Photo: Alamy

How the police failed Suzanne Van Hagen

Suzanne had a busy life, a loving family and an abusive partner. So why—when she was found dead alongside him—did West Midlands Police not investigate whether he’d killed her?
November 3, 2022

At 9.58am on 8th February 2013, a nine-year-old girl made a 999 call from her home in the Frankley area of Birmingham. The call handler noted that she was “trying to wake parents up but they’re not responding”. “Mom’s face was swollen last night,” the girl says. “Dad was looking after Mom.”

At 10.05am, the handler noted the address had a “high risk” domestic violence marker against it. A check on the Police National Computer, a database of criminal records information shared by forces across the UK, brought up a name: John Worton. At 10.06am, the police arrived at the scene. At 10.07am, the call-log states: “Both persons confirmed deceased.” 

Chloe, the child who made the call, was the daughter of Suzanne Van Hagen, aged 34. Chloe had found Suzanne lying dead beside a mattress in the bedroom. The body of John Worton was in the living room. Chloe was taken directly to the nearby Birmingham Children’s Hospital. She was uninjured.

By 11.46am, Suzanne’s father, Les Van Hagen, was informed. Police took him—blue lights flashing—to his wife Ann’s workplace to tell her that the body of their eldest daughter had been found, alongside that of her domestically abusive partner. This was the moment when, for the Van Hagen family, eight and a half years of purgatory began. 

In 2013, the year Suzanne died, 139 women were killed by men in the UK. Suzanne is not counted among that number, because the police didn’t designate her death as a homicide. Her family believe that Worton was instrumental in her death and that the police didn’t properly investigate whether they were right.

The latest figures given by the Femicide Census show that 110 women were killed by men in 2020. Of those, 57 were killed by a current or former partner. But this data might be incomplete—far more women might be being killed by abusive current or ex-partners. This is suggested by some recent, much delayed prosecutions for murder combined with research by forensic criminologist Jane Monckton-Smith into what she calls “hidden homicides”: the sudden and unexpected deaths of women in cases that police don’t investigate as homicide. 

Far more women may be murdered by abusive partners than official data suggests

I meet the Van Hagens, along with Suzanne’s youngest sister Laura, on a bright September day in 2021, in the conservatory of their Solihull home. More than eight years after Suzanne’s death, they finally feel able to speak about what happened to her because, a few weeks earlier, West Midlands Police issued a carefully negotiated formal apology and paid out substantial damages to Chloe for failing to properly investigate the death of her mother. Les Van Hagen tells me that on the day his daughter died, he had just come home from playing an early morning round of golf when two West Midlands police officers knocked on the front door. They hurried him to the school where his wife was working: “I walked in and the first thing Ann said was, ‘Suzanne?’ and I said ‘Yes’.” She asked if her daughter was dead. “And I said, ‘Yes, both of them’,” Les recalls. “And she thought I meant Chloe… I said ‘no, no…’” He tails off, unable to speak. 

Ann Van Hagen’s head drops slightly as she remembers the moment. She’s quieter than her husband, but equally focused on finding justice for their daughter and their granddaughter Chloe, who has lived with them since she lost her mother. But before we launch into the complicated history of their fight to restore their daughter’s reputation, we talk about who Suzanne was before she met the man they believe ended her life.

As a young woman, Suzanne Van Hagen was athletic and cheerful. She played hockey for her county, and went on to study sport at university. “She had strawberry blonde hair, curly; she was always trying to straighten it,” says her mum. The family was close: when Suzanne became pregnant and had a baby at 25, they pulled together. She and baby Chloe lived at home for a while and then, after maternity leave, Suzanne went back to the insurance company where she worked. “She took all her exams, and they paid her back when she passed them,” her father Les says. That his daughter was independent and providing for Chloe clearly matters to him: he’s proud of her. “Financially, she was doing fine,” he says. 

She had her own house via part-ownership, and the family all went on holiday every year. Suzanne was single but had a good job and was far from alone. She was doing well—until she met John Worton. 

From the off, none of the family took to him. “Didn’t like him,” says Les, of the first time they met. “At all,” emphasises Suzanne’s sister, Laura. Ann describes him as “loud” and physically “over the top” with her daughter. They didn’t know at the time that Worton had previously been sentenced to 10 years in prison for robbery, or that during his sentence he was transferred to a mental hospital. 

Very soon after they met, Worton isolated Suzanne from her mum, dad and sisters, with whom she and Chloe would normally spend a lot of time. “She stopped coming round and you could never get her on the phone,” says Ann sadly. “It was overnight control,” says Laura. Within months, the family had lost most of their contact. 

