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Met under fire after blunders in hunt for Alice Gross

BY Rachel | 3 March, 2014 | no comments

Scotland Yard was facing criticism over its handling of the disappearance of the teenager Alice Gross after it emerged that officers waited four days before asking Latvia for help in hunting down the main suspect.

Detectives finally approached the Latvian authorities at the weekend for assistance in its search for Arnis Zalkalns, a convicted murderer who came to their attention nearly a week ago but may have fled to his native country as far back as September 4. The Metropolitan police contacted Latvia only on an informal basis.

The move came after a series of other apparent blunders, which have raised concerns about the approach to finding Alice, 14, who disappeared on August 28 after walking along a canal towpath in southwest London. Scotland Yard described the investigation as its biggest search operation since the 7/7 terrorist attacks on London in 2005.

Despite Mr Zalkalns’s girlfriend reporting him missing on September 4, detectives did not publicly link him to Alice’s disappearance until last Wednesday after a journalist saw “missing” posters for him, put up by his partner, on the same stretch of canal.

Alice’s disappearance, which remains a missing person inquiry, was originally handled by the local borough police command, which took advice from a murder detective. It was not taken over by the force’s homicide and serious crime command until a week after Alice, who suffers from anorexia, went missing.

Keith Vaz, chairman of the home affairs select committee, called on the Met yesterday to examine the case fully once Alice had been found. He was “very concerned” about the delays in escalating the investigation both in Britain and Latvia, he said. Mr Vaz questioned why the Met had not sought a European arrest warrant, pointing out that one was issued immediately when the parents of Ashya King, five, suffering from cancer, took him from an English hospital to seek treatment abroad.

Mr Vaz also condemned “shocking” revelations that Latvian criminals are able to move to Britain while still on probation and are supervised only over email. The case has raised concerns about UK border checks as Mr Zalkalns, 41, moved to Britain in 2005 two years after being released from prison, having been convicted of murdering his young wife by stabbing her through the heart.

The British authorities had no record of his murder and he was able to travel freely between the UK and Latvia three times a year. He had been accused in 2009 of drugging and sexually assaulting another 14-year-old girl he met on a street in Ealing, west London, but was not charged when she refused to substantiate the claim.

Scotland Yard announced last week that Mr Zalkalns had left his passport at home, suggesting they believed that he must still be in Britain, but Latvians said that he could have travelled back by coach using his national identity card.

Latvian police privately expressed frustration last week at the failure of the British police to ask for assistance. A police source in Riga said yesterday that the Met had finally made an informal request. He added: “There is a possibility he might have fled here so we are doing everything we can to help. Of course they can ask unofficially and of course we are happy to look for him.”

Officers are understood to be speaking to Mr Zalkalns’s family and friends in Riga and the coastal city of Liepaja.” The source said: “We have no specific information that he is in Latvia or was intending to come here. [The Met police] has not requested an international search for him. They are the only ones that can issue it.”

A Met spokesman said: “The Metropolitan police service is maintaining a close and productive relationship with the Latvian authorities in connection with this investigation. We are not prepared to elaborate further on the nature of our information sharing with them. We are not prepared to give a running commentary on the specifics of our active investigation.”