Top Derbyshire cop tells Gracie Spinks inquest “I don’t know where it's gone wrong”
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Detective Superintendent Darren De'Ath made the comment to coroner Matthew Kewley while giving evidence at the conclusion of a three-week inquest into the failed police investigations which took place before the 23-year-old was stabbed to death by stalker Michael Sellers.
Jurors noted Derbyshire Constabulary had admitted “serious failings”, however they concluded the botched police investigation did not contribute to Gracie’s death.
DSI De’Ath was asked about PC Ashley Downing – a officer who told the inquest the police control room were being “sneaky” when he and another constable were assigned the job of investigating a bag of weapons found weeks before Gracie’s death.
The brown ruck sack was found on May 6m, 2021, just weeks before Gracie was killed on June 18, by dog walker Anna White on a farm track near her Duckmanton home and metres from where Gracie was found.
It contained an axe and hunting knives accompanied by a chilling note and a Marks and Spenser receipt linked to Gracie’s killer Sellers.
After making no notes and not visiting the farm track – a “five-minute” drive from finder Anna White’s Duckmanton home – and not inspecting the full contents of the bag, PC Downing and his colleague PC Lee-Liggett took it to Clay Cross Police Station, where it was booked in as “lost property”, the inquest heard.
Mr Kewley said: “PC Ashley Downing was a very junior officer and referred to the control room being sneaky. The attitude to dealing with this job was just to go and get the weapons.”
DSI De’Ath replied: “Since 2021 we've done a lot of training to understand why we were in that situation in the first place.
“There's significant improvement in the culture of the organisation but I accept, listening to the officers, that we still have not achieved what we aimed to achieve.”
Speaking about the Nike ruck sack, the coroner said: “It was troubling when they were at Clay Cross Police Station and not one of them thought "God, what on earth is this about?"
The inspector replied: “I concur with your concerns – it's apparent at the time they didn't see the future risk but the call handler did see the future risk.
"In most cases we deal with found property appropriately.”
During the inquest jurors heard how none of the officers who investigated Gracie’s initial stalking complaint against Sellers or the bag that was later found did any risk assessments.
This was despite the force using a system called THRIVE – meaning threat, harm, risk, investigation, vulnerability and engagement.
One officer, PC Sarah Parker, assessed Sellers as “low risk”, failing to take notes or retain video footage of conversations with Gracie and Sellers.
She failed to request the former warehouse supervisor’s disciplinary file from his employer Xbite – despite his having harassed eight former colleagues.
Coroner Mr Kewley said: “Police and staff involved in the early stages were pretty hot on areas of risk, very risk-focused, particularly in terms of the first sergeant – but when it goes over to first response, risk falls off the radar.
“PC Sarah Parker's report was devoid of any risk assessment, totally absent. All of them, five officers, and no safeguarding. Do you know why that is?”
DSI De’Ath replied: “I don't. Officers have the same training as call handlers. There's very clear guidance about when THRIVE should be used.”
Mr Kewley said: “Sergeant Adams (the sergeant who closed Gracie’s file after her initial complaint) did not spot any issues. Where in the process should risk assessment be done?”
The inspector said official procedure was that sergeants should review an investigation after 28 days have passed since it was opened.
He added that as a result of the case “dip samples” of 10 ongoing cases were now reviewed by inspectors and chief inspectors for “double assurance”.
Speaking about THRIVE, Mr Kewley said: “What is the ongoing training for THRIVE? I'm not reassured that the officers have developed any real insight into what happened.
"I was not reassured that their attitude had changed.”
“After Gracie’s death the whole force was retrained on THRIVE - call centre staff receive that training twice a year,” said the inspector.
“Officers have been given yearly THRIVE risk assessment training since 2021. There's some real matured oversight about whether we're complying with THRIVE.”
The inquest heard during evidence from now retired Sergeant Lee Richards – who booked in the Nike bag of weapons as lost property – that other senior officers had told him they would have handled the case the same way.
Mr Kewley said: “Should I be concerned about that, does that trouble you?”
The inspector replied: “It does trouble me - there's a lack of understanding about what was in that bag across the wider organisation.
"We will strive to ensure that that is addressed.”
DSI De’Ath said as a result of Gracie’s death a stalking coordinator role had been created at the Derbyshire force and had been in place since August 2022.
The coordinator role was to ensure officers completed risk assessments for stalking complaints and ensure the “most suitable resource” was allocated to the case.
While two stalking advocates, independently funded by the Police and Crime Commissioner for a minimum of three years, had already been appointed.
A further advocate was also being recruited.
The advocates work with victim survivors of stalking, supporting them with non-molestation orders and civil injunctions, said DSI De’Ath.
Victims were now referred from “initial contact” to advocates under guidance from the coordinator, while “high-risk” cases were referred to the public protection unit.
It emerged during the inquest that PC Jill Lee-Liggett, one of two officers who retrieved the bag of weapons on May 6, failed to investigate its contents and booked it as “lost property” under orders from her sergeant.
The jury heard she spent six months at the public protection unit – which specialises in stalking and domestic abuse – where she “did nothing for three months” .
During her last three months at the unit while working on domestic abuse she had “no training”, PC Lee-Liggett told the inquest.
DSI De’Ath said an “accreditation pack” had now been created to ensure officers in the unit were properly trained.
Coroner Mr Kewley asked the inspector about an incident in August when a Derbyshire Constabulary call handler told the mother of a child who found a chef’s knife in a sock to discard it.
He replied: “We've now created a found weapons policy and taken further steps to make sure everyone's got that.”
“Why would police officers need guidance with regard to weapons? I would have thought...is it not elementary?”, said Mr Kewley.
The officer replied: “The staff involved in this case (Gracie’s death) were not junior, I don’t know where it's gone wrong, so to speak.
"A big conversation we've had is why aren’t officers seeing this long-term risk. Organisationally there are pockets where the message doesn't seem to have poked through.”
Mr Kewley replied: “There's still work to be done isn't there and the force is not quite there yet.”
“There is sir,” said DSI De’Ath.