Have police decisions delayed catching the killer of Alice Gross?
‘The yellow ribbons are a lasting symbol of a collective hope …
But the luxury of hope is not one that an experienced
detective can have in their armoury.’ Photograph: Laura Lean/PA
The yellow ribbons spread across west London are a lasting symbol of a collective hope that Alice Gross would be found alive and well. Though it diminished as weeks passed with no sign of the 14-year-old girl, that hope united the human spirit. But the luxury of hope is not one that an experienced detective can have in their armoury.
As the international manhunt intensifies for Arnis Zalkalns, the 41-year-old Latvian man with a previous murder conviction who is the prime suspect in the killing, there are parallel reviews into the handling of the Metropolitan police’s investigation into the teenager’s disappearance on 28 August this year.
Reviews of investigations are not unusual, but in this case an additional review is being carried out by the Metropolitan police, focusing on the early days of the inquiry, after Alice was reported missing by her family and the family of Zalkalns had also reported him missing.
This raises questions about whether enough consideration was given to the possibility that Alice might have been abducted or murdered from day one, and what connections were or were not made with the disappearance of a man who had a conviction for murdering his wife in Latvia and who was also arrested in London in 2009 for an indecent assault.
Britain’s murder conviction rate is high, but there are lessons to be learned from particular cases of missing persons investigations which become homicide inquiries.
Cases such as those of Gracia Morton, Carole Waugh and Tia Sharpe suggest that the sooner a missing person’s inquiry is upgraded to a potential homicide the more likely it will be to gather the evidence needed to bring a perpetrator to justice.
In the case of Morton, a mother who went missing in 1997, the pursuit of a missing person’s investigation for more than a year meant the man who was eventually convicted of killing her was treated for too long as a witness, his houses were not thoroughly searched and he was able to hide her body so well it has never been found.
Similarly when Waugh went missing in 2012, her disappearance was treated as a missing person’s inquiry for more than three months. When murder detectives took over the case and searched her bank accounts it emerged she was the victim of a predator who had killed her.
More recently there was critical learning from the Sharpe case, in which the mindset of the inquiry seemed for too long to be caught up in the belief or hope that she was still alive.
The 12-year-old girl’s disappearance in August 2012 was passed to homicide detectives three days after she went missing, but the inquiry seemed to focus on hunting for a living girl, not a victim of homicide. Crucial evidence was not seized, the suspect was not arrested and it was only after four searches of the small property that Tia’s body was discovered in the loft.
It is the experience gathered by investigators on all of these cases which should have been on the minds of officers from the very early days of the Alice Gross investigation.
Senior investigating officers within the homicide command at the Met police have been briefed on the learning from the Sharpe case, and from other cases, including Waugh and Morton. These lessons included the need to seriously consider elevating a disappearance which is entirely out of character to a potential homicide within hours, not days. As well as the need to secure evidence quickly, detectives are given a raft of added powers – for instance to examine phones – once they begin a murder investigation.
In the early days of the Alice Gross investigation it was run by missing persons officers from the local borough – with homicide officers advising – and seemed to focus on the hope that Alice was a teenager who might have taken herself off for a while, but would soon be home.
Six days in, the inquiry was handed to homicide detectives whose early appeals also centred on a plea for her to return to her family.
It was not until 16 September – 13 days after Zalkalns was reported missing by his partner – that the Metropolitan police put out a public appeal to find him. There has been criticism that they did not issue an Interpol blue notice – which alerts international law enforcement agencies – soon enough, and that all the appeals were issued in English, and not in Latvian.
The force has said it has been unable to issue a European arrest warrant because they did not have the evidence required to seek one.
In all likelihood Alice died not long after encountering her murderer. Nothing the police could have done is likely to have saved her life, but only time will tell whether their investigative decisions have delayed bringing her killer to justice.
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