Case nine: Michael Gilbert

On 10 May 2009, Michael Gilbert’s headless, dismembered body was found in the Blue Lagoon at Arlesey, near Luton. He was 26 years old and there is evidence that he had an undiagnosed mental health issue.

What happened

Almost a year later, in April 2010, six people were jailed for involvement in his murder – three of murder and three of familial homicide. The ringleadaer was James Watt, who had met Michael when they were both in care as teenagers.

Michael had lived with the Watt family for much of the seven years prior to his murder. He was kept as a domestic slave and tortured over much of that period. He was beaten on many occasions, punched and stamped on, stabbed with a knife, shot with an air pellet gun and had snooker balls dropped on his testicles. In the weeks before his death a piece of wood was put in his mouth on which James Watt would do push ups and his stomach was repeatedly jumped on.

Michael attempted to escape the Watt family on a number of occasions, trying to find safety both within Luton and further afield in Norfolk, Cambridge and Lancashire. On each occasion he was tracked down by the Watt family, taken back to their home and beaten. A number of these abductions were reported to the police but none of them resulted in effective action to protect Michael.

The response

Some information is taken from the serious case review, other information is extracted from confidential sources.

Michael met James Watt when he was 14, while they were both in care in a children's home. Michael's early years had been characterised by instability. He came into care following an allegation that he had sexually abused a young boy. After meeting James Watt, he became involved in petty crime. On leaving care his life was unsettled and he had periods of homelessness.

Michael first went to live with the Watt family in 2001 after a period sleeping rough. Within months he was experiencing violence at their hands. As early as October 2001, more than seven years before he was murdered, Michael told Luton social services that he wanted protection after a dispute with James Watt and Watt's mother. This was one of many missed opportunities to help him find safety away from the Watts.

In January 2002, Michael's family told Bedfordshire Police that he had been abducted and seriously assaulted by the Watt family. There was considerable delay in conducting an investigation into the allegations. Basic intelligence checks that would have supported Michael's account were not done. Michael was regarded as blatantly lying in order to try and cause others considerable inconvenience. Michael's physical height and build compared to that of his alleged kidnappers were thought to make the scenario he stated had happened farcical.

The incidents were subsequently no-crimed (i.e. the police decided that no crime had occurred) on the basis that Michael had ‘a very long history of making false, malicious complaints about his family... it is clear that this is also a false allegation and therefore should be reported as a no crime’. The history of false allegations was, in fact, a case of mistaken identity and related to a different Michael Gilbert, who was a different age and ethnicity and from a different area. There was also misinformation from health and social care services.

The pattern of Michael escaping the Watt family but being hunted down and brought back recurred over the following six years. On a number of occasions, the Watt family contacted the Department for Work and Pensions and quoted Michael’s national insurance number to discover where he was signing on before snatching him back. The police were made aware of several of these abductions but either did not believe the accounts of violence and abduction reported by Michael and his family or decided that Michael was free to make his own decisions without considering the duress he was living under. As with the first reported abduction, there was often a delay in properly investigating a number of the abductions and assaults reported to the police.

Following one abduction, from Cambridge, Michael was arrested in connection with a separate offence in a shopping centre in Luton in the company of James Watt. He was interviewed in the presence of an appropriate adult, a legal protection that must be made available to ‘young people under the age of 17 and adults who are mentally vulnerable’[1]. After the police had satisfied themselves that Michael was not a suspect in the offence they were investigating, they asked him about the abduction. He confirmed that he had been taken against his will from outside the job centre in Cambridge by James Watt and two women (the three people subsequently convicted of his murder). He had been driven back to a house in Luton, where he had been assaulted. He refused to make a complaint saying: ‘it will only make it worse for me in the long run. I just wish to return to Cambridge without fear of them following. I do not wish anymore to do with them. At the moment I will not support a police prosecution and will refuse to attend court.’

