A police sergeant who found fame with his witty social media posts has been criticised for his handling of the death of a barman on a private island.
Sgt Colin Taylor used a “water diviner” to investigate the disappearance of Josh Clayton, a practice a standards inquiry described as “not appropriate”.
He was also criticised for confronted Mr Clayton’s family in a pub, after they raised questions over his methods.
Devon and Cornwall Police said they would apologise to the family.
Two professional standards reports seen by the BBC found issues the way the investigation into the death on the Isles of Scilly had been conducted.
The body of Mr Clayton, 23, from Taunton, Somerset, was found on rocks near the island of Tresco in September 2015 – 10 days after he went missing.
He had been working as a bar manager and was last seen alive at an end of season party for staff on the privately-owned island.
His family clashed with Sgt Taylor over his failure to secure the missing man’s bedroom, where they believed valuable evidence could have been located.
Mr Clayton’s mother Tracey Clayton also said the uniformed officer confronted the family in a pub when they were eating dinner, after hearing they had been critical of his handling of the case.
He also approached Mrs Clayton at the apartment where she was staying to request an item of her son’s property to assist a “water diviner” who had been deployed as part of the search. This method was described by the professional standards investigation as “not appropriate”.
Sgt Taylor gained tens of thousands of social media followers during his time of the islands, which have a population of just 2,200, and his book The Life of a Scilly Sergeant was published in June 2016.
Mrs Clayton said she also lost faith in senior investigating officer Det Insp Jago, criticising her for authorising the destruction of Mr Clayton’s blood-stained T-shirt during the post-mortem examination.
Head of crime and criminal justice, Det Ch Supt Steve Parker, said learning from the reports had been shared with the officers involved and the force had “also sought to learn as an organisation”.
A Devon and Cornwall Police investigation upheld 15 of Mrs Clayton’s 22 complaints and partially upheld – or directed “learning” on – two others.
Mrs Clayton said she felt vindicated that someone “has actually listened” to her concerns.
Devon and Cornwall Police investigation
The investigation, completed in November 2018, concluded:
- Sgt Taylor displayed “poor judgement” in his conversations with the family and some of what he said was “insensitive through its banality”
- Sgt Taylor as an “experienced officer” should have been aware that talking about an ongoing incident in a pub was “just not appropriate”
- Sgt Taylor failed to secure Mr Clayton’s room despite it being “fair to expect that all potential evidence should be secured and preserved”
- Sgt Taylor used a “water diviner” during the initial search, a practice which was described as “not appropriate”.
- Det Insp Jago failed to adhere to Mrs Clayton’s request to be given bad news in person
- Det Insp Jago authorised the disposal of Mr Clayton’s clothing during the post-mortem examination and “did not consider” seeking permission from his family
- The organisation of the post-mortem examination was “less than smooth” and there were learning points on the processes between Devon and Cornwall Police and the coroner in relation to the length of time it took to arrange the post-mortem examination.
Two allegations against Det Insp Jago that could have amounted to misconduct were not upheld but six learning points – a lower level than misconduct – were identified for her, six for Sgt Taylor and four for the force.
Rejecting her appeal on the remaining complaints, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), told Mrs Clayton Det Insp Jago had taken early retirement but the other learning points were “still valid”.
The report noted there was “no doubt” Sgt Taylor attempted to put the family at ease but displayed “poor judgement” in some of his conversations with the family.
It also noted the organisation of the post-mortem examination was “less than smooth” but Det Insp Jago had been frustrated by that and “the evidence does show the lengths she went to in order to resolve matters”.
“I always knew it was wrong,” Mrs Clayton said.
“I am not doing it for people to lose their jobs… I am doing it because if this happened to someone else the police are now going to stop and think.”
In 2017, the first inquest was halted after new claims of a row at the party came to light.
A second investigation was ordered and a second inquest concluded Mr Clayton’s death was accidental and he “may have had a fall” – a conclusion Mrs Clayton describes as “pure speculation”.
Dorset Police was asked to review the case after the first inquest collapsed.
The review identified issues including the “under-resourcing” of the investigation.
The Dorset Police Review
The review, completed in May 2017, identified a number of issues and found:
- The two differing scenarios of “tragic accident versus suspicious death were not given equal standing”
- The investigation was “under-resourced” and this had an impact on what the detectives were able to achieve in the first few days
- The family’s loss of faith in the investigation caused a “complete breakdown” in relations
- The quality of the investigation – particularly forensics and digital media – was affected by it being on Tresco and contingencies for policing on the islands should be reviewed to “ensure they are fit for purpose”
- There should have been a more senior officer visibly in overall command
Mr Parker, who led the second investigation, said no evidence of third-party involvement had been found and he did not believe any of the issues raised by the reports “would have made a significant difference to the outcome of the investigation”.
He said the force would apologise to the Clayton family for areas where “we have failed to meet the high levels of service we aspired to in this investigation”.
“We have always had in the forefront of our minds that this is a grieving family who have lost a son and I do genuinely hope that this will bring some closure to them,” he added.
Sgt Taylor said: “The focus of my efforts, as the sergeant on the Isles of Scilly at that time, in the search for Josh, was to do everything I could to find him alive and as quickly as possible.
“At all times the welfare of the Clayton family was paramount. I would like to say that my thoughts remain very much with the Clayton family for the tragic loss of Josh.”
Mrs Clayton said she wanted Devon and Cornwall Police to compensate her family for the anguish they had suffered.
She said she wanted to recoup some of the £70,000 they have spent on legal fees and private investigation and use any other money to start a charity in her son’s name, helping people who found themselves in a similar situation.
“It’s not the money but if we didn’t have the money everything would have been pushed to one side and we would have had to accept that Josh was a drugged-up drunk,” she said.
“What happens if you have no money… it is injustice.”