Sheila Seleoane: hard to grasp how body was not found for years, says coroner

It is “difficult to comprehend” that a model tenant could have died and lain undisturbed in her flat for more than two and half years despite not paying her rent and neighbours raising the alarm, an inquest into the death of Sheila Seleoane has heard.

The coroner, Julian Morris, said it was “clear something went wrong” when Seleoane’s repeated failure to engage with her landlord, gas engineers or the police failed to trigger any suspicions.

The body of Seleoane, 61, a medical secretary who appears to have had no friends or close family, was found in February after a member of the public alerted the police to storm damage to the balcony door of her flat in Peckham, south London, and officers forced entry.

“Any death is sad. To lie undetected is difficult to comprehend,” Morris said as he concluded the inquest.

The case attracted publicity because of the unusual length of time Seleoane’s body went undisturbed at the block, Lord’s Court. This was despite neighbours complaining repeatedly about the smell to their landlord, Peabody Trust, and requesting it carry out a welfare check on her.

An independent report on the case commissioned by Peabody published on Friday was scathing over the housing association’s failure to detect that its tenant had died, or live up to its corporate ambition to be a “human and kind” landlord.

The report, by the consultants Altair, found there were several missed opportunities to discover her body, as well as 89 attempts to contact Seleoane between August 2019 and February 2022, that were not followed up.

These included reports of maggots and flies from her flat within weeks of her rental payments stopping in August 2019. One report to the Peabody customer hub from a neighbour in October 2020 mentioned the smell was like “a dead body”.

“What may have been a designed as a service centred on the customer failed to wok. Instead, the focus became the processes themselves and Peabody appears not to have seen the triggers, listened to Ms Seleoane’s neighbours or to have joined the dots,” it said.

Peabody officials failed to ensure any “meaningful contact” with Seleoane, the report said, preferring instead a “transactional” approach that treated the sending of email, text, letter or phone message as evidence the job had been done.

Peabody’s neighbourhood managers had unusually large “patches” by industry standards, being responsible for up to 1,200 units each, meaning they could not easily follow up individual cases.

The culture of the organisation needed to change, it added. “There is no doubt that Peabody’s reputation has been damaged, with stakeholders, the sector and importantly, with its tenants. There is work to do to restore their reputation,” the report concluded.

Peabody Trust managers who gave evidence at the inquest admitted they had “failed to join the dots”. Ashling Fox, the trust’s deputy chief executive, said: “We could have raise the alarm sooner.”

Asked about the effect of the case on Peabody staff, a visibly upset Fox said: “You could see everyone was devastated. I don’t think anyone goes into work to do a bad job.”

In a statement, Peabody’s chief executive, Ian McDermott, said:“We are devastated at what has happened. We are so sorry for our part in this and apologise to Sheila, her family, and everyone living at Lord’s Court. When taking action in this case, we didn’t ask the most fundamental question: is Sheila OK?”

Police who found Seleoane’s badly decomposed body told the inquest that the dates of shopping receipts and food cartons found in her flat suggested that the probable date of her death was August 2019.

The inquest heard that a local Peabody manager had asked the police to carry out a welfare check in October 2021. However, a police error meant they mistakenly reported back to the manager that officers had “spoken to the resident [Seleoane], who was safe and well” and the case was closed.

Morris said medical files showed Seleoane had suffered from inflammatory bowel disease in the past, and had contacted her GP about a chest complaint in August 2019. But there was no evidence of a cause of death, and he issued an open conclusion.

Even if her landlord had responded more speedily, it would not have had saved Seleoane’s life, the coroner said. “She was already dead,” he said.