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Police were told Michaela Hall was being strangled. Why didn’t they break in? | Domestic violence

On the night Michaela Hall was murdered, police knocked on her door. They had received a report that the mother of two and former Virgin Airways flight attendant was being strangled by her partner, a known abuser recently released from prison.

Michaela, 49, was speaking to a friend on the phone when she was attacked. “I heard her say, ‘Don’t come near me, Lee,’ and she just started screaming,” the friend, living abroad, told the Crimestoppers charity. “It was horrific, pure fear, like something out of a movie.”

The case was passed to Devon and Cornwall police and marked urgent, according to a police watchdog report seen by the Observer.

But when two officers arrived at Michaela’s bungalow, in the Cornish village of Mount Hawke, everything was quiet. The curtains were drawn, the property was in darkness and there were “no signs of disturbance”.

The officers tapped at Michaela’s back window and checked the garden. Nothing. They considered speaking to the neighbours but decided not to, according to the report.

“We ain’t got enough for power of entry have we?” the first officer asked their colleague, in a conversation picked up on a body camera. They shone a torch through a gap in the curtains. Nothing untoward. After spending seven minutes at the property, the officers got back into their car.

Radioing the Devon and Cornwall police control room just after 11.30pm on 31 May 2021, they speculated about what might be going on. “We have visions … like her lying there with him covering her mouth and stuff,” the first officer told their colleague.

Police had been called to the property before, attending 14 times in as many months for incidents of domestic abuse. On previous occasions when Michaela’s partner had attacked her, he would “drink and drink and drink” until he passed out, the officer said. Maybe that’s what had happened this time, too.

Besides, they reasoned, even if they could get inside, Michaela wouldn’t speak to them.

“What can you do if she don’t help herself?” the officer asked a colleague over the radio.

Michaela was found dead the following night.

She had been murdered by her partner, Lee Kendall. After a row over dinner, he grabbed her by the throat and stabbed her through the eye with a kitchen knife, a court heard in January.

Kendall’s brutal actions tore apart a family and left Michaela’s two young sons without a mother.

But the case also raises urgent questions about the treatment of domestic abuse victims by police, and whether Michaela could have been saved, or her killer caught sooner, had the response been different.

Known as a vulnerable person, at high risk of harm from domestic abuse, Michaela was under the protection of a multi-agency safeguarding protocol at the time of her death, according to an Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) report, which examines Devon and Cornwall police’s response to the case.

Michaela Hall’s father, Peter Hall
Michaela Hall’s father, Peter Hall, pictured at his home near Redruth in Cornwall. Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer

Yet despite being called to an urgent report that Michaela was being attacked, and knowing the history of domestic abuse, Devon and Cornwall police did not enter her property or take key steps to establish she was safe, according to the IOPC report.

The officers who attended thought they did not have the authority to force entry, believing they had insufficient information to establish whether “life or limb” were at risk, the IOPC found. Managers in the control room did not instruct them to enter.

Police mugshot
Lee Kendall had recently been released from prison. Photograph: Devon & Cornwall Police/SWNS

The unpublished report, seen by the Observer, also details how in the 24 hours after the initial emergency Crimestoppers call, at 10.19pm on 31 May, police attended Michaela’s property twice more – but again did not enter or speak to neighbours.

During the second visit, at 2.50pm on 1 June, they found the curtains open but no signs of disturbance. “They received no reply to knocking” and “glanced around the back of the property” before leaving a few minutes later, according to the report.

Police attended a third time that evening, at 7.14pm. “They’ll pop out when they just finished tidying up some paperwork,” a sergeant had told the control room before dispatching two officers, according to the report. After finding no signs of disturbance, they left after three minutes.

Later that night, Michaela’s parents, Peter and Anne Hall, drove the three miles to her bungalow to check on her after she missed a scheduled phone call earlier that evening.

Sensing something was wrong, Peter entered the house with a key he got from the couple’s landlord. At about 10.30pm, as neighbours gathered at the front door, he found his daughter’s body in the bedroom.

Rigor mortis had set in, suggesting she had been dead for some hours. But the exact time she was murdered is not known, raising questions about whether there were missed chances to save her, or to catch her killer – who remained on the loose until the following day – sooner.

Peter, 70, and Anne, 72, believe that rather than seeing their daughter’s history of abuse as a risk factor that meant she needed more protection, officers blamed her for staying with her violent partner.

“She was trapped in a cycle of abuse. And for a police officer to say, ‘I’ve spoken to her before and she can’t help herself,’ is horrendous,” Peter said. “For all we know, my daughter was alive when the police were knocking on the door, with a hand over her mouth.”

“It’s left me thinking every day, all the time, if they had just broken in, would they have saved her?” Anne added tearfully. “We will never know what might have happened. Michaela could have still been alive, and I could have gone there to hold her hand.”

In the weeks before she died, Michaela had been trying to get her life back on track.

Privately educated and the eldest of four, she had a comfortable upbringing before landing a job she loved as a flight attendant, catering to first-class passengers and travelling the world. “People loved flying with her because she was so organised. She was always immaculate,” Anne said.

She doted on her two sons, and they adored her. But things in her life had become rocky. After about 10 years flying with Virgin, Michaela moved to a village near her parents in Cornwall and began studying law, but her mental health suffered after custody disputes with a former partner.

After breaking a restraining order she was given a suspended sentence, which dented her career prospects.

