A coroner has recorded a verdict of unlawful killing in the case of beauty consultant Clare Bernal, who was shot dead in the Harvey Nichols department store in London by an ex-boyfriend who then killed himself. The case highlights the difficulties unpredictable stalkers pose for the criminal justice system.
By Chris Summers
COUNTDOWN TO TRAGEDY
28 Feb '05: Clare Bernal (pictured) ends relationship with Michael Pech
5 Apr: Clare makes formal police complaint about Pech's stalking
6:Apr: Pech is arrested and released on conditional bail
10 Apr: Pech is arrested after breaking bail conditions by approaching Clare
11 Apr: Pech is charged with harassment and remanded in custody
19 Apr: Pech is released on conditional bail
31 Aug: Pech admits harassment and is bailed until 29 September pending sentencing
13 Sep: Pech kills Clare and then shoots himself
Tears welled up in the eyes of PC Bibi Shah and she broke down as she recounted her reaction when she first heard about a shooting at Harvey Nichols on 13 September 2005.
She said she had tried ringing Clare Bernal's mobile phone and added: "I was scared that Clare was involved."
By then the 22-year-old skincare consultant was already dead. She had been shot several times by a former lover, Michael Pech, who had then killed himself with the same gun, which he had smuggled into the country from Slovakia.
Pech, a former security guard at the Knightsbridge store, was awaiting sentencing having pleaded guilty to harassing Clare.
Pech had refused to accept it when, after a brief fling, Clare sought to end the relationship.
He bombarded her with 30 text messages a day, watched her constantly at work and followed her to her home in Dulwich, south London.
On one occasion she spotted him in a Tube carriage and told him if he did not leave her alone she would report him to the police. He replied: "If you report me I'll kill you."
When she did report Pech the case was allotted to PC Shah, who was working for the hate crime unit in Southwark.
PC Shah broke down in tears while giving evidence at the inquest
The inquest heard there were 110,658 reports of domestic violence in the capital every year and 5,259 in Southwark alone.
The hate crime unit tackles homophobic and racist incidents as well as domestic violence and PC Shah said she would be juggling 25-30 cases at a time.
She admitted she was "overworked" and on the day Pech was arrested she started work at 8am and did not clock off until 3am.
She said she had a good rapport with Clare and had done everything within her power to protect her. But she pointed out that Pech was assessed as "low risk" compared with some of her other cases.
Counsel for Clare's mother, Luke Garrett, had asked the coroner to consider an additional finding of neglect. He claimed there was a "systemic failure" throughout the investigation.
The coroner, Dr Knapman, said on Thursday that with the benefit of hindsight Ms Bernal's death could not have been anticipated.
He said that there should be no "scapegoats" in the case and said he would be writing to the police to suggest that PC Shah be given a commendation for her work.
The inquest heard:
A risk assessment form was not filled in by the officers who initially interviewed Clare on 5 April
Clare was not informed when Pech was charged and remanded in custody on 11 April
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) should have opposed bail being granted on 19 April because it erroneously believed Pech did not know her new address
Due to an "administrative error" Pech was charged with harassment, rather than making threats to kill, despite advice from the CPS.
'I blame the system'
Clare's mother, Patricia, believes her daughter was let down by a legal system which failed to recognise the danger signs in Pech's obsessive behaviour.
Speaking earlier this year from her home in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, she said: "I am not blaming the young police officer one little bit - I am not just blaming the police, but the whole system across the board."
Adjourning the inquest earlier this month the Westminster coroner, Dr Paul Knapman, warned of a blame culture.
He said: "With the benefit of hindsight a distasteful parcel of retribution is being passed up and down the Metropolitan Police and in and out of the Crown Prosecution Service, each person terrified it will end in their lap."
The Metropolitan Police claims no more could have been done to protect Clare from Pech. It says her murder could not have been predicted.
It is a fact that the majority of stalkers do not kill or physically injure their victims and the state cannot afford to simply lock them all up just in case.
Having said that, there have been cases where basic good policing would have prevented tragic outcomes.
On 29 March 2004 Tania Moore was shot dead near her home in Alkmonton, Derbyshire. Her former boyfriend, Mark Dyche, was later convicted of her murder.
After an investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) into the case, one detective with Derbyshire Police was sacked, another officer demoted and four others were reprimanded.
IPCC commissioner Amerdeep Somal said Tania had suffered "a campaign of terror" after she ended her relationship with Dyche and had told police of harassment on "no fewer than six occasions".
Ms Somal said the IPCC found Derbyshire police's response was "abysmal" with officers "failing to undertake any meaningful investigation" into an incident 10 months before her death in which she was beaten up and robbed by two men recruited by Dyche.
Tania's mother, Stella, is suing the force. In a statement issued through her solicitor, she said: "I am devastated by the loss of my very beautiful, caring daughter who did not deserve to die.
"Her death has been even more difficult to come to terms with as I feel that if the police had acted differently my daughter would still be alive today."
The Clare Bernal inquest has been watched with interest by campaign groups such as the Network for Surviving Stalking (NSS).
The danger of stalkers was recognised in 1997 when the Protection from Harassment Act was introduced but some campaigners feel more needs to be done to make sure stalking victims are protected.
NSS founder Tracey Morgan said: "The stalking laws came into effect 10 years ago so why are we still getting so many victims coming forward and saying the police can't do anything?"
She said: "Stalking needs to be taken as seriously as it is in America, where each one is treated as a potential murder case."
But the Clare Bernal case proves how hard it is to legislate for the actions of an unpredictable person.