Tuesday 26 January 2021
How a police force’s failure to notice a pattern led to two tragic deaths
Above: Peter and Elizabeth Skelton at their home in Worthing , Sussex. Right: Their daughter Susan Nicholson.
Jane Monckton Smith: We are actually allowing very dangerous people to get away with murder. And that empowers them. They think they are bullet proof. And they, you know – they might go and do it again.
I’m Louise Tickle, and you’re listening to Hidden Homicides, a podcast series from Tortoise Media.
In this series I investigate three remarkable cases that reveal so much about how women may be being killed but never counted. In a fourth case, I expose how failings in the system leave a family’s questions unanswered forever.
And of course, I need to warn you: this episode – and this series – will detail distressing cases of violence, coercion and controlling behaviour against women. Some of it is difficult to hear. Listener discretion is advised.
In episode one, I began my investigation into the death of a young woman called Katie Wilding, and of the frightening abuse she was being subjected to.
If you haven’t yet heard it, I’d recommend going back and listening before you start this one.
In this episode you’ll hear me return to Katie’s story and dig in to the police investigation that never was.
But you’ll also hear about a new case – a horrifying story about a killer, twice missed…
It’s Friday October 14th 2016.
21-year-old Katie Wilding is in a police interview room in Torquay. She has just been rescued by police from her flat, where she had been held hostage by her abusive former partner for more than 36 hours.
It’s pretty obvious that she’s not slept all night. Sitting in a big, squashy armchair in the interview suite, she looks exhausted – and apprehensive.
Her mum Julie is waiting outside, as Katie gives her first recorded statement to the police about what Mitchell Richardson has done to her.
[Clip: Katie’s police interview]
Halfway through, there’s a pause in the questions. Katie leaves the room to see her mum. She’s tearful, worried that the police don’t believe her.
[Clip: Katie’s police interview]
Julie Aunger: And they do the first half, and then there’s a break.
And they leave for a few minutes and Katie came out and she wanted a cigarette, obviously she was desperate for a cigarette and they take you outside to smoke. So we were walking around this little car park area and I said, have you been honest, have you told them everything?
And she said the lady doesn’t believe me, mum. She doesn’t believe me. And I said, what do you mean she doesn’t believe you. Well, she keeps going over things and asking me questions again. She doesn’t believe me.
When we went back, before she came in for the second half, I actually said to the lady interviewing her: Katie thinks you don’t believe her, knowing that she did. And the lady said, what we’re trying to do Katie is make sure we’ve covered every angle.
In the break Julie reassures her. The police officer is only trying to check her account, make sure of the details. And so Katie goes back in and she carries on. The whole ordeal takes around 90 minutes.
[Clip: Katie’s police interview]
Mitchell Richardson is interviewed too and he’s charged.
He is charged with resisting arrest, with criminal damage to Katie’s flat and with two counts of beating. The charges of having held Katie hostage and the threats he made to kill are not pursued.
Lack of evidence, the police said.
After making her statement, Katie just wants to start living her own life, to find a sense of normality. She goes shopping and tries to see some of the friends she’d been cut off from during her relationship.
But exactly a month after that traumatic ordeal, it’s her sister’s birthday.
It’s the 14th November 2016.
It’s 7pm – and that means only one thing, Emmerdale.
[Clip: Emmerdale theme]
Julie, Katie’s mother, hears a knock on the door.
Julie: It’s my other daughter. Emma’s birthday. I’ve been at work all day. We came back. It was about quarter past five when Andy and I got back, we had dinner.
We were doing a bit of work on the house and at quarter past seven, I just sat down to watch the soaps. That’s why I know the time. Because it was just during the adverts, and there’s a knock on the door. And I raced to the door to try and get it before the adverts finished. And there was a police officer stood there and I knew, I knew she was dead.
I knew she was dead. And I said to him, it’s Katie, isn’t it. And he said, are you Julie? And I just said, it’s Katie, isn’t it. And he said, are you on your own love? And I just screamed. And I came running through the house shouting for Andy, the police officer came in, hadn’t said anything at that point.