The first signs of physical abuse came in 2011, when Laura’s hairdresser, who also cut her sister’s hair, said she’d spotted Suzanne had a black eye. Suzanne said she’d got it in a quad bike accident, but the hairdresser didn’t believe her. 

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“We wouldn’t have been able to find out where Suzanne was if we hadn’t been proactive.” Suzanne’s parents, Les and Ann Photo: Sarah Lee

Laura and Suzanne’s other sister Clare went straight round to Suzanne’s house. Their sister, who was there with Worton, “wasn’t herself”, Laura recalls. “She’d cut her hair really short, really blonde, she’d lost loads of weight,” says Laura, who then asked Suzanne where the bruise had come from. “I said, ‘You’re just not right, you don’t come and see mum and dad anymore, dad’s not allowed to take Chloe to school… what’s going on?’”. She turned to Worton and asked, “Are you hitting my sister?” 

Suzanne told her that she was fine. Worton was furious: “He was pacing up and down and getting angrier and angrier, and he was shouting at me and Clare, and Clare was crying, so we had to go because he got so aggressive,” says Laura.

It was the last time Laura saw her sister, until she identified her body two years later. Suzanne no longer saw her father either, and only occasionally and briefly met her mother. Around a year before her death, that contact stopped too.

The Van Hagen family tried repeatedly for 18 months, from autumn 2011, to alert police and social services to the danger they believed Worton posed to Chloe and Suzanne. But they felt the authorities ignored them. “Suzanne was an adult so [their position was] she could make her own mind up,” says Les, “but our thing was that Chloe is not an adult, and who is looking after Chloe?” 

Laura used to drive by Suzanne’s house, and one day stopped when she saw the car wasn’t there. A neighbour told her they’d been gone for several weeks, but earlier had had an argument that had resulted in Suzanne having to get stitches and being arrested. Worton suffered neither outcome.

The family reported both Suzanne and Chloe as missing, but now they believe the police were aware of Suzanne’s new address. Just before leaving Stechford police station in Birmingham after filing the report, an officer warned Laura that she needed to get Suzanne “out of there”. “How can we get her ‘out of there’ if you don’t tell us where she is?” Laura asked. The officer responded: “All I can tell you is that she’s not safe.”

Ann searched the internet for any mention of her daughter or granddaughter—googling their names, and Worton’s. “Then one day Chloe’s name came up in a school newsletter,” she says. It was a relief to know where she was, but the family were annoyed, too. “[Her old] school had told us… they would tell us if she was ever taken out, and they didn’t,” says Les.

By that time, the family knew that Worton had a previous conviction, and when he was prosecuted for driving without insurance or a licence, they found Suzanne’s address. “He came up [online] from his appearance at court,” says Ann. “We did all our own investigation; we wouldn’t have been able to find out where Suzanne was if we hadn’t been proactive ourselves.” 

The discovery made no practical difference. Neither the police nor children’s services—which by then were involved because of safeguarding concerns for Chloe—would help the Van Hagen family. This remains a source of great anger. After Suzanne’s body was found, Laura had an argument with a social worker. “I said to them, ‘You left that child’,” she tells me. “I said, ‘Forget about Suzanne, you left a child in a place where she was suffering domestic violence. Where they were living was a disgrace… she was on a mattress on the floor’.” The social worker told Laura that her idea of what qualified as good living conditions was “completely different” from theirs, and that where Chloe was living was “fine”.

Much later, it emerged that social workers had held several emergency meetings about Chloe, but no application was made to the family court to remove her from a domestically abusive home, either to live with her grandparents or to place her in foster care. Documents released after Les and Ann Van Hagen asked the family court for a Special Guardianship Order to look after Chloe revealed the authorities knew how much danger she and Suzanne were in.

“As soon as I knew she was dead I said to Les, ‘He’s killed her’,” says Ann. The detective in charge seemed to agree. Detective chief inspector Wayne Jones visited the family on the evening after Suzanne’s death and “explained how Suzanne had been murdered,” says Ann. “He went like this,” says Laura, holding up her arm, bending it at the elbow and wrapping it round her neck. “There were strangulation marks. He said it was more like a headlock, and he showed us all, stood us up and showed us.” “That’s why the homicide team were involved,” says Ann, quietly. “Because they thought it was a murder. A murder-suicide.”

But a few days later, the postmortem results came back and the police changed tack. Both Suzanne and Worton had drugs in their system. But Worton had a number of different drugs, and alcohol, in his bloodstream, while Suzanne had a very high quantity of just one drug, paramethoxyamphetamine, in hers. Despite that, and the fact that Suzanne had bruising on her neck and face, as well as abrasions and fingermark bruising to her right arm and both legs, the police decided the case was one of drug overdose. The pathologist put forward three possible causes of death: pressure to the neck, drug toxicity or, “most plausible”, a combination of the two. The police completely discounted the possibility that Suzanne had been murdered.

