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The Independent Culture
Kirsty was one of the lucky

ones: she was found alive with

the help of a photograph on a

milk carton. Christopher was

not. His image was circulated

in the same way, but while his

family searched and hoped,

his body lay unidentified on a

mortuary slab. Just one phone

call would have released them

from their uncertainty

Christopher Goodall loved the Manic Street Preachers. All those lyrics laced with gloom struck a chord with the 16-year-old A-level student. Especially after his girlfriend broke up with him. So when Christopher disappeared from his home in Stockport last October and sent her an angry note from south Wales, his family feared the worst. The Goodalls knew the Preachers come from south Wales. They also recalled the legend surrounding Richie Edwards, the band's guitarist and Christopher's idol. Richie is believed to have jumped to his death in 1995 from the Severn Bridge, a well known suicide spot.

"Even before the letter, it came to me in the night that he might be heading there," recalls Joan Battersby, Christopher's mother. "He was such a fan, he thought it was so cool getting out like that when life became too much." The family contacted Derbyshire police immediately and left for Bristol.

But no one had seen Christopher. There were poster campaigns all over the South-west, where several police forces searched for him. The Big Issue and other newspapers featured his case. Iceland put his photograph on its milk cartons. There were television appeals: "I just want him back home for Christmas Day. We are so worried," said Christopher's father on Christmas Eve.

But all the searching was a waste of time. Christopher had jumped from the bridge. And the police had long before found his body, washed up at Beachley, a wide, tidal stretch of the Severn just over the border in Gloucestershire. They just didn't realise whose it was. Despite all the publicity and anguish, Christopher's remains lay unidentified from November last year until March, on a mortuary slab in Gloucestershire.

"I asked the police why it took five months to identify my son," recalls Joan Battersby. "An officer said to me: `Unfortunately, my dear, your son was found at the conjunction of three police forces, Avon and Somerset, Gwent, and Gloucestershire. The body went to Gloucestershire police, which, unlike the other two forces, had not been informed by Derbyshire about your son.'

"I was told that he was eventually identified because the Gloucestershire police made an appeal in February in the Police Gazette, wondering whether anyone knew anything about the dead body in their mortuary."

As Mrs Battersby says: "This was a horrible cock-up by all the agencies concerned, by police forces that did not communicate with each other properly. All they had to do was make one phone call to the National Missing Persons Helpline and they would have realised who it was."

The personal consequences of this bureaucratic failure remain considerable. "I still wake up every morning with this terrible fear that Christopher might be dead," says his mother. "It's the first thing I think of. It sounds crazy, but because I lived with that fear for so long, I got used to living my life that way. We thought for so long that he was not dead, and that everything would be OK in the end."

You might imagine this story to be an unfortunate, one-off tale of incompetence. In fact, similar cases occur with disturbing regularity. Such failure on the part of the police is, says Christopher Goodall's mother, "a national scandal".

The National Missing Persons Helpline has expanded rapidly since the Fred West case brought public attention to the problem. But many police forces do not consult the charity when they find an anonymous corpse. "I'm not sure that all coroners' officers are even aware that it exists," says John Coopey, chairman of the Coroners' Officers Association. As a result, unidentified bodies often lie for months in morgues. Eventually they are disposed of as cheaply as possible in paupers' graves. Meanwhile, those looking for the missing people labour in the dark, with resulting stress and administrative chaos. The National Missing Persons Helpline stresses that the overwhelming majority of missing people eventually turn out to be alive and well. Nevertheless, the current system means that those left fretting can never be absolutely sure that a loved one is not already buried.

Take, for example, the case of Simon Allen, a 21-year-old care assistant. He was last seen in 1994 leaving his flat in Keighley, Yorkshire. Simon, a fanatical collector of Dr Who memorabilia, was an intelligent young man who had taken 10 O-levels. He had completed a year in drama school. But he also suffered depression and had recently been treated for three months in a psychiatric hospital. So when he disappeared, his family quickly reported his details to the police. But he was not found. His parents searched everywhere for him. "I appeared on television," recalls David Allen, his father, a building surveyor from Bradford. "I spent my days looking in bus queues for him, checking train windows. We would go to towns to search among the crowds. All the time we were convinced that he was living somewhere and could not get in touch."

Once again, they were wasting their time. Simon had died within four hours of leaving home and the police had found his nameless body. He had jumped off a bridge on to a road in Leeds, just 20 miles from Keighley.

It was not until the summer of 1997, three-and-a-half years later, that a police inspector knocked on Mr Allen's door. "I was shocked to be shown a photograph of Simon in a coffin, with a purple shroud around him. I recognised him instantly."

The only reason Simon had been identified at all was because the National Missing Persons Helpline, whose offices were plastered with his photograph, had happened by chance to hear about an unidentified body in Leeds. They requested photographs from the police. "We immediately knew it was Simon," says Sophie Woodforde, of the helpline.

