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'When it rains, I think of James lying out there in the woods and that will never leave me... the police apologised for their errors but they don't appreciate the devastation left behind'

By Ivan Little

In a deeply moving interview, Janice Fenton tells us how her good-natured son James was plunged into depression and mental anguish after he was knocked down by a car - and after he went missing from a psychiatric ward, the agony of a 10-week wait to find his body after a long list of mistakes by the PSNI.

Heartbroken mother Janice Fenton says she will never forgive the PSNI for the "shocking" failures in their search for her missing son James whose badly decomposed remains were eventually discovered just yards away from a hospital's mental health ward that he had left 10 weeks earlier.

"The police apologised but I don't think they appreciate the devastation left behind. There were mistakes, after mistakes, after mistakes," said Mrs Fenton, who is registered blind and suffers from spina bifida.

"We might have been able to save James. We will never know."

Earlier this month, at a week-long inquest, the PSNI were heavily criticised by Belfast coroner Joe McCriskin for their "inexplicable, inexcusable and deeply unsatisfactory" actions in their hunt for James who was viewed as a vulnerable and high-risk young man.

Thirteen police officers were disciplined after a Police Ombudsman investigation in 2013 said they had been guilty of a "persistent failure of professional duty" during the investigation into James' disappearance and found that his family had been "completely let down by the PSNI".

The ombudsman also upheld the Fentons' complaint that the police had been rude and unsympathetic to them and unprepared to listen to their views.

As she reflected on the outcome of the "harrowing" inquest, Mrs Fenton (52) said that she took comfort from the fact that her son's death had led to a root-and-branch review of police procedures in searches for missing people, a fact acknowledged to the coroner by PSNI witnesses.

Mrs Fenton said: "I've been told, too, that in England they now use the PSNI search for James as a gui de to 'how not to hunt' for a missing person."

She said, however, that although health officials had made a number of changes in how they deal with people with mental health issues, more still needed to be done.

Mrs Fenton, who has had surgery for detached retinas in recent years, said the pressure of spending six-and-a-half years fighting for justice and for answers about James had taken its toll.

She said she still misses her son every day. She added that in his youth he was easy-going, kind-hearted and light-hearted, but she noticed a change in him after he was knocked down by a car near his home in Bangor.

"I don't think he was ever the same after it. He broke his collarbone but he constantly complained about headaches, though he wouldn't go to hospital for his check-ups."

James, who had a number of jobs in his formative years, encountered emotional difficulties. He was in a relationship but he and his girlfriend broke up.

Mrs Fenton said: "He had a sort of a breakdown. I knew something wasn't right. It was like living with a stranger."

James' mental health problems were exacerbated by alcohol. He was put on anti-depressants by his GP who also referred him to psychiatric services but he only attended one counselling session.

Mrs Fenton added: "His moods were up and down but the bad days started to outweigh the good days. He wouldn't get out of bed and he wasn't eating. He said there was nothing to live for anymore."

James tried to take his own life and, in July 2010, he threatened to jump from the roof of a cinema in Bangor but he was talked down by a member of the public. He also tried to jump in front of cars that night before police brought him home after threatening to arrest him.

"James knew that he needed help and we went with him to A&E at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald. The next day, the crisis response team admitted him to ward 27 which provides psychiatric intensive care," she said.

"He went in voluntarily because he said he couldn't cope with the pains in his head any longer."

James told doctors he was still having suicidal thoughts but he said he wouldn't try to do anything on the ward.

"That night he went to the smoking garden for a cigarette. But another patient saw him climbing over a fence and the police were called.

"But it's clear now they didn't carry out much of a search. They didn't talk to the right people and they didn't examine CCTV of the smoking garden.

"They didn't do anything properly from the start and that is the hard part for me.

"We understood that ward 27 was a secure unit but it clearly wasn't. If we had known that, we would have sat all night with James. We wouldn't have left him. On top of all that, it wasn't until the next morning that we were told that James had got out.

"If we had known the night before, we would have been up there, looking for him.

"And when my father did go to the hospital we were informed by police that there had already been a thorough search and nothing had been found. We assumed we were dealing with a professional police force who had done what they said."