Andy was working in the utility room here and he came racing in because he thought it was Mitchell. He thought I was screaming because it was Mitchell. And the police officer just said, I’m very sorry. And I don’t remember much after that. I remember, I do remember saying it can’t be, you’ve got it wrong. How do you know? How do you know it’s her? I do remember that bit. And I do remember that the police officer went out and came back, but I don’t remember much after that. Andy said he went to just check. I mean, obviously they knew it was her. They wouldn’t have come here, but, and the next thing I really remember is Andy picking me up off the floor.
I was just on the floor. Howling, I think.
A month after she had told the police exactly what Mitchell Richardson was doing to her, Katie Wilding was found dead, in Mitchell Richardson’s flat, with Mitchell Richardson.
They had both died from a drug overdose.
Quickly, the idea that it was a Romeo and Juliet-style suicide took hold. On social media, and in the local community.
Louise: What happened on social media over the next few days? Because something very particular did happen. Didn’t it?
Julie: Yes. So they died on the Monday. We did get a phone call Tuesday morning to say you can’t see Katie, she’s been taken to Exeter. So Wednesday evening, bearing in mind I haven’t seen Katie, I haven’t identified her, I have no knowledge whatsoever about what’s happened. We were told by the police on a Tuesday morning they were looking at a suspicious death. So that’s all we’ve been told, literally.
So on the Tuesday and Wednesday, social media just went on fire with Mitchell’s brother and his family, and they stated, Mitchell’s brother stated, that he had seen the post-mortem results. He had a friend who was in the coroner’s office who had told him – and I will never forget the words – there were no ligature marks. Why would you put that on social media? That there were no ligature marks and no obvious physical damage to Katie, that it was Romeo and Juliet, that they couldn’t be together, so they’d chosen to die together. And that it was a joint suicide, and it’s what they wanted and wasn’t it romantic? That they were such a lovely couple, they were happy now, they hoped Mitchell had found his peace, what a lovely man. His brother went on to say that on social media. My children had to read that I know they’re adults, but to read that was, was mortifying.
And for them, they just got so angry because they had no other way of dealing with this. Somebody was saying their sister chose to be with somebody who had threatened to kill her and beaten her rather than be with their family.
While these rumours were swirling on social media, Julie received a private message. It alleged Mitchell Richardson had been violent and abusive towards another woman.
Julie’s kept that message. She showed me it.
Julie: I hope you don’t mind me messaging you, but I just wanted you to know that I am so sorry to hear about Katie. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family. I can’t even begin to imagine how you must be feeling. Unfortunately, I know firsthand what Mitchell was capable of.
It just absolutely breaks my heart that your beautiful daughter died at his hands. I only wish I had had the courage to speak out against him when I had the chance. All I pray and hope is that the truth comes out.
And then, quite quickly, Julie began to realise that things seemed to be going badly wrong.
It started the moment police set foot onto the scene. And it was something that Katie’s dad, Andy, spotted first.
Julie: They assumed that it was drugs, so that was it. That was their tick box… done. So they didn’t investigate further.
Louise: Were they aware of the interview she had given just a month before?
Julie: Yes and I asked them as well, when they went to the flat, when they got the 999 call, did they know where they, obviously they knew where they were going, the address, but did they know it was Mitchell Richardson that was there?
And he said “yes – and we were aware of the history between him and Katie”. So they were fully aware… they knew of Katie’s video or if they didn’t know that night, they were very quickly aware. We also found out at the inquest that there are 34 minutes missing of the police log of that night. So from the minute the police arrived, they open a log and one person holds the log and they have to say, who’s gone in, who’s gone out, et cetera, et cetera.
And there are 34 minutes missing.
So that might just have been an unfortunate accident, a few lost pages from a logbook.
But they have never been found – so we’ll never know.
And there were other alarming problems with the police investigation. Julie starts to list them:
Julie: They made lots of assumptions. They weren’t aware of vital evidence. They didn’t interview key witnesses.
Also Mitchell’s mother cleaned the flat for an hour, which she admitted on the night. She threw tablets away. She cleaned, she poured liquids away. She washed up, um, that’s that golden hour.
The mother of a potential homicide suspect was not only at the flat, the scene of two deaths, for some time before the police were called.
