BARBARA DAVIES: Did a staggering 18 police blunders leave this predator free to kill Leah Croucher?
Leah was last seen on CCTV less than 500 yards from the property where her body was found, on February 15, 2019
A faded ‘missing’ poster bearing an image of Leah Croucher is still tacked to a tree in the Milton Keynes street where her remains were discovered in an unoccupied house this month.
The 19-year-old used to walk along Loxbeare Drive on her way to work each morning.
And in the aftermath of her sudden disappearance in February 2019, police officers retracing her route made several visits to this smart, if somewhat unremarkable, residential street.
One resident, Cynthia Talbot, recalls how officers contacted her three times when Leah first disappeared, asking whether she had been at home between 8am and 8.30am on the morning of February 15; and, on other occasions, speaking to her adult son and searching the family’s bins, garage and garden.
But while police appeared determined to leave no stone unturned when it came to finding Leah, the real mystery is why deeper suspicions were not roused by the empty house, three doors down at No. 2, where no one ever answered the door and where — more than three-and-a-half years after Leah’s disappearance — her belongings and what were confirmed yesterday as her remains were found in the attic.
Why was it that officers who knocked on the door of the property twice in the early days of the teenager’s disappearance — and then pushed a leaflet through the letter box, appealing for information and asking the owner to call — did not probe more deeply?
Cursory Land Registry checks would have revealed that No. 2’s owner was an elderly Kuwaiti woman, living in the Middle East.
She could have told them that in the autumn of 2018, she had entrusted a key to local handyman Neil Maxwell so that he could carry out maintenance work on her property.
Unbeknown to her, Maxwell was a convicted rapist, but while she had no idea of his criminal past, his name would certainly have sounded the alarm with Thames Valley Police officers.
They had been hunting Maxwell across the UK since November 2018, after he had tried to rape another woman in Newport Pagnell, just a 15-minute drive away from Loxbeare Drive, before fleeing in his car and seemingly vanishing into thin air.
Further basic checks on the four-bedroom detached house, this week the scene of ongoing forensic investigations, would also have raised another — albeit unrelated but startlingly poignant — red flag.
For that house had previously been occupied by a paedophile who was jailed for sex offences against minors in 2017.
Maxwell was a convicted rapist and his name would certainly have sounded the alarm with Thames Valley Police officers
He was not living in the house at the time Leah went missing, but had his links to the property been uncovered by police, they would surely have warranted further investigation — which might well have led officers straight to Neil Maxwell.
Officers have taken the unusual step of naming 49-year-old Maxwell — who committed suicide two months after Leah vanished — as the man they suspect of murdering her.
He was the only person, said Detective Chief Superintendent Ian Hunter, to have had keys to the house at the time.
But back in 2019, no connection was made between the disappearance of the quiet, home-loving teenager and one of the county’s most prolific sex attackers.
Leah was last seen less than 500 yards from the property, captured on CCTV at 8.16am on Friday, February 15, 2019.
She was walking from her family home in Quantock Crescent, along Buzzacott Lane towards Loxbeare Drive, on her way to her job as an administration assistant at DFC in nearby Knowlhill.
Dressed all in black, wearing a coat, skinny jeans, trainers and carrying a black rucksack, footage shows her walking casually, seemingly without a care in the world.
But just 18 minutes later, at 8.34am, her mobile phone disconnected from the network. The last known signal was picked up by nearby Furzton Lake, not far from the Premier Inn hotel.
How or why her phone was switched off remains a mystery, but this information, combined with CCTV images, led officers to focus their investigations on a single square mile in Furzton, an area bordered on one side by Loxbeare Drive.
At the time, Neil Robert Maxwell, who was already on the sex offenders’ register, was on the run.
Police this week refused to give full details of his past convictions, but his criminal record stretches back at least 13 years.
He had been jailed for four years and ten months in 2009 at Reading Crown Court after pleading guilty to rape.
His victim, a woman in her late teens, was attacked in the early hours of New Year’s Day at an address in Datchet, near Windsor, Berks, where Maxwell was living at the time.
The owner of the property could have told police that in the autumn of 2018, she had entrusted a key to local handyman Neil Maxwell so that he could carry out maintenance work on her property
Thames Valley Police investigating officer Detective Constable Sara Harrison described the teenager as ‘exceptionally brave’, and said she was pleased that she had been ‘spared the anguish and ordeal of reliving the event before a jury’.
But Maxwell was already a prolific sex attacker who was on probation for a previous offence.
Yet those who knew him around then speak of a ‘nice’ young man. At the time of his trial, he was living in a static caravan on land belonging to a motor repair business in Datchet.
The business owner, who has asked not to be named, described him as ‘charming’. He said Maxwell came to work for him about 15 years ago and, believing he was guilty of nothing more serious than burglary, offered him employment as a handyman.
Maxwell, he said, shared the caravan with a young ‘gothic’ girlfriend called Dee and caused no problems.
‘He was a handyman, he used to manage things for me and was always very good with customers,’ said the businessman in an exclusive interview with the Mail.
CCTV footage shows Leah dressed all in black, wearing a coat, skinny jeans, trainers and carrying a black rucksack and walking casually, seemingly without a care in the world
‘He was the nicest person — he could never do enough for you. But he was hiding a dark side.’
Shockingly, probation officers who’d visit Maxwell at the caravan, never mentioned his past to his employer — despite the fact that the businessman had two daughters.
‘What really makes me so angry is that they knew what he had done before he was allowed to work for me, but the probation officers never told me,’ he said.