At the inquest, the coroner questioned why a PSNI sniffer dog hadn't been used in the search, especially after the signal of a mobile phone which James had been using was still showing up in Dundonald before its battery went dead.

Mrs Fenton said: "The police told us that a dog had been brought into the ward and picked up James' scent. But we now know there was no sniffer dog anywhere near the place."

Mrs Fenton's long-term partner Billy Johnston offered to bring James' own dog, Jack, a cross between a lakeland terrier and a Jack Russell, to help in a search.

"Permission was denied," said Mr Johnston. "However, I am convinced that Jack would have led us to James."

In a mysterious footnote to the story, the dog who'd been with the Fenton family for 14 years, vanished shortly after James' funeral in Bangor and has never been seen since. Mrs Fenton said she still agonises over what happened to James, adding: "Everybody has what ifs and buts after a death.

"And I feel a lot of them could have been resolved if we had been able to look for James ourselves. I'm not saying the outcome would have been any different but those 10 weeks were a nightmare.

"I don't think I really slept in all that time. It was like a 10-week wake with no body and no certainty about anything.

"We even had to fight with the PSNI to make a public appeal for information about James, (right). We were the ones who put up posters all over Bangor and we searched for him every night. James' father and his family were closely involved too but, like us, they thought the hospital had been searched."

Mrs Fenton said she believed the reason why the police didn't carry out a more extensive search was because they had made up their minds that James "was a young man who didn't want to go home".

The Police Ombudsman agreed that the PSNI were single-minded in their conviction that James had gone to stay with friends in Bangor. His pals who insisted that they hadn't seen him were told, in effect, that they could face prosecution.

As the days turned into weeks, Mrs Fenton went through hell.

She said: "I feared the worst but sometimes I was in denial. I always had a bit of hope that James would turn up safe and well.

"I left his trainers, with money in them, outside the back door just in case he showed up but didn't want to call with us."

After the family did get their appeals across to the public, Mrs Fenton received another shock as the PSNI said they were 99.9% certain that a man seen on CCTV shoplifting in the centre of Bangor was James.

Mrs Fenton said: "That was truly awful. I knew he wouldn't do anything like that no matter how desperate he was. But it was a week before we were shown the footage and I was able to tell the police immediately that it wasn't my son."

James' decomposed body was eventually found on September 11, 2010.

His mother said: "That was our 9/11. We had told the police that we had enough and we were going to do our own search at the hospital. They asked us to give them one more day and volunteers from the Community Rescue Service and North West Mountain Rescue led a new hunt."

One man sustained a broken leg during the operation but the rescue teams eventually discovered James in a wooded and partially-secluded area which was 40 metres from the smoking area at the hospital.

The Fentons have shown their appreciation of what the rescue organisations did by raising money for them.

"Without them, we might never have got James back. A year later the area where he was found was built over," said Mrs Fenton who, at first, had doubts if the remains were those of her son. It was nine days before James was positively identified but a post-mortem failed to establish how he died.

Mrs Fenton said it was possible that her son took his own life but there was nothing to confirm suicide.

She added: "He was exhausted and he had taken a sleeping tablet so he may have fallen asleep and died from hypothermia or he could have hit his head after he fell but we will never find out.

"However, we have him back and he has got a little bit of dignity. We can go and visit him in Roselawn cemetery," said Mrs Fenton, who is still haunted by the fact that James' body lay for 10 weeks in the hospital grounds.

"I can't cope when it starts to rain and I panic because I think of James lying out there in the wind and the rain and that will never leave me. I've tried counselling but nothing has worked."

Even though Mrs Fenton, who has amassed a suitcase of reports and documents about her son's disappearance, is still angry with the PSNI, two young officers are exempt from her criticism. She said: "They weren't actually involved in the investigation but they called with us regularly. They were wonderful."

Mrs Fenton will meet her lawyers soon to discuss what she should do next but her instinct is that it's time to let James rest in peace and to allow her to live with her memories of her son who texted her from the hospital on the night he disappeared.

The message read: "Night, night, I love you."

Belfast Telegraph


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