In 2014 Alice Gross was 14-years-old, living her life as a happy and well-loved teenager in her hometown of Hanwell in West London. A talented musician, she played both piano and violin and spent much of her spare time writing and performing her own songs. On 28 August 2014, she left her home at lunchtime promising to be home by 6 pm that evening.
Alice Gross was murdered by a 41-year-old man who hid her body to delay her discovery before taking his own life. His death has meant no opportunity to bring him to justice for his despicable crime against her or has there been a chance of hearing why he chose to take her life. In the weeks after his identity was revealed his criminal past and conviction for murdering his wife in his native Latvia came to light. It prompted questions and reform on how violent and dangerous criminals living in Britain who are foreign nationals are checked and monitored within the UK.
When Alice Gross failed to return home on 28 August 2014, a full-scale search was quickly launched. It was out of character for this young girl to simply disappear and her family and police were concerned very early that she may have come to harm at the hands of another. Seven days after her disappearance police found the rucksack she had with her on the day she went missing. Inside contained the shoes she was wearing. CCTV footage had captured Alice walking along the Grand Union Canal towpath near her home on the day she vanished. This same CCTV also captured five cyclists riding bikes along the path, cyclists police were keen to identify as possible witnesses.
A case of a missing teenager was quickly upgraded to a case of suspected murder. It was a fast-moving investigation and by 7 September two men had been arrested separately, both on suspicion of murder and both released without charge. One week later, police released the details of the man they believed was responsible for the murder of Alice Gross, even though her body had not yet been found.
This man was one of those five cyclists, captured cycling along the towpath less than 20 minutes after Alice Gross had walked the same route. His name was Arnis Zalkalns, a Latvian man who had entered the country in 2007 and worked as a builder in the local area. He had not been seen or heard from since 3 September, making police more suspicious about his involvement in Alice’s disappearance and now suspected murder.
On 30 September 2014, Alice Gross’s body was found in the River Brent in West London. She had been weighted down with bricks and covered entirely by logs in “significant efforts” to conceal her body. The disappearance and search for Alice had been widely publicized with national news featuring the case daily. Members of the public across the UK watched each news bulletin, desperately worried for this young girl and praying she was found safe and well. So many parents with children of a similar age could identify with the Gross family and imagined how they would feel if it was instead their child who had gone missing. The news that she had been murdered and her body found came as a blow to everyone following the case and devastated her family and friends.
Initial post-mortem results were inconclusive, struggling to definitively find her cause of death due to decomposition and the length of time her body had been in the water. After further tests, the coroner concluded Alice had died from “compression asphyxia,” in an attack believed to have been sexually motivated.
On 4 October 2014, 37 days after Alice Gross went missing; the body of Arnis Zalkalns was found hanging from a tree in woodland in West London, less than a 15-minute walk away from where Alice was found. In an inquest into his death one week later, it was officially concluded he had committed suicide.
“As Alice’s father losing Alice has shattered me. The pain of knowing I will never see, hear or cuddle her again is unbearable.”
The case against Arnis Zalkalns for the murder of Alice Gross was circumstantial. There was no forensic evidence linking him to her murder or any witnesses who could place him with Alice. There was, however, a strong enough case that the Crown Prosecution Service reported that had Zalkalns lived, he would have been charged with murder and faced the Crown Court.
When information was revealed about Arnis Zalkalns, many were angered and appalled. Zalkalns had stabbed his wife to death in 1998 in Riga, Latvia and buried her body in a shallow grave. He confessed to killing her, saying his wife had been going out on her own and he feared she was going to leave him. He was convicted of murder and spent 7 years in prison. After arriving in the UK in 2007, Arnis Zalkalns was arrested two years later in London on suspicion of indecent assault of a 14-year-old girl although no charges were brought against him. When he was arrested, although it seems there was a policy in place for police forces to fully check the criminal history of foreign nationals in their home county, few were aware of it and it was not carried out for Zalkalns. Furthermore, the allegation against Zalkalns did not progress to a charge against him which may have prompted such checks to be made.
The Gross family was represented by Liberty, an independent organisation in support of fundamental rights and freedoms in the UK. They supported the family to push for the inquest into Alice’s death to address the wider issues involved, highlighting that British nationals who commit violent crimes are monitored and supervised after their release from prison, however, these rules did not apply for foreign nationals who enter the UK to live and have prior convictions pertaining to violence and sexual offences.
The Gross family were in support of stricter procedures for checking the criminal history of serious and dangerous offenders who are foreign nationals but highlighted they strongly supported freedom of movement and did not want their daughter’s case to be used in any form of anti-immigrant standpoint. “We do not believe that any citizen deserves to be treated differently based on their race or nationality,” they said, reported the Evening Standard. They called for “careful, targeted reforms to address the inadequacies of cross-border information of high risk offenders.”
This case caused a great deal of controversy around foreign nationals and their criminal histories. Recommendations made at the inquest into Alice’s death included that all police forces must carry out criminal records and Interpol checks on foreign criminals and, that the Home Office should continue to ensure all EU and non-EU countries keep their watch lists with details of criminals with serious convictions updated.
It should not have taken the murder of a young girl to highlight these issues and invoke a serious look at where systems and procedures were lacking. The seriousness of Zalkalns prior conviction in his home country should have raised a red flag against this individual when he came into contact with UK police years before he murdered Alice Gross. Better information sharing between countries to ensure that proactive approaches are taken regarding dangerous criminals is one of the positive actions that has been taken since Alice Gross’s murder.
After the inquest into their daughter’s death, Jose Gross and Ros Hodgkiss said, “Our only concern has been to ensure that there are fair and proportionate rules governing the movement of serious criminals within Europe, whether that is a Latvian coming to the UK or a dangerous UK citizen travelling abroad.” Jose Gross continued “I have felt the need to find out as much as I can about how it is possible that she could have been killed in such a horrific way, and to try and change things so that it doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
Their courageous fight to ensure the issues which meant the violent criminal history of Arnis Zalkalns was unknown to British police when he murdered their daughter has resulted in policy change, laying the foundations for no other child to be unlawfully killed in the same circumstances in the future.