BLACK LIVES MATTER: MICHAEL MENSON
On a cold January night in 1997, an off-duty fire fighter was driving along the North Circular Road in Edmonton, North London, when he happened across a man burning at the side of the road. The man was Michael Menson, who was just 30 years old.
The name Michael Menson may not immediately mean much to many, but those of a certain age *ahem* will know him best as one part of the group, Double Trouble and the Rebel MC. Michael’s successful life was brought to a barbaric end simply because of the colour of his skin.
This blog post will look at his murder, the appalling initial police investigation, mental health and how the love of a tenacious family and the ability of some good police work finally got justice for Michael and his family and helped shine a light on institutional racism within the police.
Michael Tachie-Menson was born on 19th July 1966, one of 11 children born to his Ghanian diplomat father, Alfred Menson, who was stationed in Moscow at the time.
A close and religious family, due to Alfred’s work, the family moved to a number of different countries before settling in the UK in 1968. The siblings became accomplished choristers and joined the English National Opera touring the country with Der Rosenkavalier, and continued to strive for success as they grew.
Michael studied A-levels at Brent College and obtained higher national qualifications in micro electronics at Middlesex Polytechnic. It was whilst he attended college in the late 1980s that the dance and rave scene quietly began to rumble in the capital, and his love for dance music was born. He became a regular DJ and, alongside his friends, eventually went on to become one part of the eighties/early nineties group, Double Trouble and the Rebel MC who had chart success by bringing dance music to the mainstream.
“Is he a yankee? No, I’m a Londoner…” – Street Tuff
Despite being a shy, quiet person, Michael loved the rewards of fame and music became his life. He used his money to start up a recording studio named Noise Gate – a natural progression from releasing successful chart hits to music production for the group.
Unfortunately, success was not to last and in the early nineties life began to take a turn for the worst for Michael. The group parted ways, Michael had a nervous breakdown and began to suffer from mental health issues. He was hospitalised a number of times suffering from bouts of severe depression after the collapse of his recording studio business and losing his home. He’d worked relentlessly to keep the business afloat but, like so many others, became a victim of the recession and was declared bankrupt. He was eventually diagnosed as having paranoid and catatonic schizophrenia, and although his condition was well controlled with medication and support, he would forget to take his tablets and relapse. His vulnerable state meant that, when not in hospital, he either stayed with family or he lived in supported housing, where he could have his independence but also be looked after when necessary, regularly attending Chase Farm Hospital in North London to obtain his medication.
Due to his mental health issues and quiet nature, Michael had few friends. However, his life had begun to turn around as he began working on music production. He had stayed with his family over Christmas in 1996 and when he returned to hospital on 2nd January 1997, Michael was upbeat and lively. It would be the last time his family saw him until the early hours of 28th January 1997. He was described in court as being “gentle, natural, quiet and caring, with a strong faith and high values.”
Racist attacks against young black men started to increase in London, and just four years earlier, Stephen Lawrence had been murdered in the street by a bunch of thuggish, ignorant murderers. His death eventually became synonymous with the appalling institutional racism within the Metropolitan Police, but it took many years of fighting by his family to get that acknowledged, expose a warped investigation, get some justice for Stephen and help change the police thought process. In the meantime, no trials, no arrests and anger towards the police was becoming palpable in London.
When another young man, Ricky Reel, was killed in London in October 1997, something had to change.
28th JANUARY 1997
At 1:40am an off-duty fire fighter was driving home along the North Circular Road in Edmonton, North London, when he happened across a man on fire at the side of the road in Sterling Way and Silver Street, near the station. He immediately tried to help and managed to dampen out the flames before calling 999.
Documents found on the victim identified him as being Michael Menson. Michael was obviously in a very bad way by the time emergency services arrived, but they noticed his behaviour was odd. Michael spoke to the first two police officers who reached the scene, but in their report, they stated that Michael was mumbling and incoherent, and didn’t seem to be reacting to his injuries in a way that was considered ‘normal’, describing him as being in a ‘catatonic state’.
