Police launch ‘on-the-run’ murderer appeal – four years after he escaped from prison

Sussex police questioned over ‘astounding’ delay

Police have issued a public appeal for help capturing a convicted murderer – but face widespread criticism after it emerged that the man ran away from an open prison four years ago.

Sussex Police admitted that this week’s announcement was the first time the public has been made aware that 57-year-old Robert Donovan had ever escaped.

He was jailed indefinitely in 1974 for stabbing a man to death in a West End Street, but failed to return to the Category D Ford prison near Arundel after leaving on day release on 19 June, 2010.

A court previously heard how Donovan was 17 when his brother Patrick lured Palladium stage manager Edwin Thornley into a robbery. Donovan then fatally stabbed Thornley in the neck with a flick knife.

Police said that anyone who sees Donovan should not approach him and phone 999 – but nonetheless insisted he was not a considered to be a danger to the public.

They said Donovan, who may be using the alias David Green, has links to London and the Midlands and may have family living in Portsmouth.

The appeal comes after a series of recent high-profile escapes from open prisons led prisons minister Jeremy Wright to call for changes to the day release process to be brought in “as a matter of urgency”.

Robert Donovan, 57, after police were criticised for publicly appealing for help in tracing the convicted murderer four years after he went on the run from an open prison (Sussex Police) Robert Donovan, 57, after police were criticised for publicly appealing for help in tracing the convicted murderer four years after he went on the run from an open prison (Sussex Police) Those cases included that of violent robber Simon Rhodes-Butler, who also vanished from HMP Ford, in May this year.

Steve Gillan, general secretary of the Prison Officers' Association (POA), said he found the delay in the police appeal “astounding”.

He said: “Whilst we recognise that open prisons have an absolute value, we also believe that people have been rushed through because of the crisis in our prisons.

“If it's accurate that he absconded four years ago and it's only now that an appeal has been made, I find that astounding, to be honest.”

A spokesperson for Sussex Police said: “We have been looking for Donovan for several years without success which suggests he has left Sussex and could be elsewhere in the country.

“We need to speak to anyone who could have any idea where he is or where he could be.”

The Conservative MP for Shipley in West Yorkshire, Philip Davies, also criticised police for only appealing once the issue came to wider attention in recent months.

The The "Skull Cracker", Michael Wheatley, absconded from an open prison in May He said: “I find it absolutely extraordinary that it has taken four years to make the public aware.

“On every possible level, the public should know straight-away for their own safety, they should know so they might be able to spot this person and alert the authorities, and they should know because the public has a right to know how successful our open prison regime is.”

“I understand that the police were following other leads. Blimey, they were following them pretty slowly if it has taken four years to make a public appeal.”

Other well-publicised recent escapes from open prisons include the case of Michael Wheatley, 55, dubbed the “Skull Cracker”.

He was jailed for life for a raid on a building society while on the run from HMP Standford Hill in Kent, the second time he has been jailed for holding up the same branch.

The most recent Ministry of Justice figures show there were 1,242 prisoners with indeterminate sentences - that is, those serving life and imprisonment for public protection sentences (IPP) - as of 31 December last year. This includes 643 lifers and 599 IPP inmates in open prisons.

The Ministry of Justice said it had no comment on the four-year delay in appealing for Donovan's whereabouts, adding that it was an issue for Sussex Police.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
peoplePair enliven the Emirates bore-draw
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark episode 8, review
News
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26
General electionAndrew Marr forced to intervene as Boris and Miliband clash on TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones
tvSeries 5, Episode 3 review
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence