Ricky Reel – Questions unanswered in students’ death

Ricky Reel was a 20 year old Brunell University student, and was last seen alive on 15th October 1997 after a night out with three friends in Kingston upon Thames, south west London. The four were confronted by two white men who shouted racial abuse and hit two of Ricky’s companions. The student’s body was pulled from the Thames by a police diver six days later. He was discovered face down in a couple of feet of water. Three Surrey police officers had been criticised over the way they investigated the death.

They had maintained that the death was just a tragic accident, but Ricky’s family insist he was pushed into a river by two white youths, and that there were serious failings into the subsequent police investigation. The family had accused the head of the investigation, Detective Superintendent Bob Moffat, and two police constables of neglect of duty.

In a letter to Ricky’s parents, the Police Complaints Authority (PCA) admitted that there were “weaknesses and flaws” in the police’s handling of the case. But it blames organisational failings rather than neglect by officers. They went on to say that a senior officer in the case was to be admonished – the most serious form of discipline short of a formal charge.

Two police constables would be “advised” over their shortcomings, according to the letter. The police concluded that Mr Reel had died accidentally and said he was drunk and drowned after falling into the River Thames when he tried to urinate.

Linda Allan, a member of the PCA, said in a further letter that an investigation by Surrey police had found insufficient evidence for Detective Superintendent Bob Moffat to face disciplinary charges. But she said he should have showed greater leadership in several matters and had not communicated properly with the family. The letter concluded: “Sadly, you did not receive from the Metropolitan Police the professional standard of service which you have every right to expect, but this is for the most part attributable to organisational failings, rather than to neglect on the part of any particular officer.”

In October 1999 the then Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Condon, agreed to begin a fresh probe into the death of Ricky Reel, after it was admitted that mistakes had been made in the original investigation, and the report had not been disclosed to the family.

The new investigation was announced after Ricky’s parents, Sukhdev and Balwant Reel, met Sir Paul at New Scotland Yard. After the meeting, the Reel’s said that they were not yet satisfied because the PCA’s report into the original investigation had not been published.

Mrs Reel said: “How would we even know a fresh investigation was being carried out if they never disclose anything?” The criticisms came at a sensitive time for the Metropolitan Police, a week before the publication of the report by the Stephen Lawrence inquiry.

Sir Paul’s Deputy, John Stevens, said that the PCA’s inquiry had found that “one or two things could have been done better”, but vindicated the conclusion that Ricky’s death was an accident. He said the latest investigation, carried out by the newly-formed Racial and Violent Crime Task Force, would examine new evidence and follow any fresh leads. Eventually the PCA found the officers guilty of neglect of duty and apologised to the Reel family for “weaknesses and flaws” in the investigation.

Detective Chief Inspector Sue Hill also apologised on behalf of the Metropolitan Police for mistakes made in the original inquiry. Ms Hill said she had been given an impossible task in attempting to establish whether Ricky died in an accident or was killed. “I still haven’t found anybody that can take this matter any further but I have tried,” she said. “If you pushed me I would have to say that it was a tragic accident.”

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