Police disciplined over James Fenton investigation

James Fenton went missing at the start of July 2010. BBC Newsline's home affairs correspondent Vincent Kearney reports

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Twelve police officers have been disciplined for their handling of the disappearance of a 22-year-old man from the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald.

James Fenton went missing at the start of July 2010, but it was 10 weeks before his body was found fewer than 40 metres away in the hospital grounds.

A Police Ombudsman's report strongly criticised the PSNI investigation.

A PSNI spokesman said officers had learned lessons from the case and accepted the ombudsman's findings.

Mr Fenton admitted himself to the mental health unit at the Ulster Hospital in July 2010.

Start Quote

Dr Michael Maguire

There was huge frustration among the family that they had to explain the case to different officers on different occasions and say the same thing. They felt that they weren't being listened to.”

End Quote Dr Michael Maguire Police Ombudsman

A short time later he climbed over a gate at the back of the building and is believed to have died a short time later.

'Catalogue of mistakes'

The police conducted a search of hospital grounds and told his family they believed Mr Fenton was alive and staying with friends.

His mother, Janice Fenton, has said the police let her family down.

"My life sentence and nightmare is going to bed at night, closing my eyes and knowing that James lay 40 metres from the hospital ward, cold, alone, uncovered," she said.

James Fenton's mother has also criticised the Ulster Hospital, accusing it of failing to look after the son she left in its care.

"As far as I am concerned, if you are in a mental health unit you should be looked after, you should be accompanied when going out, you shouldn't be allowed to walk out freely on your own," she says.

"I feel they let James down and ourselves just the same as the PSNI."

The South Eastern Health Trust said it would be inappropriate to comment on the Ombudsman's report.

In a statement, the Trust expressed sympathy to James Fenton's family and said it plans to arrange a meeting to discuss any concerns they may have.

Due to the length of time James Fenton's body had lain undetected, a post mortem examination was unable to establish how he died.

The Police Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, said the PSNI investigation contained a catalogue of mistakes.

He said the police failed to follow a number of leads that could have helped to find Mr Fenton in the initial hours after he disappeared and he also found that officers were "rude and unsympathetic" to his family.

It was revealed that police did not check the hospital's CCTV footage on the day that Mr Fenton went missing, and they did not attempt to trace his mobile phone signal for almost 12 hours after they were called to investigate.

'Poor communication'

Dr Maguire was also strongly critical of the officer responsible for supervising the initial search of the hospital grounds, because he did not visit the site in person.

"The police response over the first weekend was in my view inadequate and lacked clear direction and purpose," the ombudsman said.

"There was a failure to follow through guidelines for the investigation into a high risk missing person. I don't think they grasped the seriousness of the situation initially and as a consequence they didn't follow through on some lines of inquiry and I think evidential opportunities were lost."

Dr Maguire added that the PSNI's "poor communication" with the Fenton family had "undermined the investigation and led the family to lose confidence in the police effort to find James".

"There was huge frustration among the family that they had to explain the case to different officers on different occasions and say the same thing. They felt that they weren't being listened to. They knew that James came from a very loving home and this was not characteristic of his behaviour," he said.

The ombudsman recommended that a total of 13 officers be disciplined and said he believed the PSNI had taken his report seriously.

'Omission'

"I would hope and expect to see changes in operational practice and in the way in which police engage with families in what is a very difficult but important situation where you are dealing with high risk, vulnerable people who are missing," Dr Maguire added.

The PSNI says it can not reveal details of the action taken against the 12 officers disciplined as a result of the report.

In a statement to the BBC, the Ombudsman says he is now reviewing the policy of not revealing details of disciplinary sanctions imposed on officers.

Chief Superintendent Nigel Grimshaw said he could not "comment on disciplinary sanctions to individual officers" but said the PSNI has "learned many lessons from this investigation".

He acknowledged that officers' failure to view the hospital's CCTV footage was an "omission" but added that it showed James travelling down a set of steps in the building and he argued that it would not have significantly aided the search, or led them to where his body was found.

Ch Supt Grimshaw said Mr Fenton's mobile phone signal - traced 11 hours and 39 minutes after he was reported missing - had provided officers with "an indication of the general location" of the phone.

However, he added: "That fell within a 5km radius which is an extensive area and, if you know the area and the topography around the Ulster Hospital, it is significant and it covers a wide scope in terms of the general nature of the terrain".

He told BBC Radio Ulster that officers who initially responded to the missing person report carried out a torchlight search of the grounds and were directed towards a nearby school that was in a different area to where Mr Fenton's body was found.

Ch Supt Grimshaw added that officers received reports of 11 sightings of Mr Fenton during the investigation.

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