Director Erica Gornall gives an insight to what it is like to get the inside track to a fast-moving murder investigation in the latest Catching a Killer episode for Channel 4. As she embeds with the police investigating a shooting, she explores why crimes that can get forgotten matter.
My phone started buzzing under my pillow at just past 7am on Tuesday 13th September 2017. There’s no way this would be a social call. In fact, my phone coming to life would most likely signal the death of someone else. This was because I was one of the film-makers on call with the Thames Valley Police major crime unit. Normally when they call, there’s been a murder.
“Erica, someone has just died of a gunshot. We’ve launched a murder enquiry and will be searching for the suspects.”
I looked around my room in West Hampstead, London – things hadn’t quite gone to plan the evening before and I was without my filming bags and camera.
“How long until you have your briefing?” I asked hopefully.
“As soon as I finish all my calls to the team and they can get into the Milton Keynes office. So ASAP.”
As soon as I got off the phone, I pulled on the nearest clothes (a rather fetching gym kit), ran to the nearest train and made my way to the office. Call after call to people sounding rather sleepy later, I had a skeleton team who were able to jump into a taxi to Milton Keynes. At this notice, there was not enough time to get a hire car, so we squeezed three people and three camera kits into a Toyota Prius, driven by a rather bemused Uber driver.
Despite our best efforts, we were not going to be able to make up the time to get to the first briefing. We missed the beginning of the briefing by three minutes and so the first 57 minutes was spent stuck in the corner of the police reception waiting for the briefing to end. That is a lesson we learnt throughout filming- if you are even a minute late, you miss it.
We had to work hard to not miss things because this was such a fast moving case. In the first few hours, the team went from not knowing anything about the suspects to preparing for an interview with a man who had strangely handed himself in. The police were having to scramble as events overtook the best-laid plans and the police station was becoming the centre of the case.
Mike, the senior investigating officer, initially viewed me with caution and was very polite- which I think prevented him from evicting me from his office as often. “This is one of those cases that you were bound to come across eventually, where you will struggle to tell the story,” was my first morale-boosting pep talk. It was going to be tricky – this was a gun crime, which racked up the danger levels. It opened links to organised crime and I could see a week of loitering down corridors as behind close doors the work was being done.
As it happened, there was so much action that unusually this world normally closed to the police temporarily opened, as suspects began to talk. Kev, the main interviewer, and the rest of the team worked 18 hour days as I hovered and filmed where possible. We had cameras also filming searches, with the main officers and in custody so we had to do shift patterns to stay on top physical form. Whenever the police were working, so were we. It was gruelling work but the dedication of the team I followed reassured me. It’s more than a job. What I witnessed was a mindset, of never believing anything until the evidence was there, picking through statements and wanting to find out who was responsible for shooting a bullet through the window.
The level of access to the police has really gone up a level – and gives a rare insight into the debates and uncertainties that crop up while investigating a complex case. I was privileged to work with officers that were happy to show this and this creates a level of access to police work not seen before in a documentary setting.
When a murder happens, a massive team emerges from all over the Thames Valley patch to help solve it. People in the main major crime team are joined by force CID and response in a bid to track down the people who do the worst crime – taking away a life. One of the hardest jobs emotionally is for those who speak to the family. As soon as Suhaib – our victim – was officially identified, officers had to make the trip to tell his father. It will come as no surprise that this door knock caused shock and trauma for the family he left behind.
They too were victims of this shooting and they had been thrust into the public sphere through no wish of their own. It is brilliant that now this project has galvanised them to speak out, and in the most humbling way, share their story to help other families who may have young adults who may wish to experiment in a world that turns out to be dangerous.
As soon as I met Suhaib’s family, I saw a family who had lost their son and brother to a world they did not know or recognise. The press might label this as ‘organised crime’ but for many young people – myself included – older and exciting people can sometimes blur the lines of which activities to get involved in. Social media can make this world look harmless and even glamorous, but for some who are on the fringes of it, the ultimate price is paid. The devastation left behind with the family and the pain of him not being able to prove himself as an older man really came across when visiting the family.
Sadly for the family, and despite the accounts of the perpetrators, the gun does not discriminate. Time cannot be turned back and if this film stops one more gun being fired, making this film will have been worth it.
This film has become a source of strength to many in Suhaib’s family. His father Alibile, after watching the film turned to me and looked me square in the eye. “This is about saving lives and saving families from going through what we have gone through. If one family notices their child is with the wrong person, this will be worth it.” For him and his daughter Somayah, they have shared their story to save future families being torn apart. I have been humbled by their humility, strength and dignity in the hardest moments of their life.
About the director:
Erica Gornall produced and directed Catching a Killer: A Bullet Through the Window. She is a BAFTA and Orwell prize nominee, having previously produced and filmed ‘Behind Closed Doors’ with Anna Hall for BBC1. Erica has spent the last two years filming and producing the first two Catching a Killer films. The series has been shortlisted for the 2018 Broadcast Awards for Best Documentary Series. This is her directorial debut.
She has a long and established track record in documentary, having previously filmed and worked on Breadline Kids and Looking After Mum.