Great-gran lay dead for days yards from home

SSRI Ed note: Elderly woman with Alzheimers given antidepressants that cause her to hallucinate, she goes outdoors in winter and freezes to death.

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The Chronicle

Oct 9 2008 Evening Chronicle

CONFUSED, shivering and alone, great-gran Beatrice Johnson perished on a winter’s night after wandering just yards from her home.

Despite a major police search, her body was not found until nine days later by a neighbour and his dog.

Today an inquest revealed that the spot where she lay, dressed in a nightie and dressing gown, was never even searched, even though it was just 100 yards from her Gosforth home.

A post-mortem examination has established that the 83-year-old died of hypothermia shortly after going missing from her Newcastle home on January 29.

Recording a verdict of accidental death, Newcastle coroner David Mitford said that Mrs Johnson more than likely froze to death on the night of her disappearance in January last year and even if she had been found sooner could not have been saved.

But he called for lessons to be learned by police and blamed a “lack of common sense” and “local knowledge” for the failure of the search.

Mrs Johnson had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and was said to have been possibly having hallucinations when she disappeared from her home in St Clement’s Court near Kingston Park Road, Fawdon, Newcastle.

The inquest heard from her daughter, Pauline Handy, that her mother was sprightly and would take daily trips to town.

But the Alzheimer’s had caused a rapid decline in her mental state in the last few months. She had also suffered from depression and had been prescribed antidepressants which had caused her to “see things”.

Giving evidence, Det Insp Peter Simpson of Northumbria Police’s professional standards department said an initial sweep was carried out of the area and officers were drafted in to conduct a thorough search.

A grid system was set up but it was later discovered that an area of zone 17 was never searched. This was where Mrs Johnson was later found.

DI Simpson said: “There were instructions to look in gardens of premises in the area but because of fading light they didn’t extend this to look at surrounding areas. The officer in charge was convinced the area had been searched.

“It is accepted by Northumbria Police that things could have been done better. Changes were made almost immediately.”

Mr Mitford recorded Mrs Johnson’s cause of death as hypothermia. He said death could have occurred in as little as four to five hours and even if the search had been quicker it would have not made any difference.

After the inquest a police family liaison officer, speaking on behalf of Mrs Handy, said: “Sadly her mother was likely to have died by the time she was reported missing. She would like to thank the police for all their support.”

She added: “Her mum would have been overjoyed that good has come out of her death and that possibly in the future someone who goes missing may be found alive.”

Insp Peter Simpson of the professional standards department, who led the investigation into how the search was conducted, said: “The failure to find Mrs Johnson sooner was due to a number of factors, including a lack of judgement on the part of the officer directing the search teams and the prioritising of information which suggested that Mrs Johnson may have travelled to another part of the country. Lessons have been learned.”