On 19th March 2011, Sian O’Callaghan was reported as missing. She failed to return home to her boyfriend after a night out with friends. Early indications suggested she had been abducted, and Detective Superintended Stephen Fulcher was assigned the role of Senior Investigating Officer (SIO) in the case.
Fulcher worked on the assumption that Sian was a kidnap victim and therefore locating her quickly was essential. The hope that she was still alive motivated his approach to the investigation, prioritising her safe return.
Ultimately that motivation would cost him his job.
Taking advantage of a timely display of apparent contrition, Fulcher, still hoping to find the victim alive, questioned his prime suspect outside of expected police procedure. That interaction led to the suspect, taxi driver Christopher Halliwell, taking Fulcher to the place where he’d disposed of Sian’s body.
To Fulcher’s surprise, Halliwell then asked him if he wanted “another one”, after which he took the police to the site where he’d buried Becky Godden, a previously unknown victim of an earlier murder.
Fulcher later started to suspect that there could be another six unknown victims of Halliwell”s violence, after Halliwell boasted to a fellow prison mate that police were investigating 8 murders he’d committed.
Five years later Fulcher’s successor located Halliwell’s “trophy store”, where he’d hidden articles taken from Sian and others, who were also likely victims, whose identity remains unknown. However, despite the suspicion that there were six others , the number of discoveries indicated there could be up to sixty of them.
Like the earlier book about the 1960s Cannock Chase murders, Catching A Serial Killer gives insight into the workings within an active police murder investigation, however almost 50 years later technology has clearly made a difference.
Computerised systems have simplified the collation and retrieval of possibly relevant material.
CCTV in public places as well as vehicle recognition cameras have made it possible to locate victims right up to the time of the crime committed against them, as well as locating and tracking vehicles potentially used by the perpetrator.
And DNA profiling has helped in identifying victims as well as confirming a perpetrator’s contact with a victim.
While Fulcher’s unorthodox approach brought closure to the Sian O’Callaghan case, and discovered a previously unknown killing, it also brought an end to his police career.
This situation seems to offer the flip side to the American case examined in Adnan’s Story, and highlights the difficulties that can be faced in police investigations. In the American case it seems that a blind eye was turned to questionable police procedures that seem* to have led to the conviction and incarceration of an innocent man; all done in the name of expediency, to get a conviction of someone, anyone, to have the case closed “successfully”.
While that case shows good reason why approved procedures and limits are necessary in the way police approach their work as a protection to the innocent (even though they seemingly had little effect in the Syed case), what Fulcher did, and what happened to him as a result shows how those procedures and limits can hamper the successful investigation of critical incidents where a life may be at risk.
The need to protect the innocent from the actions of potentially dodgy cops becomes a hindrance to the necessary work of the good cop. Maintaining justice will always be a difficult process as long as there are “good guys” motivated by less than honourable ambitions. The reality of that kind of person within the law enforcement and legal systems makes it harder to obtain the desired, just outcome that society would expect.
And when “the law” becomes more about winning or losing than about truth and justice…
I had been unable to see how Halliwell’s case could possibly be defended. I did now: by painting me as the bad guy. From the hero of the piece, having found the body of an abducted girl and a second victim, it seemed I would become the villain…
…It had never occurred to me that the actual facts of the case would – apparently – not be taken into account. The issue of Halliwell’s guilt or innocence wasn’t in question and I’d always thought his case was undefendable. I had never anticipated that his legal team wouldn’t even try to defend it – that they’d simply try to have it thrown out of court. But that was what was happening.
[Stephen Fulcher from Catching a Serial Killer]
* In my opinion, the investigations into the case covered in many hours of recordings on the Undisclosed website show that there was no convincing evidence that Adnan Syed was guilty of the crime of which he was accused.
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