In the early hours of the morning, police knocked on the door of Michael’s friend, Ezekial Adewale (aka TS), as Michael had him registered as his next of kin, and told him that Michael had set himself on fire. TS was confused because he’d seen Michael just a week earlier mixing tracks in their studio and telephoning record companies.
Police then visited Michael’s brother, Kwesi, and told him exactly the same thing – Michael had set himself alight. Michael’s family rushed to the hospital.
Due to the extent of his injuries, Michael was transferred to a specialist burns unit at Billericay. He had third degree burns on 30% of his body – the skin on his neck, back, thighs and buttocks had been destroyed and he died from his injuries 16 days later on 13th February 1997.
INITIAL POLICE RESPONSE
Edmonton Police alleged that they happened upon the scene, and were not there following a call for response. The scene of crime showed that the fire that engulfed Michael initially started in Sterling Way by some telephone boxes and a lighter was found nearby. Evidence showed that Michael had gone into one of the telephone boxes in order to try and put out the flames, but the fire was so hot it had partially melted the perspex doors. He then ran down Silver Street, which is where he was spotted by the off-duty fire fighter.
The police concluded that it was a non-suspicious incident – something the duty officer at Edmonton failed to question – and believed that Michael had set himself on fire after suffering from some sort of mental health crisis, having found documents upon him that stated he was suffering from schizophrenia.
Michael suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and catatonic schizophrenia, the latter of which meant he ‘zoned out’ and became disassociated. He received regular treatment at Chase Farm Hospital.
Police had very little understanding or awareness of mental health issues, and this caused an attitude of bias in terms of Michael’s evidence rather than their own beliefs.
A VICTIM SPEAKS
The following morning with his brother, Kwesi, and sister, Essie, at his bedside, Michael began to explain what had happened, with a clear and concise recollection of the events of the previous night. Kwesi listened as Michael described how a group of four white boys had set him alight and the family immediately alerted police. It was only at this point that the police cordoned off the scene, but they still showed little interest in listening to Michael’s evidence. His version of events should have changed the direction of the investigation, but the police showed little interest in taking the case forward. Due to his mental health and, no doubt, the extreme pain medication he was given, Michael did indicate on one occasion that the fire was self inflicted, but most of his lucid moments he was adamant he had been attacked.
Despite being lucid during the first week in hospital (even doing crosswords and reading), Michael wasn’t visited by any officer during the fortnight he remained alive. His sister, Alex, visited police daily to beg for someone to take a formal statement from Michael, but to no avail. DCI Roger Williams turned up on one occasion, didn’t speak with Michael but spoke with Kwesi and then left. The family didn’t see another officer after that.
Frustrated by the police’s apparent disinterest, Michael gave three statements to his brother about the events of that night, yet police dismissed them as the muddled thoughts of a traumatised victim with severe mental health issues. Michael developed septicemia from his injuries, slipped into a coma and died of a heart attack. He was just 30 years old.
Following his death, the family had no time to grieve. Instead they were forced to campaign to have the investigation changed from suicide to a murder investigation began and they refused to back down. Their solicitor, Michael Shwartz, drew parallels to the botched Stephen Lawrence investigation and how police failures may have jeopardised any future convictions.
Following Michael’s death, the case was passed to the area investigations team who began a murder inquiry led by DCI Robin Scott. The family’s hopes for a proper investigation were quickly extinguished and the relationship between the family and police became strained, with the police eventually telling the family that if they continued complaining, they’d jeopardise the investigation. The newspapers were full of stories about the Stephen Lawrence and Billie-Jo Jenkins cases, but no attempt to raise awareness or call for public assistance seemed to appear. It was Alex who instigated press interest.
Police told the family that they had undertaken door-to-door inquiries but locals claim this hadn’t happened. The family were then told that police intended to undertake an operation one night which would involve stopping drivers and pedestrians in the hope of obtaining new information. Kwesi went to the spot that night and no operation was taking place.
It was only during the inquest that confirmation of the family’s worst fears had been learned. Letters sent from the police to solicitors indicated that they still perceived the incident as self-inflicted and felt no crime had occurred, despite the police’s own fire expert describing the evidence as ‘suspicious’.
The family had enough and, against the ‘advice’ of the police, submitted a formal complaint about the investigation and conduct of officers involved to the police complaints authority.
