Page last updated at 23:10 GMT, Sunday, 29 March 2009 00:10 UK

'Lie' delayed missing girl hunt

Natasha Coombs
Natasha Coombs was last seen boarding a train in Ipswich

An inquiry into a missing teenage girl from Essex in 2007 was held back after a communications officer "lied", a police watchdog report has revealed.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) found that mistakes delayed the discovery of the body of Natasha Coombs, 17, near rail tracks.

One delay was caused by a British Transport Police communication officer.

He wrongly claimed to Essex Police that trains were fitted with sensors that would detect any collision on the line.

This affected the police's "perception of the likelihood of Natasha being on the railway lines", the report said.

"The communications officer admitted he lied to an Essex police officer, initially telling IPCC officers that he did so to end the call which would allow him to get on with his job, and that he actually had no knowledge of train sensors," the report said.

Rail tracks

The report said the employee resigned after being told he faced allegations of gross misconduct.

Natasha, of Dovercourt, was found on 10 August 2007 next to rail tracks in Manningtree, Essex - two weeks after last being seen boarding a train at nearby Ipswich, Suffolk.

Post-mortem tests showed she had been struck by a train.

The IPCC upheld four of the 11 complaints made by Natasha's father, Gary.

It found failures to conduct "thorough and timely searches" by Essex Police and the BTP resulted in a delay in finding Natasha's body.

Essex Police did not "properly check and act upon investigation material" that would have led them to find Natasha's body earlier.

It said categorising Natasha as being of medium risk rather high risk delayed "important actions" by up to a day.

Two months after the body of Natasha was found, her mother Joanne, 41, was hit by a train at the same spot.

Jurors at the inquest, held in Chelmsford in November 2007, concluded that Natasha died as the result of an accident - but that Mrs Coombs committed suicide.

The IPCC report made a number of recommendations to improve search procedures and risk assessment.

IPCC Commissioner David Petch said of the police operation: "They were searching eventually for Natasha but they didn't do it with the effort and urgency and had they done so we feel they may have found Natasha earlier."

Assistant Chief Constable Derek Benson, of Essex Police, said: "Essex Police is sorry for the delay in finding Natasha and accepts that mistakes were made.

"Whilst noting that a number of complaints were not substantiated, Essex Police accepts the IPCC report findings and recommendations concerning its own and national search policies and these have been or are being addressed."

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