Sheila Seleoane is believed to have collapsed and died in the hallway of her Peckham flat in August 2019, shortly after telling her doctor about wheezing and breathing difficulties.
Neighbours grew concerned about her safety when she was not seen for months, her post stacked up high, and a dreadful smell filled the hallway outside her flat. However, her body was not discovered until February this year, when police forced entry to the home.
When police officers were called out twice to Ms Seleoane’s home twice in October 2020, they got no answer but decided they did not have the lawful power to force entry.
A message was then wrongly relayed by the Met to the Peabody Trust, Ms Seleoane’s landlord, that she had been spoken to and was “safe and well”, an inquest at Southwark coroners court heard.
Peabody knew Ms Seleoane has stopped paying her rent the previous summer, but “took no other steps to investigate” after receiving the erroneous police message, the hearing was told.
Ms Seleoane, who was 58 when she died, was eventually found after another 16 months, when neighbours heard her balcony door banging repeatedly and police did force their way into her home in February this year.
Her skeletal remains could only be identified through dental records, and a pathologist was unable to determine exactly when and how she died.
In a tragic exploration of the lengthy period before Ms Seleoane’s death was discovered, it emerged that Peabody had cut off her gas supply in June 2020 – during the first pandemic wave - after failing to make contact.
Voicemails and emails from the Trust went unanswered, and Ms Seleoane had not paid her rent since August 2019. Despite the lack of contact, and while she lay dead and decomposing on the floor, Peabody started taking rent payments out of her Universal Credit benefits in March 2020.
Neighbours say they tried repeatedly to raise the alarm, without success, while a much-delayed independent report into Peabody’s actions is due to be published this week.
“Something went wrong”, said coroner Dr Julian Morris. “There was a delay in raising any flags, there was no real communication as between rent, gas, and neighbourhood manager teams for someone who had until August 2019 and for over five years been in effect a model tenant.
“The lack of rent payment, non-communication with all three departments, and the necessity to cap off her gas supply didn’t trigger any increased suspicion that something might be wrong.”
The coroner added: “To lie undetected for in all likelihood over two years is difficult to fathom in 2022.”
Ash Fox, deputy chief executive at Peabody, struggled to contain her emotions and wiped away a tear as she gave evidence to the inquest on Thursday, saying: “Everyone was devastated”.
She said the independent review ordered after Ms Seleoane’s death had made 37 recommendations that are being implemented, while efforts are being made to contact residents at all its properties to check on their welfare.
“Individual processes were followed successfully”, she said, of Ms Seleoane’s case. “But they were perhaps followed in silo. Dots could have been joined up sooner and we could have done more to raise the alarm more quickly.”
She said the policy around cutting off gas supplies has been changed, and more staff members are being taken on to act as liaisons for residents.
DS Scott Fisher, a Met Police detective called out after Ms Seloane’s body was eventually discovered near to the front door of the one-bedroom home, said he found an “immaculate” home and no signs of a burglary or robbery.
He could identify blue pyjamas and a white top that she had been wearing, and told the inquest he could see remaining parts of her hair and a gold tooth.
“I came to the conclusion in my opinion that she passed away around August 2019”, he said.
“The balcony door was open, the heating was switched off, indicating to me warmer months. Her prescription medication ended around the summer 2019, there was a receipt in her handbag for a visit to the shops in August 2019.
“When we looked in her fridge, the shortest shelf-life article was a dessert – partially eaten – which expired in August 2019.
“I formed the opinion that was when she died.”
He made contact with Ms Seleoane’s half-brother, Victor, who said her father was unknown and mother had already died.
The detective explained that following concerns from a neighbour about a “bad smell”, a police officer visited the block of flats on October 15, 2020.
Speaking to the officer later, DS Fisher said the PC had a “vague” memory of the incident, believed there was “no bad smell”, and concluded he did not have lawful grounds to force entry into the home.
A second officer was called out by Peabody six days later, on October 21, 2020, and came to the same conclusion.
DCI Amanda Mawhinney was put in charge of investigating after the discovery of the body on February 18, 2022, and reviewed the way the Met had handled the incidents and communicated with Peabody.
She there was “confusion” over the police airwaves after the second officer’s welfare check, leading to an inaccurate record being made about Ms Seleoane’s safety.
When a second operator spoke to Peabody later, the message was then passed back that she was “safe and well”, the inquest heard.
DCI Mawhinney said a series of improvement recommendations have been made, including on the thoroughness of police welfare checks, while the call handler who made the inaccurate record would have been referred for a professional standards investigation if he had not since retired.
Coroner Dr Julian Morris returned a narrative verdict, recording the cause of death as unascertained. He recorded the date of death as February 18, 2022, when the body was found.