Police criticised over murder probe
A killer who slit his elderly victim's throat before setting her on fire remains at large two years later after police bungled their investigation by missing "clear signs" of murder, an inquest has heard.
Retired postmistress Una Crown, 86, was found dead, covered in blood and with her clothing "burnt to a crisp" in the hallway of her bungalow in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, after family and neighbours became concerned for her welfare.
Police, paramedics and firefighters who attended the scene on January 13 2013 all decided the widow had died in an accident, an inquest at Huntingdon Coroner's Court heard.
It was not until two days later that concerns were first raised and after another two days Home Office pathologist Nat Cary found the death was "clearly homicide" and "highly suspicious from the outset". By that time the crime scene had been "severely contaminated".
Coroner William Morris questioned the role of Cambridgeshire Police as he recorded a conclusion of unlawful killing, saying vital clues had been lost.
He added: "It would seem she unwittingly admitted the attacker or attackers into her property. Maybe this brutal murder was accompanied by a robbery.
"I have to say that the handling of the evidence by the police has been unfortunate.
"In this unfortunate case foul play or suspicious circumstances were too readily dismissed by the police officers.
"This was most unfortunate - it has meant that the bungalow was not treated as a full crime scene immediately so that a proper forensic examination could be carried out."
Speaking during the inquest, Mrs Crown's niece, Judy Payne, said: "I can't understand how it wasn't picked up immediately. We're lost for words."
As she left the hearing, escorted by a police officer, she added: "It's just terrible. We just want the people who did this to be caught."
When a murder investigation was launched on January 17, forensic evidence had been lost after emergency service trampled over the crime scene, senior investigator Detective Inspector Fraser Wylie told the hearing.
Mr Wylie added: "The scene was severely contaminated by the police, firefighters and paramedics because this had not been initially picked up as a murder investigation."
Acting Sergeant Simon Gledhill was one of the first officers on the scene. He did not attend the inquest but i n a statement said there was no sign of forced entry and the death "looked accidental".
Emergency services collectively agreed the fire was likely to have been started after a tea towel caught on the hob causing Mrs Crown to panic and collapse, he added.
A paramedic prodded the body and spread Mrs Crown's blood to a light switch before rummaging through a chest of drawers.
Mr Gledhill said he himself had washed a blood stained key under the tap after he touched it.
The kitchen floor had been immaculately clean when crews arrived but was soon covered in muddy footprints, Mr Gledhill added.
Mrs Crown's family were then allowed into the property to clean up.
Mrs Crown had lived alone since the death of her husband four years earlier. She was described as "well-liked and capable" by family.
Mr Wylie said several people had been arrested in connection with the murder but have since been released without charge.
"Our inquiries to catch the killer continue to this day and it is still very much a live investigation," he added.
Mark Hopkins, Cambridgeshire Police's assistant chief constable, said the force recognised the failings in the early stages of the inquiry and a review by the Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire professional standards department had since upheld complaints raised by the family.
Detective Superintendent Paul Fullwood said: "There is no doubt the initial actions taken by local officers who responded to the death of Mrs Crown impacted on the subsequent investigative response.
"Someone out there knows what happened to Mrs Crown on the day she was brutally attacked and I urge them to do the right thing and come forward."
Witnesses should contact the major crime unit on 101 or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555111.