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Detective casebook: Solving the largest acid attack in memory

Dozens of victims, celebrity and mass media attention did not help make one of 2017's most notorious crimes easy to close

The single acid attack with the largest number of victims was always likely to gain media attention. That it took place in a crowded nightclub and the soon-to-be main suspect was featured on the cover of that week’s OK! Magazine added to the press frenzy around the case.

Investigators had to deal with that, the sheer number of victims and witnesses, a suspect who would not turn himself in and other challenges besides.

Around 20 people were hit by acid when it was hurled, three times, by a man in east London club Mangle E8 in the early hours of Easter Monday 2017.

The substance appeared to be aimed at two men, but dozens of by-standers were also hit.

Detective Sergeant Quin Cutler came back from holiday to find the case assigned to him. “We had lots of intel coming in. If you went into WHSmith there it was with Arthur Collins sat on the front […] so it wasn’t amazingly difficult [to identify the suspect].”

But the whereabouts of that suspect, who was dating a reality television star, were unknown. “We’ve now got a high profile manhunt. The pressure is on, the media coverage is there because it’s the largest single acid attack,” he recalled.

Victims, including models and footballer’s relatives, also started speaking to the media very early on – and the case made headlines across the world. Only Way is Essex stars were known to have been in attendance.

The case was investigated by Det Sgt Cutler’s relatively small Hackney borough CID team.

Detective Constable Sam Freeman said: “As part of the night they were giving away bottles of water. The floor was literally covered with hundreds of empty bottles and we had no idea where the bottle used was.

“We seized one bottle that was heavily discoloured and it had a weird liquid in it, god knows what that was because we sent it off and it wasn’t acid in it.”

The abundance of water bottles helped victims douse their injuries, but added to the challenge of the investigation.

The fire brigade first responders used litmus paper on a tiny drop of liquid which found it to be a ph1 acid, but there was precious little forensic evidence.

Strength of the available CCTV evidence became key initially. Arthur Collins, boyfriend of former Only Way is Essex star Ferne McCann, was shown throwing the liquid towards two men. His girlfriend was not in the club.

Collins was on the run for a week and was arrested having jumped from an upstairs window of an unfurnished property in a Northamptonshire village. He was charged with Section 18 GBH with intent.

Det Sgt Cutler explained: “We needed to get all the medical evidence from all the victims - they’re not all Londoners, they were from all over the UK. [For] The job of obtaining sufficient medical evidence to satisfy the judge and barristers that the injuries were sufficient to be a section 18, we had to drive down to all parts of the country – Kent, Essex, Dorset.”

These were examples of thorough and time-consuming evidence-gathering which helped with the presentation of the case.

During the investigation a text message was found on his sister’s phone which said: "Tell mum to mind that little hand wash in my car acid.”

In his trial, where he pleaded not guilty, his defence team argued that he was referring to a special shampoo which he used after having a secret hair transplant.

Developing a media strategy...for the victims

There was another element to the proceedings which was also potentially problematic for the detectives.

Victims, many of them already keen to detail much of their activities on social media, were regularly being approached by the regular media for their stories.

Det Con Freeman said: “We were having to provide advice to them around how to handle themselves.

“What you post on your Twitter page is now suddenly a big deal, you’ve got to be careful around it.

“They’re being offered money to give stories, and if you’re giving information pre-trial and the story in any way contradicts the story you’ve given to the trial you’ll get bounced and if enough people do it our case collapses.

“We had to advise them to hold off, we had a whole media management strategy. That’s usually about what the police are releasing to the media, this was about what the victims were releasing.

“We were providing them with victim updates about what was going on and if they start tweeting about it suddenly you’re losing control of the information.”

Some of the 32 witnesses were also prolific on social media.

But the impact on the victims shouldn’t be underestimated, Det Sgt Cutler believes. “It was emotional for them, they were young girls and some boys as well. They want to look beautiful and feel confident and suddenly they’ve been burnt on their faces and their chest area and their legs.

“Suddenly they had these injuries and a massive loss of confidence. And when they went into a crowded room they felt like they’d lost control.”

The high profile case added pressure to get a result at court for the team.

“People were coming up to me in the yard I’d never seen before and asking ‘How’s the case?’” Det Con Freeman recalled.

But after a lengthy trial, Collins was found guilty of five counts of causing grievous bodily harm with intent and nine counts of assault causing ABH. He was jailed for 20 years.

Another defendant was found not guilty.

The detectives, along with Detective Constable Matt Freeman (no relation of colleague Sam), have been nominated for a Police Federation National Detective Forum award for investigation of the year.

Winners in that, and other categories, will be revealed next week at a black-tie ceremony in Manchester.

Another learning point raised by the detectives is that current advice for acid attack victims is to remove outer layers and wash the affected area, but it would have been better to remove all clothing in the case.

One victim had pool of acid inside her bra, which while diluted, didn’t get washed off completely in the initial treatment, causing further damage.

Det Sgt Cutler said: “It didn’t help to just take outer layer off. We were saying really the best practice is to get everything off then douse yourself in water. You’re preserving life and limb you might have to pull the bashfulness out the window.”

Det Con Freeman likened it to a CBRN response or CS spray testing. “In a lot of cases outer clothing will be sufficient but if someone has been properly doused it’s all got to come off whether they like it or not. That’s going to be very difficult for first responders, but the reality is if they don’t they could be completely eaten away.”

 

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