‘A regrettable lack of professionalism’

In an article published recently on this website, ‘That dubious constabulary merits careful investigation‘ (read in full here) a section referred to a number of catasrophic investigative failings, by North Yorkshire Police, following the murder of Diana Garbutt at Melsonby post office in March 2010.

Her husband, Robin Garbutt, was convicted in Teesside Crown Court just over a year later. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and is currently held in a high security jail near Durham, HMP Frankland.

The case has, over the years, attracted a large amount of publicity, most recently as a result of a third application to the Criminal Case Review Commission. He continues to protest his innocence.

This is an amplification of the catalogue of blunders from the previous article (the numbering of the paragraphs is the same):

(i) Police claimed a soiled, bloodstained pair of boxer shorts found in an outside rubbish bin belonged to Robin Garbutt. They belonged to a neighbour. This ‘evidence’ enabled the police to persuade Northallerton Magistrates’ Court to refuse bail at the committal hearing and have Garbutt held on remand at Holme Hall prison. Garbutt had protested vehemently they were not his. A matter that could have quickly, and easily, been checked, by the police, if they had checked the size, they were too big. Had they needed to, of course. It also later transpired that the shorts had been found in the neighbours’ bin, not in the one used by the Garbutts. This does not go to the guilt, or innocence, of Garbutt, but revealed a troubling, prejudiced police mindset against him that threads through the investigation all the way to trial.

(ii) An iron bar – said to be the murder weapon – has caused consternation over the years, both regarding the circumstances of its alleged discovery, two days after the murder, and the results of DNA tests taken from it four months after its discovery – and only at the insistence of the Crown’s barrister prior to the pre-trial review in September, 2010. Until that hearing, the defence were completely unaware of the murder weapon. The fact that a police officer’s DNA showed up on the bar was also, at first, concealed from Robin Garbutt’s lawyers. The officer involved in the discovery of the iron bar on 25th March, 2010 did not make a witness statement until 12th October, 2010.

The bar has Diana’s DNA on one end, the DNA of the police officer at the other end and the DNA of one other unknown male is also present. There is no DNA of Robin Garbutt on the bar, a point upon which the Garbutt campaigners, quite rightly, place great emphasis. When it was first forensically examined, the officer’s DNA was also classed as an unknown male DNA. The Police Forensic Scientist, Sarah Gray, clearly states that the DNA on the bar is in keeping with the carrier not wearing gloves. Once it was established that DNA on the bar was linked to a North Yorkshire Police officer, the forensic expert made a supplemental statement to say the DNA could have been transferred onto the bar through cross-contamination. This sequence of events is concerning on any level. But there is more.

The police officer whose DNA is present on the rusty iron bar, PC Darren Thompson, says he cannot remember which of his colleagues he was paired with during the search, but he can remember the colleague who first found the bar and called him over to it. The officer can also remember which of his other colleagues was talking to garage owner, Bill Nixon, as he was also part of that conversation. He assumes there would probably have been another colleague present whilst searching, as they always search in pairs, but he cannot recall who that was. This begs the obvious question of why pocket note books, or duty rosters, or the policy book was not checked. Mr Nixon told the court at the murder trial that he had never seen the bar before on his premises. He also asserted that members of the press used that section of the wall as a vantage point for taking photos of the scene outside the post office.

On Friday 26th March, 2010, a local newspaper reported that underwater search teams had been focusing on a beck and gullies for evidence of a discarded weapon and bin collections had been suspended in the village. Other searches had been taking place in the area and motorists were being stopped and questioned by officers. Some of this activity appears to have taken place after the alleged discovery of the iron bar the previous day.

(iii)  Much has been written already about the strands of hair recorded on camera by a Crime Scene Investigator, on the morning of the murder. They were on a pillow, next to a bloodied hand print. They never made it to the forensic science labs after being captured on scenes of crime photographs. A DNA expert, under cross-examination at the subsequent murder trial, said it could have given DNA evidence [if the follicles were present] to prove that there was someone else in the bedroom, and that Robin was telling the truth. This clump of hair was allegedly lost by North Yorkshire Police. It is clear from the photographs that the clump is not the colour of Diana’s or Robin’s hair.

This is not new evidence and will not assist the Garbutt campaigners in the third application to the CCRC. Indeed, I would go further and say that it is very unlikely to have been pulled, by a drowsy female in her night attire, from the head of a man wearing a balaclava, holding an iron bar as a weapon in a surprise attack. With an accomplice, according to Robin Garbutt’s account, equipped with a handgun.

There is also the possibility that it was not even human hair. Or planted there to cast suspicion away from the killer. We will never know.

The claimed loss of this potentially case changing exhibit, by the police, is seriously troubling, altough to one with an in-depth knowledge of this particular force, not entirely surprising. Anyone with basic knowledge of preservation of a crime scene, handling of evidence and continuity, will know that evidence does not disappear without trace, or satisfactory explanation. It needs a willing hand to do so. At the end of the trial NYP should have referred its disposal to the police watchdog, and another force appointed to criminally investigate what has the appearance of an attempt to pervert the course of justice. Perhaps, a more robust approach from Mr Justice Openshaw (as he was then) would have ensured that happened?

