LEE BALKWELL EXCLUSIVE: Essex Police closes mysterious cement mixer case after top pathologist says
ESSEX Police has closed the case of the death of a man found dead between the drum and chasis of a cement mixer in the middle of the night more than 18 years ago, despite a top pathologost concluding last year it looked like a murder staged as an accident.
The family of Lee Balkwell, 33, (top right) whose body was found wedged under the vehicle, have reacted angrily after the force reneged on a promise to get an independent pathologist to review the report by Dr Richard Shepherd, who has worked on high profile cases including 9/11, the 7/7 bombings, the Bloody Sunday Inquiry and the deaths of Princess Diana and Stephen Lawrence.
Police have always believed the account of Lee's employer and vehicle owner Simon Bromley, who said it was a tragic accident when the drum malfunctioned while the pair were working to drill drying cement from the mixer long into the night.
In 2012 Mr Bromley was charged with manslaughter over the death, but he was found not guilty at Chelmsford Crown Court in 2014.
He was instead found guilty of the health and safety offence of failing to ensure Lee's safety as his employer.
However, Mr Shepherd's report concluded there was not enough blood at the scene for Mr Balkwell to have been alive when he was struck by the rotating drum.
SCENE: Drills Mr Bromley said they were using in the mixer drum were found outside (Essex Police)
It also said the scene appeared to have been staged as drills, spades and lighting Mr Bromley said they were using inside the drum were outside the vehicle when emergency services arrived.
His report was sent to Essex Police on January 10 this year.
The force said it would have the report peer reviewed by Dr Robert Chapman, to see what a pathologist, who was never involved in the original investigations, thought of Mr Shepherd's new findings.
However, after months of delays, it has said it did not carry this out, instead getting Ben Swift, a pathologist involved in the original investigations, to comment on the Shepherd report.
DISMISSIVE: Benjamin Swift said there was no evidence for any of Dr Shepherd's claims
Mr Swift dismissed the report as Mr Shepherd's opinion, that was based on "no evidence," but he would not address specific points, fearing this could trigger a complaint from Lee's father, Les Balkwell.
Mr Balkwell, 72, who has campaigned for 18 years to get to the truth of what happened, said: "Essex Police has repeatedly stalled and delayed this in the hope that I give up or worse, but to say it was going to carry out the peer review and then not do it is a massive insult to my family."
Dave McKelvey, head of private investigation firm TM-Eye, which is acting for Mr Balkwell, said: "Essex Police owes the Balkwell family an apology over this which has caused more unnecessary delays.
"They know Mr Balkwell is unwell and seem to want to try to drag this out for as long as possible in the hope something happens to him."
Instead of the peer review being carried out, Detective Superintendent Morgan Cronin reviewed whether the Shepherd report constituted new evidence enough to re-open the case.
In a policy decision, he wrote: "While Dr Shepherd's report is new evidence, it is expert opinion evidence rather than new primary evidence (i.e. physical, documentary, audio-visual or witness evidence).
"It is at odds with the expert opinion evidence in the same field of pathology from Dr Swift, who had access to the same primary evidence and also had the benefit of having conducted a post-mortem examination of Lee Balkwell after his body was exhumed."
LATE NIGHT: Simon Bromley said they were drilling out dried cement at 1am (Essex Police)
Dr Shepherd gave media quotes about his views on the death before he inspected the cement mixer and finished his report.
Mr Cronin said Dr Swift had noted this.
He added: "Dr Swift has reviewed Dr Shepherd’s report (and) makes clear he questions how Dr Shepherd could have publically reported his findings before reviewing all the material, and concludes that Dr Shepherd’s findings are only opinion and not supported by evidence."
Mr Cronin's report added: "To bring charges for murder, the investigation must show there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction against the named suspect(s), which involves proving the suspect’s intent to kill or inflict serious harm. "While Dr Shepherd’s report does provide new expert opinion evidence, that evidence is in conflict with other expert evidence, which will undermine his evidence.
"There is the potential for his evidence to be further undermined for the reason outlined by Dr Swift, namely that he made public statements before he even concluded his investigation.
"The pathology evidence must be considered in the context of all of the evidence in the case.
"There is a significant volume of evidence which does not support the hypothesis that Lee Balkwell was assaulted and the scene staged.
"I do not believe the report of Dr Shepherd alters the position of the case to suggest that the CPS will now be able to approve a charge or charges for murder.