But even though she was there with the bodies, she didn’t immediately call 999. Instead, she may have moved – and disposed of – vital evidence as she cleaned up.
She said in her police statement she poured the liquid she found in various glasses down the sink, put bottles and cans in the bin, moved a bottle of medication from where she’d found it, and generally, she just, well… tidied up. In her police statement made later that day, she said it was because she didn’t want the police to see that her son lived in a mess.
Given everything that was known about Mitchell Richardson – and remember, he’d threatened to kill Katie, and she’d believed him – and the gravity of this horrific situation with two young people dead: why wasn’t Diana Richardson charged with interfering with a crime scene? Was it because the police had already decided, in those first minutes after arriving, that it wasn’t a crime scene at all?
This is something I’ve heard time and time again in my investigations. How police, coroners and even pathologists approach these kinds of deaths… how they look at things differently: when domestic abuse is involved.
Julie: So the police didn’t get a chance to find any evidence in that hour and the mother’s never been prosecuted, even though they admit that she tampered with police evidence. So from day one, I’ve always believed that Katie didn’t choose to die. And she was there because of him.
Ahead of the coroner’s inquest – which is an investigation to determine the cause of death – Julie asked for disclosure of all evidence gathered by the police to help her ask the right questions.
And she discovered that what was absent from police evidence, was even more revealing than what was actually there…
Julie: I wanted everything and she said to me, there is nothing. All we’ve got is the statements from the people who were in the flat on the night, the official people – so the paramedics and the police. But we’ve got a statement from Mitchell’s mother, but Mitchell’s brother and the friend were in the flat, no statements had been taken from them.
There were no witness statements from the people downstairs who had called the police just a few weeks earlier because they were frightened for her life.
She said, “there’s no evidence. They’ve not checked her bank. They didn’t look at her car.”
There were other things, too, like the fact that the forensic evidence which was taken from the scene – what was left after Mitchell Richardson’s mother had cleaned uup the flat – had not been looked at for over 15 months. It hadn’t even stored properly.
Julie: I can’t remember the exact words, but they had to take them outside and open them outside because there was a multitude of black flies coming out of the bags, which meant all of the evidence was useless.
Louise: So they hadn’t stored this evidence correctly?
Julie: No, no.
Louise: So it was of no use?
Julie: No use whatsoever.
All this left Julie with no doubt in her mind. The police had failed her daughter.
When we put this to Devon and Cornwall police, they defended their record, and said that tackling domestic abuse is a priority for the force.
“Police fully investigated the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Katie Wilding and Mitchell Richardson in November 2016 and found that there was no evidence to suggest that this matter was a homicide….None of the complaints made by Julie Aunger which were upheld would have had an impact on our findings in this case; this opinion was shared by the coroner.”
Julie: Mitchell told me he was going to kill her. He told me four weeks before she died that he was going to kill her, or, well, sorry… He said he could easily kill her with drugs and that we’d never prove it.
And that was four weeks before she died. She died of drugs. She died of a combination of cocaine and morphine. I firmly believe and always have done from the moment the police knocked on my door, that Mitchell planned her death. The coroner didn’t find that, I’m trying to be honest but we firmly believed the police didn’t do their job properly.
I’d had my head deep in the detail of the Katie Wilding case. Reading all the documents her mother had showed me, and watching that police interview. But I felt that through it I was getting a really clear idea of what was going wrong.
So I called my editor, Basia.
Basia: So I’ve just been reviewing your reporting on the Katie Wilding and I guess I wanted to just test a couple of elements, cos I’ve got a couple of questions. I guess my first, sort of major concern is that the post-mortem did show that Katie had died of a drug overdose, didn’t it?
Louise: Yes, yes that’s right. That is right.
Basia: And am I right in thinking there didn’t seem to be any recent bruising, or anything to suggest that Mitchell Richardson might have forced her to take the drugs or anything like that?
Louise: No, no recent bruising on her body.
Basia: Okay. So I just… based on that, I guess the question I had: was the police conclusion really that unreasonable?
