THURSDAY, July 17 - Inquiry criticises investigation into Rachel Whitear death

PUBLISHED: 17:13 17 July 2008 | UPDATED: 09:19 10 June 2010

AN investigation into Devon and Cornwall Police s handling of the death of Rachel Whitear in a Pound Street bedsit in 2000 has criticised general organisational failure on behalf of the force.

AN investigation into Devon and Cornwall Police's handling of the death of Rachel Whitear in a Pound Street bedsit in 2000 has criticised 'general organisational failure' on behalf of the force.

However the Independent Police Complaints Commission report into the initial enquiry has cleared officers of any misconduct, and failed to make any new recommendations into police procedure.

Despite volunteering for and funding the four-year IPCC investigation in 2003, and admitting a lack of post mortem after Rachel's death left questions unanswered, Devon and Cornwall Police will take no new action after the report was published this week. The constabulary adopted new operating procedures following the commissioning of the IPCC investigation in 2003.

Pauline Holcroft, Rachel's mum, spoke out today (July 17) alongside husband Mick, saying police "failed us."

"We'll never know who administered that final dose and whether Rachel was alone when she died. We will take this to our graves and will have to live with this uncertainty," said Pauline.

Mick said the family had not given up the search for answers, and urged anyone who knew any information to contact their local police - eight years after Rachel's death.

This week the constabulary issued an apology to Rachel's parents, and acknowledged the completion of the IPPC investigation led by Wiltshire Chief Superintendent Paul Howlett.

Devon and Cornwall Constabulary Assistant Chief Constable Paul Netherton said: "We are sorry that Rachel's parents have had to suffer the anguish of a protracted investigation that must have been harrowing.

"We are also sorry that the absence of a post-mortem means that they are left with unanswered questions which can never now be resolved.

"We note that the report does not identify any misconduct by officers and contains no recommendations about amendments to our policies around drug related deaths. Since Rachel's death we have reviewed our policies in this area.

"However, we note that Chief Superintendent Howlett has confirmed that even if the original investigation had been conducted in a different manner there is no certainty that the outcome in our understanding of the circumstances of Rachel's death would be any different."

Rachel, 21, was found hunched over, clutching a syringe, in a Pound Street flat in Exmouth in May 2000. An initial inquest returned an open verdict, but a second inquest last September confirmed heroin as the cause of her death.

The inquest failed to rule on whether Rachel was alone at the time of death. Her former boyfriend Luke Fitzgerald, 32, appeared before the inquest to deny any involvement in the scene.

Despite continued investigations and more than 100 witness statements police have found no evidence of any third party at the flat. Two men were arrested in 2003 in connection with the case, but released without charge.

ACC Netherton said: "There has been much said about the way the scene was treated originally and we note that Chief Superintendent Howlett has found that the officers who attended the scene did not believe it to be suspicious for various reasons."

The IPCC investigation found no signs of forced entry to the building, or any struggle in Rachel's room. The body displayed no sign of injury.

Though police admitted concern that a lack of post-mortem had a "significant impact" on investigations, drug-related paraphernalia at the scene had supported suspicions the death had been drug-related, Chief Superintendent Howlett's report stated.

However the report did question "appropriate scene management discipline" at the scene of crime in 2000.

At September's inquest, the Holcrofts lambasted the "incompetence" of the original investigation. The couple, who had said the second inquest permitted some closure, had released pictures from the scene for use with anti-drugs campaigns.

The couple have discussed the IPCC report the officers responsible.

For their part, Devon and Cornwall Police said they has instigated changes to procedure on investigating drug deaths, and ensuring detectives work under close supervision.

ACC Netherton added: "Devon & Cornwall Constabulary will always work closely with all those involved in fighting the misuse of drugs.

Mr and Mrs Holcroft took the brave decision to use Rachel's death as a warning to all drug users. We commend their bravery in attempting to tackle this difficult and often tragic issue.

"We hope that following the verdict of the Inquest and the publication of the IPCC investigation report, Rachel's family and friends will be allowed to fully grieve her tragic death.

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