The mother of a victim of a brutal gang attack and robbery has compiled evidence of apparent police failures which has allowed the offenders to evade justice. Chris Burn reports.
An early-evening phone call changed the life of Diane Timms. Her son Lawrence Vincent’s girlfriend rang her in a panic to explain the 27-year-old had been set upon by a teenage gang, beaten, kicked and robbed and had crawled home bleeding heavily. Seventeen months on from that dreadful day, her life has been consumed by a quest to bring his attackers to justice - driven in part by the belief that missed opportunities in the police investigation have allowed them to go free.
“I have lost a year of my life,” she tells The Yorkshire Post in a hotel just a couple of miles from where the attack happened on parkland in the Doncaster suburb of Balby on January 28, 2017. “It is like a nightmare I can’t get out of.”
Through her own determination and a series of painstakingly detailed questions, Diane now has multiple admissions from South Yorkshire Police relating to the way which she says lend weight to her concerns about the investigation was conducted.
A detective inspector at the force overseeing her complaint about the handling of the case has confirmed police did not forensically test a footprint impression on clothing Mr Vincent was wearing when attacked and did not seize the mobile phones of any of the suspects - despite a social media image of two people with their faces covered captioned with the message ‘No face, no case’ being posted online shortly after the incident. A brick used in the attack was also not collected by police despite being left at the scene, while officers did not interview 13 people named as being linked to the suspects and potentially having information about the incident for almost a year.
Diane says the situation has had a severe impact on her son both mentally and physically, leading her to take the lead in trying to establish what was happening in the investigation - something that has affected her own health. Diane Timms says: “It has had a devastating effect on us both. I still wake up with panic attacks now.”
Lawrence, who used to work for a furniture delivery charity but gave up work to severe back pain before the attack, had gone to his local shop to buy sweets for his son and was walking home when he was set upon by a group of youths wearing hoods, who dragged him into a nearby field.
He was repeatedly beaten and kicked before being hit with a brick and then robbed of a gold bracelet worth £1,000 as well as a heavy, gold belcher chain.
Diane says she was greeted with a shocking scene when she got to Lawrence’s house minutes after hearing of the attack, finding her son bleeding heavily and in a confused state. “There wasn’t a place on his body they hadn’t kicked. It was really distressing, he is my only son. He kept saying ‘Mum I haven’t done anything’.”
Lawrence was taken to hospital as paramedics feared he may have a fractured skull and a suspected stab wound and he required a CT scan and stitches.
The day after the incident, Diane posted an appeal on social media including a photograph of Lawrence’s bloodied face asking for people who may have information to come forward. She says she was soon inundated with messages.
“The attack happened on the Saturday evening. On the Sunday morning, I put a big message on Facebook for people with the picture of Lawrence asking people to come with information if they knew anything. There was message after message. It was the same five to six names. I showed Lawrence their pictures and he recognised two of them.”
However, Diane quickly grew concerned about the way in which the police investigation was being conducted and the apparent lack of progress in bringing a case against suspects who had been identified online and were well-known in the local community.
In September, she submitted a complaint about how the case was being handled by a police constable, a superintendent and a detective sergeant involved - a matter which is still in the process of being assessed by the force’s Professional Standards Department.
In October, the Crown Prosecution Service ruled that no charges could be brought after reviewing the evidence it was provided by the police. The force released a public statement to say that while a “lengthy investigation” had taken place with six teenage boys interviewed and forensic evidence reviewed, it respected the decision of the CPS.
Diane was unable to accept police had done all they could and supported by a local neighbourhood watch group volunteer who wishes to remain anonymous, she submitted a list of 23 questions she wanted answering about the investigation as part of the complaints process.
But before the police eventually provided answers to the questions in late November, she was asked to sign an ‘action plan’ for dealing with her complaint that would have involved agreeing ‘no formal disciplinary action will be taken against the persons subject of the complaint in relation to these matters’ and ‘that anything said during the process cannot be used in any criminal, misconduct or civil proceedings’. She refused to sign the document and the responses she eventually received further increased her concerns about how the investigation had been dealt with.
