Northern Ireland

Fenton inquest: Inspector admits 'catalogue of errors'

James Fenton Image copyright Fenton family
Image caption James Fenton's body was discovered on hospital grounds, less than 40m from the ward

A catalogue of errors was made in the search for a man who died after going missing from a mental health unit, a retired inspector has said.

James Fenton's body was discovered on Ulster Hospital 10 weeks after he went missing from the facility.

The 22-year-old had agreed to be admitted in July 2010, but then climbed over the wall of a smoking area.

The most senior officer on duty when he went missing gave evidence to an inquest into his death on Tuesday.

The retired inspector told the court she had failed to grasp the seriousness of the report of his disappearance.

She agreed there was no effective police action taken in the case between 02:00 BST and 08:00 BST on the night he was reported missing.

She explained that during the night she had gone to Newcastle to oversee the search for a missing child at high risk, and later dealt with a shooting incident and public disorder in the town.

The coroner said: "It's a shame you didn't go to the Ulster Hospital."

'Matter of regret'

Two police officers on duty that night also gave evidence.

One 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 wrong.

But the court heard the school was searched three times, because the earlier information had not been corrected.

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."

Smoking area

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.

Image copyright PACEMAKER
Image caption A later search of the roads towards Bangor and the roads in the hospital grounds was made by patrol car by the two officers

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.

CCTV footage

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.

Image copyright PACEMAKER
Image caption James Fenton's family have always been critical of the initial search (Janice Fenton pictured)

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.

More on this story