Files relating to the unexplained death of a Jesus Army member found decapitated on train lines in 1978 were lost by police, leaked emails have revealed.
Stephen Orchard’s body was found less than a mile away from the Jesus Army headquarters in Bugbrooke in 1978 shortly after telling his father he was considering leaving the religious sect.
His injuries were consistent with him lying on railway tracks near to New Creation Hall.
But an inquest into the 19-year-old’s death at the time saw an open verdict returned. The Chronicle & Echo has now learned that calls to reopen the case – and two other deaths recorded as accidental by a coroner – by a former member fell at the first hurdle.
Leaked emails between that member and Northamptonshire Police’s DCI Jen Helm have revealed that the files were, in fact, lost along with other criminal cases.
“Two of the cases were recorded as accidental and therefore due to retention of files guidance, no copy would be available,” she told the former Jesus Army member in the email, dated February 10, 2016.
“However we would have expected the third case, where an open verdict recorded, to be available. The case is noted in the records, but the file cannot be located,” the email stated.
Further enquiries by the force revealed that there are a significant number of police files that are similarly missing, and not just those relating to the Jesus Army.
“Anecdotally this appears to be down to inconsistent storage policies and estate clearance,” the email stated.
“This is not an acceptable position, but it is not isolated to files relating to the Jesus Army Fellowship.”
DCI Helm went on to say that “without new and specific information we would not be able to reopen the cases.”
A spokesman for Northamptonshire Police declined to comment on the lost files.
A pathologist told the original inquest into Stephen Orchard’s death in 1978 that the teenager’s injuries were consistent with him lying on the track. But the coroner at the time, Michael
Collcut, said the circumstances were “far from straightforward”.
Mr Collcut said he felt bound to make a full inquiry because of letters he had received from parents anxious about the safety of their children.
“It certainly appears to me to be a close-knit community, and that is an unusual way for people to live,” he told the inquest in 1978.
“We have heard that a number of parents have expressed considerable concern about the activities of the fellowship and the community.”
A former friend of Mr Orchard’s told the Chron how surprised he was at learning the police files had been lost considering how foul play was never ruled out back in 1978.
He vividly remembers talking to Mr Orchard in the two days before his death.
“He was very quiet and thoughtful that evening,” the source said.
“He said ‘I want to talk to you about something, but I need to get it clear in my mind.’
“He didn’t seem deeply troubled. I thought he may have fallen for a girl or something. That was usually the case with the young lads.
“I am not perfect at judging people, but if someone was suicidal you would get an indication they were depressed.”
Mr Orchard’s death was reported just 18 months after another suspicious fatality at the Jesus Army’s Bugbrooke headquarters, according to files from the Chronicle & Echo’s archives from the time.
Gavin Hooper, a clerk at a solicitors’ firm, was found dead in a field by his lodgings. A coroner later ruled the death as accidental.
A pathologist told the inquest the 26-year-old had died of exposure and coroner Mr Collcut ruled the death as accidental.
Ten years later, the demise of Mohammad Majid, a 24-year-old with a history of mental health troubles, was also the cause of suspicion.
Mr Majid died after reportedly “going for a swim,” in an underground well at New Creation Farm.
Though a verdict of accidental death was recorded, coroner Collcut revealed he had misgivings about the case.
He said: “This is not the first time I have held an inquest on members of this religion cult where circumstances have been bizarre, to say the least.
“I do find difficulty in accepting with confidence evidence from members of the cult.”