Following the attack, the police took Lawrence’s clothing as evidence. When they were handed back to the family ten months later, there was a footprint impression on the hoodie he had been wearing when he was attacked.
The police response to Diane confirmed no forensic tests had been conducted on the footwear impression on the grounds that such analysis was ‘not relevant’.
A subsequent email from a detective inspector said: “Due to the fact that Lawrence’s statement did not make mention of being stamped on, the footwear mark was never identified, therefore footwear impressions were not identified as part of the enquiry.”
Despite six teenagers being interviewed as part of the investigation, only one pair of trainers were recovered from a suspect. The photograph of the mark was subsequently compared with the set of trainers the police did have and found not to be a match.
Police also confirmed no phones had been taken from the suspects. A subsequent response added while searches had been conducted of the addresses of suspects, the ‘primary aim’ had been to find Lawrence’s stolen jewellery rather than any mobile devices. But Diane believes these phones may have provided evidence that could have linked the suspects to the crime, particularly due to the ‘No face, no case’ picture that was posted online.
Diane also questioned why a brick which was allegedly used in the attack was left in the park where the attack happened rather than being collected as evidence. The response she received from police stated: “In the victim statement taken from Lawrence that he describes being assaulted with a knuckle duster, not a brick. It appears the mention of a brick has been made by other persons, after the initial reporting. The OIC [officer in charge] has made comment that the brick had been left open to the elements, therefore not of forensic value. Even if Lawrence’s blood were present, how would we attribute the brick to the suspects?”
But Diane argues that it should have been collected, even if there was limited forensic value, as it could have potentially been used as an exhibit in court.
She was also concerned about a lack of follow-up interviews after a new witness came forward several months after the attack. Diane said her understanding is that the witness said they were shown the stolen jewellery, told about the attack and observed the blood-covered shoes of the attackers shortly after the incident occurred.
A response to one of her questions said: “The suspects were all interviewed regarding the robbery. No further evidence came to light, therefore no further interviews were conducted.”
However, in the same email responding to a different question, police confirmed an account was taken from the new witness and sent to the CPS. But it added: “The witness does not provide evidence in relation to the attack itself. The evidence relates to interaction after the offence, however, the witness account was inconstant with Lawrence’s account and the witness stated she ‘may be muddled up’ therefore deemed insufficient to secure a conviction. This was a decision made by the CPS.”
Diane says she believes the witness did have relevant evidence which should have led to further interviews with the various suspects.
Police also confirmed the officer in charge of the case had not spoken to ‘all’ 13 people that had been named as being linked to the suspects and having possible knowledge of the assault. In the wake of Diane’s concerns, some elements of the case were subsequently re-examined late last year and early this year, including speaking to this group of people. A further email in January 2018 confirmed 12 of the 13 named people had now been spoken to - but revealed the work had been undertaken by the original PC in charge of the case who Diane had complained about in September.
Diane says she is unhappy that an officer central to the original investigation and facing a complaint conducted the belated follow-up work.
On March 29, the force confirmed it had determined “there is insufficient evidence to secure a charge and conviction against any persons suspected of robbing Lawrence”.
Diane says she still has many unanswered questions, with the force even refusing to tell her how many people were ever arrested in relation to the incident.
When contacted by The Yorkshire Post and asked about the number of arrests, whether it disputed any of the issues raised by Diane and if it considered its investigation of the matter to be satisfactory, a force spokeswoman said: “This matter is subject to an ongoing complaints process and therefore it would not be appropriate to comment further at this stage.
“The robbery allegation was subject to further investigation and the matter is currently being finalised.”
Diane says that after her experiences in the past year, she is unsurprised by the police response. “All I ever wanted was justice for my son. I have got no trust left in the police at all. I just feel sad.”