We investigated ourselves and found nothing wrong

During this course of this week, details have emerged of three more sub-optimal North Yorkshire Police investigations. These add to a shocking catalogue over the past 10 years or so (read more here).

Not burglaries or car break-ins, but deaths in two different rivers in the county, 12 years apart. Denying closure for bereaved families over periods far longer than necessary.

This followed hot on the heels of the shocking news that NYP had misled the tame local and regional media by asserting that a promised review into the depressingly poor investigation of the murder of Diana Garbutt, in 2010, never took place (read more here).

In April 2007, John David Clarke died in the River Foss near Towthorpe, by a strange coincidence a village with which convicted murderer Robin Garbutt, former husband of Diana, has strong connections. No murder investigation appeared to take place at the time.

Pathology suggested that the circumstances were consistent with drowning and found that Mr Clarke had been heavily intoxicated at the time of death.

At the inquest, also in 2007, the coroner ruled that he had died by drowning, with alcohol intoxication a contributing factor. The deceased had an alcohol addiction and was being treated for depression. On open verdict was recorded.

But the police, led by senior investigating officer Lewis Raw, failed to consider the likelihood of a man in such a condition walking well over four miles from York to Haxby – probably taking around two hours to do so – before accidentally, or deliberately, drowning in the river.

Other clues that this was not an accidental death did not appear to be investigated with the necessary rigour:

Messages recovered from Mr Clarke’s mobile phone card SIM card confirmed that the man now convicted of his murder, ex-Tesco worker, David Roustoby, was the last person to see him alive.

His partner, Sharron Houlden, had reported her car stolen to the police two days after the murder, and it was found burned out a short distance away.

According to police reports, Mr Clarke had made a complaint in November 2006, saying Roustoby had allegedly discharged a firearm and threatened to kill him. The latter was arrested, but never charged.

In the end, it took a confession, filmed at a friend’s house in August 2019, for Roustoby to be finally arrested, interviewed, charged and face trial. He thought he had, literally, got away with murder after drugging and then strangling David Clarke with a tie because he thought ‘he was a nonce’.

Police, during an renewed investigation codenamed Operation Jet, found no evidence to suggest that the deceased had such character frailties and prosecutor, Richard Wright QC, told the jury: “Claiming David Clarke was a sex offender was a wicked self-justification of the terrible thing [Roustoby] had done”.

“David Clarke had no convictions of sex offences and no allegations of any type had been made.”

Mr Wright also told them that it was possible Roustoby had not “entirely killed” Mr Clarke when strangling him and the victim was, possibly, still breathing when he was thrown in the river.

When confronted with his video confession, Roustoby claimed that he was trying to impress his friends; that it was all fantasy. He was jailed for life, with a minimum term of 19 years to be served.

Miss Houlden was handed a sentence of two years and eight months imprisonment (less time already spent in custody) after pleading guilty to assisting an offender at an earlier hearing in September, 2020. 

Another curiosity is that Supt Raw was also the senior investigating in the disastrous Garbutt murder probe codenamed Operation Nardoo (read more here). A recent freedom of information request revealed that a promised review of that ‘comedy of errors’ never took place. Moreover, in recent correspondence with the chief constable, it is clear that the force is still refusing to re-open the case and very uncomfortable over the renewed scrutiny.

19 year old Sonny Ferry, brought up in Rutland but working as a building labourer in the city, also died in the River Foss in York in April, 2019. He had been on a night out with friends but became separated from the group in a local nightclub. It later emerged his bank card had been used several times on the day he was found and police knew it was missing when the body was recovered.

Inspector Lee Partridge said, at the time, it was not known whether the teenager’s wallet had been lost or stolen before he fell in the river or was fished out by person(s) unknown.

There were attempts to use Sonny’s bank card at a Tesco supermarket, two petrol stations and two McDonald’s outlets in the city between 04:22 and 06:10 BST on 14 April, although some transactions were declined.

The police did not tell Sonny’s family about the missing wallet until two months later but, by that time it was too late to check relevant CCTV footage in the areas where he had been.

A 45-year-old homeless man was arrested on suspicion of theft, in relation to the missing velcro-strapped wallet, but was released without charge.

His parents, Stephen and Kate Ferry, submitted a formal complaint to NYP after the initial investigation was closed just one day after Sonny’s death.

The perennially disgraced Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) was asked to investigate the circumstances leading up to his death.

However, the ‘police watchdog’ said evidence did not suggest the officers breached standards of professional behaviour. A decision that may not sustain before a coroner’s or civil court.

An inquest will now take place on a date yet to be determined.

A third victim of what appears to be sub-optimal NYP contact died in the River Ouse in York city centre less than a week later. Sharon Scott, the mother of the dead man said her 29 year old son Steven O’Neill, who was from The Wirral area of Merseyside, was on a night out with his brother, a soldier based at Imphal Barracks, when the tragedy occurred.

Ms Scott said she failed to understand how her son ended up in the river because he could not swim. She was dissatisfied with the explanations of the police and made a formal complaint to the IOPC.

