How brutal murder of Canadian teenager Ashley Wadsworth changed how police tackle domestic abusers

Jack Sepple and Ashley Wadsworth
Credit: Ashley Wadsworth/Facebook
Ashley Wadsworth with her partner Jack Sepple, who had a history of violence and went on to kill her. Credit: Essex Police

The tragic death of a a young woman from Canada who was killed by the British boyfriend she met online has sparked a police force to take a fresh approach how it handles domestic violence.

Ashley Wadsworth, 19, was killed in February 2021 by her partner Jack Sepple, who stabbed her 90 times at their home in Chelmsford.

The teenager had come to visit him from her home in Canada and was subjected to his controlling and threatening behaviour until it was too late.

It emerged that Sepple, who was sentenced to life for her murder, had a history of violence against women but it never came to light, and that Ms Wadworth had never contacted police.

Ashley Wadsworth's family spoke after the case of the trauma they had suffered.

In the wake of the case, Essex Police has reorganised the way it deals with domestic violence to try to stop similar cases ever happening again.

Ashley Wadsworth came to the UK to be with her boyfriend Jack Sepple. Credit: Family picture/Essex Police

The force has changed the way it identifies domestic abuse perpetrators most likely to kill, looking now at indicators such as coercion, control and stalking - the first force in the country to do so.

It believes its new approach could flag up high risk partners and catch them before they kill.

In the case of Sepple, his history of offending would have brought him onto the team's radar.

Ashley Wadworth's grieving mother spoke in an ITVX documentary about the risks of toxic relationships.

Det Sup Matt Cornish is behind the creation of a new database which lists high risk offenders and believes it could prevent women like Ashley losing their lives

He said: "Police were never called about any incidents between Ashley and Jack Sepple.

"However this database allows us to identify suspects or perpetrators that pose a risk to other victims and proactively contact the victim to highlight the risk they could be exposed to."

Ashley Wadsworth, in cap and gown, with, from left, her mother Christy, niece Paige, sister Hailey and step-mother Charmaine. Credit: Essex Police

Det Supt Cornish hopes the new database will be a fitting tribute to Ms Wadsworth.

"I think the legacy is that we needed to better identify the perpetrators at risk and get on the front foot," he said.

"We know domestic abusers move between relationships - we need to move with them and protect and safeguard the victims they go to."

The force's domestic abuse team now works from a database of 123 people across the county, of which 11 are women.

They have all repeatedly shown behaviour including coercion and control, stalking and harassment which, police say, are proven signs which can lead to domestic violence and murder.

Det Sgt Hayley Lambert, from Essex Police, said: "Everything that we do is with a view to keeping the victim safe so we do that by managing perpetrators we have identified as posing the greatest risk of committing a domestic abuse homicide.

"It's a more proactive side of policing when it comes to domestic abuse. Most forces are reactive so it's just giving victims reassurance that there is a team of people out there managing the perpetrators that pose that risk to them."

The work the team does is largely pre-emptive - an officer is assigned to each person on the database and carries out a range of interventions designed to prevent them from offending.

They can visit potential victims to make sure they feel safe and that potential attackers are not breaching any conditions designed to protect their partners.

A domestic violence protection order is usually in place for 28 days, usually with the victim's consent, sometimes without, but within that space of time the team aim to visit them three or four times to check it is being complied with.

Det Supt Matt Cornish hopes the new database will be a fitting legacy to Ashley Credit: ITV Anglia

Det Supt Cornish said one person on the database had 11 linked offences which raised a red flag.

"Those offences are coercion and control, false imprisonment, stalking, harassment and malicious comms. They have 11 of those type offences... they've come to our attention on 11 occasions from several different victims, all alleging that type of behaviour against them.

"The key thing is we are going on multiple victims saying these perpetrators are exhibiting this type of behaviour, so we need to look at that."

He now hopes this new method will be rolled out to other forces.

Essex Police is the first force in the country to bring in the new system.

It is a challenging task as the force receives 42,000 reports of domestic abuse a year.

The database looks at three years' worth of data to identify people who the police say have repeatedly demonstrated behaviour such as coercion and control and stalking, often with multiple partners.

Offenders can be put on a behaviour change programme or in some cases pursued through the courts to try to secure a conviction.

According to Essex Police, in the past year reports of domestic abuse crime are down by 6%.

Officers admit they cannot attribute it solely to their new way of working, but believe getting ahead of the most dangerous offenders can only help those they need to protect.

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