Police investigation “a catalogue of mistake after mistake”

Incident Date: 02.07.2010

Twelve police officers have been disciplined following a complaint to the Police Ombudsman’s Office about the search for a man who was reported as missing.  

The body of 22 year old James Fenton, who had been a patient at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald, was found in a secluded part of the hospital grounds ten weeks after he had been reported as missing and approximately 40 metres from where he had last been seen.

James Fenton was 22 when he died.James Fenton was 22 when he died.

PDF: Full Public Statement

A Post Mortem examination was unable to establish how he died. Members of the Fenton family complained to the Police Ombudsman about the thoroughness of the police investigation to find James and asked why his body had lain undiscovered for ten weeks. 

James, who was from Bangor, admitted himself as a voluntary patient to the Hospital’s Mental Health Ward on the night of Friday 2 July 2010, but by midnight had been reported to police as missing. 

Two police officers carried out an immediate torchlight search of part of the grounds. They reported back to their control room that they had been unable to find James and that, in their view, he was at a ‘high risk’ of suicide. Police procedure says that in the case of such ‘high risk’ missing persons, a Detective Inspector should be notified urgently.

Police Ombudsman investigators have established that the on call Detective Inspector was not contacted until 14:00hrs – 14 hours after James had been reported as missing.

The Police Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, said by that stage time had been lost: “Police records, timed at 10:15 hours, show that there were signals coming from the mobile phone James had with him. By 11:39 hours these signals had died and a crucial line of enquiry was lost.  

"Had this work been undertaken soon after James went missing and under the guidance of a detective, it may have proved more fruitful.” he said.

Search stopped at fence bordering woodland where James' body was eventually found. 

Dr Maguire was also critical of a decision by the Detective Inspector not to go to the hospital.  “This officer did not have a clear understanding of the hospital buildings or the topography of the area to be searched.  The search which took place stopped at a fence which bordered a wooded area in the Hospital complex where James’ body was eventually found,” he said.

During the days which followed, a number of people reported having seen James. Although police did not record witness statements from most of these people, the sightings increasingly became the focus of the investigation.

“Despite the lack of rigour in the way police dealt with these reported sightings, police came to the view that James was still alive and being sheltered by his friends.  Indeed, they went to the extent of warning some people that they ran the risk of prosecution if they continued to hide him.

"The police carried out a number of reviews of their investigation but there was no thought given to reconsidering the original search strategy or other aspects of the early part of the investigation. The task of viewing CCTV footage from the hospital was completely overlooked, for example,” said Dr Maguire. 

Police did not seem to listen to family. 

The Police Ombudsman is also critical of how police dealt with James’ family.  “The police did not seem to be listening to the Fenton family and in particular what they were saying about James’ character and how unlikely it would have been for him to be missing for such a long time. It is no coincidence that the decision to carry out the final, successful, search was after a senior police officer had taken time to meet the Fenton family and listen to them,” he said.  

Dr. Maguire has characterised the police investigation into James’ disappearance as “a catalogue of mistake after mistake”:

“We found many examples of where police procedures were either not fully followed or completely ignored. There was little evidence of any consistent senior level oversight of the investigation and it was largely allowed to drift along until its latter stages. 

"Overall, the initial police response to the report that a ‘high risk’ person was missing lacked clear direction and purpose and as the investigation progressed, it was further undermined by a lack of leadership and direction,” he said.

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