Thirteen police officers have been disciplined for a "persistent failure of professional duty" during an investigation into the disappearance of a vulnerable man, whose body was discovered 10 weeks later – just 40 metres from where he was last seen alive.
James Fenton was reported missing from the mental health ward at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald on July 2, 2010, just hours after he had been admitted with severe depression.
The 22-year-old's body was not discovered until September 11, 2010, in a wooded area within the hospital grounds, just metres away from where he was last spotted smoking a cigarette.
Due to the length of time that had passed, a post mortem was unable to establish how James died.
A damning report released today by the Police Ombudsman found that James and his family "were completely let down by the PSNI" because of a "catalogue of mistake after mistake".
The report also stated that police were "rude and unsympathetic" to James' family and were "unprepared to listen to their views".
Three PSNI Constables, four Sergeants and six Inspectors/Chief Inspectors have since been disciplined for a list of failings. Last night the PSNI refused to reveal details of the disciplinary sanctions imposed on the 13 officers.
The blunders identified by the Ombudsman include:
• Failure to properly supervise a high-risk missing person investigation;
• Failure to identify lines of enquiry;
• Failure to ensure investigative actions had been completed;
• Being rude and unsympathetic to the Fenton family;
• Failure to communicate adequately with the Fenton family;
• Failure to develop an adequate media strategy;
• Failure to ensure an adequate search;
• Failure to maintain proper investigative records.
PSNI Chief Superintendent Nigel Grimshaw apologised to the Fenton family saying it was a "human tragedy" for them and he was "sorry that on this occasion the family did not have confidence in the policing service they received".
He added that lessons have been learned from the Police Ombudsman investigation and that "significant steps" have been taken "to improve the management of missing persons investigations".
When James was first reported missing to police by hospital staff in the early hours of the morning the initial search was conducted by two police officers with a torch.
Later that morning a second search was carried out but did not include the wooded area in the hospital grounds where James was eventually found.
The Police Ombudsman found that the initial police response was "inadequate" and "lacked clear purpose".
The report was critical of a Detective Inspector in charge of the investigation at the time for not going to the hospital that day and personally managing the search.
The report said this was "unacceptable" and that the "lack of management of the search of the hospital grounds personifies the ambivalent attitude that the police and particularly the Detective Inspector had taken in respect of the investigation." Officers did not check the hospital's CCTV system until after James' body was recovered.
The Police Ombudsman said that had the footage been checked "it is more likely the police would have been prompted to review the initial search as they would have had more accurate information about James' last movements".
As the investigation progressed it was "undermined by a lack of leadership and direction," the report found.
Almost two weeks into the investigation the Detective Inspector in charge concluded that James was still alive, but was deliberately avoiding police.
However, his family insisted to police that it would have been out of character for him not to be in contact for so long. The report said "the police did not seem to be prepared to listen to their views".
It also criticised the police for poor communication with the Fenton family, which "undermined the investigation and led (the family) to lose confidence in police efforts to find James".
No family liaison officer was appointed to assist the family or keep them up to date with the case.
Concern was also raised by James' family that the PSNI failed to provide proper media support.
The police declined media requests to interview the family, but no explanation was given to them about this.
A new search involving 50 people was launched on September 11, 2010. James' body was discovered that afternoon. Due to the length of time that had passed since his disappearance it took a forensic expert five days to identify James' body for the Fenton family.
Something in me said 'James isn't coming home', but the police just would not listen
By Deborah McAleese
Every time she closes her eyes at night, Janice Fenton is tortured by thoughts of her beloved son's dead body lying undiscovered for 10 weeks.
As she struggled in vain to fight back tears yesterday, her voice broke with emotion.
"As a mother you are supposed to protect your child. I have to close my eyes every night knowing that my son lay for 10 weeks uncovered, in the cold, with no blanket over him. That will go to my grave with me. That is my life sentence," Janice (below) said.
On the afternoon of Friday, July 2, 2010, she had kissed her 22-year-old son James goodbye in the mental health ward at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald where he had just been admitted for treatment for severe depression.
"I remember my last conversation with James so clearly. I told him I was very proud of him and to stay and get some help. He told me he wanted help. He had always been such a happy-go-lucky person, but that changed a few years earlier when he was in an accident and was knocked down. He became very depressed. The few weeks before we got him admitted to the hospital he had been having bad headaches, nose bleeds and had been sick. They were arranging for a brain scan to be done on the Monday, but he went missing before that could happen," Janice explained.
She added: "As I left him that day I thought that finally he was going to get the help he needed."
At 7am the following morning Janice was advised by police and hospital staff that her son had gone missing shortly before midnight.
"We were not aware at any point during the night that James had gone missing. That made me so angry because we could have gone looking for him. I believe that he had planned to go back to the unit," she said.
Although police categorised James as a high-risk missing person his family do not believe enough was done to find him.
"That Saturday morning a member of CID came to speak with us. He was very rude, very abrupt and there was no compassion whatsoever. They thought James was a 22-year-old who just wanted to party so had decided to take himself off.
"I thought at the start maybe he had. But after about a week I thought, 'no, this isn't right.' James and I were always very close. He was an only child. He wouldn't have stayed away that long. He had no money and no clothes. At the start I always thought he would come home but one night, it was July 11, I was standing ironing his clothes and something in me said 'James isn't coming home. Something is very wrong.' But the police just would not listen to me when I kept telling them that it was out of character for James to stay away for so long," said Janice.
After 10 weeks, disillusioned by the police investigation, the Fenton family contacted the PSNI and said they were going to conduct their own search. Janice said this seemed to spur police into action and they launched a new search on September 11.
James' body was discovered in a fenced off wooded area of the hospital grounds, just 40 metres away from where he had last been seen smoking a cigarette outside the hospital unit.
"It's the 40 metres from the hospital ward that I struggle with. We would have searched the hospital grounds that Saturday he went missing but we were told they had been searched thoroughly. That search consisted of two police officers with a torch," said Janice.
She added that she often wonders if different action had been taken from the start would her son have been found before it was too late.
"If they had found him that night maybe they would have been able to do something for him. Because of the length of time he was missing, nobody knows what happened to him. He had been given a sleeping tablet, he was exhausted after not sleeping for two nights. He maybe sat down and fell asleep, hypothermia could have set in, or did he hit his head climbing over the gate? We just don't know," said Janice.
Looking through the Police Ombudsman report into the police investigation of her son's disappearance, Janice whispered that she has been left feeling "very sad and very angry".
"As a family we were brought up to believe that the police did everything they could to help you. But the ones with the power and the know-how just didn't do their job right.
"They just didn't listen to us and they didn't follow up on things they were told.
"I just feel they could have done more," she said.
Janice added: "I have to live the rest of my life not knowing what happened.
"I never got to physically see James again, to say goodbye. James disappeared and that was it."