A coroner yesterday condemned the “unfortunate” way bungling police initially dismissed the murder of a pensioner who was burned to death as an accident.
Una Crown, 86, was repeatedly stabbed in the neck and chest and then set on fire at the bungalow where she lived alone in Magazine Lane, Wisbech.
She was found “burnt to a crisp” the following day and police said she had accidentally set fire to herself after falling on her cooker.
But they failed to see clear multiple defensive and suspicious marks on her hands and neck which were only spotted by a mortuary technician, a resumed inquest into her death heard.
The murder scene was also “severely contaminated” by police, firefighters and paramedics because it was not initially treated as a crime.
The mistakes included one detective picking up Mrs Crown’s front door key with his bare hand.
Police are still hunting the killer more than two years after the crime and Cambridgeshire coroner William Morris said they dismissed foul play “too readily”.
Senior officers have apologised to Mrs Crown’s family and admitted that their initial failings “impacted” on subsequent investigations.
Mrs Crown was found dead at her home on January 13, 2013.
Acting Detective Sergeant Simon Gledhill, one of the first to arrive, formed a theory that she had fallen on a faulty cooker and set herself on fire before suffering a heart attack.
But two days later a mortuary technician noticed the defensive marks and the case was passed to Home Office pathologist Nathaniel Carey.
He told the coroner: “This was clearly a homicide from the wounds I saw – that’s not to say that’s how it was treated.
“I concluded that she had died from multiple stab wound to her chest and neck.”
Mrs Crown’s niece Judith Paynes asked him: “I cannot understand why this evidence wasn’t picked up initially.
“I’m just at a loss for words.”
The inquest, held in Huntingdon, heard how police failed to preserve the crime scene properly.
DS Gledhill had used three pairs of latex gloves during his time at the house, but admitted to touching Mrs Crown’s front door key with a bare hand.
He then washed the key to avoid contamination, the inquest was told.
Senior investigator, Detective Inspector Fraser Wylie, said: “The scene was severely contaminated by the police, firefighters and paramedics because this had not been initially picked up as a murder investigation.”
Recording a verdict of unlawful killing, the coroner Mr Morris said: “I have to say the handling of evidence by police has been unfortunate.
“A theory was formed relatively early on by acting sergeant Simon Gledhill that Una Crow had fallen on the hob or cooker and somehow set fire to herself and panicked, and had a heart attack and collapsed in the hallway.
“In this suspicious death foul play was too readily dismissed by police officers.”
After the inquest Mrs Payne said: “It’s just terrible. We just want the people who did this to be caught.”
Assistant Chief Constable Mark Hopkins apologised to Mrs Crown’s family and said officers had been given training.
He said: “We recognise the failings by our officers in the initial stages of this investigation and we are deeply sorry for any hurt this has caused Mrs Crown’s family.
“A review by the Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire Professional Standards Department (PSD) was carried out in June 2013 which fully reviewed the actions taken by officers responding to Mrs Crown’s death in relation to complaints made by her family.
“The complaints were upheld by the investigator and recommendations were made to the force to ensure training is provided to all relevant officers and staff to prevent such actions from being made again. No formal action was taken against the officers in question.”
Detective Superintendent Paul Fullwood, head of the Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire Major Crime Unit, said: “There is no doubt the initial actions taken by local officers who responded to the death of Mrs Crown impacted on the overall investigative response and the subsequent investigation now led by the Beds, Cambs and Herts Major Crime Unit.
“Someone out there knows what happened to Mrs Crown on the day she was brutally attacked and I urge them to do the right thing and come forward.”