Presenter: Hello and welcome to Cambs Cops: Our Stories.
Today we're going to be discussing Operation Laysan, one of the force’s most mysterious investigations.
In September 2015 Ricardas Puisys vanished from his home in Wisbech. A murder investigation was launched by the Major Crime Unit and the hunt for his body began.
Ricardas had not been seen for three years before the investigation took an unexpected turn, but it was another two years before detectives discovered the truth behind his disappearance.
After five years searching, police found Ricardas living in undergrowth in Wisbech, having fled his abusers and a subsequent investigation into modern day slavery began.
In this episode we speak to Sergeant Chris Acourt who was part of the initial team to raise concerns for Ricardas, as well as Superintendent Adam Gallop, who led the Major Crime Unit investigation into the bodyless murder.
In April this year the investigation featured on Channel 4's 24 hours in Police Custody. One question we've been asked a lot since then is - how did Ricardas manage to charge his mobile phone? Let's see if Chris and Adam have the answer.
Superintendent Adam Gallop: The disappearance of Ricardas Puisys came into the Major Crime Unit in December 2015 and by the time it came to us the level of concern around him was clearly very high, and it was it was quickly declared to be a murder investigation and obviously the complexities that sit behind a no body murder investigation.
So, at that time there'd been a high level of local investigation, so the first stages are about trying to understand as much as we can about Ricardas and also understanding how the concerns for his welfare had come to light.
One of the things, and there are many, but one of the things that made this investigation kind of unique and different is that nobody ever reported any concern for person. He was never reported missing, there was never a crime reported and, you know, I will never forget that it's a huge credit to the initial officers, the tenacity and compassion they stay showed, to follow through and check on Ricardas’ welfare.
So at the point that he disappeared he was around about 35 years old, he lived in a variety of multi-occupancy addresses in Wisbech and he'd come over to work in the agricultural sector several years before he'd been missing.
He seemed to be a character who may well have been a victim of exploitation. He had, and that was apparent from an early stage, you know, this was a man who was connected with organized crime groups, but clearly was not a major player within those groups.
He didn't have a car, he didn't have many friends, he didn't have access to any family locally, he appeared to live very much from hand to mouth and was dependent on other people, and it became apparent quite early on during the investigation who some of those people were who had control of his bank accounts and control of his movements. So, we had early inquiries with the with gang masters that he was working legitimately for, about how salary was paid or how wages were paid and how duties were arranged and it was clear that Ricardas wasn't operating independently.
Ricardas’ identification cards were found in a park in Wisbech just discarded on the ground and handed in by a member of the public. For a Lithuanian national ID card is absolutely vital. From the inquiries that we made we started to understand how important this document was, without it and without any application to get another ID card, life in Lithuania for him would really not be sustainable. He wouldn't be able to travel, so he wouldn't be able to get back into Lithuania legitimately without this ID card, so not only was it significant that we had it, but it was also significant that he didn't apply for a renewed card at any point, and that's why although we made a number of inquiries back in in Lithuania, especially around the media and family contact, I think there was always a sense that he probably hasn't gone back to Lithuania, because there was no trace of life, no proof of life for him in Lithuania.
So, it was apparent around about late September he had been moved from one property to living in another, that he'd been quite badly assaulted and beaten and there were accounts that talked about him being punched in the head with a key and blood spurting out, and we were able to identify an address where that assault appeared to have taken place, or certainly the witness evidence was that's where the assault had taken place. Also around about and after his disappearance, so after those closest to him and, I reiterate people were not very close to Ricardas, but those closest to him reporting some concerns about his well-being had said that a number of men had been looking for him and some comments had been passed such as kind of you know – “where is he?” - “he's in big trouble” - or comments such as - “you're not going to see him again” - and - “don't worry about him anymore” - so when we put all those bits of information together it was a very sound hypothesis at that time that Ricardas had come to some significant harm. So, has he been assaulted and killed? At that time - probably - was the answer,
So, after a few years of investigating this, then clearly, you know, the trail goes cold, there are no viable lines of inquiry and we would pick it up periodically, because maybe we had a little bit of information that suddenly came to light, or there might be six months of you know a prolonged period with no activity and then we get a couple of weeks with a bit of downtime, pick it up have a look at it and try and generate some lines of inquiries ourselves, but Ricardas for five years was never far from the thoughts of any of us involved in this investigation, but the activity around it certainly went in peaks and troughs.
Then of course, in the in the summer, late summer 2018, we become aware of a Facebook page that has popped up in the name of Ricardas Puisys, which is a really quite extraordinary turn of events.
Sergeant Chris Acourt: Information started to come through and intelligence started to come through, again through some of our Eastern European staff who work on the team and who were working for the Major Crime Unit, to suggest that Ricardas might actually be alive.
If I’m blatantly honest, myself and my team had full confidence that something sinister had happened to him and that he was dead, so we were a little bit sceptical when this intelligence and information came in.
