The Police Ombudsman recommended disciplinary action against ten police officers after finding failings in the way police investigated a man’s disappearance and suspicious death.
However, Dr Michael Maguire concluded that the failings had not been motivated by a desire by police to cover up a crime – a concern which had been expressed by the man’s family.
53-year-old Michael Gerard Hampson from Derry/Londonderry was reported missing on 7 December 2007. His body was found on the shores of Lough Neagh near Toomebridge just over a month later.
Although a post mortem was inconclusive, the pathologist concluded that there “must be considerable suspicions surrounding the death”.
A Police Ombudsman investigation into a complaint from Mr Hampson’s family found that police made little effort to find him while he was missing, and failed to pursue all investigative opportunities after his body had been recovered.
In October 2012, Dr Michael Maguire recommended that the PSNI should commission an external police service to conduct a detailed review to determine whether the case should be reinvestigated.
“No such review was undertaken, although further investigative actions have since been completed by police, culminating in an arrest last week,” he said. “I remain of the view, however, that a detailed external review is necessary, particularly if the families are to have full confidence in the police investigation.”
Dr Maguire said the police investigation had been at its most flawed while Mr Hampson was missing. “There was no risk assessment of the dangers he might face, and police failed to conduct basic witness and CCTV enquiries in a bid to locate him. Orders were not followed, there was no proper ownership of the case and a lack of investigative supervision.”
He said it was clear the investigation had suffered because police assumed that Mr Hampson was not at risk. Instead, they believed that he was purposely avoiding them after learning that he was wanted for questioning over an incident in the Republic of Ireland the previous April.
This led a senior uniform police officer, four days after the missing person report, to refer the case to the Criminal Investigations Department for progression as a “wanted person” investigation. This effectively closed down a series of enquiries which would have been required if the case had continued as a missing person investigation.
Mr Hampson was last known to be alive on 30 November 2007 when he travelled with two other men to a pub in Swatragh. His mobile phone was last used at 10pm that night.
The two men he had been with were detained by Gardaí in Dublin 18 days later. One of them, who had a false passport and two mobile phones, was arrested and questioned about the same incident about which the PSNI wanted to speak to Mr Hampson.
The PSNI were informed that his first comments to Gardaí concerning Mr Hampson indicated that if the PSNI did not have him, then he would be dead.
Police Ombudsman investigators found that only basic enquiries were conducted prior to the discovery of Mr Hampson’s body on 9 January 2008.
“That fact that the two officers who had been appointed to lead the missing person investigation up to that point denied knowing they had been allocated the role is symptomatic of an investigation which lacked focus, direction and attention to detail,” said Dr Maguire.
“There were no enquiries about the bus stops and bars where Mr Hampson was reported to have been, or the taxis he had used. Nor were there any financial, telephone or intelligence checks.
“There was no evidence of any police enquiries at all between 20 December 2007 and the end of the year.
“Only when a Major Investigation Team (MIT) assumed responsibility for the investigation for a five day period following the recovery of the body did significant progress begin to be made. Even then enquiries were seriously hampered by the failings which had gone before. By then CCTV footage was no longer available and witness recollections had faded,” said Dr Maguire.
On 15 January 2008, given that there was insufficient evidence at that time to clearly identify that Mr Hampson had been murdered, the case was referred to CID on the understanding that it could be referred back to the MIT if evidence of foul play emerged.
The new investigating officer, who had a heavy workload, was given a list of outstanding enquiries. Most, but not all, were progressed. Enquiries about financial transactions were not completed and one of the males who had been with Mr Hampson on the last night he was known to be alive was not reinterviewed.
Dr Maguire concluded: “There is no doubt Mr Hampson’s family have been failed by the police in this case, which is why I have recommended that the PSNI should apologise to them. However, overall these failings do not support the family’s concerns that there was a deliberate cover up by police.”
A further complaint that an officer made an inappropriate comment while searching Mr Hampson’s home in the presence of family members was upheld on the balance of probabilities.
Disciplinary sanctions were recommended against 10 officers, including an Assistant Chief Constable’s Written Warning, eight Superintendent’s Written Warnings and one Advice and Guidance.
Eight officers have since been disciplined, only two of whom received sanctions at the level recommended by the Police Ombudsman. Those officers received Superintendent’s Written Warnings. The sanctions recommended against the remaining six were downgraded by the PSNI.