Louise: I had a feeling you might want to talk this through so what I’ve done is I’ve been mapping Jane Monckton Smith’s “8 steps towards a domestic homicide” and mapping things against it that happened in their relationship.
Basia: Okay. Do you want to just talk me through that then?
Louise: Well, Jane’s eight stages to domestic homicide start with a pre-relationship history of stalking or abuse by the perpetrator – and we know that was the case for Mitchell. The romance develops very quickly into a serious relationship, that’s the second stage and this one definitely did. Then the next stage is that that relationship becomes dominated by coercive controlling behaviour – and from Katie’s police interview, he was clearly controlling her. So that’s clear.
And then, then there’s a trigger that threatens that person’s control – and that can easily be that the relationship ends, or there’s financial difficulty, or something stressful. And, you know… Katie had left him. At that point, he was losing her.
Basia: Yep, okay.
Louise: He’d apparently, from what Katie said, repeatedly strangled her – and that’s so dangerous. In fact, it’s known now as “non-fatal strangulation” – it’s so dangerous the government has agreed, they just agreed, it’s going to be outlawed for the first time.
Basia: Yeah, yeah, okay. That does feel like it quite solidly follows that pattern. So based off what you’re saying, really, six out of eight steps are quite clearly reflected here based off what we know. So you feel pretty confident that this fits the profile of a potential hidden homicide, I mean obviously there are things that we just cannot know for sure, and that’s where the police failings come in.
Louise: Yeah, yeah. It fits the pattern of the 8 steps to a domestic homicide. And it is important to state the other elements we know about: so yes Katie did die of a drug overdose, they both did, but a hair strand test shows that she didn’t take a lot of drugs, she wasn’t a habitual drug user.
Basia: Yep, okay. And have you gone to Mitchell Richardson’s family yet about any of this? I mean, I would imagine their view of the events is very different to this.
Louise: Well yeah, I have yes. And you have to keep in mind they’re also a grieving family, so you can imagine that us getting in touch was really upsetting and distressing for them. They firmly believe it was an accidental overdose and heavily dispute Julie’s version of events, and most particularly the way she characterises of Katie and Mitchell’s relationship. In fact, they believe there was actually a party with other people at the flat that night. And they are also really clear in relation to Diana Richardson’s actions at the scene of the deaths when she found them, they really wanted to underline that the coroner found that she hadn’t perverted the course of justice – and they also point out, which is fair, that people respond to shock and grief very differently, so it’s unfair to suggest that what she did was wrong.
Basia: Ah. Gosh, it’s a really tricky case isn’t it – because there’s, at the heart of it, something just very… well, unresolvable.
Louise: Yeah. You’re right. But it’s not just about those final hours in the flat. It never was. What this case shows very clearly to me is that hidden homicides are as much about police behaviour – about judgement, or action, or inaction – as they are about the deaths themselves. And I feel confident that in this case, we are seeing the start of a policing pattern that is clear in other cases of potential hidden homicides.
And this is the theme I wanted to stay with in my reporting. I want to stick with the police – because my investigation is not about who is an abuser, and who isn’t – it’s actually about understanding what is going wrong on a bigger scale. And often, it starts with the police.
And, as I told my mum when lockdown eased and I drove with my partner and kids to Yorkshire to see her for a chilly damp summer picnic outside, my thoughts were just fizzing at this point.
Jane: We are letting killers walk the streets for their next victim.
This is our expert, Professor Jane Monckton Smith.
Jane: We are actually allowing very dangerous people to get away with murder. And that empowers them. They think they are bullet proof. And they, you know – they might go and do it again.
I knew I needed to look at the systems that police are using to protect victims from domestic abuse.
And I just remembered the story of the New York police department that I’d listened to. They were trying to get on top of a crimewave in the 80s, and there was this guy called Jack Maple, he was a gritty New York cop who was stuck working the subway. But when he took a step back, and started to connect up the data, he saw the big crime wave was actually bunched up in specific areas. And so using subway data, he managed to understand the problem – and fix it.
I needed to investigate how we store data on domestic abuse, whether we even record it. And to start asking the police to give me that data
But I was stuck. Because how do you ask for a number – when you know people aren’t counting it?
