Failings identified in monitoring suspect in Leah Croucher killing – inquest

The martial arts expert, 19, disappeared while walking to work in Milton Keynes in 2019 and her body was found three years later.

Leah Croucher was an internationally renowned black belt in martial arts
Leah Croucher was an internationally renowned black belt in martial arts (Thames Valley Police/PA)

Teenager Leah Croucher was unlawfully killed after going missing while walking to work, a coroner has concluded as he identified a number of failings with regard to the monitoring of the prime suspect in her killing.

Senior coroner Tom Osborne said the 19-year-old was murdered by Neil Maxwell, a previously convicted sex offender, on February 15 2019.

Ms Croucher, who was a black belt in martial arts and was known for it internationally, disappeared while walking to work on February 15 2019 and no trace of her was found for more than three years despite a large search operation.

Her remains were discovered in the loft of a house in October 2022 in Furzton, Milton Keynes, less than half a mile from where she was last seen, after a tip-off from a maintenance worker.

Prime suspect Maxwell, a previously convicted sex offender, killed himself while on the run from police in April 2019, two months after Ms Croucher vanished.

Mr Osborne said the failings did not contribute directly to her death, but it is “possible that the findings may have played a part”.

He labelled the take up and vetting of officers that can use a system for sharing information called Visor “woefully inadequate” and will be writing a preventing future deaths report to the minister who will be in charge of prisons and probation to ask for a fundamental review.

The failings included: an inexperienced probation officer supervising Maxwell who had little experience of supervising sex offenders; the risk that Maxwell posed to the public being “underestimated and unreported”; the failure in the process to monitor Maxwell with regard to his attendance at appointments and for him to live at the address he was supposed to live at; a failure in the risk assessment carried out; and a failure to properly share information between police and probation in regard to the Visor system.

Mr Osborne labelled Maxwell a “predator” in his comments.

Neil Maxwell killed himself while on the run from police in 2019
Neil Maxwell killed himself while on the run from police in 2019 (Thames Valley Police/PA)

Asked at Milton Keynes Coroner’s Court on Wednesday by Mr Osborne if on the balance of probabilities Detective Superintendent Kevin Brown, of Thames Valley Police, would say Ms Croucher was unlawfully killed by Maxwell, Mr Brown replied: “Absolutely.”

Mr Brown added: “In normal circumstances, had he been alive, we would have approached the Crown Prosecution Service for their advice around charging.”

He added that his “professional experience and knowledge would suggest Leah would have died very close to the day she went missing, if not on it”.

Caroline Haughey KC, representing Ms Croucher’s family, asked if he believed it was “likely to be an unwarranted sexual attack and in fact because of her martial arts ability, she reacted and subsequently died”.

Mr Brown said: “I believe she would have defended herself, that may have escalated the situation.”

Maxwell came on the force’s radar in May 2019 after it received information on him via a phone call but officers did not link him to Ms Croucher at the time.

A murder investigation was launched in October 2022 after a maintenance worker who had been trying to eradicate a smell in a property discovered what he thought were remains and called the police, the inquest was told.

Mr Osborne said: “Whoever had placed the body in the loft had taken steps to remove certain limbs and place them in plastic bags.”

Ms Croucher’s body was found in the house in Loxbeare Drive, Furzton, which was owned by people who lived abroad and used it as a holiday home and had not visited during the Covid pandemic, the officer said.

Mr Brown said Ms Croucher would walk to work which took about 40 minutes and, depending on which route she took, one route took her past the Loxbeare Drive house.

The inquest heard a post-mortem examination was inconclusive and Ms Croucher was identified by her dental records. Her cause of death was unascertained due to decomposition.

Maxwell was a handyman and the only person with keys to the property where Ms Croucher’s body was found.

He was wanted for a sex attack in Newport Pagnell, Milton Keynes, in November 2018, and used false names to evade arrest, as well as stopping using his phone and car.

Officers believe he also lost weight and grew a beard to change his appearance.

In a pen portrait, Claire Croucher described her daughter as a “kind, caring soul who worried about others and did her best to ensure those around her were comfortable and happy”.

She said her friends described Ms Croucher as a “force of power with an infectious giggle and a smile that was always present”.

Ms Croucher’s mother said: “We knew she would succeed in life with her attitudes to situations, she was strong both physically and mentally.”

She added that “Leah had grown from a shy little girl into a confident young woman” and they were “so proud of the woman she was becoming”.

Claire Croucher said the “void her loss has left has broken us”.

Detective Chief Superintendent Joe Kidman, from Thames Valley Police, told the inquest a number of improvements have been made after reviews carried out following Ms Croucher’s death.

The inquest heard Maxwell was assessed as medium risk after he was convicted of sexual assault in February 2018, but subsequently it was decided he should have been assessed as being high risk.

Maxwell had failed to attend a number of probation appointments in 2018 after his conviction, the inquest heard.

An officer dealing with him raised concerns about Maxwell’s lack of communication in January 2019, Ms Haughey said.

Geoff Davis, head of operations for the south central probation service, said in 2018 Maxwell was “good at disguising his compliance in terms of his reporting to us”.

He added that Maxwell was reporting to probation as instructed and completed 200 hours of unpaid work.

A risk matrix was used which showed there was a “high likelihood of reoffending in Maxwell’s case”, Ms Haughey said, and Mr Davis said the result was “professionally overridden”.

A Probation Service spokesperson said: “This was a horrific crime and our thoughts remain with Leah Croucher’s family and friends.

“We are sorry for the failings identified and have taken a number of steps to address these, including improved risk management of offenders.”