David Allen adds: "It is terrible to think that Simon died so near home, yet the system still failed to identify him. I went back in the newspaper archives afterwards and found an item in a Leeds newspaper just after his death about a unidentified man who had jumped to his death. There was even a photograph of the bridge. I was so angry."

Mr Allen's belated grief was compounded when he sought his son's body. "He had been buried in a common, unmarked grave in Leeds. I was told that I couldn't put a headstone up without approaching relatives of others buried there. But three of the others were also unidentified or had no traceable relatives. For the same reason, we have not been allowed to exhume his body." Mr Allen, like the Goodall family, has still received no apology from the police.

These cases demonstrate that the whole system of identifying the deceased needs to be overhauled, argues John Bennett, a retired detective superintendent who led the Fred West inquiry. Currently, he says, the police will circulate a missing person's details on their own national register only if the person is considered vulnerable, and has been missing for more than 28 days.

"This means," says Mr Bennett, "that if you have a road accident or a heart attack and cannot be identified, the police may have no national record of your being missing even though your family has already reported your case to them locally. "There are also examples of families which have not bothered to contact the police because they know that the person is not the type the police are interested in," he adds. "As a result, people die and are buried without being unidentified. This happens all over the United Kingdom."

But there are also problems even when a person has been correctly identified. The police are not legally obliged to inform relatives. There is no place on a coroner's file to note whether or not the next of kin have been notified. Typically, great effort is made to find families, but obvious methods are often missed because of pressure of time. Also, because these identified people are not listed on any register, those searching for missing persons cannot easily check whether the person has died. Mr Bennett estimates that 300 to 500 identified people are probably buried every year without the knowledge of their next of kin. That is in addition to perhaps 20 completely unidentified corpses.

Those who sleep rough are the most vulnerable to an ignominious send- off. Perhaps Anthony Calveley recognised this risk after he was mugged a few years ago. He applied for a replacement birth certificate, which he always carried with him.

He had the new one with him when he died of bronchial pneumonia and drug and alcohol abuse. It was a freezing January night in 1996 and Anthony was sleeping at the bottom of some stairs in London. He had just celebrated his 35th birthday and was living as he had done for many years, busking on his guitar, singing Beatles' songs.

Anthony's body should have been easy to identify. His fingerprints were on file, because he had a criminal record. The big question is why his family was not informed of his death. His birth certificate stated that he was born in Birkenhead on the Wirral. His mother, also named on it, still lives nearby. And the name Calveley is unusual, so tracing the family should have been simple. But the police failed to do so. As a result, Anthony's mother went through hell for 18 months.

"Every morning, she would watch from her bedroom window for the first morning train from London at 5.50am," explains Chris Hibbs, Anthony's sister. "That was the one Tony always caught when he came home. She would always see him walking up the road. She was frightened to go on holiday in case he came home. She could not go away at Christmas because of the stress and anxiety.

"Whenever a body was washed up in Southport or Liverpool, she would ring up and ask whether the body had been identified. When she heard it wasn't Tony she was so relieved."

The mystery carried on for 20 months until August 1997, when the National Missing Persons Helpline, which had been looking for Anthony, found out that he was dead. The family was told that his body had been disposed of by Lambeth council on 4 April 1996, four months after he died. They were shocked, first of all, that he had been cremated, since, as Roman Catholics, this is not a practice they would use. His ashes had been buried in a London cemetery.

With no body to view, it was hard for Anthony's mother to accept that her son really was dead. "It didn't help that some of the records were inaccurate," says his sister, Chris Hibbs. "The post-mortem examination said he had yellow nicotine stains on his left hand, but Tony was right- handed. It said he was under 6ft. But Tony was 6ft tall.

"So you can see why my mother finds it hard to accept that he is dead. I know the laws of the land say a body must be disposed of, but if it had been buried then at least we could have had it looked over and been certain. We could have done a DNA test. Instead we have spent 18 months living with a false hope. My mother was there when her son came into the world. But when he left, she could not have a funeral for him. She could not have a get-together for his friends - the little things that make grieving easier."

This catalogue of administrative disaster could be resolved fairly simply. John Bennett says that Britain needs a national register of all those reported missing, plus all unidentified bodies, and those whose next-of- kin have not been found.

The National Missing Persons Helpline also asks for funds to be made available so that those who die unknown and unmourned are buried, not cremated, in single graves that could one day be opened - or at least be furnished with a headstone. Additionally, some agency, be it the police or the coroner, has to be given the legal responsibility of doing everything possible to inform families of those who have died.

Most of all, a change of culture is required in the police, whose inadequacies betray reality: their priority is finding criminals, not the bereaved. "We have changed our culture in supporting the victims of rape and assault," says John Bennett. "We also have to realise that families who have lost loved ones are no different. They too are victims of circumstance.

"Our job is not just to satisfy the law and solve crime. As we learned from the Fred West inquiry, it is also to inform the families and put them at ease. We need to let them know that they can bury their family member and begin grieving."

The National Missing Persons Helpline charity can be contacted on 0500 700 700