In September 1998, the Metropolitan Police Deputy Assistant Commissioner, John Townsend, wrote to Michael’s family and admitted that there had been fundamental errors in the initial investigation:
- failure to take a statement from Michael;
- failure to cordon off the scene for 12 hours thus losing vital evidence and witnesses;
- ignored hospital staff when they relayed Michael’s version of events;
- incorrectly recorded Michael’s injuries as non life-threatening.
Officers were facing disciplinary proceedings. No apology was offered in the letter.
On 7th September 1998, the inquest into Michael’s death was opened at Hornsey Coroner’s Court. Medical staff and social workers confirmed that Michael was not potentially suicidal on the day that he died.
One of the first police officers on the scene, Johanna Walsh from Edmonton CID, gave evidence to the inquest and admitted that although Michael had claimed to have been attacked, she had ignored what he had said because both she and her colleague, DC Jim Dunn, believed him to be mentally ill and assumed it was a suicide attempt.
The inquest also heard that out of the four officers involved, an inspector, a detective inspector and a detective chief inspector had retired or were on the point of retiring, thus making them immune to disciplinary procedures. The fourth officer had been ‘advised’ rather than ‘disciplined’ and instructions on dealing with mental health issues had been relayed to all officers.
A pathologist for the family gave evidence as to Michael’s injuries, and it was his conclusion – along with that of three other professionals – that finally opened up the case. Dr Ian Hill concluded that it was unlikely that Michael’s burns were self-inflicted due to the nature of where they were and the pattern of distribution on his body being on his back and not his front. He explained that people who set themselves alight tend to do so by pouring fluid over the top of themselves and burning the whole body – particularly the front. This didn’t fit with Michael’s injuries at all and it made it almost inconceivable that it was self-inflicted.
The evidence heard during the inquest was damning and the coroner concluded that the cause of Michael’s death was ‘unlawful killing‘ not suicide, which completely destroyed the credibility of the initial police investigation, and Townsend expressed his ‘regret’ over the initial failures.
An inquiry was launched into the initial police investigation. Undertaken by Ben Gunn, Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire Police, it was overseen by the Police Complaints Authority.
A statement given by one of the first officers on the scene showed that the assumption of suicide made by police was almost immediate and skewed the entire investigation.
With race relations between BAME people and the Metropolitan Police at an all-time low following the Macpherson Inquiry into the police investigation into the death of Stephen Lawrence, the new Labour government were conscious that no repetition could happen. The family’s solicitor wrote to Home Secretary, Jack Straw, and this was followed with a meeting between Straw and the Menson family.
Almost two years after Michael’s death, Operation Chichester was created and the case was to be reinvestigated by the Racial and Violent Crimes Task Force at Scotland Yard.
The inquiry was halted whilst the new investigation took place, and at an initial meeting between the family and police, John Stevens finally issued an apology on behalf of the Metropolitan Police.
SCOTLAND YARD’S RACIAL CRIME UNIT – NEW INVESTIGATION
Two years after Michael’s death, it was finally turned into a murder investigation, and an appeal was put out for anyone to come forward who witnessed the attack or have suspicions about those involved. For the first time, the police openly stated that the investigation was one of a racially motivated attack and that a number of suspects had been identified. Just as with Stephen Lawrence’s family before them, the Menson family had to put their trust into the police to get justice for Michael. The new investigation would not only have to reinvestigate the crime under a whole new premise (murder) but revisit the previous investigation to obtain as much evidence as they could, and ascertain where it went so badly wrong.
Deputy Chief Commisioner John Grieve asked Kenneth Davis to oversee the investigation and assembled a team of 12 officers with relevant experience to revisit the case and investigate without prejudice or assumption. Davis said that the investigation was politically charged and that pressure was felt by the team but that they were determined to solve the case. The family were told that 43 new lines of investigation would be undertaken.
Grieve had a history in counter-terrorism and thus experienced in intensive surveillance techniques. He decided that these skills should be used to solve the case, and with the government trying to avoid a repeat of the Lawrence investigation, money was ploughed into it.