I’m talking about things like what databases they’re using, what is recorded on them, whether there’s any consistency between force areas, what kind of training police are getting, and how much they know about a victim when they turn up on the scene of a sudden death.
Any system that any institution creates only counts what it cares about.
Ultimately, that means it counts what we, as a society, care about.
I started working with a data journalist, Patricia Clarke, and I bought an expensive book, recommended to me by a policeman I spoke to for background on how senior officers should operate when they attended a scene.
It’s the latest edition of The Senior Investigating Officers’ Handbook.
And what I read in those pages felt very far away from what I was hearing had happened in real life… by certain officers on the ground.
I felt like Jack Maple must have done when he realised New York Police were completely missing how the story on the ground reveals the bigger picture.
And it illuminated a story I had already come across in such a startling new way. It is a story that is shocking for exactly the reasons we’re talking: known information was ignored, and the result… was catastrophic.
Louise: This whole fight has consumed you for the last nine years –
Elizabeth Skelton: Yeah. Nonstop all the time. You kept waiting and writing, but you couldn’t give up. You couldn’t say, well, we finished at that. You couldn’t, you had to carry on. And because we knew what we were told was not true. They misled us.
Meet Peter and Elizabeth Skelton.
They’re a remarkable couple, now in their mid eighties.
The Skeltons have been fighting for almost a decade now, to get their daughter Susan’s murder not just recognised, but for the police to take responsibility for failing to protect her.
When we ask just how many women have been killed by their partners – numbers that no one, including the police or the home office knows the answer to – it is the Skeltons who show us, more than anything, just how much this question matters.
Their fight reveals so much about the mess our policing system finds itself in: a bizarre willingness to believe a man’s account of his partner’s sudden death – even when his history of extreme violence is perfectly well known.
Of police seemingly making their mind up within minutes of arriving at the scene.
Of ignoring the victim’s family’s legitimate concerns that something more sinister has gone on.
And as Katie’s case shows us, and now, too, the Skeltons, there is a clear failure to follow the First Responders basic ABC – set out in that police handbook I’ve been reading.
A – Assume nothing.
B – Believe nothing.
C – Challenge and check everything.
[Clip: 999 call reporting the death of Susan Nicholson]
It is April 2011 in Worthing, the south of England.
A woman calls 999 – her neighbour isn’t breathing.
[Clip: 999 call]
The woman who has stopped breathing is 52-year-old Susan Nicholson.
Her partner, a man called Robert Trigg, found her and alerted the neighbour.
Robert Trigg told the police they had both been drinking and had fallen asleep on the sofa, together. He woke up and found her no longer breathing.
The police came, investigated, and left, satisfied with Robert Trigg’s story.
And that story was… he had rolled over in his sleep and accidentally suffocated her.
Susan’s family were informed about what had happened and were told it was an open and shut case.
Except, the Skeltons, well, they sensed something was wrong.
Peter: We can’t understand why the police covered up for Susan’s murder, when it was an obvious murder. You know, you can understand perhaps, making a mistake if it’s a borderline sort of thing, but this was obviously a murder.
But why the police covered up for it, we could never understand why.
When I get in contact with the Skeltons through their lawyer, they invite me down to see them. But what’s in my mind is: they’re elderly, and we’re in the middle of a pandemic.
But Mrs Skelton’s hearing means a phone interview which takes several hours just isn’t going to work.
And they need to talk in person. They have so much to say.
I travelled south to meet the Skeltons. I was feeling pretty raw, but I was so keen to hear what they had to say.
So my producer and I knock on the door, we put our masks on, we gel our hands – and Peter and Elizabeth Skelton invite us into their living room. All four of us sit far away from each other.
And in fact, it’s a good thing we’re far apart because Elizabeth Skelton needs space for a huge stack of papers in front of her on the table.
[Clip: Louise and Elizabeth Skelton talking]
As we talk, she’s hopping between a heap of documents – sifting through pages and reading me bits of testimony, evidence, letters gathered over almost a decade since her daughter died.
There is an interestingly forensic quality to her and her husband – Peter’s – interview. A quality, it becomes blindingly obvious, that was missing from the police’s investigation into Susan’s death.
