Police hoped to prosecute grieving dad as he tried to find truth of son's mystery cement mixer death
POLICE spied on a grieving father and tried to prosecute him for "perverting the course of justice" as he campaigned for answers about the mysterious death of his son, it has emerged. Lee Balkwell's (top right) body was found wedged between the chassis and drum of a cement mixer at an industrial site linked to organised criminals in the dead of night nearly 20 years ago. His father, Les Balkwell, 74, (top left) has pushed over the past two decades for Essex Police to continue investigating the circumstances that led to the death of Lee, 33, at Baldwins Farm, Dennises Lane, South Ockendon, Essex, in July 2002, amid concerns foul play may have been involved. At the time of the death the owners of the site, who insist the death was a tragic accident, were involved in class A drug and firearms supply, but police who arrived at the scene gave no consideration to this as part of their enquiries. Mr Balkwell is convinced police corruption was involved in the initial badly flawed investigation, which the force now admits left evidential gaps that can never be filled. He even had a stash of top secret police files about the undercover Operation Portwing into the crime gang linked to the scene of the death left at his home by an undercover police officer three years after the death. Mr Balkwell has previously set up a website which "named and shamed" officers involved in the case and given numerous media interviews alleging police corruption. He still threatens to one day release a damning series of disclosures about alleged police corruption connected to other unsolved Essex and Met Police murders linked to the underworld. It has now emerged that Essex Police and Kent Police, which share a serious crime directorate, became so concerned about his activities, they set up Operation Intrepid to monitor the activities of Mr Balkwell and former solicitor Tony Bennett, who was aiding him.
The secretive operation has echoes of the Met Police monitoring of the family of Stephen Lawrence at the height of their campaigning for answers about his racist murder in Eltham, south London, in 1993. The Met also did the same to the campaigning family of Ricky Reel, who was found drowned in the River Thames after going missing after he was split from friends who were racially abused by two white men in Kingston-upon-Thames in October 1997. A confidential Essex Police report said the force was also concerned about Mr Balkwell (above) and Mr Bennett speaking to witnesses about the circumstances of the death and trying to approach current and former detectives at their homes. It said the operation set about trying to gather evidence of them "influencing witnesses" for the offence of "perverting the course of justice." From the outset, Essex Police treated the death as an industrial accident after Lee's boss Simon Bromley, 51, said he found him crushed between the chassis and drum of the vehicle (below) after the latter unexpectedly rotated during work to drill out dried cement from inside. A 2008 inquest ruled Mr Balkwell was unlawfully killed as a result of gross negligence manslaughter. But, in 2012, after a series of complaints from Mr Balkwell senior, the former Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) found the original police investigation was flawed in many areas and failed to give enough consideration to whether there was any foul play.
As an interim measure in 2009, it got West Midlands Police to review Essex police's handling of the case, which led to a series of recommendations for further investigation. In 2012, the IOPC inquiry concluded with a further recommendation that Essex Police got an independent police force to fully reinvestigate the case, however, it said it found no evidence of police corruption. Instead, the force got Kent Police to review its previous investigations under the new Operation Nereus and to discharge the West Midlands Police recommendations. During Nereus, the force also launched Operation Intrepid that looked into the activities and investigations Mr Balkwell and Mr Bennett were undertaking to try to establish exactly how Lee died. Operation Intrepid was described as an "evidence gathering exercise into the activities of Mr Balkwell and Mr Bennett" during Operation Nereus. It came as relations between the pair and police soured after it became clear Nereus was looking at a manslaughter prosecution for an industrial accident and had ruled out foul play. The force was having to deal with several official complaints about officers being put in by Mr Bennett on behalf of Mr Balkwell. The force was concerned that the pair's disclosures to the press and on social media and their contacting of witnesses in the case could damage a planned manslaughter by gross negligence prosecution of Mr Bromley that Nereus was heading towards. Essex Police said it believed the two men were making repeated attempts to influence the decision making of the police and CPS by making contact with witnesses and to influence their testimony. It said it was also concerned about their use of the internet to undermine the police investigation. Operation Intrepid, launched in 2013, involved the force gathering evidence of their activities and assessing the potential impact of what they were doing on the upcoming manslaughter trial of Mr Bromley. The force said Mr Balkwell had been warned by senior investigating officers on previous reviews of the case about contacting witnesses. Another reason given for launching Operation Intrepid was that the force could face criticism for investigating Mr Bromley for perverting the course of justice of it did not do the same to Mr Balkwell. Intrepid collated evidence on what it described as witness interference and attempting to pervert the course of justice before sending an advice file to the CPS.
