We DID search the loft but missed Tia's body

We DID search the loft but missed Tia's body: Police make startling admission as step-grandad is charged with murder as grandmother and neighbour are bailed
Daily Mail
Russell Myers, Jonathan Petre and Ben Ellery
11 August 2012 | Updated: 12 August 2012

Police admitted yesterday that they had searched the loft of Tia Sharp’s grandmother’s house soon after the schoolgirl was reported missing, but failed to find her body because of ‘human error’.

The admission, which follows the disclosure that the 12-year-old’s step granddad Stuart Hazell, 37, has been charged on suspicion of murder, will dramatically intensify criticism of the police’s handling of the case. He will appear before magistrates on Monday.

Tia's grandmother and Hazell's live-in lover, Christine Sharp, 46, was yesterday arrested along with Mrs Sharp’s next-door neighbour Paul Meehan, 39, on suspicion of assisting an offender.

They have both been bailed to return to a south London police station in October.

The body, which is still yet to be formally identified, was found on Friday by detectives using ladders to reach the loft at Mrs Sharp’s terraced house in New Addington, South London, despite repeated previous searches of the property.

The house was visited four times by police, including a full search with a specialist team two days after Tia was reported missing on August 3 and the last occasion, when sniffer dogs trained to detect cadavers were brought into the property on Friday.

Tia lived with her mother Natalie Sharp, 31, and her partner David Niles, 29, in Mitcham, Surrey, about ten miles away, but is thought to have stayed at her grandmother’s house regularly.

Yesterday, the Met’s South East London Area Commander Neil Basu apologised to Tia’s family, saying the search should have been more thorough. In a statement, he said:

‘The second visit was a full search of the property with the consent of the occupiers.

‘This was conducted on August 5 over a period of two hours. All parts of the premises were searched, including the location where a body was discovered, five days later, on Friday, August 10.

‘An early review has been conducted and it is now clear that human error delayed the discovery of the body within the house. We have apologised to Tia’s mother that our procedures did not lead to the discovery of the body on this search.’

Neighbours yesterday said they were furious that the house had not been properly searched earlier.

Dale Robertson, 44, said:
‘I don’t think it happened soon enough. After 24 hours, they should have been ripping that house apart.

‘There’s a mixture of anger and heartbreak. People feel aggrieved.

‘They were duped. Even people who couldn’t get out on the searches have posted up on Facebook that they are angry and they were duped.’

The admission of errors by the Met Police seemed to discount an earlier theory that the body of the murdered 12-year-old had been moved from the loft prior to it being discovered.

Sources also indicated that police chiefs will launch an internal inquiry to examine why Mr Hazell was allowed to go missing and remain at large for several hours on Friday evening as police searched the property prior to finding Tia’s body.

The jobless 37-year-old was caught on Cannon Hill Common in Morden, South-West London, after he was spotted by a member of the public.

Witnesses claimed Hazell appeared to be drunk and was calling out, ‘Have you seen Tia?’.

A hairdresser revealed Hazell had staggered into her salon, asking if anyone had seen Tia minutes before he was arrested. Bryoni Goodwin, 18, from Merton, said:
‘He was swaying and crying, asking, “Have you seen Tia Sharp, I’m her grandfather.”

‘He seemed drunk and said, “I don’t want to find her dead in a forest, I want to find her eating a happy meal in McDonald’s”.’
His arrest came just 24 hours after he made a tearful appeal on television for the return of Tia, during which he spoke about her in the past tense.

He denied harming the young girl and said: ‘I loved her to bits. She was like my own daughter.’

The body, which has not been formally identified, was removed from the house on Friday evening and police were yesterday still scouring the property for clues.

A post-mortem examination is expected to be held within the next few days.

It is not clear why Mrs Sharp’s neighbour Paul Meehan, who with his wife Bobbie has a daughter aged 11 and a son aged eight, was taken into custody on Friday morning.

It is believed, however, that the bus driver told police he saw Tia leave her grandmother’s house and walk down the path towards the end of the street the day she was reported missing.

His information may have thrown officers off the scent after their initial line of inquiry had been that Mr Hazell had been the last person to see Tia alive.

Sources said the investigation team, led by Commander Basu, was braced for heavy criticism for failings in the way the investigation has been conducted.

