A mentally ill patient was found dead in the grounds of the Ulster Hospital at Dundonald 10 weeks after he vanished from one of the wards, a Police Ombudsman’s report revealed today.
An incompetent police investigation failed to locate the man and it was only after his desperate family insisted on a fresh search that he was eventually recovered in secluded woods – just 40 metres from where he went missing.
The mother of James Fenton, 22, from Bangor, Co Down, said the memory of the police errors would last forever. Ms Janice Fenton said: “I live with the pain of never having been able to see James again, never getting to say goodbye.
“The worst thing for all of us is knowing he was so near the hospital ward. James lay out in the open, cold and alone for all that time. That’s my heartache and the memory I will have forever.”
A post-mortem examination was unable to establish how he died.
But a damning report by the Police Ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire, who headed up a probe into the PSNI investigation, disclosed an extraordinary catalogue of mistakes.
Twelve officers have been disciplined.
The family had been completely let down by the police, he said.
Dr Maguire declared: “We found many examples of where police procedures were either not fully followed or completely ignored. There was little evidence of any consistent senior oversight of the investigation and it was largely allowed to drift along until its latter stages.”
Almost three hours after he was admitted as a voluntary patient he was given access to a designated smoking area. But Mr Fenton, who was recorded as “high risk” of committing suicide, climbed over a fence outside the mental health ward just before midnight on July 2, 2010.
Police carried out a torchlight search and then drove along surrounding roads in Dundonald. However, it was not until early the following afternoon – 14 hours later – that an on-call detective inspector was first informed of the missing patient.
The officer should have been notified immediately, the report said.
The hospital grounds were later searched for two-and-a-half hours. Police made inquiries in Bangor and a helicopter was tasked to carry out an aerial search.
There were a number of reported sightings in the Bangor area and even though there was no trace of him for the next 12 days, and he had no means of income, police still believed he was alive, had access to a change of clothes and that his friends were withholding information about his whereabouts.
Some were even warned they risked being prosecuted for obstructing police and wasting their time, the report revealed.
At one stage the family distributed their own missing person posters as well as arranging radio and television interviews after claiming police had failed to provide proper media support or were not prepared to listen to their views amid concerns he had come to some harm.
There were many examples when guidance was either not fully followed or completely ignored, the report said. The investigation was allowed to drift and the report also claimed a reluctance by the police to consider family representations.
The police then met with the Fenton family on September 2 and agreed to conduct another search in and around the hospital. Nine days later, after a search involving 50 members of the public, some belonging to mountain and community rescue teams, and supported by a police search advisor, James’ body was located in a wooded and partially secluded spot bordered by ranch-style fencing, 40 metres from the smoking area at the side of the ward where he had been last seen.
The Ombudsman’s report said it was recognised that police officers will on occasions make wrong operational decisions.
But it also declared: “The investigation into James’ disappearance is a catalogue for mistake after mistake with no effective method to review and thus identify and rectify the errors made.”
The report claimed the police response over the first weekend was inadequate and lacked clear direction and purpose. The progress of the investigation was undermined by a lack of leadership and direction and that poor communication with the family had undermined the inquiry – leading relatives to lose confidence and faith in police efforts to find James.
Even though 13 officers were the subject of misconduct representations to the PSNI – one officer did not face disciplinary action – the report said: “This is little consolation to the Fenton family who were left not knowing exactly how, or why, their loved one died. The overall conclusion is that a persistent failure of professional duty meant that James Fenton and his family were completely let down by the PSNI.”
James’ mother Janice said her family had been brought up to respect and admire the police,
She added: “I listened to and trusted everything they told us, and did, during the period of time James was missing. But as time went on it was hard to make them understand that my son wouldn’t stay away for that length of time.
“They let us down when they made up their minds that he just didn’t want to come home and was partying, especially when they decided his case was no longer a top priority.
“They did not follow up on taking statements, nor did they do a thorough search on the night James disappeared.”
She claimed her son’s mobile telephone showed up that he was in Dundonald and, if all the hospital grounds had been checked, he would have been found sooner.
Ms Fenton added: “We had no liaison officer, not much help with media coverage, we even put up missing posters ourselves.
“I believe that, only for my family’s persistence, the search which led to him being found, 10 weeks later, would not have happened.
“As a mother, I carry the heartache and pain every day because I thought everything that should have been done for James was being done.
“I live with the pain of never having been able to see James again; never getting to say goodbye. The worst thing for us all is knowing he was so near the hospital ward. James lay out in the open, cold and alone, for all that time. That’s my heartache and the memory I will have forever.”
PSNI Chief Superintendent Nigel Grimshaw said it was a human tragedy and, after expressing his sympathy to the family, said he was sorry they did not have confidence in the policing service they received.
He added: “There is no doubt we have learned lessons from this investigation. We have already taken significant steps to improve the management of missing persons investigations and we will continue to study the conclusions reached by the Police Ombudsman.”