While Michael was being interviewed, James Watt and others were waiting for him outside the police station. The police arranged a rail warrant for Michael to return to Cambridge and took him to the railway station via the back entrance to avoid the Watt family. Michael moved to Blackburn later in 2007. On 28 January 2008, while on his way to sign on, he was again taken away in a car by the Watt family. This was the last time he would escape.

Towards the end of 2008 the violence intensified. On 12 January 2009 a 999 call was made using Richard Watt's mobile phone. It appears that Michael made this call, giving the false name of Aaron and claiming his younger brother was being threatened. The police attended at the house but there is no record of what action they took. They were called back to the address soon after regarding another matter not involving Michael but did not see him. This incident was 10 days before his death.

Four days later, on Friday 16 January 2009, Michael was seen badly injured when signing on at Luton Job Centre. The clerk noticed that he was ‘not moving freely and didn’t look right’ and had ‘a myriad of cuts and bruises and grazes around his face’. The clerk asked about the injuries and Michael replied that he’d been in a fight. He declined the clerk’s offer of medical assistance.

Assaults continued over the next few days including jumping on Michael’s stomach. Afterwards Michael, in extreme pain, lost control of his bowels and was barely able to walk. He died soon afterwards, between 21 and 22 January 2009.

James Watt, the ringleader of the abuse, had 14 previous convictions for 22 different offences. There were also a number of unprosecuted allegations of violent sexual assaults on teenage girls and physical assaults on members of his family including: his disabled uncle (with the first assault being reported to police in 1997), his mother (who he was alleged to have threatened with a knife), and his brothers.

Opportunities for agencies to intervene to protect Michael were not taken. Evidence given at the inquiry hearing suggested this was at least in part because agencies did not consider that he met the definition of a ‘vulnerable person’ within the terms of the No Secrets[2] guidance. Michael was not considered to be disabled, even though he had sought medical help for anxiety, depression and auditory hallucinations suggesting that he had a mental health issue. He was also interviewed by the police with an appropriate adult on a number of occasions. The absence of a formal medical diagnosis of his mental health issue appears to have led to agencies not regarding him as disabled. As a result, he was not referred to adult safeguarding and agencies did not share information so the wider picture of the risk that he faced was not considered.

In evidence to the inquiry, the independent chair of Luton Safeguarding Adults Board, Professor Michael Preston-Shoot, said there were problems with the definition of a vulnerable adult, and that agencies did not intervene to protect Michael because it was not clear that he met the criteria: ‘even on those occasions where it was obvious to individuals that he had a degree of vulnerability it was by no means obvious that he was not a competent, autonomous, self-determining, decision-making adult’. Michael’s fear of the Watt family and the impact of coercion on his decision-making do not appear to have been taken into account.

We believe there was scope for agencies to act, not only under the terms of No Secrets but also having regard to their positive obligations as public authorities under the Human Rights Act 1998 to protect the rights to life and to freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

1 National Appropriate Adult Network website

No Secrets is the policy framework for adult protection in England and Wales. It defines a vulnerable adult as someone over the age of 18 ‘who is or may be in need of community care services by reason of mental or other disability, age or illness; and who is or may be unable to take care of him or herself, or unable to protect him or herself against significant harm or exploitation’. Department of Health, 2000, No secrets: guidance on developing and implementing multi-agency policies and procedures to protect vulnerable adults from abuse. Available from Department of Health website.


None of the assaults or abductions of Michael Gilbert that were reported to the police prior to his death resulted in anyone being charged or prosecuted.

Six people were jailed for involvement in his murder. James Watt was convicted of murder and sentenced to life with a minimum term of 36 years. His girlfriend Natasha Oldfield and his brother’s girlfriend Nichola Roberts were also convicted of murder and given minimum terms of 18 years and 15 years respectively. An appeal against their sentences was rejected.

James Watt’s mother Jennifer Smith Dennis and brother Robert were convicted of familial homicide, an offence that only applies to the death of a child or ‘vulnerable adult’, and sentenced to 10 and eight years respectively. James Watt’s brother Richard Watt pleaded guilty to familial homicide. He was sentenced to six years, reduced to four on appeal.