"The evidence (other than Dr Shepherd’s report) has been tested in the coroner’s court and considered by the CPS, and at no time has sufficient evidence been shown to support a case for murder.
NO PROSPECT: Mr Cronin said Shepherd report was not enough for new charges (Essex Police/Facebook)
"In the criminal case Mr Bromley was only found guilty in the crown court of a health and safety offence.
"I find it significant that following the Operation Nereus investigation Mr Bromley was charged with gross negligence manslaughter, but the evidence was insufficient to convict him even of this lesser offence.
"As well as the investigations and proceedings to date, I have also taken account of the age of the matter and the question of priorities and resources.
"As to the age of the matter, it is now approaching 18 years old, which in itself presents issues in terms of witness recollection.
"As to priorities and resources, re-investigating Lee Balkwell’s death would be a very significant undertaking in terms of resources.
"Given the investigations to date, the probability of a new investigation securing new evidence is low."
The original police investigation was slammed by the former Independent Police Complaints Commission in 2009 for failing to properly consider foul play and for missing several lines of enquiry.
Mr Cronin said a new investigation could not alter the damage done by this.
He added: "A new investigation will not be able to cure the defects in the original investigation and, even with the new report from Dr Shepherd, it is unlikely to result in a murder charge and/or conviction."
Assistant Chief Constable Timothy Smith, who had the final say, agreed with the decision of Mr Cronin.
In 2018 lawyers acting for Les Balkwell launched an application for a judicial review of a previous decision by Essex Police not to re-open the case.
The application was stayed to give the force time to respond to the Shepherd report.
It is now expected that Mr Balkwell's legal team will push for the judicial review application hearing to now go ahead.
Mr Balkwell wants Essex Police to get an independent police force to carry out a fresh investigation into his son's death.
Mr Bromley, 50, has consistently maintained the pair were each using Kango drills and spades to break and remove dried cement from inside the drum.
He said in interview they wore gloves and dust masks and worked with an electric light.
Mr Bromley says it was while he left Lee inside the drum, so he could slowly revolve it a bit to reach more cement, that it malfunctioned, turning more quickly than expected and Lee was either ejected from the hatch at that point, or had been inadvertently trying to climb out of it.
Police and health and safety officials, who attended the scene at Baldwins Farm industrial area in South Ockendon, Essex, investigated it as such an accident.
Due to botched police inquiries it took 12 years to come to court.
Mr Shepherd wrote in his report: "I note that despite the reported use of hammer drills, shovels and possibly lights inside the drum, by both Simon Bromley and Lee Balkwell, none were present inside the drum.
"No gloves were present on Lee Balkwell's hands... no masks were seen on his body, in the drum or in or around the lorry."
STAGED: Dr Richard Shepherd's report is at odds with those of previous pathologists on the case (BBC)
He concluded that, because Mr Balkwell was decapitated inside his skin, due to the major arteries involved there would have been a huge amount of blood at the scene if he was alive at the time.
He wrote: "None of the examinations of the scene showed any evidence of significant blood loss. No blood drop, spray or splash is seen in any of the photographs of the scene around, or beneath, the lorry.
"I must conclude that the death of Lee Balkwell must be considered to be very highly suspicious and that there is very strong evidence of staging of the scene in an attempt to make Lee's death appear to be an accident."
Mr Bromley, who has stuck to his account from the outset, has not responded to a number of requests for comment.
He has never given an interview about the death, but in 2012, after Mr Balkwell held a press conference making claims of foul play his dad, Simon Bromley, 72, said he was sick of insinuations of murder.
He said at the time: "This was a terrible, tragic accident.
“Lee was like one of the family. He was a great loss. Simon felt terribly guilty. It made him ill. He would cry his eyes out about it. He said he wished it had been him and not Lee who died.”
Essex News and Investigations asked Essex Police why it had said it would have the pathology report peer reviewed before deciding against this, but it refused to answer.
A spokeswoman said: "Following a thorough review of a pathology report by Dr Richard Shepherd submitted to Essex Police on behalf of Les Balkwell in to the death of his son Lee in 2002, a decision has been made by Assistant Chief Constable Tim Smith, head of the Kent and Essex Serious Crime Directorate, that the contents of the report does not warrant grounds for further investigation by the force.
"Due to ongoing legal proceedings calling for a judicial review we will not be commenting on this matter or the wider case further at this time."