'Police lie delayed search for Natasha'

VITAL searches for tragic teenager Natasha Coombs were delayed because a press officer lied about trains being fitted with collision impact sensors, it has emerged.

James Hore

VITAL searches for tragic teenager Natasha Coombs were delayed because a press officer lied about trains being fitted with collision impact sensors, it has emerged.

The 17-year-old from Dovercourt went missing on her way home from a night in Ipswich on July 27, 2007 and her body was not found until two weeks later when it was spotted near the track by a train driver.

Just over a month after Natasha's body was found near Manningtree station, her mother Joanne committed suicide at the same spot.

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Natasha's father, Gary, called for the investigation into both Essex Police and British Transport Police's (BTP) handling of the case, claiming the delays finding his daughter had contributed to his wife killing herself.

An Independent Police Complaints Commission report into the search, published this morning, revealed a BTP communications officer told Essex Police all trains were fitted with sensors to alert drivers to any impact, which was not true. The officer said he only did this so he could end the call. He wanted to get on with other tasks.

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David Petch, IPCC commissioner, said as a result of the lie Essex Police had wrongly prioritised other enquiries above a physical search of the railway lines.

The unnamed officer later resigned when he found out he was facing a full disciplinary hearing.

The report also details failings by both Essex Police and BTP meant a physical search of the railway line did not begin until six days after the teenager went missing on Friday July 27.

BTP failed to provide a specialist search officer, claiming that a visual search by train drivers would be enough - a decision not challenged by Essex Police until August 1.

And detectives from Essex decided that Natasha was only “medium risk”, despite information from her parents that meant she should have been placed in a “high risk” category.

The decision led to delays of up to a day in obtaining mobile phone cell site data and dedicated search specialists.

CCTV of Ipswich railway station was also not used to its full potential and BTP failed to provide their counterparts with details about CCTV on railway infrastructure.

Vital footage from a train camera showing Natasha walking along the railway line, was not viewed until after the teenager had been found.

The case has led to a number of recommendations for policing, both locally and nationally including a review of the “unwieldy” STORM communication system which prevented investigators quickly realising the tracks needed searching.

A number of allegations made by Mr Coombs were found to be unsubstantiated, including a claim that one officer gave false evidence at Natasha's inquest and it concluded that it “could not determine” if the delays were a crucial factor in Mrs Coombs' suicide.

A spokesman for the BTP said: “British Transport Police accepts the IPCC recommendations and has taken all appropriate steps to ensure lessons have been learned.”

And Assistant Chief Constable Derek Benson said: “Essex Police is sorry for the delay in finding Natasha and accepts that mistakes were made.

“Whilst the delay did not affect the outcome we acknowledge the stress and trauma that Natasha's disappearance caused to her family and friends and extend our sincere sympathy to Mr Gary Coombs for his immeasurable loss.

“Whilst noting that a number of complaints were not substantiated, Essex Police accepts the IPCC report findings and recommendations concerning its own and national search policies and these have been or are being addressed.

“We will work closely with BTP improve the way we work together in the future.”

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