Parents to sue over blunders that let sons' killer go free

Justice Secretary forced to apologise for catalogue of errors

The parents of two French students murdered by drug addicts said yesterday that they plan to prosecute the British authorities after the Justice Secretary Jack Straw admitted that the man who killed their sons should have been in prison at the time. Mr Straw apologised for a succession of errors by the police and probation service that meant Dano Sonnex was free to stab Laurent Bonomo and Gabriel Ferez to death, but Mr Bonomo's father, Guy, said the words "will not suffice".

Sonnex, with his accomplice Nigel Farmer, tied up and stabbed Mr Bonomo and Mr Ferez 244 times at their flat in New Cross, south-east London, in June 2008. The apparent motive was to rob the students of some electrical equipment and £360 in cash.

Yesterday Sonnex, 23, and Farmer, 34, were found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Sonnex was told he must serve a minimum of 40 years, Farmer five years less.

Sonnex should have been behind bars at the time of the attack. He was out on licence after serving an eight-year sentence for another stabbing and, after being caught handling stolen goods, that licence had been recalled.

However, processing delays at the probation service meant he was mistakenly bailed by magistrates and he went on the run. The police were given a warrant for his arrest 16 days before the killings but did nothing. The first time they went to apprehend him was hours after the murders had been committed.

Yesterday Mr Straw apologised and admitted that, were it not for blunders by his department, the two French students would still be alive. "In relation to the failings of the probation service, I take full responsibility as Secretary of State," he said. "They were unacceptable and had tragic consequences."

After being convicted of wounding with intent and robbery on 14 March 2003, Sonnex was freed from Elmley prison, Kent, on 8 February last year, after serving the mandatory two-thirds of his sentence. This was despite the fact that he had been refused parole twice and was considered "high risk" by the prison authorities following a number of violent incidents while behind bars.

But the probation service only categorised him as "medium risk", and appointed him a probation officer with just nine months' experience who had 127 cases on the go at the time. Just two days after his release, Sonnex was reported to the police after he allegedly tied up and threatened a pregnant relative, but when she withdrew her complaint no charges were brought. Yet officials at the probation service admit that the allegation should have triggered a review of his licence and could have prompted a recall.

Then, on 24 April 2008, Sonnex appeared at Greenwich magistrates' court charged with handling stolen goods. He was remanded in custody, and on 3 May his probation officer started the recall process. That should have taken 24 hours but by Sonnex's next appearance in front of the magistrates on 16 May, it was still not complete.

For some reason the magistrates granted Sonnex bail. Knowing that he was due to go back to prison to complete the final three years of his sentence, he went on the run, hiding out on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent.

The recall process was finally completed on 12 June, 43 days after it had started, and the next day a warrant for his arrest was passed to the Metropolitan Police. Its policy is that a suspect on recall should be returned to custody in 96 hours, but, despite knowing where Sonnex lived, officers did not attempt to arrest him until 29 June. Coincidentally, he had that morning murdered Mr Bonomo and Mr Ferez.

The reason for the delay, police say, was that it had been suggested that Sonnex had a gun and so it could not be decided whether armed or unarmed officers should make the arrest. When detectives finally did go to his house on Etta Street, Deptford, they were told Sonnex was not there. He fled when they knocked at the door. Police did not attempt to arrest him again until 10 July, when he was named as a suspect in the murder of the students. Commander Simon Foy, the Met's head of homicide, admitted: "A number of things went wrong for us."

A police sergeant has been disciplined over the failings and the Independent Police Complaints Commission has completed an inquiry and written to every force in England and Wales to highlight the error.

The head of London Probation Service, David Scott, has resigned. His management was questioned after it was revealed the errors took place against a background of chaos in the organisation. Departments were understaffed, unsupervised and overworked and sickness levels were high. At the time of the murders, staff were each taking an average of 27 days' sick leave each year. Mr Scott stood down after he was suspended and told that a review of his capability was to be launched.

After the case, inquiries by the National Offender Management Service and London Criminal Justice Board were carried out. They set a target to recruit an extra 100 new probation officers in London within the next two years.

After yesterday's verdicts, the parents of Mr Bonomo and Mr Ferez expressed their anguish outside the Old Bailey. Francoise Villemont, Gabriel's mother, said of her son: "He died suffering in such a way, I could never forget what was done to him. This barbaric act is indescribable and inexcusable. No human being deserves such a death."

Guy Bonomo described Farmer and Sonnex as "animals" and added: "They should never get out... We have sat in court for the last six weeks, hoping for answers, trying to find out what happened to our children. But you have lied in court and have refused to tell the truth. Without knowing what happened that night and why, we cannot move on and find peace. I ask you again, why?

"I appeal to you as Laurent's father to have a conscience. To end our misery and suffering by one day telling the truth about our son's final hours."