Susan was 52 when she died.
She had two children, both boys.
And it soon became clear that as a young girl, her life had been full of promise.
Elizabeth: She was brilliant. She had brains to burn.
Peter: When she left school at 17, the first job she had was at Coutts bank in London.
Elizabeth: The first job she got at 17 was… the first job she got was at Coutts bank in London. She had brains to burn, yeah.
Peter: Within a short time, she was made head of the Stock and Share department. She knew all the stockbrokers all around and everything.
Louise: Was she enjoying her life then?
Elizabeth: Oh she did yeah. You know, she smoked right, when she was going to school, she had these cigarettes. I remember when I found out she was smoking. And then of course, she wasn’t an alcoholic, she was a binge drinker. She’d be the first one into a party, the last one to leave that sort of thing.
But after her marriage broke down, Susan was unhappy. She started drinking too much. And it was actually through a stint in rehab that she met Robert Trigg.
Her mum and dad only met him a few times, and they thought he was all right. I mean, let’s say unobjectionable, at least.
But when they heard the terrible news about their daughter – that she had suddenly died – they knew something was up.
Louise: So when were you absolutely sure that something had gone very wrong?
Elizabeth: As soon as we heard she died, we were suspicious, weren’t we?
Peter: Yeah. But first we thought, well, the police were on our side. They’d be investigating the case. But after the inquest, we realised they weren’t going to do an investigation.
The police repeated the story – that Robert Trigg had accidentally killed Susan in her sleep. The couple were drinking, they’d fallen deeply asleep on the sofa together, and Robert had supposedly suffocated Susan without realising.
To the Skeltons, this seemed ludicrous.
Peter: We didn’t believe it because the sofa was too narrow for two people to sleep on. We even measured the sofa and gave the measurements of Susan. Like they said, she was lying on the back on the sofa. Well, Susan’s width of the shoulders is 15 inches. Cause it’s actually the same as yours, 15 inches wide. And so if she was lying on her back on the sofa and the sofa was say 21 inches wide, there was only about six inches for Trigg to sleep on, you know, so we said it’s too narrow for two people to sleep on.
Just like with Katie’s death, the problems investigating Susan’s death began right from the outset here too.
Elizabeth: The police were called, uh, just after nine o’clock, about three minutes past nine, Sunday morning, and they were there and the paramedics were there. The paramedics called the police. And the thing was, DI Sarah Barrett didn’t get there ’til nearly half past 12 and left at five to one. And as soon as she walked into Susan’s flat, she declared that it was not suspicious.
Louise: So that decision was made very early on?
Peter: Yes. She was only in Sue’s flat for 27 minutes. And then she left saying it wasn’t suspicious. But because of that, no forensic experts were called. So if it wasn’t suspicious you don’t need those. So no forensic experts were called.
What should have been perfectly reasonable suspicions weren’t followed up on. Discrepancies in Robert Trigg’s account of when he’d found Susan unresponsive, for instance.
Elizabeth: PC Adams was the first police officer who went into Susan’s flat. And he said he got the receipt for the cigarettes. He said he woke up at 8:15 and tried to wake Susan up and she wouldn’t wake up. So he got up and then he went off out to buy cigarettes and then he came back. Now, he woke up at 8:15 but when the PC Adam’s got the receipt for the cigarettes, the receipt for the cigarettes showed he bought the cigarettes at 8:11.
Also, the police had recently attended a violent incident at Susan’s flat, and had cautioned Robert Trigg. That meant he’d had to accept responsibility.
They also had Robert Trigg on record as a serial abuser – he’d beaten one woman up so badly she’d been in hospital for three weeks.
But beyond all that, one extraordinary thing stood out. The police knew a crucial fact about Trigg – a fact the Skeltons didn’t find out ’til much later on.
However, one police officer on the scene the day Susan’s body was found knew this fact.
And he, to his credit, spoke out.
Everyone else, it appeared, believed Susan’s killer. From the moment 999 was called, Robert Trigg set up a narrative that the police didn’t challenge.
