Essex: Police Probe In Farm Death 'Flawed'

An investigation into the death of a Hornchurch man crushed in a cement mixer was "seriously flawed'', the police watchdog said today (Monday January 30th).

Lorry driver Lee Balkwell, 33, was found with his head and shoulders wedged between the drum and chassis of a cement mixer at a farm in Upminster in July 2002.

An investigation by Essex Police concluded that Mr Balkwell, of Hornchurch, died accidentally while an inquest in 2008 recorded a verdict of unlawful killing through gross negligence.

His father Les Balkwell has made more than 130 complaints to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) about the way the force conducted the inquiry, along with the way they subsequently handled his concerns.

The watchdog investigated 92 of these complaints and found 11 of them substantiated, eight partially substantiated and the remainder unsubstantiated, and today published its findings.

IPCC commissioner Rachel Cerfontyne said: "We have found that Mr Balkwell's belief that the original investigation into Lee Balkwell's death was inadequate was well founded.

"In our view it was seriously flawed. From the outset it was mired in assumption that what had happened to Lee Balkwell was a tragic industrial accident.

"Officers failed to secure potential evidence, failed to interview potential witnesses and failed to treat the death with an open mind.

"Reviews and further investigative work have been undertaken but the all important first hours of this investigation, where vital evidence must be preserved, had been lost.

"The failure of the investigation at that early stage has left evidential gaps which may never be filled.''

The IPCC said that Mr Balkwell, who believed there was a police conspiracy to cover up the truth behind his son's death, made complaints about a number of officers, 18 of whom were served with notices while six have since retired.

Ms Cerfontyne added: "Whilst our investigation has provided evidence of poor police work, we have found no evidence to support any allegations of corruption or a conspiracy theory.

"However in the light of Essex Police's prolonged failure to fully address his concerns, it is perhaps understandable how and why Mr Balkwell reached such conclusions himself.''

She paid tribute to his "endurance and tenacity'', adding: "This situation should never have been allowed to develop to this stage and an inevitable consequence has been that it has prolonged his agony and made it impossible for him to even begin to come to terms with his loss.

"It is a testament to his dedication that finally the full circumstances surrounding the death of Lee Balkwell are being examined.''

In addition to the IPCC probe, another force was also asked to undertake an investigation into how Mr Balkwell died.

West Midlands Police made more than 90 recommendations about further action that should be undertaken and an investigation into his death continues to be carried out by Kent and Essex Serious Crime Directorate.

A spokesman for Essex Police said three of its officers would be subject to a formal debrief with the force's deputy chief constable.

He added: "In the last nine years since Lee Balkwell's death, Essex Police's structure and approach to investigating homicide and unnatural death has changed.

"The Kent and Essex Serious Crime Directorate (SCD) has been formed and the identification, training, mentoring, accreditation and support of senior investigating officers in line with national best practise has been adopted.''

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