Northern Ireland

James Fenton disappearance: A mother's pain

James Fenton
Image caption James Fenton's body was found 10 weeks after he went missing

James Fenton's mother kissed him goodbye on the evening of 10 July 2010 and said she would see him the next day. It was the last time she saw him alive.

"I told him everything would be all right and that I loved him," Janice Fenton said.

"He was my only child and we were very close. I told him I was really proud that he had decided to go to the hospital to get help and he said 'yes mum, I know I need help and this is the best place for me'.

"I never dreamt that I would never see my son again."

James Fenton had admitted himself to the mental health unit at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald. The 22-year-old was considered vulnerable and a high suicide risk.

Around nine hours after being admitted, he went into a smoking yard at the back of the building and climbed over an eight-feet high gate.

The police were contacted and two officers conducted a search of hospital grounds by torchlight. Further, more detailed searches followed, but there was no sign of Mr Fenton.

In the weeks that followed, the police received a number of false reports that he had been seen in the Bangor area where he lived.

A report by Police Ombudsman Michael Maguire has strongly criticised the investigation into Mr Fenton's disappearance and the way officers treated his family.

'Persistent disregard'

A report published on Thursday says that in spite of repeated statements from his family that he had never stayed away from home and that such behaviour was out of character, the police became convinced that he was still alive and staying with friends.

"This culminated in police informing some of his friends that they were at risk of being prosecuted for obstructing police and wasting police time," the report says.

Mr Fenton's family did not accept the police version of what had happened to him. They conducted their own searches and erected missing posters asking members of the public for help.

On 11 September, 10 weeks after he had gone missing, his body was found in a partially secluded wooded area within the grounds of the Ulster Hospital, less than 40 metres from the hospital unit from where he had disappeared.

Due to the length of time his body had lain undetected, a post-mortem examination was unable to establish how he died.

The ombudsman's report describes the police investigation as a catalogue of mistakes, saying there was "a lack of leadership and direction".

It adds: "The overall conclusion of the investigation is that a lack of cohesion and a persistent disregard of procedures by a number of officers resulted in Mr Fenton and his family being failed by the PSNI."

'Cold and uncovered'

The ombudsman is also critical of the way police officers treated Mr Fenton's family.

"The police did not seem to be listening to the Fenton family and in particular what they were saying about James' character and how unlikely it would have been for him to be missing for such a long time," the report adds.

Image caption James Fenton's mother has said the police let her down

"It is no coincidence that the decision to carry out the final, successful, search was after a senior police officer had taken time to meet the Fenton family and listen to them."

James Fenton's mother has also said the police let her down.

"As a family we were brought up to respect and admire the police force," she said.

"They let us down when they made up their minds that he just didn't want to come home and was partying, especially when they decided his case was no longer a top priority.

"As a mother, I carry the heartache and pain every day because I thought everything that should have been done for James was being done.

"I live with the pain of never getting to say goodbye. The worst thing for us all is knowing he was so near the hospital ward. I go to bed every night thinking of how James lay out in the open, cold and uncovered, for all that time. That is my life sentence.

"I also believe that if the police had carried out a proper search and James had been found quickly, he might still be alive today."

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