It is important to note that a pathologist’s role is to determine the cause of death, not the context in which someone died. In Suzanne’s case, that context was a history of well-documented domestic abuse by a man known to be a violent, paranoid schizophrenic. The pathologist didn’t know that all of her and Chloe’s clothes were gone from their wardrobes at the time Suzanne died. They didn’t know that Suzanne’s suitcase was in the hall, or that her passport was found on the drive. A receipt showed that she had just done a big supermarket shop, but the groceries were not at the house. She had filled her car up with a full tank of petrol, “Which she never normally did,” says Laura. All of this indicates, the Van Hagens believe, that Suzanne planned to leave Worton. As is now well known, a domestic abuse victim is never in such danger as when they try to leave their abuser.

The police knew that context, but from this point seemed to write off the idea that Worton might have killed Suzanne. Laura recalls that one officer told her, “You didn’t know your sister in the end and she was a drug user.” She remembers another family liaison officer said, “Your sister had two legs and she should have used them.” The force issued a press release stating that Suzanne had died of a drug overdose in a sex game gone wrong. “It was all over the press,” says Les. “They published so many untruths about Suzanne, and never bothered to get quotes from us. They just wrote what the police told them.” The family’s trust in the police was destroyed.

One family liaison officer said: “Your sister had two legs and she should have used them”

After the police decided Suzanne hadn’t been murdered, physical evidence that could have been interrogated was not collected or tested; hair strand analysis, which might have confirmed Suzanne was not a habitual drug user, was not carried out; witness statements, which might have revealed to police the level of threat that Worton posed to Suzanne and Chloe, were not taken. 

This same decision meant that the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority initially refused to classify Suzanne’s death as having been caused by violence, meaning they would not pay a penny to Chloe or her family to help with the costs of bringing her up. The family tell me that Birmingham children’s services haven’t financially supported them in looking after Chloe either, despite the fact that her grandparents were effectively fostering her. Les had already retired and Ann had to delay her own retirement to be able to make ends meet. Les later suffered a heart attack which left him bedbound for two years. The family believe it was likely that this was brought on by the stress of events.

The inquest into Suzanne’s death—held three years later in 2016—was, according to the family, cursory, incomplete and unfair. Legal representation cost the family several thousand pounds, while the police and other public agencies were represented by barristers paid for at public expense. The Van Hagens begged the coroner, Louise Hunt, to hear from several witnesses they wished to put forward; she allowed them just one. Meanwhile, the authors of the domestic homicide review which had investigated the circumstances of Suzanne’s death were not allowed to give evidence, although they sat in court for two days waiting to be called. In the end, an open verdict was recorded. Suzanne’s death certificate had given her cause of death as “Drug toxicity with features of pressure to the neck.”

In novels, there is often a turning point on which the outcome of the story depends. So too, sometimes, in life. For the Van Hagens, the turning point was when Frank Mullane, director of the charity Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse (AAFDA) and Jane Monckton-Smith, a forensic psychologist who specialises in domestic homicide, became involved.

Mullane, who supported the family through the inquest, suggested that they contact Monckton-Smith. The author of the recent book In Control: Dangerous Relationships and How They End in Murder, she is known for diving deep into the case papers of women who have died suddenly and in suspicious circumstances, but whose deaths the police have chosen not to investigate as possible killings by an abusive partner or ex. 

“This was not a sex game gone wrong, and this was not a drugs party,” Monckton-Smith says firmly of Suzanne’s death when I call her up. She has read the case documentation, set out what the investigation should have done, and re-written what the likely scenario would have been. Mockton-Smith says that if someone has a large amount of drugs in their system and was held in a headlock, it “at least suggests forced ingestion of drugs”.

In Suzanne’s case, someone saw what happened. The police didn’t question Chloe about what she saw on the day she found her mother’s and Worton’s bodies. Around four years later, Chloe, then a teenager, found a way to tell her grandmother about what happened. 

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“We had to fight and fight and fight.” Suzanne’s sisters, Clare and Laura Photo: Sarah Lee

“When she did speak, some years on, my suggested construction of events was bang on,” Mockton-Smith says. Chloe explained that she had seen Worton “put something in her mom’s throat and was strangling her,” Ann says. She said Worton was fully conscious and talking when Suzanne was on the floor, unconscious; it looked like he knew what he was doing. The family reported everything that Chloe had told them to the police—but when Chloe was required to repeat it in an interview with officers, she simply could not say the words again. 

