LEE BALKWELL: Undercover police met grieving dad and leaked files on mystery cement mixer death
NINETEEN years ago today Essex Police launched one of its most perplexing unsolved homicide investigations after the boss of a concrete business called 999 to say his employee had been killed in a freak accident while they worked inside the drum of a cement mixer in the dead of night.
When ambulance crews arrived at Baldwins Farm in Dennises Lane, South Ockendon, Essex, after 1am on July 18 2002, they found the body of Lee Balkwell in an extraordinary position (below).
His shoulders were wedged in a gap of just a few inches between the chassis and drum of the mixer, while his head, which was decapitated inside the skin of his neck was hanging on the other side of the gap.
Just above his shoulders was a small inspection hatch that was open.
Simon Bromley, 51, who ran the concrete business, employed Lee, and also lived at the site with his extended family, said the two of them had been working inside the drum, long into the night, to remove large areas of dried cement from it using electric Kango drills and spades.
This, he said, involved Mr Bromley occasionally getting out of the drum and into the cab of the vehicle to slowly rotate the drum just a few inches, so they could reach a fresh area of dried concrete.
The concrete had set earlier in the day as the vehicle malfunctioned while Lee, 33, had been making deliveries.
Bromley (above) said the gunning out of the cement had started in the evening and continued into the night, even after Lee had left the site, and got a Chinese takeaway before returning.
Each used a drill to remove cement before throwing it out of the drum with a spade via the open inspection hatches on each side.
Mr Bromley said at around 1am, he got out the drum, leaving Lee inside, to rotate the drum again, but, this time, it started turning at speed.
When he got out he found Lee in the position his body was found and said he thought he must have been ejected from the hatch as the drum rotated.
Emergency services noted suspicions about the positioning of the body in statements.
However, when police arrived it was treated too quickly as an industrial accident and several evidential opportunities were lost, according to a probe by the former Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) which upheld several complaints from Lee's father, Les Balkwell, 74, (below) about the botched early investigation.
These included that Mr Bromley was allowed to change clothes, despite blood being spotted on his T-shirt, the crime scene not being properly secured, and Lee's clothes being sent by police for destruction within just a few days of his death.
It was later established that it was likely impossible for Lee to have been flung out of the hatch, so police worked on the theory he must have tried to climb out backwards, just at the point the vehicle malfunctioned, even though he would have known the drum was about to turn.
What also was not flagged up during the initial investigation was police intelligence on the Bromley family's high level of involvement within organised crime.
Baldwins Farm, where Mr Bromley lived with his parents and brother in separate bungalows, was suspected of being a base for major class A drug and firearms supply.
Yet none of this was flagged up or seen as relevant during the investigation into Lee's death.
It was undercover detectives who went rogue to secretly met with Les Balkwell to tell him of Simon, and his father David Bromley's involvement in organised crime.
Mr Balkwell said: "I was contacted by people who said they were undercover detectives from Essex Police who wanted to meet me to explain what really happened to Lee."
In scenes that sound like they come from the plot of BBC police corruption drama Line of Duty, Mr Balkwell described meeting officers at out of the way locations.
He was told Lee had "been murdered and the scene staged to look like an accident with the cement mixer."
One of the most extraordinary events was when Mr Balkwell opened the front door of his home in Upminster, east London, in 2008 to find piles of documents and police data CDs from an undercover investigation into the Bromleys and a wider crime ring called Operation Portwing.
Essex News and Investigations has seen some of the files and CDs in question and it has been confirmed by Essex Police the data breach is not just a fantastical tale from a grieving father.
Once the force became aware of Mr Balkwell's claims he had been informally approached by undercover officers and given the files, it would have had to to conduct an investigation into the source of the data breaches.
When this author asked the force the outcome of these inquiries, he was told to submit a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, but warned, since it concerned undercover activities, it was unlikely to yield any results.
MYSTERY: Lee Balkwell
However, when this author suggested another possibility was for him to report the data breach himself to the external Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), the force's stance changed.
It later provided this statement: "An independent investigation was carried out on Essex Police’s behalf in to allegations regarding a data breach and contact with undercover officers reported by Les Balkwell.
"This investigation was carried out in 2013/14 and found insufficient evidence to show any specific person was responsible. "As with any data breach, investigations also consider how future breaches can be prevented. "Since this investigation was conducted improvements have been made in security measures and working practices such as the mainstream use of computer encryption for digital media." Separately, Essex News and Investigations has seen official police confirmation that one of the (now former) undercover detectives (whose identity we know) was identified by the force and "dealt with" but there were no further details of what that involved. In September 2006, Operation Portwing led to seven men, including Simon and David Bromley being jailed for a total of 22 years. Simon Bromley was jailed for eight years for supplying drugs and selling £28,400 of cocaine to an officer in 12 deals and also selling officers a rifle. David Bromley, 75, was jailed for three years for conspiracy to supply cocaine. Essex Police did carry out a series of reviews into the death of Lee Balkwell, including a covert Operation called Guthrie into the possibility that he was murdered, but none led to any new arrests or charges. After the IPCC subsequently released a damning report on the investigations in 2009, it made a recommendation that the force get another force to carry out an independent investigation into Lee's death. What the force did was get Kent Police, which it shares a serious crime directorate with, to conduct the probe. Essex Police even retained direct command of this investigation through a gold command group that it reported back to, calling its independence into question. Superintendent Lee Catlin, who led the review called Operation Nereus, later confirmed by email to Mr Balkwell's representatives that it was never intended to be a full reinvestigation. However, Operation Nereus, from 2012, did lead to the first charges in the Balkwell investigation, after maintaining the accidental cause and investigating if Mr Bromley had safeguarded Lee as his employer. in 2014 Mr Bromley at Chelmsford Crown Court was cleared of gross negligence manslaughter, but convicted of the health and safety offence of failing, as an employer, to ensure Lee's safety.
