probably had some kind of accident and ended up off-road somewhere, or that he's deliberately taken off. Interviews with Leo's friends and family lead to a third, more tragic possibility, that he may have gone to take his own life. Ben Clark and Lewis Christie, the friends Leo had been drinking with that night, tell police that he'd been in a very dark mood that evening, saying things like "what's the point?" and that life was "shit."
Family and friends spoke to journalists about this possibility, telling them that alcohol made Leo impulsive, and that he didn't always handle his drinking well. He'd been picked up driving dangerously while drunk almost a year to the day before he disappeared, and had taken off suddenly on a few occasions while drinking at the same flat.
But, as more time went by with no sign of Leo, the slow and steady trickle of tips from the public lead police to conclude that darker forces may have been at work. In 2013, three years after Leo's disappearance, Detective Sergeant Mark Kaveney made a statement to the media that, as a result of leads from the public, they were now treating the disappearance as suspicious.
"I believe that we are now looking for someone who has committed a serious crime against this young man. That person must be held to account."
Detective Kavaney is right, the person or persons responsible for Leo Lipp-Neighbours disappearance does need to be held to account. Leo's parents, the rest of his family and his friends have waited six years with no answers, no closure of any kind and we cannot even begin to imagine how difficult and how painful that must be. They will never get those answers or that closure unless people come forward with more information.
Leo Lipp-Neighbours was 19-years-old at the time of his disappearance. He is 185cm tall with slim build and light brown hair. He was last seen wearing a yellow t-shirt with black and red writing on the front, blue jeans, and black leather shoes. His car is an orange 1987 Toyota Corolla station wagon, registration number NQ7258.
If you have any information about Leo Lipp-Neighbours' disappearance, however small or unimportant you might think it is, please do the right thing and come forward. If you don't want to go to the police for whatever reason than call Crimestoppers and leave an anonymous tip.
Nelson police - (03) 546 3840.
Crimestoppers - 0800 555 111
Crimestoppers: Leo Lipp-Neighbours