However, the CPS response was that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute either of them. The CPS said it was not in the public interest to proceed against the father of a victim or Mr Bennett, as his activities were so linked to those of Mr Balkwell. It was argued by the CPS that the fact the pair believed they were trying to prevent a miscarriage of justice would undermine any such prosecution. The CPS also reminded the force that the IOPC investigator Rachel Cerfontyne had congratulated Mr Balkwell in his “tenacity and endurance” in bringing his complaints against the police over the investigation. It also said the fact officers had been concerned over the years about possible witness interference by Mr Balkwell, but had taken no action other than to offer him words of advice, would also undermine any prosecution. Mr Balkwell told police that soon after his son's death he was contacted by undercover police officers who told him that his son had been murdered. One of them, he claimed, also left a large amount of Essex Police documents and CDs at his home from Operation Portwing into an organised crime group that Simon Bromley and his father, David Bromley, 73, were involved with in the supply of class A drugs and firearms. The Portwing documents, seen by Essex News and Investigations, included undercover police officer statements used in a prosecution that saw Bromley junior jailed for eight years for supplying cocaine and a firearm and his dad get three years for conspiracy to supply cocaine in September 2006. Another reason the prosecution against the pair may have failed was because the force had known for years Mr Balkwell had the confidential documents, but it took no formal action to retrieve them. Operation Intrepid was also highly critical of Mr Bennett (below), who was accused of being motivated to find evidence of police corruption, because he had volunteered he was writing a book about the case to be called Concrete Evidence.
Police looked into his career and his decision to remove himself from the Solicitors' Roll, saying in September 2003 the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal found him guilty of conduct unbefitting a solicitor following allegations he poached clients from the firm he worked at.
Police said he was later arrested and charged with criminal damage to metric road signs, as part of a personal campaign against the “illegal” introduction of non-imperial signs in the UK, but prior to action being taken, Mr Bennett voluntarily removed himself from the Solicitors' Roll in October 2009.
Police also looked at Mr Benett's involvement with a similar campaign by the late Terry Lubbock for answers about the death of his son Stuart Lubbock at the home of TV entertainer Michael Barrymore in March 2001 and after writing the book "Not Awright" about the case.
Stuart was found with anal injuries consistent with rape, but the initial investigation was also botched, but is now being treated as murder by the force.
The force discovered that relations between Mr Bennett and Mr Lubbock soured and the latter no longer wanted the former involved.
Operation Intrepid pointed out that Mr Bennett had also promoted a book entitled "What really happened to Madeleine McCann? – 60 reasons that suggest she was not abducted,” which suggested the McCanns were responsible for the death of their daughter and covered it up.
They said he was convicted in February 2013 for flouting numerous court undertakings not to make malicious allegations against her parents Kate and Gerry McCann and was sentenced to three months imprisonment, suspended for a year.
Mr Bennett said: "I am amazed at the amount of time that Essex Police has spent researching my career, but some things that they didn't mention in the Operation Nereus report are that I got Criminal Injuries Compensation for Terry Lubbock and his wife after Essex Police opposed it and did exactly the same for Les & Jacqui Balkwell.
I also compiled the applications to the IPCC in both the Lubbock and Balkwell cases which led to numerous findings of misconduct by senior Essex officers and I secured a verdict of 'inadequate investigation' against Essex Police in the Balkwell case after years of opposition.
The road signs campaign was so successful that in February 2006 Alistair Darling, Transport Secretary Reversed the government's decision to go metric on our roads."
Five years after Operation Intrepid folded, aided by Mr Bennett, Mr Balkwell successfully sued Essex Police for £40,000 overs its failed initial investigations. In 2018 Mr Balkwell applied for a judicial review of Essex Police's decision to close the investigation into Lee's death.
In July Judge Mr Justice Ian Dove agreed for the civil case to go ahead on a date to be set. Mr Balkwell is asking the judge to force Essex Police, which said it would no longer investigate the case in 2018, to appoint an independent police force to carry out a full reinvestigation.
A team of ex-Met Police detectives and a forensic pathologist have both submitted evidence to the judicial review which suggests Lee was dead when the drum turned on him and he scene had been staged to look like an accident. Simon Bromley (below) has consistently maintained the pair were each using Kango drills and spades to break and remove dried cement from inside the drum. He says it was while he left Lee inside the drum, so he could enter the cab and 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. Nereus led to Mr Bromley being charged with gross negligence manslaughter.
In 2014, at Chelmsford Crown Court, Mr Bromley was cleared of gross negligence manslaughter, in respect of the death, but convicted of the health and safety offence of failing, as an employer, to ensure Lee's safety. Mr Bromley, who has stuck to his account from the outset, has never done an interview about the case, but it was said in court the was deeply affected by Mr Balkwell's ongoing allegations.
In 2012, after Mr Balkwell held a press conference making claims of foul play his dad, David Bromley 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.”
Commenting on the discovery of Operation Intrepid, Mr Balkwell said: "This is exactly like what happened with the family of Stephen Lawrence, intruding into the lives of people who are just trying to get to the bottom of how their son died because the police didn't do it properly.
"I believe this was going on long before 2013 though. In about 2007 I went down to the west country to set up the website and at 10pm I got a call from a senior officer and he said he knew where I was which was in the vicinity of Stonehenge. "I believe it was the police who got the website shut down. "There was a time when I met an officer from the Met Police about Lee at Palms motel near Romford and he told me I had been followed by undercover police.
"At another meeting I had with an officer, he pointed out to me undercover officers who were there and then they left straight away. "I'm certain they are listening in to my calls and watching the house." Once, he said he tested to see if he was being listened to by telling his brother false information about the case, which he claims later appeared in police documents.
Essex Police was asked to comment on its decision to mount Operation Intrepid, and if it now regretted it, but it did not answer any specific questions. A force spokesman said: "The investigation into the death of Lee Balkwell is currently subject to a judicial review and as such it would be inappropriate for us to comment.”