In November 2018, a young nurse lifted the lid on a scandal which rocked the NHS in Blackpool to the core.
The final year student had been shocked by comments made by a senior nurse. She had been told to sedate a difficult patient with prescribed drugs which hadn’t been prescribed
As the concerned staff member reported her concerns to seniors, it sparked an investigation into Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust – revealing a culture in which patients were ill-treated, drugs were stolen and women were sexually harassed.
Then, eight days after the police were called in, tragedy struck. A 75-year-old patient died on the ward. Valerie Kneale suffered a horrific sex attack while on the unit and died from her injuries on November 16. A murder investigation was launched but to this day, no-one has been brought to justice for her death.
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During the four year investigation into a “culture of abuse” on Blackpool Victoria Hospital’s stroke unit, thousands of people have been interviewed and several arrests have been made. Several members of staff have been convicted of offences relating to the theft of drugs, ill treatment of patients and sexual harassment.
However none of those convicted have been linked to Mrs Kneale’s death. In March 2023, the charity Crimestoppers offered a £20,000 reward to help catch the killer. The money remains unclaimed.
Speaking on BBC Crimewatch, Mrs Kneale’s niece, Lisa Jaffier, said on November 12, 2018, her aunt was admitted to hospital following a stroke at her home in Knott End-on-Sea.
“She was checked over and she was doing ok, she was sat up, communicating, obviously she was going to have challenges in her recovery, but we were all hopeful of a positive outcome”, she said. “Her children wanted to stay with her that evening, but the hospital said she was in the best place, there is no need and she is going to be absolutely fine.”
On Valerie’s first night in hospital, she had another stroke and her family was told the outlook was not going to be good, so made the decision not to have any further treatment. Valerie died on November 16 surrounded by her family. Lisa added: “Losing her left a huge gaping hole in the family, the week before she was fine then a week later she wasn’t with us any more.”
Her family were not looking for answers and expected the post mortem to say she died of a stroke, but the truth was devastating. Lisa said: “To think that someone did that to a lovely person at a time when she was helpless, at her most vulnerable, where she couldn’t shout out, she couldn’t defend herself.”
Police feared they were dealing with a predator who could strike again. A five year investigation at the NHS trust has seen three staff members facing prison sentences for abuse of patients and staff. But no-one has been charged in connection with the attack on Mrs Kneale.
Last Thursday (October 5), Catherine Hudson, 54, was convicted of three counts of ill-treatment of patients, after a court heard she administered sedatives ‘for her own amusement’ and to make her job easier. In the witness box, she claimed staff routinely stole sedatives to cope with the comedown effects of class A drugs.
In a covert recording, taken from her home in Blackpool, she told a family member, ‘the whole ward is corrupt’, and said there were things she and colleagues said they would ‘take to the grave’. Hudson clearly wasn’t alone in her professional deviance. Since the investigation was launched, six members of staff from the stroke unit have clocked up criminal convictions for offences committed at Blackpool Victoria Hospital.
In addition to the charges of ill-treating two patients, Hudson was found guilty of conspiracy to ill-treat after sickening text messages showed her discussing plans to sedate a ‘nightmare’ patient so he would ‘sleep like a baby’. She admitted theft from her employer, conspiring to steal drugs and perverting the course of justice, after she attempted to hide evidence at her home.
Her colleague, Charlotte Wilmot, 47, an assistant practitioner, stood trial beside her and was convicted of conspiracy to ill-treat. She too admitted conspiring to steal drugs.
Hudson’s partner, Marek Grabienowski, a band 7 nurse who at one stage ran the hospital’s A&E department, pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to steal drugs from his employer, and perverting the course of justice.
Victoria Holhouse pleaded guilty to conspiracy to steal from her employer and Matthew Pover admitted being concerned in the supply of class C drugs, theft by employee and conspiracy to steal from his employer.
In May 2023, healthcare assistant Hernando Puno, 52, was jailed for sexually assaulting colleagues after Burnley Crown Court heard he thought it was funny to slap women’s bottoms and kiss them. He carried on with his ‘cavalier’ behaviour after being given a written warning by his employers, the court heard.
Judge Andrew Jeffries KC sentenced him to nine months in prison telling him: “You treated young women as objects to be patted, squeezed, cuddled and kissed without a thought of whether they wanted to be or not.”
This coming December will see Hudson, Wilmot and Grabienowski sentenced for their part in the criminal conduct on the stroke unit. Hudson has been told a prison sentence is inevitable and Wilmot warned a custodial sentence is ‘overwhelmingly likely’.
Holehouse and Pover have already been sentenced but to date, no-one has been charged in connection with Mrs Kneale’s murder. A post mortem found she died from a haemorrhage from a ‘non-medical related internal injury.’
In March 2021, a healthcare professional was arrested on suspicion of murder, rape and sexual assault, but was not charged. Almost five years after her death, the investigation remains open.
Speaking at the launch of the Crimestoppers appeal, Det Ch Insp Jill Johnston said the force remains ‘fully committed’ to the investigation and hoped that the monetary reward will help “provide that key piece of information to help unlock the case”.
“For four years, Valerie’s family have been left devastated by her death – they want and deserve justice,” she said. “Her murder is truly tragic and heart-breaking.
“She was a patient in the hospital, receiving medical treatment when she was subjected to a horrific attack which ultimately led to her death. We know someone has had this on their conscience for more than four years now. Do the right thing. Come forward and speak to police – help us to solve this terrible crime.”
In a statement following the most recent convictions, of Hudson and Wilmot, Trish Armstrong-Child, Chief Executive of Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, apologised to patients and their families who had been affected by the behaviour of staff at the hospital.
She urged anyone who had concerns to speak up so that – as in the case of the student whistleblower – their concerns could be addressed quickly. She said: “It is very clear from the evidence heard by the jury that inappropriate and unacceptable conduct and practices were taking place at the time and I want to say sorry to patients, families and other colleagues who were impacted by that.
“It’s important now to reassure local people that Blackpool Teaching Hospitals has made significant improvements across a range of issues including staffing, managing medicine and creating a more respectful culture.
“Part of these changes have been to actively encourage anyone who comes into contact with the Trust in any way to speak up if they see or hear anything that causes concern or they are not comfortable with in any way. That’s critical to identifying issues quickly and putting improvements in place to ensure people feel safe in our care.
“Lastly, it’s important to recognise that the Trust employs a team of more than 8,000 people who work so very hard to provide safe and respectful care every day and night. Regulators have repeatedly highlighted ‘caring’ as a strength, this is a key area for all inspections to consider. I want to say thank you to all colleagues who are doing everything in their power to support patients and their families.”