Harvey Nichols assistant's death was 'unforeseeable'

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The Independent Online

The murder of a Harvey Nichols beauty assistant by an obsessed stalker "could not have been reasonably foreseen", a coroner ruled yesterday.

Clare Bernal, 22, was shot by her former boyfriend Michael Pech at the Knightsbridge store in September 2005.

The Westminster coroner Paul Knapman ruled she was "unlawfully killed", but said police could not have anticipated her death.

Dr Knapman noted that the Metropolitan Police made a number of mistakes in handling the case. These included charging Pech with a less serious offence than the one recommended by prosecutors and failing to fill in relevant forms. But the coroner insisted these shortcomings were "not serious". He concluded: "I am satisfied this outcome could not have been reasonably foreseen bearing in mind the resources available."

The coroner singled out for praise PC Bibi Shah, the inexperienced police constable who was assigned to Ms Bernal's case. He said she had carried out her duties "in the best tradition of the old spirit of the Metropolitan Police".

Pech, 30, a former Slovakian soldier, was high on cocaine when he walked into Harvey Nichols and shot Ms Bernal in the back of the head. Then, as she lay on the floor, he fired three more bullets at her - one hit just below her eye, another her left cheek and a third the point of her chin.

He fired another shot into the ceiling before putting the Luger pistol to his right temple and pulling the trigger. Pech had begun stalking Ms Bernal, from Dulwich, south-east London, after the end of their brief relationship in early 2005.

He was arrested and charged with harassment but while on bail managed to travel to Slovakia and smuggle back a pistol.

He shot Ms Bernal eight days before he was due to be sentenced after pleading guilty to harassment.

Dr Knapman recorded a verdict of suicide for Pech's death at an earlier inquest.

Speaking after the verdict, Ms Bernal's mother, Patricia Bernal, of Groombridge, East Sussex, said women would only begin to receive better protection when police and the courts fully understood the seriousness of domestic violence. She added: "It is vital that people realise just how weak the system is in protecting young women like Clare from violence. I had hoped the coroner's findings would lead to changes and improvements that will help protect future victims and their families from stalkers."