Mystery boat in Cook Islands holds dark secrets
Many Cook Islanders believe a New Zealander who sailed into port last year while on the run from child sex charges faked his death. Since then, his yacht has been giving up its secrets.
Keith Christian reckons Bonny is ugly.
The expat Kiwi bought the 36-ft sloop earlier this year from Cook Islands police, who had impounded the vessel after the disappearance of its skipper, Aucklander Christopher Michael David Peppiatt, known as David.
Christian, who runs a boat charter business in Rarotonga, paid $2000 for the yacht so he could use it for parts. He doesn't hold back when describing the boat: "She's a pig."
But he admits he is intrigued by Bonny, known in New Zealand as Sojourn, having discovered all sorts of bizarre things on board, including what he thinks is equipment for drug manufacturing.
He firmly believes the boat holds more secrets.
"There's something strange about that boat, I want to pull it apart - there's something else on there."
Bonny lies at the centre of one of the Cook Islands' great mysteries.
The boat was sailed into Avatiu Harbour in January last year by Peppiatt, 62, who was due to stand trial the following month on 20 sexual charges against children dating back to 1998.
Peppiatt had changed his name by deed poll to Gavin Maitland, and it was that name he gave to authorities in Rarotonga when he arrived without a passport complaining of heart problems.
Peppiatt went to the hospital for medical treatment before sailing off again. He returned a couple of days later for a mysterious rendezvous, before once again sailing away.
He made a mayday call saying he was having trouble breathing. When authorities found Bonny about 20 nautical miles off Rarotonga, there was no sign of life. No body has ever been found.
Christian says it makes no sense that Peppiatt could have fallen into the sea. There was netting all around the guard rails, and the yacht's radio was down several sets of stairs.
"If you're down there saying 'mayday, mayday, I'm having a heart attack' at 4 o'clock in the morning on a dead calm day, how do you get from your radio up onto [the deck] and fall overboard? You couldn't push him over. Someone's come and picked him up in another boat."
Some witnesses described seeing a second person on board the boat when it sailed into Avatiu Harbour.
Fisheries officer Andrew Jones, an expat Kiwi, told the Sunday Star-Times the yacht sailed around in circles, never coming closer than 30m to the wharf, and Peppiatt yelled out if anyone had a cellphone.
"I could see into the cabin area and I saw another guy stick his head out the door, and pull it back in when he saw me. It was super suspicious."
Jones said he reported the sighting to police, but they did not seem to take it seriously. Jones said Peppiatt asked to speak to a taxi driver who had taken him to the hospital two days earlier. When the woman arrived at the wharf he threw her a piece of paper weighted by some nuts and bolts, with writing on it.
"He said 'ring that number in New Zealand at six o'clock, and tell them I'm not heading east, I'm gonna head back to New Zealand'. She said 'OK Dave', and he yelled 'no don't tell them it's Dave, say Gavin'."
Jones said he believed the phone call was a signal for a second vessel to come to pick up Peppiatt and his passenger.
And he thinks the mayday call was made from the opposite side of the island when Peppiatt was already on the other vessel, to confuse authorities.
Jones said customs and immigration staff should have detained Peppiatt when he first arrived while they made inquiries in New Zealand.
Harbourmaster Saungaki Rasmussen, who was working as a maritime police officer at the time of Bonny's arrival, said he discovered there was a USB stick in the package that Peppiatt threw ashore to the taxi driver, with instructions to send it to New Zealand.
Rasmussen said he alerted his police bosses, but no effort was made to intercept the package. He said police officers who went on board Bonny after the mayday call described what seemed to be a staged scene.
"My gut feeling says he faked it, he's still alive."
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