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3 murder investigations derailed by police errors

An image of a Police Error Report and a forensic scientist at a crime scene
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Missed opportunities by police during murder investigations can mean perpetrators get away with their crimes and sometimes go on to commit others. The following cases demonstrate serious police errors that played a role in the police failing to catch the killers.

1. Peter Sutcliffe

Peter Sutcliffe murdered 13 women between 1975 and 1980 and became known as The Yorkshire Ripper. He escaped justice during his six years of terror as he attacked women throughout the West and South Yorkshire regions. Sutcliffe is believed to have attempted to kill at least seven other women as well.

Sutcliffe evaded arrest even after he had been interviewed nine times during what became the biggest police manhunt at the time. Women lost their lives as Sutcliffe continued his reign of terror while going under the radar of the police, living quietly as a married truck driver from Bradford. Sutcliffe himself later confessed he was amazed that he hadn’t been caught earlier.

The investigation used 2.5 million police hours in an era before computers and DNA forensics. Mistakes were made as evidence gathering relied on filing index cards which were not correctly cross-referenced. In addition to lost vital information, a system overburdened with information and fake leads, notably a hoax tape recording purporting to be the killer, misdirected the police and wasted valuable time.

At one stage, the police, having retrieved a five-pound note from one of the dead victims, traced it to Sutcliffe’s employers, where it had been dispensed to his pay packet. Even when the police showed Sutcliffe a photo of a boot print found near a body, they failed to notice he was wearing the same boots and didn’t hold him for further investigation. As the police kept an eye on who was picking up street workers, Sutcliffe’s car registration number had been noted in the red-light districts where some of the victims worked. They failed to interview him thoroughly on the matter.

Prejudicial attitudes against street workers both from the police and press, as well as certain sections of society, contributed to a toxic atmosphere, while intelligence around serial killer profiling ignored the reality of Sutcliffe’s background and marital status.

It was by chance, not detection work, that Sutcliffe was caught when he was eventually approached by two police officers after observing him picking up a local prostitute and driving to a secluded lane.

2. Stephen Port

Stephen Port carried out the murders and rape of five young men in 2014 and 2015 by drugging them with the ‘date rape’ drug GHB and strangling them at his Barking flat.

The first victim was 23-year-old Anthony Patrick Walgate, a fashion student, who died on 19th June 2014. Port would find his victims by talking to them on dating and hookup platforms before arranging to meet them for sex.

Due to a fake suicide note, the police assumed one of Port’s victims had accidentally killed another and then committed suicide out of guilt. Despite witnesses’ concerns, Barking & Dagenham Police ruled out three of the deaths as suspicious.

One of the most serious mistakes by the police was failing to link Port to the death of the first victim, Anthony Walgate. Port had dragged the body to the street and called an ambulance pretending he had seen Walgate collapse. In March 2015, Port was sentenced to eight months because his statements were contradictory, but was released three months later and electronically tagged.

The laptop belonging to Port was also not submitted for forensic testing until 10 months later, by which time Port had killed two men. Investigators also failed to forensically examine items such as a bedsheet that a body was wrapped in and a bottle of GHB.

Out of the 17 police officers involved in the case, none faced disciplinary action and seven were later promoted. Evidence given at the inquest revealed the police to be incompetent, negligent, and homophobic. Despite a denial of institutional homophobia by the police force, it admitted to ‘systemic failings’.

Port received a whole life sentence on 23rd November 2016. Families of the murdered victims initiated a civil claim against the Met and were awarded compensation in 2022.

3. Robert Napper

23-year-old model and mother Rachel Nickell was brutally stabbed 49 times as she walked with her two-year son on Wimbledon Common in 1992. The killer, psychopathic rapist Robert Napper, was only caught after the police had focused on an innocent man, Colin Stagg, and spent considerable resources trying to ‘honeytrap’ him.

Colin Stagg found himself cast as the prime suspect due to his sexual interests. The Met used an attractive policewoman in an undercover operation to find evidence against him, mainly through letters of correspondence. The misdirected operation saw Stagg sentenced to 13 months in prison but finally released due to a lack of evidence.

Napper remained at large, despite his history of sexual assault. Even though he admitted to one rape and two more attempted rapes, there was no forensic evidence to hold him. Believing himself to be untouchable, he set out carrying a knife in July 1992 and killed Ms Nickell. A few years later, DNA evidence matched Napper to the Wimbledon Common murder.

The police missed a series of opportunities to not only catch Robert Napper but to prevent the frenzied murder of Rachel Nickell. While Stagg wrongfully remained incarcerated in prison, Napper went on to commit the double murder of a mother and her four-year-old child, 16 months after Rachel’s death.