Police said human fireball was merely taken `ill'

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The Independent Online
IT WAS late on a freezing January night nearly three years ago that Michael Menson made his final journey.

His trip across north London was to have a tragic end that would once again throw the Metropolitan Police's treatment of ethnic minorities under the spotlight and hold the force up to renewed accusations of racism and incompetence.

The 30-year-old musician had left it until 10pm to set out for the Chase Farm hospital, Enfield, to receive an injection he needed to control his schizophrenia. It appears he took the wrong bus and found himself on an inhospitable corner of Edmonton, hemmed in by a housing estate, a park and the North Circular.

Mr Menson was not alone. He was being watched by three bored young men. At first, the racist thugs taunted their victim with abuse, before assaulting him and stealing his bag and personal stereo. Then, the violence escalated and they decided to set him alight, apparently as a "joke". Their first attempt failed, so Mr Menson's tormentors went away to collect some white spirit or petrol. They poured it over his back, lit a match, and watched him burst into flames.

As John Grieve, Deputy Assistant Commissioner, who was to be fundamental in helping catch the killers, later summed it up: "Michael just happened to be the wrong person, at the wrong place, at the wrong time."

The assault and burning lasted about two hours and Mr Menson was found at 1.30am on 28 January, collapsed on a grass verge. He had sustained 25 per cent burns to his body, mainly to his back and buttocks.

Kwezi Menson recalls first hearing the news about the attack on his brother. "The police officer came and said Michael had set fire to himself and had been taken to hospital. I saw Michael with my brother Daniel the next morning. He was lucid, alert and typically Michael... We asked him how did this happen and he said that some boys had put him on fire by some phone boxes in Edmonton. As soon as possible, I telephoned Edmonton police and gave them the details."

Two days after the attack, a police officer went to the hospital, but Kwezi Menson said he did not talk to his brother.

Mr Menson died on 13 February 1997, after suffering two heart attacks. His sister, Essie, said that over the following weeks and months the police failed to keep them informed. "This was at the time of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry and the police just seemed to be concerned about covering their own tracks," she said.

The police inquiries were a disaster. Detective Constable James Dunn and PC Joanna Walshe, the two officers who found Mr Menson, classified the incident as "illness in the street" despite his claims that he had been attacked. No formal investigation was started until 12 hours after the attack and the area was not sealed off. Even after the investigation was taken over by Scotland Yard, the police would not admit they were dealing with a killing.

Up until the inquest in September last year, where the jury brought in a verdict of unlawful killing, the police were still asserting it was unclear if a crime had been committed. The Police Complaints Authority is supervising an investigation by Cambridgeshire police into how the case was initially handled.

The turning point of the inquiry came on 3 December 1998 when, following intense pressure by the Menson family, Scotland Yard's new racial and violent crimes task force, headed by Mr Grieve, took over. After meeting the Menson family and examining police notes he concluded: "It read like a murder to me."

A team of 12 detectives re-examined 300 witness statements and 600 potential suspects. They identified three prime suspects - Mario Pereira, 26, unemployed, Harry Charalambous Constantinou, 26, a student with mental health problems, and Ozguy Cevat, 22, of dual British/Turkish nationality, all of Edmonton.

Cevat fled to North Cyprus - where he thought he would be safe, as there is no extradition treaty. However, the North Cypriot authorities agreed to prosecute and last month found him guilty of the manslaughter of Mr Menson and sentenced him to 14 years in prison.

In Britain, the police managed to prick the conscience of witnesses. They hand delivered letters stressing the awfulness of the crime. They sent leaflets to the homes of suspects and witnesses saying the BBC's Crimewatch programme would feature the murder on 26 January. And they bugged the flat of Constantinou and recorded conversations with Pereira.

They hit the jackpot. In one recording, Constantinou told a friend, Husseyin Abdullah: "He [Pereira] started saying `Oh let's do him' and all that shit, going nigger and all that shit, so they drove, err, Ozzie got out the car and he tried to light his jacket, but it didn't work, so they went back to Mario's house, got some fuel, spirit or something, went back to him."

Abdullah, 50, was charged, along with Pereira and Constantinou, with perverting the course of justice by obstructing the police investigation. The police arrested the three men on 9 March.