(iv) DNA tests taken from the pillow are now the subject of further challenge by the Garbutt campaign team over potential cross-contamination with biometric samples taken from the murder weapon. They say that the policeman’s DNA found on the bar may also have transferred onto the pillow near the bloodied head of Diana Garbutt. Rust samples were found in her matted hair.

(v) Two bedside lamps were removed by the police from their position within the crime scene, and placed in a cupboard. There were signs of blood spots on at least one of them. At trial it was heard that there was no disturbance at all in the bedroom where Diana died, she was struck as she lay sleeping. Campaigners now say, reported by The Justice Gap, that they were picked up from the floor. This is, curiously, at odds with what is reported on the Robin Garbutt Official website.

Screenshot 2020-04-13 at 11.51.48

(vi) A bedside mirror and carpet beside the bed were also not tested for blood spatter say the campaigners. There was no blood spatter on any of Robin Garbutt’s clothing.

(vii) The defence team assert that the fish and chip wrappers, containing the remnants of the couple’s supper on the evening before the murder, were the wrong ones. Police recovered some wrappings from an external bin. The actual wrappers were still in a waste bin inside the house. This casts doubt on the analysis of the food decomposition in Diana’s stomach by the police’s chosen expert.

(viii) Questions for Melsonby villagers, interviewed during post-incident house to house enquiries, included confirmation of their hair and eye colour, whether they wore body piercings, or a watch. Householders were also asked ‘intrusive’ questions about neighbours. It did not emerge at trial why these questions were asked but were likely to have been for entry onto the HOLMES major enquiry database. Another line of enquiry was that there was a ‘swingers club’ in the village.

(ix) Detectives issued an appeal regarding owners of white vans, and a number were interviewed and eliminated. But a similar appeal was not made about a metallic or electric blue car seen driving erratically around the village on the morning of the murder. Or a vehicle seen parked near the entrance to Low Grange Quarry, about a mile from the post office along West Road.

(x) According to CCTV evidence, a vehicle following Robin Garbutt was picked up eight times on the journey to Stockton-on-Tees and back, via Darlington, on the night before the murder. The campaign team say that the driver was not traced and the vehicle was sold four days after the murder.

(xi) Police and prosecutors claim that no struggle between Diana and the killer took place before the murder. That is disputed by the Garbutt campaigners whom, variously claim, pictures were knocked over and two bedside lamps were also knocked over.

(xii) A heavy knit balaclava and a ball-bearing handgun (these replicas are usually indinguishable from the live round-firing versions) were found by Cleveland Police in Thornaby, 19 miles from Melsonby, on 24th March, 2010. The campaigners say there was no attempt to link them forensically to the Garbutt murder and armed robbery.

(xiii) At first, the police accepted the time of death of Diana Garbutt was 6am at the earliest. This stance was changed at trial, which started a year later, based on expert evidence from a forensic archeologist, Dr Jennifer Miller. She calculated a time of death between 2.30am and 4.30am based on rate of consumption of a fish and chip dinner eaten by the couple on the previous evening.

(xiv) Neighbour Pauline Dye was allowed to wash her bloodstained hands in the Garbutts’ bathroom sink after handling the body of Mrs Garbutt. This, yet again, demonstrates a baffling lack of understanding of the the importance of crime scene management or even basic policing procedure.

At the murder trial, Mr Justice Openshaw said during his summing-up that the police’s management of the crime scene showed ‘a regrettable lack of professionalism‘. He was being generous, on any independent view. There is no evidence that he wrote to the chief constable either during or after the trial to request an enquiry into these failings. If he didn’t, then he failed in his public duty to maintain confidence in the criminal justice system.

Efforts to establish whether a review into the actions of Senior Investigating Officer, Detective Supertindent Lewis Raw, and the rest of the Operation Nardoo team, was ever carried out has, so far, produced no meaningful response from North Yorkshire Police (read here).

From a personal standpoint, I can say with some certainty that policing chaos appears to run in the family. His brother, Allan Raw, was an inspector in the infamous Professional Standards Department in West Yorkshire Police in 2010 (the year his brother played a leading role in the bungled Garbutt murder investigation) when I had extensive dealings with him over what one might consider a simple, straightforward issue: If three police officers each give a different account of the same event, how many are telling the truth? His answer of ‘all of them’ was unsustainable on any independent view.

As discussed in the fourth article in this series (read in full here), this dreadful catalogue of police failures warrants further investigation in order to maintain public confidence in the police and the criminal justice system.

Readers may be assisted by referring to an at-a-glance timeline of the key events before and after this troubling crime. Read here.

Page last updated: Monday 13th April, 2020 at 1600 hours

Photo Credits: ITV News, PA, Daily Mail.

Corrections: Please let me know if there is a mistake in this article. I will endeavour to correct it as soon as possible.

Right of reply: If you are mentioned in this article and disagree with it, please let me have your comments. Provided your response is not defamatory it will be added to the article.

© Neil Wilby 2015-2020. Unauthorised use, or reproduction, of the material contained in this article, without permission from the author, is strictly prohibited. Extracts from, and links to, the article (or blog) may be used, provided that credit is given to Neil Wilby, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Author: Neil Wilby

Former Johnston Press area managing director. Justice campaigner. Freelance investigative journalist.

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