Police last night issued a public apology after admitting the body of 12-year-old Tia Sharp lay undiscovered for five days after she was reported missing. They blamed "human error" for the fact that officers missed the girl's corpse during a search of her grandmother's house. On Friday, detectives arrested Christine Sharp, 46, the victim's grandmother, on suspicion of murdering the child. Her arrest follows that of Stuart Hazell, 37, her partner. A second man, Paul Meehan, 39, a neighbour of the arrested couple, was also arrested yesterday for allegedly assisting an offender.
Detectives questioning all three suspects were last night still awaiting the results of a post-mortem examination begun at Croydon mortuary yesterday afternoon following the discovery of the body on Friday at the grandmother's house in New Addington, near Croydon, Surrey, seven days after Tia was reported missing. A Scotland Yard spokesman said that establishing the cause of death would continue today. Police expect the body to be formally identified shortly afterwards.
Metropolitan Police Commander Neil Basu, apologising to Natalie, the schoolgirl's mother, explained that the first examination of the house was not a full search. "An initial visit was made [on 3 August] to assess the situation and examine the property," he said. He admitted mistakes were made during a second search, two days later. This exercise took two hours, Mr Basu said, and the family gave their consent.
"All parts of the premises were searched, including the location where a body was discovered on Friday, 10 August," he said. "An early review has been conducted, and it is now clear that human error delayed the discovery of the body within the house. We have apologised to Tia's mother that our procedures did not lead to the discovery of the body on this search."
Police said a third visit took place on Wednesday. "This was not a search, but the attendance of a body recovery dog to assist the investigation team in their inquiries," he said. "It is not appropriate to comment further on aspects of the criminal investigation currently being conducted, but our investigation was such that it was decided that a further intrusive search needed to be undertaken – it was that search, yesterday, which resulted in the discovery. On behalf of the Metropolitan Police, I apologise for the distress and concern this delay will have caused. A continuing review and examination of our search processes will be undertaken to ensure such a failing is not repeated," he added.
Police believe the girl had been killed before they carried out the second search, last Sunday.
The delay in finding the body caused bewilderment and outrage in New Addington, where Tia was last seen alive. Throughout the week, hundreds of people from the neighbourhood turned out to help search for the missing girl. Scores of people from Mitcham – where Tia lived with her mother and stepfather – also scoured woodlands and garages, hoping to find her alive. Shops throughout the borough displayed pictures of her.
Senior police officers held a series of emergency meetings, as dozens of angry neighbours gathered around the house when news of the discovery of the body spread on Friday.
Last night, neighbours continued to question why it had taken more than 100 officers nearly seven days to locate Tia, when her body appeared to have been in the house all along. John Smithies, 56, a local community centre worker, said: "Considering the police were searching through my bin, you would have thought they would have done a more thorough job the first time around. Extra police were drafted in, taken off the Olympics, which must have cost a lot. You would have thought they would first have searched the home."
Dale Robertson, 44, who lives on the estate, said: "People are angry and upset. They are still questioning why it has taken seven days. It's unbelievable. This time last summer, there were 30 or 40 children here playing on the estate. Now most are too scared to come out."
Elaine Alchin, 49, whose daughter was friends with Tia, said the police apology was not enough. "I'm so angry with the police because she could have been found a lot sooner. They just didn't search properly. Had they found her sooner, we'd be days ahead... now. It's such a shame."
Peter Wilson, 64, the landlord of the Randall Tavern, called for calm: "Under the circumstances, the police have done a good job. We do not blame them for this. That said, there are proper procedures: you'd think the first job with any search is to properly check the property."
One neighbour, who declined to give her name, went further. "The apology is fine, but it's too little, too late. The police know they have cocked up. It is the senior bosses who need to come under fire for this, not the officers here. They've been fantastic."
Siobhain McDonagh, MP for Mitcham, said there should be an investigation into what went wrong. "There is an immediate need to find out who was responsible for the murder. After that, we need to find out what police and everybody else could have done differently."
Throughout yesterday, families came to pay their respects as tributes continued to pour in. Bouquets of flowers, teddies and children's pictures were among them. "You are now with the angels and no more nasty people. You can rest in peace. We love you very much," one read.
Scotland Yard launched a manhunt after the discovery of the body on Friday. They had realised Mr Hazell, an unemployed painter and decorator, was missing. He was arrested on Cannon Hill Common, in neighbouring Merton, approximately three hours after he was spotted by a member of the public, who called the police.
Three hours earlier he had walked into a convenience store, purchased half a litre of vodka and two lighters, then asked residents to help in the search for Tia.
His arrest quelled a modicum of the community's angry reaction towards the police.
Neighbourhood feeling was strong because the police had failed to keep Mr Hazell under surveillance and had taken too long to find the body, people said.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission said last night that it had not been asked to carry out an inquiry into the way the search was carried out.
Friday, 3 August
Tia Sharp is reported missing after she fails to appear for her dinner. Police arrive at house to "assess the situation and examine the property". Police say this visit "was not regarded or viewed as a full search of the property".
Saturday, 4 August
Police divert officers from Olympic duties and, with the help of local residents, begin searching the area.
Sunday, 5 August
Searches continue, with gangs of helpers in New Addington and Mitcham – where Tia's mother Natalie lives – putting up thousands of posters and looking through bins.
Monday, 6 August
Police continue to trawl CCTV footage of trams and buses between New Addington and Croydon, where Mr Hazell said Tia was heading. There are dozens of suspected sightings, and hundreds call police with information.
Tuesday, 7 August
Specialist police search woodland known as Birchwood. The search includes garages, sheds, outhouses, and a school. Rubbish collections are delayed to help the search and to protect any potential evidence.
Wednesday, 8 August
Sniffer dogs trained to detect blood and evidence of body decomposition are sent into Christine Sharp's house. Mr Hazell is led away from the house by detectives who later confirm he is being interviewed as a witness.
Thursday, 9 August
Local search teams continue the hunt and enter garages in the area, leading to rising tensions with homeowners. Police in the area call for calm and ask neighbours and friends to let police do their job.
Friday, 10 August
A forensic search of Christine Sharp's house reveals a body. Police delay a press conference arranged for 2pm. At about 5pm, almost exactly a week since she was reported missing, they announce a body has been found. They are looking to interview Mr Hazell – who is captured in common land at 8.25pm.
Saturday, 11 August
Police issue a public apology and admit that "human error" led to Tia's body lying undiscovered for five days after officers failed to spot it during searches.