Scotland Yard’s apparent failure to keep Mr Hazell under surveillance during the operation could lead to the matter being passed on to the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

More than 800 hours of CCTV footage were scoured for clues of Tia’s whereabouts, with 60 reported sightings and more than 300 calls to the incident room looked into, but former senior detectives have criticised the investigation team for taking eight days to make the discovery.

Retired Met detective John O’Connor said:
‘I find it simply staggering that it took more than a week to find a body which was right under their noses, and even more unbelievable that the man who ought to have been their prime suspect was not placed under surveillance and allowed to go missing for several hours before the police were forced to issue a panicked appeal for him to come forward.’
Tia’s mother Natalie and her partner David are said to be ‘utterly devastated’ at the sudden developments.

Mr Niles was too distressed to talk when he was approached last night at his mother’s home in Mitcham, Surrey, but was still wearing the ‘missing’ T-shirt used to publicise his stepdaughter’s disappearance.

A family friend, who asked not to be named, said the family had been ripped apart by what has happened. The friend said:
‘Both Natalie and David are in a state of utter shock and disbelief right now. It hasn’t sunk in for either of them. They are both praying that the police have got it wrong somehow.

‘They haven’t slept in days and now this is almost too much to bear. This is a close community and we stood by one another when this happened and joined in the search for Tia to be strong for the family but to think she was in that house all along is stomach-churning.’

Tia’s biological father Steven Carter, 30, travelled from his home in Northampton last week to help in the search for his daughter.

Yesterday he left a note along side flowers and tributes from neighbours, in which he wrote: 'My darling baby girl Tia. Daddy loves you dearly. I want you to stay safe in the arms of the angels. Love always. Daddy.'

Grandmother Christine Sharp was seen being led from her home by detectives on Friday at about 11am, but news of her arrest was not made public until yesterday morning when police confirmed that they had made two further arrests in connection with the inquiry.

It is not clear whether Mr Meehan was arrested at his home but last night his mother-in-law, Julie Pullen, said that there was ‘no way on earth’ he was involved in a cover-up. She said:
‘There’s no way he would have been involved. He’s got kids of his own and he hasn’t done anything.

‘I haven’t spoken to him and neither has my daughter but of course we’re worried and completely shocked by what has happened but he definitely had nothing to do with any of this.’ And speaking from his home in Swansea, Mr Meehan’s father told The Mail on Sunday: ‘I just can’t believe it. I hadn’t heard anything until just now.

‘I haven’t seen or spoken to Paul for quite a while, but I saw the news earlier in the week about the missing girl in New Addington and I know that he lives there so I did wonder if he knew anything about it or had been out looking for her.

‘He’s got two young children of his own so I can imagine that he would have been quite concerned for the young girl.

‘He’s a good boy so I can’t see how he would have got himself wrapped up in something like this. It’s all a bit of a blur at the moment and I haven’t spoken to him so I don’t really know what to think.’

Last night, police continued to question all three suspects at separate police stations in South London.

A friend of Hazell’s yesterday said she was ‘stunned’ by his arrest. The woman, who didn’t want to be named, said:
‘I knew Stuart for eight years and during that time he didn’t have a nasty bone in his body.

‘We used to drink in the pub and when a woman arrived at the table he would be the first to stand up. He was a charmer and very popular with the ladies.’
Police were yesterday stationed outside Tia’s mother’s home in Mitcham where tearful wellwishers left flowers, teddies, candles and a statue of an angel. One note said: ‘To dear Tia, may you sleep tight and now rest in perfect peace.’

Dozens of tributes to Tia were also left at the bottom of the New Addington street where police discovered the body on Friday.

Last night, Tia’s biological grandfather, Stephen Carter, laid a card in which he wrote: ‘To my darling granddaughter. Sleep peacefully my angel. Until we meet in heaven. Lots of love Granddad Steve.’

Another card, left beside a giant grey and pink teddy bear, simply said: ‘Be at peace little Tia, justice will be done angel.’

A Scotland Yard spokesman said:
'Although officers await formal identification of a body found at 20 The Lindens on Friday 10 August, the victim is named in the murder charge as 12-year-old Tia Sharp.

'Two other people have been bailed to return to a south London police station.

'They are a 46-year-old woman who was arrested on suspicion of murder and a 39-year-old man who was arrested on suspicion of assisting an offender.'

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