For the first time in the history of the programme, the police also arranged for Michael’s family to appear on BBC1’s Crimewatch and in January 1998 they sat alongside Grieve and appealed for help. This yielded two crucial new leads,
Meanwhile, the police were going through 200 statements collated by the initial investigation. It emerged that they had never been properly assessed, or entered onto the HOLMES police system correctly simply because of the initial suicide assumption. It soon became apparent that there were a group of three individuals that lived close to where Michael had died who were of particular interest, not least because one suspect’s name had been given time and again by different people – Harry Constantinou.
A NOTORIOUS GROUP
Police identified a known notorious group of individuals as key suspects. They were:
- Harry Charalambus Constantinou, 26 – unemployed, Edmonton
- Mario Pereira, 25 – student, Edmonton
- Osgay Cevat, 22, Edmonton
- Husseyin Abdullah, 50 – unemployed, Edmonton
(L-R: Constantinou, Cevat, Pereira and Abdullah)
The group had a history of bad behaviour in the area. Constantinou liked to be known as ‘Harry the Terminator’ and was a violent individual. Together with his friends, they’d hang out at a local petrol station and had a notoriety in the area.
Constantinou was the only person in the group with his own home and police established that the flat in Harrington Place was a meeting place for the group. This gave police the opportunity to use the intrusive surveillance techniques that were a speciality of John Grieve. It was the first time intrusive surveillance was ever used in an investigation and police approached it with trepidation.
The team gained access to the flat next to Constantinou’s and installed a microphone in the wall, but despite 24/7 surveillance, none of the group mentioned Michael at all.
The team decided to use a trigger method to get the group talking. They served handwritten letters to each of the suspects asking for their assistance. Each letter would be delivered personally by an officer and signed for by the recipients so there could be no question about their receipt. In a clever twist, officers decided to only serve one letter to one suspect so as to cause unrest and confusion within the group.
Abdullah regularly spent time at Constantinou’s flat and although Abdullah played no part in the crime, he enjoyed being associated with the notoriety and referred to it constantly. This in turn caused the group to talk about it too and police finally caught them on tape bragging about what they had done, with one referring to Michael as having ‘burnt like a chicken‘.
The team decided to deploy a hidden camera to get as much evidence as possible, but it was found by Constantinou and damaged with a screwdriver. Constantinou quickly alerted his associates on the phone that he thought his flat had been bugged. The police realised that the investigation was jeopardised and they had to act quickly.
Constantinou, Pereira and Abdullah were arrested immediately and taken to Edmonton Police Station where Constantinou admitted taking part in the attack on Michael but denied murder. Despite being played incriminating audio evidence, Pereira denied any involvement. Constantinou and Pereira were charged with murder and perverting the course of justice, and Abdullah was charged with perverting the course of justice.
Cevat evaded police and went on the run to Northern Cyprus within days of Michael’s murder. The UK has no extradition agreement with the Turkish-Cypriot authorities, and it was down to the good will of the Cypriot police to assist with the investigation. As it turned out, Cevat had already been on their radar long before the UK police contacted them, and he was arrested, questioned by Scotland Yard detectives and charged.
SO WHAT REALLY HAPPENED ON THAT FATEFUL NIGHT?
One of the residential carers where Michael lived reminded Michael that he was due at the hospital to have a regular injection of medication. Michael left home in Southgate at about 10pm on Monday 27th January 1997. Two buses ran at that time of night and unfortunately for Michael he got on wrong bus. When he reached Silver Street he realised he wasn’t on his normal route and in an unfamiliar place, so got off the bus.
There are many conflicting details of the events of that night, but what is definitely known was that earlier that day, Pereira’s girlfriend had told him that ‘a black guy’ had winked at her which enraged a volatile Pereira, who got his friends together and went out looking for a black male to attack.
Spotting Michael on the bus, Pereira indicated to his friends he was going to be the target. The group followed Michael as he got off the bus at Sweetbriar Walk, and attacked him. Pereira poured an accelerant onto Michael’s blue anorak and Cevat lit it, whilst Constantinou stole Michael’s walkman.