By this time, the family’s insistent pressure—and Monckton-Smith’s pointed report into Suzanne’s death—meant that West Midlands Police could no longer ignore the criticisms being levelled at them. In 2017, they finally began a review of their officers’ actions before and after Suzanne’s death.

The detective chief inspector who had shut down the homicide investigation had by that time been dismissed for gross misconduct after sexually harassing junior female colleagues, and was not interviewed. But the review, called the Lodgen report, was both forensic and excoriating: it described a series of failures by West Midlands Police that meant their decision to stand down the murder investigation was fatally flawed. “All the evidence was there that she was leaving him, and John did what John did best, beat her,” says Les. “Forced those drugs down her, waited for her to die and took his own life… Why was none of this brought up at the coroner’s court? Why were there no questions asked, or not the type of questions that should have been asked?” 

In summer 2021, Chloe told a meeting of police, children’s services and lawyers that public authorities don’t grasp the danger that victims are in when living with an abuser. “I feel like the police and social workers didn’t take me and my mom’s case seriously,” she said. “They were called by my next-door neighbour 28 times, but where were the police? 

“Looking back… whatever protocols and procedures were in effect were totally wrong and pointless… neither one of us, me or my mom, would have said anything under duress. I was a terrified nine-year-old, scared my mom was going to be hurt by this monster… had someone spoken to me privately, promising they would get me and my mom safety, I would have told them everything. 

“I am scared for any other mother and child going through this now, knowing one simple question in a right setting could have saved lives… I have missed out on a normal childhood with my mom. I am now living with my nan and grandad in a loving, caring home, but would do anything to be living with my mom. I feel like this was taken away from me and I wish someone would have cared.”

On 10th September 2021, four years after the Lodgen report was finalised, West Midlands Police released a YouTube video of their chief constable, David Thompson, reading out an apology to the Van Hagen family. He stated that his officers “could and should have done more to protect Suzanne and her daughter from the abuse they were suffering” before her death. He also acknowledged that the family was “let down by a failure to properly investigate Suzanne’s death.” 

The Van Hagen family is still prevented—under what authority, they have not been told—from publishing the official report detailing police failings. They would like other forces to be able to learn from West Midlands’s mistakes, but are terrified that the police might take exception to the findings being made public and Chloe might lose the money the force has just paid out in recognition that they failed to protect her and her mother.

Despite the admission of failure, and substantial evidence that Suzanne’s death was caused by a man known to be violent, volatile and abusive towards her and other women, the police have still never called it a homicide, and didn’t supply the family with a formal, written admission of fault until they contacted Birmingham MP Jess Phillips. The police didn’t even send the family a link to the YouTube video; they had to search for it themselves. “We had to fight and fight and fight for [the apology], but they never sent a copy, never emailed it,” says Laura. Les shakes his head. “We should have had that in writing and signed,” he says.

Les wants his daughter’s inquest reopened; he feels an open verdict is not an accurate account of how she died. “We haven’t fought for Suzanne for all these years just to let it go now,” he says. Ann wants Phillips to read out Suzanne’s name in the House of Commons on International Women’s Day when, by tradition, the MP lists the names of every woman killed by a man in the previous year. And she wants a campaign in their home city to keep the risks of violence against women at the top of the political agenda. 

The last words about Suzanne must go to her daughter. Chloe, 18 at the time we speak, dances into the living room at 4.30pm, just as we’re finishing up the interview. She’s fine to talk, she says. Happy to be quoted. It’s the first time she’s spoken to a journalist. She tells me that she’s about to start studying nursing at university—“Tomorrow, so that’s good!” she says with a smile. “She’s done amazing,” says her grandmother, who clearly could not be more proud. 

The police didn’t even send the family a link to their YouTube apology; they had to search for it themselves

Chloe’s full statement, which she emails to me later, talks about her memories of a “caring and thoughtful mother” who would “do anything” to make sure she was happy. “She has missed out on so many milestones in my life, for example my last day of primary school, my first and last day of secondary school, my prom, meeting my first boyfriend and birthdays,” Chloe writes. “And unfortunately, [she] will not be there for so many more.”

It’s clear that, for this young woman, it is of incalculable importance that the information released by West Midlands Police to the press, which characterised Suzanne as a drug addict who died in a sex game, be corrected. “My mom and I had a bond like no other,” Chloe writes. “We would always be making each other laugh and we loved each other so much.”

“What was put out there in the first place was wrong, and I didn’t want people thinking that of my mum because that’s not the type of person she was,” says Chloe. “So I am happy there was an apology, so that people who have seen both [versions] can see that the first one is wrong and that what’s out there now is right.”