Essex Police, the Death of Lee Balkwell and a Troubling Judgment
The family of Lee Balkwell, whose body was found between the chassis and drum of a cement mixer on an Essex farm linked to organised crime, yesterday lost a legal challenge to have the suspicious death investigated as a murder.
Lee died in the early hours of 18 July 2002 on Baldwins Farm, where he worked delivering concrete for Simon Bromley, a local businessman and middle tier player in the Essex underworld.
Bromley, whose family was also well known to Essex police, claims Lee’s death was an accident that occurred when the pair where cleaning out the cement mixer at 1am.
The death is one of those stinky legacy cases sticking to the epaulets of Essex police chiefs thanks to the determination of Lee’s father, Les Balkwell.
The case has similarities to the Metropolitan police’s appalling response to the Daniel Morgan murder in 1987: An inexplicably bad first investigation compounded by cover ups and lies told to the Morgan family, whose 35-year campaign for justice culminated last June in a landmark report that branded the Met “institutionally corrupt”.
The initial investigation into Lee Balkwell’s death was so poor and so inexplicably favourable towards Bromley that for many observers, including some in Essex police, incompetence alone could not explain it. Especially in the context of a farm known to be a centre of drugs and gun crime.
And if incompetence did explain it all, as Essex police contend, then the officers responsible should never have been allowed anywhere near a serious crime again - but they were, with some rising through the ranks and still in post today.
Alternatively, as Les Balkwell believes, the incompetence was a cover for corruption or some questionable operational reason that meant his son’s death was not going to be properly investigated.
In 2017, the family won a challenge under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights that Essex police did not carry out its duty to perform an effective investigation into Lee’s death in 2002.
By now, the family was being assisted by what Les called his “dream team” of human rights barrister Kirsty Brimelow QC, a group of retired Met detectives from TM Eye, leading pathologist Dr Richard Shepherd and Bob Milne, a former Met police forensic scientist with decades of crime scene experience.
Between April 2018 and July 2020, Essex police was asked to consider reports from TM Eye, Shepherd and Milne following their examination of the cement mixer and crime scene material, including the post mortem reports.
Shepherd concluded that Lee was dead at the time he was placed in between the chassis and drum of the cement mixer.
Had his head been almost severed while his heart was still pumping the revolving white drum would look like a Jackson Pollock painting. Instead, there was only a short streak of blood.
Shepherd, Milne and TM Eye also concluded that the crime scene had been “staged” to look like an accident.
Essex police duly considered the dream team’s reports and in July 2020, after taking legal advice, decided they did not amount to fresh evidence that required a fresh investigation.
One of the key arguments it used to justify the position was that between 2010 and 2015 it had carried out a “substantive investigation” codenamed Operation Nereus.
The Balkwell family was granted permission to judicially review the decision by Essex police not to re-open the case as a murder.
The judicial review was eventually heard at the High Court on 3 February this year in front of the president of the Queens Bench Division, Dame Victoria Sharp, and Mr Justice Bennathan.
Kirsty Brimelow QC argued that there had never been a murder investigation in line with Article 2 of the European Convention, just a series of reviews.
The big picture point the judges needed to grasp was that Essex police lacked the necessary independence, integrity even, to put things right after the suspiciously appalling first investigation.
And with the typical arrogance of police forces across the country who’ve been exposed by the families they failed, errors were compounded by cover up and intransigence.
Implicitly, the judges were being asked to see the case through the new definition of ‘institutional corruption’ defined by the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel, where a police force acts in protection of its own interests and reputation at the expense of justice and a duty of candour to a victim’s family and the public.
To prove that Operation Nereus was not an effective investigation required returning to how it came about.
The IPCC, the police watchdog, had begun an investigation into complaints against Essex police by the Blackwell family in 2008.
The following year, it issued an interim statement that Essex police should bring in an outside force “to re-investigate Lee Balkwell’s death.”
Instead, assistant chief constable Andy Bliss told the watchdog he would ask West Midlands police to review the first investigation.
West Midlands police was critical of Essex police’s first investigation and came up with 91 recommendations in April 2010.
ACC Bliss, however, continued to ignore the IPCC and rather than launch a re-investigation, he gave the job of implementing the 91 recommendations to sister force Kent police with whom Essex police now worked in a joint serious crime task force.
It looked like Essex police was marking its own homework. So to ensure a semblance of independence, only Kent officers were to be involved in what was called Operation Nereus. As we will see, they still answered to a Gold group headed by … ACC Bliss.
Essex police clearly knew the IPCC was likely to be critical of their handling of the Balkwell investigation. And in January 2012, the watchdog did not disappoint.
The IPPC concluded that Essex police’s original investigation was “seriously flawed”.
But it also said there was “no evidence to support any allegations of corruption or a conspiracy theory [that Essex police had covered up the circumstances of Lee’s death.] However, in light of the prolonged failure to fully address [the family’s] concerns, it is perhaps understandable how and why Mr Balkwell reached such conclusions himself.”
The IPCC then made this crucial point:
“The failure of the investigation at that early stage has left evidential gaps which may never be filled.”
It would have been clear to Essex police that armed with the IPCC report the Balkwell family were very likely to be successful in the damages claim it was bringing.
With this in the background, in November 2013, Operation Nereus charged Bromley with gross negligence-manslaughter. Murder was not an option because Essex police had so badly ruined the investigation back in 2002.
Bromley, however, was acquitted in October 2014 but convicted of a minor health and safety offence and for growing cannabis on his farm.
With a minor prosecution of Bromley under its belt, Essex police produced its Operation Nereus report in July 2015.
This is the document it is now relying on to show there had been an effective investigation into Lee Balkwell’s death between 2010 and 2015 which therefore met its Article 2 duty to the family.