Superintendent Adam Gallop: So, the Facebook page at a time when and, clearly I'm not alone within the investigation team, where we're pretty satisfied with the hypothesis that this is a no body murder investigation, does take a little bit of time to digest and really think logically through what's happened here with the Facebook page. Has it been created as a sick joke? Has it been created as a smoke screen? Has it been created by Ricardas? But it was unbelievable at that time that he might be alive, but if he was alive then how could it be that he's alive? Where could he be? Why is there no proof of life? And so, you know, if he's alive there's immediately a concern that he is a victim of modern day slavery, or that he is in such fear of coming to harm that he's hiding somewhere. So, he's either kept or is hiding and, either way he's terrified, so how we deal with this information requires a little bit of careful thought, and trying to crunch through the intelligence and some of the tactics behind that Facebook page and mobile phone devices that may be using to access the Facebook page, which became technically quite challenging for a number of experts that we enlisted the support us over a sustained period of time, and led us to Asda in Wisbech. Again I would say, you know, people know the ending of this story is that we found him in some woods close to Asda. It took many nights and many visits and much engagement with people from the street community, the Lithuanian community who are living rough or hanging around the park in the cemetery area. It took engagement with them before you know the hunt through the woods was found to be successful.
Sergeant Chris Acourt: The time that he was found I was actually with the officers that found him and discovered him and it was myself who actually identified him as being Ricardas.
If I'm honest, I was absolutely gobsmacked that he was alive. I mean, he looked, for the amount of time that he'd been in the woods, in quite good health, albeit you know he was obviously dirty and fairly unkempt, but he was in pretty good, pretty good health. Obviously a bit shocked to see us at the time of day that we found him, because it was about three o'clock in the morning, but the fact that he was living in those woods for four and a half years was absolutely incredible.
For someone to be so absolutely terrified that they feel that the only way out is to live in an isolated condition for four and a half years, through you know for all the seasons, including I think the Beast From The East, he was in the woods for that sort of period of time. It's an incredible feat that he accomplished, but also very sad that he felt that was his only way out.
He was actually going through bins and finding bits and pieces of waste, he's come across various batteries and devices and bits and pieces of wiring, which he managed to use, and ultimately, he's come up with a system of managing to find a small solar panel which he's rigged to a scooter type battery or a small battery system which is then given a trickle charge through to a mobile phone, and what this has enabled him to do over, like a 23-hour period, he's managed to charge the phone very slowly throughout the day, to give him an hour of power at some point during the evening for him to then use.
What people have got to understand - he wasn't using the phone constantly, he was not online, he wasn't looking at apps, he's not ringing in and out, so the phone was generally hardly being used. It was getting a trickle charge throughout the day and then he was using it for a small amount of time to go online at night to link him to Facebook, but it wasn't the first phone he found. It was probably the fourth phone that he found; first couple of phones he found didn't work, I think he found one that did work but it didn't have a sim card and then I think he managed to find a phone that worked with the sim card. After about three and a half years, which enabled him to then get online, and utilise Facebook to make contact with his family, so it's quite an ingenious system, but he's cobbled things together and over time with trial and error he's come up with a system that's worked which has enabled him to get online.
I mean, he did have like I said grooming stuff there, that was one of the things that we found which is quite predominantly in place, when we actually located him, but clothes and bits and pieces he found he obviously got from there to charity bins, and from charity bins, and pieces like that, so they were there and quite readily available for him to pick up.
He also, for a period of time, was using water from a derelict property which was quite close to where he was in the woods and bringing water back so he was using that to wash, but once that was demolished he was actually collecting water from a stream, and the stream water he was he was bringing back and utilizing that to wash himself, and shave himself, but he knew that personal hygiene and keeping clean was the way to keep healthy, so I think one of the things that was very important to him was his personal hygiene and bits and pieces like that. So, he kept his hair short, he shaved when he could, he washed as much as he could, he tried to make sure he had clean dry clothing which he kept in certain areas which was hanging up and available to him to use, so yeah he used a variety of methods. I don't think he's done any military service or anything like that, but I guess he's learnt and picked things up over the time, things that work things that don't work, and after four and a half years I guess you get to know what works and what doesn't.
Far more importantly is we've got him out of that situation and given him a second chance, which who knows, you know another winter in there could have been enough couldn't it?
A lot of the potential victims of slavery sometimes don't know that they're actually victims, they don't know they're being exploited, they don't know their rights and entitlements, they don't know that they are a victim and it needs somebody from the outside who might be looking in to make that report for us to know and like I said because the victims don't come forward it makes it a very difficult crime to initiate and investigate. So, you know, like I said I would just urge the members of the public if they're not happy with something, if they've got a feeling that something is just not quite right, it's not a waste of time, it's not a waste of anybody's time. I'd rather go somewhere find out everything's legit and fully above board, than not go anywhere and see somebody stay within a modern slavery environment. So yeah, it's just appealing for the public to just keep their eyes open and if they're not happy make that report.
Superintendent Adam Gallop: I was elated to find Ricardas alive and well and then be able to know that support could be put in place around him for him to rebuild his life. You know, that's why we do the job isn't it? Every each and one individual victim, you know let's not get lost in the volume, how much crime do we have today, you know there are individual people out there whose lives really matter and I really hope and believe that, you know, Ricardas who is not an old man, he's got loads of years left and I hope and believe he will have a better life now because of what the officers were able to achieve that night.
Presenter: Thank you to Chris and Adam for speaking to us about such a fascinating and mysterious investigation and thank you for listening.
Remember to look out for the next episode of cams cops our stories on our YouTube channel.
If you've been affected by the content of today's podcast or want to know more about the signs of modern slavery please visit www.stopmodernslavery.co.uk for more information.