A court has had to decide whether it should record two amateur fishermen – who didn’t return from a boating expedition more than 7 years ago – as having died by accidental drowning.

After shaking hands with the buyer on the sale of his boat the day before, Vincenzo Scarfo was determined to enjoy one last outing to the Pages fishing ground, to the southeast of Cape Jervis with brother-in-law Luigi Palombo.

Vincenzo (44 yrs) and Luigi (48 yrs) were experienced anglers who fished the local islands and shoals whenever the chance arose. They were married to sisters Francesca and Caterina.

Court asked to record death of missing boaties 7 years after last crack at biting snapperLuigi – a McLaren Vale grape producer – told Caterina that morning in February 2014 that he was off with Vincenzo in the boat “for one last time”.

He picked up Vincenzo and hitched up the boat to his blue Nissan ute. Saying goodbye to Francesca, Vincenzo – a well-known local olive oil producer – said they expected to be back by about 8.00pm.

The pair drove from Willunga – about 42 km south of Adelaide – to launch the boat at Cape Jervis in rapidly deteriorating weather and sea conditions.

It was a fishing trip from which they never returned.

When they hadn’t arrived home by 9 pm and were not answering their mobiles, the wives notified the police who found Luigi’s ute and Vincenzo’s boat trailer shortly after at the Cape Jervis boat ramp.

An extensive marine search as far as Kangaroo Island to the South and Spencer Gulf to the West was conducted over the following 2 days.

With no sign of the fishermen at the end of the second day of the search, police concluded – noting that neither could swim nor did they usually wear lifejackets – the pair could not have survived in the water any longer and the sea search was brought to an end.

Air searches later found debris including a seat and seat cover that Francesca confirmed came from their boat, as well as other items matching those inspected by the buyer of the vessel during the course of his inspection.

The police were in no doubt that the pair had died at sea – but in the absence of their remains – the S.A. Coroner could not confirm their deaths.

Their spouses were required to wait 7 years to apply to the court for an order that their deaths be recorded. That also meant that their estates could not be dealt with until that period had elapsed and the order was made.

When the seventh anniversary of the event arrived, both Caterina and Francesca filed their applications in the South Australian Supreme Court with affidavits detailing all the investigations that had been conducted.

Having regard to their happy marriages, the absence of financial or business problems, the non-existence of enemies or threats, and the lack of any suspicious circumstances or motivation for either of them to abscond, Justice Ann Bampton concluded there were no reasons that compelled against the orders being granted.

She carefully considered affidavit evidence as to the extensive police investigations which among other things, confirmed there had been no attempted transactions on either of their bank accounts since their disappearance.

The police report also included GPS tracking information of the path of the Nissan ute from the time of its departure from Willunga on the 40 km or so the route to Cape Jervis.

David Crouch – the vessel’s buyer – had been able to confirm from photos he had taken when inspecting the boat that items recovered during the search had likely originated from it.

Mobile phone tracking showed that Luigi and Vincenzo phone signal’s had interrogated a nearby phone tower from 11.05 am until 3.25pm after which time all activity ceased.

The police investigation surmised that they both drowned in rough seas as a result of an accident at about 3.25pm causing the boat to sink, with no time for Luigi or Vincenzo to access their phones or safety equipment.

Justice Bampton was satisfied that neither Luigi nor Vincenzo had been seen or heard of since 16 February 2014, and that they had accidentally drowned at sea that day.

Her Honour ordered that their deaths be sworn to have occurred pursuant and directed the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages to register the deaths as at that date by accidental drowning.

The case is a good example of the evidence that must be provided to a court for a death to be sworn where a missing person’s body can’t be found.

In The Estate Of Palombo; In The Estate Of Scarfo [2021] SASC 112 Bampton J, 23 September 2021