But when PC Adams raised his voice, saying Trigg should be arrested, he was overruled by the Senior Investigating Officer who, it seems, had decided – no crime had occurred.
Given everything the police knew about Trigg’s past, it’s so hard for me to understand this decision.
So maybe there is something cultural happening here. Something about the way police view victims of domestic abuse.
And it’s something Jane has talked to me about. The low status of a woman who, as it seems from the outside, chooses to stay with a man who keeps on hurting her.
Jane: I think that there are multiple systemic reasons why a lot of these homicides are going unrecognised. The low status of domestic abuse is a big one. The ready acceptance of smoking guns as explanations for death. So one of the common themes that is coming up in these deaths is drug intoxication. So we’re finding that there – and we have been proven right, so I’m not saying, this isn’t just hypothetical – when there’s been a sudden death and there’s drug intoxication, you have to think about forced ingestion. Katie Wilding, you’ve got to think about forced ingestion and that… she’s certainly not the only case. But assumptions are made, oh, look, this is just two people partying who got it wrong. It’s much easier to just say, “put that down as misadventure” or whatever.
And the Skeltons witnessed this as Susan, not Robert Trigg, was put on trial when her inquest was held – a legal hearing which declares the cause of someone’s death.
Elizabeth: I can’t get to grips with him. I honestly don’t know how he could do such an inquest. It was so open and so blatant that what he was doing, he was saying, he was on Trigg’s side.
It was Susan who was put on trial. We said that right at the beginning.
The police and the coroner were insistent – this was an accidental death.
But I’ve never come across anyone more quietly relentless than the Skeltons. They seemed to have taken onboard that police investigatory mantra, which they presumably could have known nothing about.
Remember, it was:
A – Assume nothing.
B – Believe nothing.
C – Challenge and check everything.
Something wasn’t right. The timings didn’t add up. The sofa was too small. And then, they discovered the fact which changed everything…
There are so many parallels between the two cases of Katie Wilding and Susan Nicholson.
Both their families noticed police errors at the initial scene of death.
Both families questioned the officers’ assessments – that they were looking for accidents, rather than treating these deaths as possible homicides.
And in both cases – the officers on the ground should have been quickly aware of the information on police computer systems about the abusive men involved.
Data sharing. It’s something former police chief superintendent Gavin Thomas talked to me about. He used to be in charge of public protection in Gloucestershire and he’s really concerned about poor and patchy data sharing – that’s between police, social services, GPs, hospitals, housing, and domestic abuse charities. Without proper data sharing, he pointed out, it’s so hard to build up a real picture of the risk a woman could be facing.
Gavin Thomas: I would like to see, in the 21st Century – where we’re digitally connected, we’re living in a data rich environment – that a professional, it doesn’t have to be a police officer, it could be a social care worker, somebody who is charged with the duty of protecting the vulnerable in our society, has the right information at the right time, in the right place to protect that individual. And make those key decisions. And it could be a social worker – a social worker can maybe attend the address, and may not be aware that the police were around a couple of days before. So there is still a fundamental issue here around agencies being able to share data effectively.
We were very aware that we had two cases. Two cases which shared a lot. But they didn’t help us answer the bigger question that we’d set ourselves. We had just sent out the Freedom Of Information requests which we hoped might be a step towards answering those big questions. We sent out three multipart questions, but the one at the heart of was: we wanted the police to tell us, how many women had died, suddenly, or in mysterious circumstances, who they already knew were being abused by their partner or ex. And we wanted to know, as well, how many had gone missing.
With the emails sent, I turned my attention back to Sussex Police.
I’m back in the Skelton’s living room. It’s a beautiful autumn afternoon and you can hear the gulls crying outside.
But inside, the curtains are drawn, the papers are out, and it’s down to business.
The inquest into her death had been stressful for the Skeltons. Susan’s struggles with alcohol had come under scrutiny – but why? They felt she was being blamed.
And then they received a phone call.
It was from the family of one of Robert Trigg’s former partners, a woman called Caroline Devlin…
Elizabeth: And that’s when Caroline’s family got in touch with us. They phoned us and got in touch with us, because they read about Susan’s case. And they immediately got in touch with us then, after that.
Louise: After the inquest?