‘My eldest daughter used to play with him. She was about 11. The probation officers would visit him, but they never warned me. Maxwell had just told me he’d been convicted for burglary.’
When Maxwell finally appeared in court in 2009, the businessman sat in on proceedings and was horrified when he heard about Maxwell’s brutal past.
Before jailing him, lawyers warned that Maxwell had previously been to prison for a sex crime and had ‘passed every paedophile rehabilitation test’.
‘It just shows what a dangerous man he was — he should never have been allowed out,’ said the businessman.
While Maxwell was sent back to jail, the man says he ‘put the word out’ about his sex crimes to warn others before he was released again.
He claims that a woman called him to say her teenage daughter had also been raped by Maxwell.
One of Maxwell’s ex-girlfriends got in touch, too, breaking down in tears and saying that Maxwell had raped her and tried to strangle her.
The man says he warned police that Maxwell was dangerous.
‘I told the police that he was going to kill someone. I said: ‘He’s sick in the head with his hunger for young girls.’ ‘
It is not clear exactly when Maxwell was released from prison but, in February 2018, there was another missed opportunity to put him back behind bars.
This time, Maxwell admitted to committing a sexual assault on a woman in Milton Keynes but, rather than impose a custodial sentence or send him to Crown Court for a more severe punishment, magistrates ordered him to undertake 200 hours’ community service and pay £85 court costs and £1,000 compensation.
A faded ‘missing’ poster bearing an image of Leah Croucher is still tacked to a tree in the Milton Keynes street where her remains were discovered in an unoccupied house this month
Clearly, their leniency was misguided. For just nine months later — three months before Leah went missing — Maxwell struck again.
He was initially reported to Bedfordshire Police after the assault in Newport Pagnell on November 29, 2018.
The case was transferred to Thames Valley Police the same day, and on November 30, their officers attempted to arrest Maxwell but could not locate him.
It is not clear if he may have been hiding out at the address in Loxbeare Drive.
Over the four months that followed, he managed to evade arrest a staggering 18 times as officers knocked on doors across the country.
His name was shared with other forces on the Police National Computer, but he is believed to have used aliases and multiple mobile phone SIM cards as he flitted between campsites and addresses as far apart as the Scottish Highlands and the Lake District to the South coast and Cornwall.
In April 2019, police stepped up their attempts to find Maxwell — not in connection with Leah’s disappearance, but for the incident three months earlier in Newport Pagnell, just a few miles away from where Leah vanished.
Naming Maxwell as their suspect in a highly publicised appeal, they described him as being around 5ft 9in tall, of stocky build and with receding brown hair. It was said that he sometimes wore glasses.
Thames Valley Police Detective Chief Superintendent Ian Hunter said recently that during that time ‘we established that Maxwell was at an unknown location in Scotland at one stage, but further arrest attempts were continually made throughout the UK at various different addresses.
‘Maxwell knew he was wanted in connection with the sexual assault, and was travelling across the UK and making concerted efforts to evade arrest, including using false names and changing his mobile phone and vehicles’.
A friend claimed this week that during this period Maxwell had called them out of the blue and insisted he hadn’t done what the police were saying. The friend told a newspaper: ‘He said he was scared. He couldn’t face going back inside.’
Asked if it was possible Maxwell murdered Leah, the friend said: ‘I only ever saw the nice Neil, but he had done bad things in the past. I don’t know what to believe.’
On April 20, 2019, 16 days after the police published their ‘wanted’ appeal, Maxwell hanged himself in a communal bin cupboard in a block of flats close to his last-known address, on the edge of Campbell Park in Milton Keynes.
Before taking his life, he taped a hand-written note to the door of the cupboard which said: ‘Please do not come in. There is a dead body inside. Call the police.’
A member of the public saw the note and did exactly that.
What a pity Maxwell did not also leave a written confession which might have ended Leah Croucher’s parents’ torturous wait for news of their missing daughter.
At the time, no link was made between Maxwell’s suicide and Leah’s disappearance. Aside from a brief inquest, those who’d known Maxwell mostly wanted to forget him.
Relatives told the Mail that they had not remained in touch with his side of the family. His elderly mother is said to have told friends that her son had died in a car accident.
On October 10, 2022, police, acting on a tip-off, searched the house in Loxbeare Drive.
Workers carrying out maintenance are understood to have spotted the hidden remains upstairs.
Detective Chief Superintendent Ian Hunter has said that ‘while Maxwell has been nominated as a suspect, this does not mean he is guilty of any offence.
We will keep an open mind, and our detailed investigation will seek to gather sufficient evidence to establish the truth’.
He asked that anyone who had contact with Maxwell between November 2018 and his death in April 2019 should contact police or call Crimestoppers anonymously.
Matthew Barber, Thames Valley Police and Crime Commissioner, has requested a review of the case from the force’s Chief Constable.
‘None of the information I have received leads me to conclude that there were shortcomings in the earlier missing persons investigation,’ he says.
‘Nevertheless, I have requested a review to determine if any further inquiry is required.’
Yesterday, finally, the agonising wait for Leah’s parents, John and Claire Croucher, was over as the remains discovered in the attic at Loxbeare Drive were confirmed as those of their daughter.
Hopefully it means, at the very least, that they can discover the truth about what happened to their beloved Leah.
https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-11342471/Did-staggering-18-police-blunders-leave-predator-free-kill-Leah-Croucher.html?ns_mchannel=rss&ns_campaign=1490&ito=1490 BARBARA DAVIES: Did a staggering 18 police blunders leave this predator free to kill Leah Croucher?