Police officers often have to make decisions which they live to regret; upon which they have to reflect all the time.
'What if?' is the question that can haunt them for the rest of their lives.
I know, because I have a ‘What If?’ question constantly in my head.
One evening, when I was still a uniformed police officer with just two years in the job, I was assigned a call about a fifteen-year-old girl. Her parents wanted to report that she’d not returned home from school.
On the way to the girl's house, I saw someone acting suspiciously and stopped them. I found drugs on them, and subsequently arrested them.
In the meantime, as I radioed in to explain why I was waylaid, the missing person’s call was assigned to another officer to attend.
Later that night, I bumped into the crew of the car who had taken the missing person’s report at the girl's house - two officers who had forty years’ service between them. They mentioned that they’d been to speak to a boyfriend and his mother up the road in connection with the missing girl. The two officers didn’t particularly warm to the fifteen-year-old boy or his mother, but there was nothing out of the ordinary or specific that they could put their finger on.
I thought nothing more of it.
Several months later, I was called out by a local resident who believed he had a plague of foxes. He’d been complaining to his wife about a bad smell for some time; thought he had a decomposing animal in his garden. He’d heard the foxes fighting over something on waste ground behind his house. The stench was horrific.
At 10pm one pitch black night, the gentleman had decided to go outside to investigate.
He wandered down to the end of his garden and onto the patch of waste land at the end.
There he stumbled across something.
He'd assumed at first it was a dead fox.
But it wasn’t the body of a fox.
It was the body of a girl.
She was lying in a shallow grave.
That piece of waste ground backed onto another garden too.
And at the end of that garden was a shed.
Someone had cut a hole in the wall of that shed; they'd created a hole large enough to move a body through.
That shed and that garden belonged to the house of the fifteen-year-old boyfriend.
Word travelled fast. The girl’s parents lived just a few hundred yards up the same road. When they turned up at the site, the rings on the girl’s fingers protruding from the shallow grave immediately confirmed to them that it was the body of their missing daughter.
I had to stand there with the mother and father and explain why it was that we couldn’t dig up the body of their dead daughter there and then, because we needed to preserve the evidence.
All they wanted to do was take her home.
It was heart breaking.
Tests on the house showed that the girl's body had spent some time under the boy’s bed. There was blood there. The tests couldn’t determine if she had been alive or dead at that point. Her body was so decomposed when we found it, that forensics couldn’t tell how she had been killed, or what had happened to her.
The fifteen-year-old boyfriend was arrested.
He never confessed the full story about exactly what had taken place. And the investigation team were unable to prove that he'd committed the murder.
The boy did admit to burying his girlfriend’s body, and perverting the course of justice - for which he was convicted and sentenced to seven years imprisonment.
It would appear that someone, literally, ‘got away with murder’.
The officers who’d ended up taking the missing person’s call that day, began asking: 'What if we’d checked under his bed?'
I began asking: 'What if I had got there first? What if I’d not been so focussed on making that other arrest? Would I have checked under the bed if I’d been doing the questioning?'
'What if she was still alive when they were there that night?'
One of my colleagues resigned shortly after we found her body. He couldn’t stand the ‘What Ifs’?
We don’t have a crystal ball. I wish we did. It would all be very different. It might stop us asking ‘What if?’
One of the same officers who’d been on that very first call that night mentioned something that still sticks in my memory.
The boy’s mother had told them that her fifteen-year-old son had washed his clothes that day...
I think about the ‘What ifs’ regularly.
What if I hadn't made that arrest and it had been me who'd gone to the missing person's call that night instead?
What if it had been me who'd spoken to the boyfriend and his mother had told me he'd washed his clothes that day?
What if I'd checked under his bed?
What if she had still been alive then?
I wish it had been different. It never goes away.
David Videcette is a former counter-terror detective and author of The Theseus Paradox, the thriller based on real events. Sales of the book are raising money for the Police Dependants' Trust to assist police officers with a range of mental health-related issues.