Conflicting reports suggest that the group were on the bus with Michael, and another that the group were in a car, but however they chanced upon Michael, Cevat and Pereira had unsuccessfully attempted to set Michael on fire and went away to find an accelerant. They returned to find Michael, who was a little further down the street by this point. It was now 1:40am and Michael, lost and confused, must have been absolutely petrified as they doused him in white spirit and set him alight. Constantinou acted as a look out.
Pictures and evidence from the crime scene showed that Michael attempted to lean into the telephone box to dampen the flames but it didn’t work and, leaving a trail of burnt flesh and clothing behind him, he ran down Silver Street, which is when the off-duty fire fighter caught sight of him on a grass verge desperately attempting to rip the burning clothes off his body.
Michael told numerous emergency responders about how he had been attacked – even describing one of those involved. This information was relayed to police but simply ignored.
When the men involved were charged, associates who had previously been too afraid to speak, began to approach police to give evidence about the crime, which enabled the police to build a solid case.
Cevat’s trial was the first to begin in September 1999 in Northern Cyprus with Michael’s siblings in attendance. On 25th November 1999, Cevat was found guilty and sentenced to 14 years imprisonment for manslaughter.
Constantinou and Pereira’s trial began in November 1999 at the Old Bailey. Again, Michael’s siblings attended proceedings where they heard the appalling events of the night of 27th January 1997 as well as subsequent covert recordings of the group’s appalling arrogance they showed towards their crime. The court heard that Pereira had excused what had happened with the words: “So what, he was black?” The group also referred to Michael as “the burned geezer“, and Pereira voiced his concern over whether the police could link him forensically to the crime.
On 21st December 1999, Pereira was sentenced to life for murder and perverting the course of justice. Constantinou was given a manslaughter sentence of 14 years plus perverting the course of justice, with the judge noting that although he had issues with his mental health, he had to serve a minimum of six years.
Abdullah was found guilty of perverting the course of justice and sentenced to 21 months imprisonment.
SHOCKING FINDINGS OF THE POLICE COMPLAINTS AUTHORITY
Once the trials had ended, the PCA were able to resume their inquiry into the initial police investigation, during which time, DCI Scott was removed from ‘operational duties’.
In 2003 – six years after Michael’s brutal murder – the inquiry was finally completed and although the report on their findings was unpublished, details were released which confirmed that they had found evidence of negligence and racism. The inquiry concluded that the investigation was unprofessional, uncoordinated, in part negligent, and at best inept.
As well as failing to follow up important forensic material, racism reared its ugly head and shockingly, they discovered that not only had the police instructed Special Branch to investigate the Menson family to see if “political motivation might be at play” (just as they had with the Lawrence and Reel families), but at the inquest, one of the officers involved said to a pathologist: “I don’t know why they’re worried – this only concerns a fucking black schizophrenic.”
Despite the findings, the CPS said that no charges would be levelled against any of the officers that had been involved because they didn’t consider the issues ‘grave enough’ to warrant a trial. Presumably negligence of senior police officers during an investigation was considered a minor indiscretion because just two junior officers were issued with a warning.
They did, however, state that they would have disciplined four senior officers involved if they had ‘still been serving’, but as they’d taken retirement or left the force, this was not an option.
Following the outcome of the inquiry in 2004, the Metropolitan Police issued a statement stating:
“…the police force of today was very different from that of 1997. It had introduced large-scale procedural changes with regard to dealing with racist incidents, murder investigation and family liaison.”
Unfortunately it didn’t come soon enough for Charles De Menezes, who was shot dead by police in Stockwell just a year later.
It was only due to the tenacity of Michael’s family that his killers were brought to justice. As a legacy to Michael, his murder triggered a better understanding within the police of mental health issues and also went some way to changing the law in order to protect the most vulnerable.
Alongside the inquiries into the botched investigations into the murders of Ricky Reel and Stephen Lawrence, the case also went some way to helping change the inherent racism within parts of the police.
But ultimately it was the love and tenacity of a good family that ensured Michael got justice.
Remembering Michael as he should be…
Just Keep Rockin’
- New Scotland Yard Files: London Pop Star Murder – Man on Fire
- BBC News
- Goan Voice
- The Guardian
- The Observer
- Daily Mirror