A killer who slit his elderly victim’s throat before setting her on fire in her Wisbech home remains at large two years later after police bungled their investigation by missing “clear signs” of murder, an inquest has heard.
Retired postmistress Una Crown, 86, was found dead, covered in blood and with her clothing “burnt to a crisp” in the hallway of her bungalow in Magazine Lane after family and neighbours became concerned for her welfare.
But police, paramedics and firefighters who attended the scene on January 13, 2013, all assumed the widow died when a tea towel caught fire on her oven, causing her to have a heart attack and collapse, an inquest at Huntingdon Coroner’s Court heard.
It was not until four days later that a Home Office pathologist found the death was “clearly homicide” and “highly suspicious from the outset”. By that time the crime scene had been “severely contaminated”.
Recording a verdict of unlawful killing at the hearing last week, coroner William Morris questioned the role of Cambridgeshire Police, saying vital clues had been lost.
He added: “I have to say that the handling of the evidence by the police has been unfortunate.
“Foul play or suspicious circumstances were too readily dismissed by the police officers. It has meant that the bungalow was not treated as a crime scene immediately so that a proper forensic examination could be carried out.”
Speaking at the inquest, Mrs Crown’s niece, Judy Payne, said: “I can’t understand how it wasn’t picked up immediately. We’re lost for words.”
As she left the hearing, she added: “It’s just terrible. We just want the people who did this to be caught.”
When a murder investigation was launched on January 17, forensic evidence had already been lost after emergency services trampled over the crime scene, senior investigator Detective Inspector Fraser Wylie told the hearing.
He added: “The scene was severely contaminated by the police, firefighters and paramedics because this had not been initially picked up as a murder investigation.”
Acting Sergeant Simon Gledhill was one of the first officers on the scene. He did not attend the inquest but in a statement said there was no sign of forced entry and the death “looked accidental”.
Emergency services collectively agreed the fire was likely to have been started after a tea towel caught on the hob, causing Mrs Crown to have a heart attack and collapse, he added.
A paramedic prodded the body and spread Mrs Crown’s blood to a light switch before rummaging through a chest of drawers.
Mr Gledhill said he himself had washed a blood stained key under the tap after he touched it.
The kitchen floor had been immaculately clean when crews arrived but was soon covered in muddy footprints, Mr Gledhill added.
The family of Mrs Crown, who had lived alone since the death of her husband Ron four years earlier, were then allowed into the property to clean up.
Mr Wylie said several people had been arrested in connection with the murder but have since been released without charge.
“Our inquiries to catch the killer continue to this day and it is still very much a live investigation,” he added.
Assistant Chief Constable Mark Hopkins apologised to Mrs Crown’s family and said officers had been given extra 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.
“This was then passed to the complainants with the right to appeal against the conclusion and recommendations made by PSD, however no appeal was received.”
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 and I urge them to do the right thing and come forward.”
Anyone with information should call the major crime unit on 101 or Crimestoppers, anonymously, on 0800 555 111.
• A 44-year-old man arrested on suspicion of murdering Mrs Crown has been released without charge. The man was arrested in January, but released without charge when he answered bail last week.