One element of the case that appears at odds with the accident theory was the positioning of the tools when emergency services arrived and tachograph records for the mixer did not record the level of activity with the vehicle as described.
Read our earlier report on this here.
During the manslaughter trial, CCTV was shown to the jury with Simon Bromley bringing out the lighting at just after midnight.
Without this they would have been working inside the drum in the pitch black, making the task in hand near impossible.
Early Essex Police reviews of the case seen by Essex News and Investigations show that one detective said the positioning of the drills and spade called into question Mr Bromley's account and he should be questioned about this, but it seems it was never done.
During a break in the manslaughter trial this author asked prosecutor Karim Khalil QC (below) how the tools could have been in the position they were found by investigators, if the accident had happened has described.
He was unable to offer any meaningful explanation. Following the prosecution, Mr Balkwell continued to push Essex Police to treat his son's death as a murder investigation.
All these calls were rejected and Essex Police confirmed it was closing the case. He also sued Essex Police in the High Court, winning a £40,000 payment and apology from the force in 2016 for failing to properly investigate the death at the outset. He has since enlisted the support of a team of former Met Police murder detectives based at private investigation form TM-Eye. They complied a report that concluded the scene had been staged to look like an accident.
Pathologist Richard Shepherd (below) was brought in to investigate the case, and he concluded the same - Read the previous report here.
He found that previous pathology reports had attributed injuries down Lee's back to have been consistent with being crushed in the mechanics of the vehicle.
However, their was no evidence to suggest Lee had been drawn in any further than his shoulders.
Mr Shepherd concluded Lee may have been killed elsewhere and then had his head placed into the hatch before it was rotated.
He said the lack of blood at the scene was not consistent with his head being detached inside his skin, if he had been alive at the time. This led Mr Balkwell to apply in 2018 for a judicial review of the Essex Police decision to close the case and re-open it as a murder investigation.
Pathologist Ben Swift, who carried out post mortem examinations of Lee, including after his body was exhumed, downplayed Mr Sherpherd's findings and stood by his own during initial proceedings in the case. Despite being applied for three years ago, his application has yet to get before a judge to make a decision on whether it can proceed to a trial or not. Mr Balkwell said: "I suspect this is somehow being held up by Essex Police.
"They know I am not a well man and just hope that the worst happens to me before I get them back in court." Essex News and Investigations recently established from the High Court that the target for dealing with a judicial review application is within just three months. So this author asked the High Court why this application was not heard in 2018. It did not explain this, but said that the case had been stayed between May and August 2020 for Essex Police to respond to Mr Shepherd's report. Read that story here. We then asked why it had not been heard by November 2020, three months after it ceased to be stayed and were told it was waiting to be allocated to a judge. Essex News and Investigations asked for details of the people responsible for allocating cases to judge and who they were accountable to. The court did not answer these questions, but advised that the application would be put in front of a judge on Thursday, July 15. It would not release the name of the judge, until we pointed out that there was case law that there could be "no anonymous judges."
Following this, the court confirmed that Mr Justice Dove (above) would be hearing the application, unless he is called onto another urgent case, and a decision on the application should be made soon. The court denied that questions from this author had anything to do with the timing of this. A spokeswoman said: "This was ready to go before a judge prior to your email.
"It is unfortunate of course when delays do occur and the court has been in touch with the parties to the case about this." Mr Balkwell hopes his application will now be heard, but is not confident of a favourable outcome. But, he said he will continue his fight for justice regardless. He said: "While I have still got breath in my body, I will keep fighting to find out what really happened to Lee." Simon Bromley has always insisted Lee's death was a tragic accident that affected him badly, and that he considered Lee a close friend. Essex News and Investigations has written to him a number times about Mr Balkwell's claims and asking him to say how the tools ended up where they were, but he has not responded. However, in 2012 this author was able to interview his father David Bromley 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.” With a possible court case looming, we asked Essex Police to also explain about the positioning of the tools and it said due to legal proceedings it would not comment. However, despite previously closing the case, for the first time, this week it said the case remains an "unsolved homicide." A spokesman said: "The death of Lee Balkwell remains classed by Essex Police as an unsolved homicide as a result of his father’s belief he was murdered. "Due to ongoing legal proceedings calling for a judicial review, it would be inappropriate to comment further." Mr Balkwell said: "This is the first time they have put in writing that Lee's death is recorded as an unsolved homicide, but it would have been nice if they could have told the family that instead of it coming through the media."