Ex-nurse laid decomposing 'on display' after Met Police searches missed body in flat

Lillian John-Baptiste

The failure of police officers to find the badly decomposed body of Lillian John-Baptiste in Canning Town has sparked changes to Met Police training, an inquest heard - Credit: Amanda Alexander

Police officers who said they searched the home of a missing woman twice failed to find her mummified body laying on the kitchen floor.

A coroner slammed the Met Police’s “embarrassing” failure, saying he believed a thorough search would have found Lillian John-Baptiste.

A spokesperson for the Met said the force's "thoughts and sympathy remain" with Mrs John-Baptiste's family, and an inquest heard training had been updated and best practices reiterated to staff since the case came to light.

Officers were sent to search her home in Rymill Street, Canning Town, twice in 2021, but said there was no sign of her.

However, when they searched again in February 2022, she was found.

The court heard she had likely died there over two years earlier, aged 73.

She had not used her bank account or phone since late 2019.

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“The Metropolitan Police Service have not covered themselves in glory,” said east London coroner Graeme Irvine.

“This is an embarrassing case... The relevant officers will hear about my displeasure at hearing these issues.”

The force referred itself to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), but the watchdog sent the case back to the Met to investigate itself.

It cleared itself of misconduct.

Westland House, Rymill Street, Canning Town

Lillian John-Baptiste's mummified body was found in her flat at Westland House, Rymill Street, Canning Town - Credit: Google Streetview

Lillian

Mrs John-Baptiste was born on the Caribbean island of St Lucia in 1946 and moved to the UK when she was 15.

An inquest at Barking Adult College heard she worked as a writer, singer and model before becoming a nurse at Queen Mary’s Hospital in Stratford.

A decades-long battle with mental illness, beginning in the 1970s, saw her diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and repeatedly admitted to Goodmayes Hospital in Ilford.

As a result of her illness, the state removed her three children from her care.

“Her passion for her children was very deep,” her estranged daughter Amanda Alexander wrote in a witness statement.

“She took it very hard when we were taken away from her by social services. From recollection, there was never any effort by social services to reconcile us with our mother. I do not believe she ever fully recovered from us being taken away from her.”

When police found her children and told them Mrs John-Baptiste was missing, they did not even know where their mother lived.

In her later years, Mrs John-Baptiste therefore had no support network.

Lillian John-Baptiste

A photograph of Lillian John-Baptiste, released by the Metropolitan Police Service in 2021 when she was reported missing by Newham Social Services - Credit: Met Police

"Hoarder"

In July 2021, when checking on vulnerable residents amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Newham Council could not reach Mrs John-Baptiste and called the police.

Officers entered the property and found it filled with piles of rubbish, with one likening Mrs John-Baptiste to “a hoarder”.

The court heard there should have been a detailed written record of the search and body-worn camera footage showing how thorough it had been, but neither existed in this case.

An officer was sent to search again in August, but felt unsafe searching the chaotic flat alone.

DC Jason Niblett, of the north east command unit’s missing persons team, testified that this should have prompted a visit by a specialist search team.

Instead, the search was abandoned.

Unexplained

Mrs John-Baptiste was “mummified” when she was eventually found the following year, pathologist Alan Bates testified.

Her remains weighed just three stone.

“This is probably the most advanced case of decomposition that has been submitted to me – certainly for a long time,” he said.

As a result, no cause of death could be identified.

East Ham Public Mortuary

A post-mortem report at the East Ham Public Mortuary was unable to find any cause of death for Lillian John-Baptiste, due to advanced decomposition - Credit: Google Streetview

Mr Irvine said his only option was to record an open conclusion.

He said the searches of Mrs John-Baptiste's home were “not particularly assiduous”, leading to “a number of missed opportunities” to find her earlier.

He described the police actions as “utterly remarkable”.

“Mrs John-Baptiste's head was on display when she was found and it seems to me that if anybody had actually walked into the kitchen, looked behind the door, they would have been able to see her body,” he said.

But he found these were "individual failings", not systemic.

The Met

“We acknowledge that there were missed opportunities to locate Mrs John-Baptiste's body and on this occasion, our actions fell far below the standards we and the public should expect from the Metropolitan Police Service,” a force spokesperson said.

The Met said its Directorate of Professional Standards had investigated and found no misconduct, but identified “a number of failings”, for which it had apologised to Mrs John-Baptiste's estranged children.

“Our thoughts and sympathy remain with her family at this difficult time,” the Met said.

The inquest heard that training had been updated and best practices had been reiterated to staff.