In 2018 she got a job at a charity working with offenders on release from prison. In December that year, she met Kendall, a drug user with a string of convictions including theft.

The prosecutor, Jo Martin QC, said the relationship, which led to Michaela losing her job, was “complex”. “[She] was always trying to help and possibly save him,” she told the murder trial.

Over the years that followed, Michaela suffered vicious abuse at Kendall’s hands, including being strangled, punched, dragged by her hair and kicked in the head. Repeated 999 calls were made and she was seen with “black eyes numerous times”, Truro crown court heard.

Left to right Michaela, Peter, Harry and Lisa Hall
Michaela Hall, left, with her siblings, Peter, Harry and Lisa. Photograph: Family photograph

Kendall, 43, admitted some of the attacks and was jailed. But so strong was his grip over Michaela that, while in custody, he continued to control her from his prison cell.

He would send her love letters in envelopes covered in doodles, promising her a happy ever after, Peter said. She would send him money regularly because he claimed “he didn’t like prison food” and they spoke almost daily on the phone.

“It’s all part of the picture of how she was being coerced. Yet underneath all that you’ve got a guy that’s abusive, threatening and manipulating, and a person that’s become very vulnerable,” Peter said.

At the start of May 2021, while Kendall was in custody for an attack on Michaela earlier in the year, she seemed optimistic about the future.

Over coffee at her parents’ home, she spoke about her plans to join a wild swimming club and asked for help moving out of her bungalow. “We had the most lovely time,” Anne said. “No one wanted to mention the elephant in the room, which was him coming out of prison.”

It was the last time they would see her alive. When, on 14 May, Kendall was given a three-year community order by a judge and released from custody, he returned to Michaela. Two weeks later, he killed her.

Jailing him for a minimum of 21 years at Truro crown court in January, Mr Justice Garnham said Kendall had deliberately targeted Michaela’s eyes, which her family described as “dark and flashing”. “For reasons never explained, those beautiful eyes were always being targeted by your violence,” the judge said. After murdering Michaela on 31 May, he poured a glass of wine and watched TV. He was not arrested until 2 June, after getting a bus into Truro, where he stole alcohol and got into arguments with homeless men and shelter staff, the court was told.

At the time of the murder, Kendall was supposed to be being monitored by the Probation Service, which is looking into its actions after his release, and the role it played in managing “the risk Kendall posed to himself and others”.

Harriet Wistrich, a leading lawyer and director of the Centre for Women’s Justice, said the case was “really awful” but “sadly not untypical” of domestic homicides, and that police needed a better understanding of domestic abuse.

She said Michaela’s reluctance to engage with police was typical of victims of coercive control. “If anything, the fact she wouldn’t pursue charges or ‘help herself’ is a reason to intervene more,” she said.

Dame Vera Baird QC, the victims’ commissioner for England and Wales, said the police response in Michaela’s case suggested “out-of-date thinking” by some officers towards abuse victims.

“This idea of, ‘Why isn’t she leaving, she won’t help herself’, is a worrying attitude to find in the police still,” she said.

She questioned why officers did not enter Michaela’s property. “The police break into premises for next to no reason, even if it’s for stealing a tiny thing,” she said.

“Michaela might have been dead and it might have been too late. But they should have been hammering on the door, saying ‘Come out, come out,’ and then, when they didn’t get any answer, they should have broken in.”

Truro Crown Court
Truro crown court, where Lee Kendall was tried and found guilty of Michaela Hall’s murder. Photograph: Britpix/Alamy

Michaela’s family believe substantial change is needed to ensure victims are better protected by the police, and want those they feel failed Michaela to be held to account. They are also seeking an apology from Shaun Sawyer, the outgoing Devon and Cornwall police chief constable, Michaela’s brother, Peter, 44, said. “If they held their hands up and said, ‘We got it wrong, but we are doing this to make up for it,’ we would respect that. But they haven’t,” he said.

As well as the response on the night of Michaela’s death, the family are critical of the force’s behaviour since her murder. At the end of the trial they were sent an email saying their impact statement would not be distributed as had been agreed because the press office deemed it “unsuitable” due to “implied criticism” of the police. “I’m insulted beyond words over that,” Michaela’s mother said.

The IOPC said that, as is usual, it would not be publishing its findings in full until the conclusion of “any future inquest proceedings”.

Devon and Cornwall police declined to answer questions about the case, including whether any officers had faced disciplinary action, but said it would respond fully in due course.

“Our thoughts remain with the family and friends of Michaela Hall for their awful loss,” a spokesman said.

An inquest into Michaela’s death, which could examine the actions of the police and other authorities, may take place in future. A pre-inquest hearing is scheduled for September.

For now, Michaela’s parents are wrestling with the pain of losing their daughter, and trying to create a sense of normality for her sons, aged 10 and 14. Last Tuesday marked the first anniversary of her death. “It’s too much to bear,” Anne said. “You’d like to just go and lay down and never get up again, but when you’ve got little grandsons you can’t do that.”

The family plans to take legal action against the police in future, and want people to know Michaela’s story. Speaking out won’t bring them “closure or vindication”, Peter said. But they hope it will help lead to a culture shift in the police, and a better understanding of the nature of abuse.

“Michaela deserved protection,” he said. “We can’t do anything for her now. But we know there are victims out there right now who potentially are not being protected as they should be.”

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