Kirsty Brimelow QC went to work showing the judges that Operation Nereus was nothing of the sort.
She pointed to the terms of reference, which made clear Operation Nereus “would not be a re-investigation of the 2002 incident”.
The Nereus report also stated that the Gold group of senior Essex officers overseeing it were concerned about “minimising further risk to the organisation.”
And where was that risk coming from? The Balkwell family’s civil action, which threatened to expose senior Essex officers.
To ram her points home, Brimelow produced an explosive internal police memo from her gown, which showed quite clearly that Operation Nereus was not a reinvestigation.
Detective chief superintendent Lee Catling, the senior investigating officer of Operation Nereus, had written in December 2014 to another police colleague who wanted to know exactly what Essex police had asked him to do:
“I had very clear instructions from the outset that this WAS NOT a re-investigation, but a process to discharge the recommendation of the West Midlands Report. This is very important as regards language with Messrs Balkwell and Bennett and I have been at pains for over four years to emphasis (sic) this point. It is important because of the IPCC 2009 recommendations which recommended a re-investigation by an independent force, which in effect was ignored by [Essex] Acting chief constable Bliss in favour of what he asked me to do - which was explicitly NOT a re-investigation.”
One of the staggering ironies of the Balkwell case is that the mind-boggling incompetence of Essex police on the night of Lee’s death was now being used to avoid an independent murder investigation.
The argument Essex police used in its defence runs like this: Because our original investigation was so bad these “failings cannot be cured by a fresh investigation”. And any new lines of inquiry would be unsupported by the early failure to secure the crime scene and preserve evidence.
A second irony is that Essex police is now arguing that even if Bromley could be tried for murder, his defence team would be able to use the incompetence of the original investigation to undermine any new evidence and to raise a reasonable doubt. Therefore, what’s the point.
Quite cynically, Essex police also claims that Operation Nereus was conceived to get at the truth out of a concern for the Balkwell family.
However, as The Upsetter recently revealed, Operation Nereus had secretly spied on and investigated Les Balkwell.
Essex and Kent police then sent a file to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) hoping it would charge him with perverting the course of justice.
The police were disturbed by the dead boy’s father doing his own investigations because he simply did not trust detectives to do it fairly. The CPS, however, refused to prosecute Les.
The judgment of Dame Victoria Sharp and Mr Justice Bennathan, delivered on 30 May, reads like a throw back to the Seventies and Eighties when judges wouldn’t entertain the idea or “appalling vista” that police had acted in bad faith and therefore bent over backwards to indulge their actions.
The judgment accepted Bromley had given an inconsistent account of what happened on 18 July 2002 and had this to say about the interview by two Essex detectives called Weald and Jose with the suspect on 6 August 2002:
“The interview is exceptional both for its brevity and because of its unchallenging nature … There were occasions when leading questions - helpful to Mr Bromley - were posed … The entire interview, including the introductory formalities, took a little over 41 minutes. There was no follow up police interviews with Simon Bromley in 2002.”
But when it came to Operation Nereus, the two judges dismissed the explosive memo from the senior investigating officer, Lee Catling, that said ACC Bliss of Essex police had told him not to reinvestigate Lee’s death.
The judges did this without asking to hear evidence from Catling or Bliss, who had left Essex police with a Queens Police Medal and went on to head Hertfordshire police. He now serves on a National Crime Agency review body.
The judges were also in complete support of Essex police’s endeavours during Operation Nereus, including that it had consulted the CPS about a murder charge and eventually prosecuted Bromley, albeit unsuccessfully, for manslaughter.
The judges were persuaded by the inquiries Operation Nereus had made, from speaking to a metallurgist about the rod in the cement mixer’s cabin which controlled the drum rotation; a tachograph expert about if the cement mixer had been moved; a concrete expert to see if the drum had been cleaned before Lee’s death was reported; and the pathologist’s re-examination of the exhumed body.
The judges also appeared impressed by other work Operation Nereus had done, albeit very belatedly, on the phone evidence.
Lee had been buried with his Nokia mobile which Nereus examined when his body was exhumed.
Nothing came of the Nokia examination unsurprisingly after it had spent so much time in a coffin. But strangely the judges didn’t consider it relevant to remark that Essex police had allowed the Nokia to be buried without checking his calls and messages in the first place.
The five-year Operation Nereus investigation by nine officers completing 1000 actions and producing 4500 documents was laudable, the judges thought.
“We have had the advantage of reading the whole of the Operation Nereus report. It is out firm conclusion that Operation Nereus was an investigation … All those activities taken together have the hallmarks of an investigation (rather than a mere review) and an effective one at that.”
The judges dismissed the TM Eye, Milne and Shepherd reports as not giving rise to any lines of inquiry not already considered before or by Operation Nereus.
The fact that Essex police had so inexplicably fouled the original crime scene was used in its favour to support the argument that there was no chance of a new investigation being successful.
The stink around the Balkwell case and the conflicted mindset of Essex police, that included trying to imprison the victim’s dad, did not permeate the lofty minds of the two High Court judges.
Nor did the idea that in the hands of an independent police force with no skin in this game there was a chance of finding evidence and shaking new witnesses who might be fearful of Essex police.
As such, the decision by Essex police not to re-open the investigation into Lee Balkwell’s death as a murder investigation was rational and reasonable.
Les Balkwell, 74, turned up with his remaining son, Les junior, at the High Court yesterday afternoon to receive the judgment.
He is suffering heart problems from the weight of his perceived failure to protect his first born son and bring peace to his wife and remaining children.
Les now faces an estimated bill of £60,000 for Essex police’s legal costs - just as his family must come together once again in July to remember Lee on the twentieth anniversary of his death.
And so it goes.
The Upsetter is making a podcast on the Balkwell case. Witnesses from all sides please get in touch.