Elizabeth: After the inquest, when we said… you know when the reporters put it on the paper, the Worthing Herald.
Louise: And what did Caroline Devlin’s family say to you?
Elizabeth: They spoke about how their daughter died as well because they had mentioned, so they heard Robert Trigg. And Robert Trigg went to Caroline’s funeral, and that was up in Scotland. They took her up to Scotland and he went to Caroline’s funeral, and when Susan was being buried, he wanted to know if he could go to Susan’s funeral and we said, no, straight away, because straight away we knew there was something not right, didn’t we? There’s something wrong. This didn’t add up.
In 2006, five years before Susan Nicholson died, Robert Trigg had another partner – Caroline Devlin.
She was 35 years old and, like Susan, she died suddenly. Her death had supposedly been down to “natural causes”.
The details of Caroline’s story are harrowing: she was found lifeless and blue on the bed she shared with Robert Trigg. But he didn’t report it straightaway. Instead, he told Caroline’s 14-year-old son to go and check on his dead mother. Robert Trigg didn’t call emergency services either. He left her son to run to their neighbour’s house, who sounded the alarm.
So, to be totally clear: despite the fact that Sussex Police knew Robert Trigg’s previous partner had died suddenly, despite the fact that they had him on record as a violent abuser of yet another, earlier girlfriend – still they failed to properly interrogate what might possibly have led to Susan’s death, beyond the story Robert Trigg told them.
And then, when the Skeltons pushed them to investigate – they refused!
You can probably hear my indignation here. It’s hard not to tell this story without feeling a sense of outrage.This is the cost of a hidden homicide: in the very worst cases, a killer walks free to kill again.
And both times it was Sussex police that failed to investigate.
That’s important – I am going to come back and tell you more about this force, because they are an astonishing example of a bad pattern.
If Caroline’s death had been properly investigated, Susan might still be alive today.
Louise: Do you think that abusers have got away with their killings because the relationship was abusive and therefore they weren’t looked at properly.
Jane Monckton Smith: Yes. I think once domestic abuse is talked about, identified, there’s this mindset that everyone says “oh, it’s just a domestic”. So there are a raft of ready made excuses and justifications that the police and others, it’s not just the police, and others, can use to say, oh, that’s what happened, that’s what happened. And it’s like a confirmation bias. So there’s no need to look any, any further.
I could tell frustration was definitely rising. We had received refusals from the first set of our FOI answers. The police were stonewalling. Just like they had done to those the families.
And having met the Skeltons, it was really evident to me the toll this had all taken on an elderly couple who had lost their daughter.
Because at this point in the Skelton’s battle, even after they know about what had happened to Caroline Devlin – Sussex Police were refusing to open an investigation into Susan’s death. How many other women had been failed, lethally let down, by Sussex Police?
Peter: With something like that when you’re so certain that you’re right, you can’t give up. You know, so we were never gonna give up, you know. So whatever obstacles they put in front of us, it wouldn’t make any difference at all. We wouldn’t give up. So we just… we had to keep on. And just carry on fighting until we got to the right conclusion.
It’s now late 2015.
That’s four years after Susan’s death. It’s nine years after Caroline’s.
The man the Skeltons were now certain had killed Susan and Caroline – was still walking free.
And, he’d started seeing someone new…
The more I looked into it, the more I began to seriously question Sussex Police’s attitude to domestic abuse. Because it wasn’t just Susan Nicholson, the evidence was mounting…
In the next episode: the story of a body left in a hospital morgue – and multiple failures to follow up on a family’s concerns. Mistakes that can’t be undone.
If you’d like to read more about the Skeltons and their fight for justice, you can go to tortoisemedia.com/hiddenhomicides to find out more.
This series was reported by me, Louise Tickle, and produced by Matt Russell, with additional reporting by Claudia Williams and Patricia Clarke. The editor was Basia Cummings, with original music by Tom Kinsella.
If you have been affected by any of the issues in this podcast, please head over to the charity website Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse – that’s www.aafda.org.uk.
Portrait by Tom Pilston; picture of Susan Nicholson courtesy of Peter and Elizabeth Skelton.