James Fenton: Officer regrets missed woodland search
A police officer who was part of the initial search to find missing mental-health patient James Fenton has said he regrets not searching the wooded area where his body was later found.
Mr Fenton, 22, agreed to be admitted to the Ulster Hospital in July 2010.
But he later climbed over the wall of a smoking area at the hospital and police failed to find him.
His body was discovered 10 weeks later on hospital grounds, less than 40m from the ward.
‘Matter of regret’
Two officers gave evidence to the inquest into his death on Tuesday.
One officer said he and a colleague were initially instructed to search the grounds of nearby Tor Bank school, where Mr Fenton was believed to have been seen.
A search there lasted 20 to 30 minutes and used small handheld torches.
The information placing Mr Fenton there is now known to have been incorrect.
The officer said he wished he had been instructed to search the wooded area where Mr Fenton was found more than two months later.
He told the court: “I wish I had searched that area. It’s a matter of regret to me that I didn’t.”
He told the court he believed police could have searched that area that night, had they been directed towards it.
He said he was never told the source of the information about the school, which was supplied to his police radio controllers.
He explained that initial searches at the school and the hospital grounds near the ward meant police did not consult hospital staff about James and his potential whereabouts during the first hour of their search.
The two officers later conducted searches of the road towards Bangor and the roads in the hospital grounds by patrol car.
Giving evidence later, the second police constable said he and his colleague had both felt the mention of Tor Bank school made it the wisest place to start their search.
‘Needle in a haystack’
He said: “Nothing would have given us greater pleasure than to have located Mr Fenton that evening.”
The coroner said the search in the dark was like looking for “a needle in a haystack”.
But, he added: “The needle in the haystack is easier to find if you ask the right questions.”
He asked why the officers had not requested help for a wider search.
The officers suggested that would have been unusual, and not a decision they were authorised to make.
A larger number of officers searched the hospital area later in daylight, but found nothing.
The second officer explained how he spoke to hospital staff and was told that Mr Fenton was carrying only cigarettes and a lighter, but no money or a mobile phone.
Asked why he did not spend longer with staff, he said they had stated they were busy on the ward, and pointed out that the presence of police officers there often made psychiatric patients anxious and upset.
He agreed he had not examined the smoking area, which would have been possible without entering the ward itself; nor had the officers asked to look at CCTV footage.
The Fenton family has always maintained the initial search was inadequate.
In 2013, the Police Ombudsman issued a critical report into the wider search for Mr Fenton and 12 PSNI officers were later disciplined.
Coroner Joe McCriskin made it clear to the court that the two constables giving evidence today were not among those disciplined by the Police Ombudsman.
Source: BBC News – Northern Ireland