North Yorkshire Police said, at the time, they were alerted by CCTV operators to suspicious activity on Kings Staith in the early hours of a Saturday morning. Upon arrival, a man ran off and a short time later entered the water. A rescue operation was mounted but he was dead when his body was recovered from the river. All deaths where there has been police contact are required to be mandatorily referred to the IOPC for what is described as an ‘independent investigation’.

An IOPC investigator subsequently wrote to Ms Scott, to say that the evidence gathered does not suggest officers breached the police service’s Standards of Professional Behaviour. It is unclear as to who gathered what evidence.

He finalised his assessment of the status of officers involved in the incident preceding Steven’s death, after ‘carefully’ examining ‘all evidence’ including bodycam and CCTV footage, radio transmission recordings and witness statements (much more likely to be informal witness accounts than formal statements). Three visits to the scene and an inspection of life saving equipment were also made by the IOPC, they say, although it is not made clear who made these visits and for what specific purpose.

He said: “My assessment of all the evidence gathered to date in the investigation does not suggest the officers involved with Mr Scott may have breached the Police Standards of Professional Behaviour or acted in a manner that would justify disciplinary proceedings.”

Ms Scott said she was “appalled” by the investigator’s conclusions, and was planning to take civil action against North Yorkshire Police if the decision was upheld.

She said she did not believe sufficient care was taken for her son’s safety when he ran along the riverside – or sufficient action was taken by officers to save his life after he had entered the water.

The IOPC claim that CCTV, footage from body worn cameras, witness statements and police radio transmissions were all analysed, suggests that none was seized by the watchdog in the ‘golden hours’ after the death of Steven. They would have viewed, presumably, what the police wanted them to see. Over the years, their record on such analyses, in a number of other similar death following police contact cases, does not, regrettably, bear a great deal of scrutiny.

Neither does the record of the genuinely appalling record, over a long period of time, of the Professional Standards Department of North Yorkshire Police in covering up wrongdoing by their colleagues. Very strongly aided by a complete lack of oversight, or appropriately rigorous scrutiny, by any or all of the disgraced Police and Crime Commissioner, Julia Mulligan, about whom much is written elesewhere on this website; the aforementioned IPCC/IOPC and Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary.

In the month following the deaths of Steven and Sonny, NYP was forced to apologise to both families for alarm and distress caused when a CCTV operator posted an “inappropriate, insensitive” comment on the York Press Facebook page about drunks putting themselves in danger close to the rivers in York.

The force says it “wholeheartedly acknowledges” that the comments were made without any regards for families grieving the loss of a loved one.

“The member of staff who made the comments will be dealt with appropriately,” the force said, via their press office. “We apologise for the alarm and distress caused”.

The CCTV operator wrote: “Well, I normally keep my opinions on police matters to myself but I work in the police control room and sit in front of the CCTV screens.

“What doesn’t get reported are the number of drunks that put themselves in these dangers.

“Thursday night shift we responded to four persons too close, dangling legs, trying to climb river ladders or walk across the wall across Ouse bridge.

“One idiot jumped in and managed to climb out. That’s four individuals in danger in just one shift. It’s the person’s (drunken and misguided) choices, not the river’s fault.”

Sharon Scott said the comments were posted after The Press had reported on the death in the Ouse of her son. The link being, of course, that he drowned after running away from police officers, who had been alerted by CCTV operators to suspicious activity in the area of King’s Staith.

Ms Scott said that specific role of CCTV operators in the chain of events which led to Steven’s death had made the comments by one of those operators particularly concerning.

She added that the comment had sparked a series of other derogatory, speculative and prejudiced comments about her son from other people on Facebook, suggesting for example that he was clearly a drug dealer as he came from Merseyside.

“This has been incredibly upsetting and distressing not just for me but also for the wider family who are grieving for Steven, and also for the families of other people who have drowned in York’s rivers,”

The operator’s comment was deleted after a complaint to the police, but the comments by other people which it had prompted had remained.

“I personally would like to see the operator sacked,” said Ms Scott.

Ms Scott has previously made clear that Steven was a hard-working man with no criminal record and she had no inkling of what suspicious activity was referred to by police.

Kate Ferry told the same newspaper: “Speaking with the full support of my immediate family, we feel that had the operator previously had the honour of meeting the two members of the York Rescue Boat, as did myself and my husband, and of witnessing the raw grief on the faces of the unpaid volunteers whilst they told us of their first-hand experiences with individuals of all ages who have sometimes drunk a little too much alcohol, in some cases have drunk far too much alcohol and in further cases have drunk no alcohol at all but have nevertheless perished in the rivers of York, they would never have made those comments.

“Ultimately we feel that what is needed at this time is empathy, respect, courage and honesty. We feel we all need to be honest with ourselves. Haven’t we all said something naively and then wished we hadn’t?”

There is no indication on the NYP website that the CCTV operator faced any misconduct proceedings and it is, therefore, unclear what sanctions, if any, were imposed.

Page last updated at 2045hrs on Saturday 28th November, 2020.

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Photo credit: Yorkshire Live

Page last updated at 0610hrs on Saturday 28th November, 2020.

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.

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