Although the case was not prosecuted as a disability hate crime, three people were convicted of familial homicide, an offence which only applies to the death of a child or vulnerable adult.[3]

3 Familial homicide was introduced as an offence in England and Wales by the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 (no equivalent is currently in place in Scotland). According to the Crown Prosecution Service, ‘for the purposes of this offence a vulnerable adult is defined as a person aged 16 or over whose ability to protect themselves from violence, abuse or neglect is significantly impaired through physical or mental disability or illness, old age or otherwise (s. 5(6))’. Available from Crown Prosecution Service website

Review process

Luton safeguarding vulnerable adults board conducted a serious case review into Michael’s death. The Terms of Reference focused on Michael although his contact with James Watt’s family was also included within the serious case review report along with a summary of reported offending by James Watt.

It is clear that the Watt family had extensive contact with a number of public authorities[4], including police, probation and social services, and the review might have benefited from wider Terms of Reference, looking at interventions with the perpetrators. The report concludes that: ‘neither Adult B [James Watt] nor his family benefitted from accepted wisdom in child welfare and youth justice which holds that early intervention is crucial to achieving good outcomes (see, for example, Home Office, 1997; and Department for Education and Skills, 2004)’. Nevertheless, the recommendations do not address these issues.[5]

Michael Gilbert was widely described as ‘disabled’ in press reporting at the time of the murder trial. However, at an inquiry hearing the chair of Luton safeguarding vulnerable adults board, Professor Michael Preston-Shoot, asserted that Michael did not meet the definition of a disabled person contained within either the NHS and Community Care Act or the Disability Discrimination Act. However, other evidence that had been sent to the inquiry by agencies involved in the serious case review suggested that Michael had an undiagnosed mental health issue:

  • He was interviewed by the police with an appropriate adult on a number of occasions, a protection usually only afforded to adults considered ‘mentally vulnerable’.
  • Sometimes the appropriate adult was requested by Michael himself, suggesting he regarded himself as being disabled.
  • On other occasions the presence of an appropriate adult was instigated by the police, suggesting that they recognised that Michael may have had a mental health issue or learning disability.
  • Michael visited GPs on a number of occasions regarding anxiety and depression and was prescribed anti-anxiety drugs.
  • He was referred to a psychiatrist regarding auditory hallucinations, although he failed to attend.
  • The offence of familial homicide only applies to the death of a child or vulnerable adult. Three people were found guilty of this offence in relation to Michael’s death. The court, at least, was satisfied that Michael Gilbert was a ‘vulnerable adult’, a term linked in law in England and Wales with disability.

The final report of the serious case review recognises that Michael may have had ‘undiagnosed mental health problems’, that a diagnosis of depression ‘may have been appropriate’ and that ‘it is questionable whether or not the across the board assumption that Adult A [Michael] had capacity was reasonable’.

The serious case review report found:

  • As early as his time in the children’s home, Michael had asked for help to keep away from James Watt.
  • Little evidence of attempts to address his sexualised behaviour in his childhood and teenage years which included allegations of abuse against both his sister and another child.
  • No evidence of effective inter-agency work during his childhood and teenage years, as implied by the Children Act.
  • Insufficient support when he was in care and leaving care.
  • Lack of co-ordination resulted in agencies making decisions within their own terms rather than on the basis of the overall picture.
  • Michael was assumed to have mental capacity without formal assessment, even when he was making decisions not in his own interest. The impact of coercion was not considered.

Independent Police Complaints Commission findings have been published in relation to this case.[6]

For example, according to the serious case review report, pp4-5, the police visited the Watt family home on 35 occasions in 2001 alone.

5 Flynn, M., 2011, The Murder of Adult A (Michael Gilbert): A Serious Case Review, p14, Luton Safeguarding Vulnerable Adults Board.

6 See Independent Police Complaints Commission

Last Updated: 05 Mar 2014