“I told a police officer that my son was missing, please help me find him, and she said, ‘If you can’t find your son, how do you expect police officers to find your son for you?’ ” she told Sky News.
The 19-year-old had been taking extra precautions due to the risks of the coronavirus compounded by his sickle cell disease. He left the family’s West London home March 22, saying he was going to visit a friend.
When his mother, a nurse, returned from a night shift, she said, her son’s bedroom was empty. He had left without his coat, wallet or medication.
“Maybe it’s the culture, my language barrier,” Joel told Channel 4 News last week, adding that she believed officers considered her to be “one of those African women who was being frantic” and did not immediate take action to find her son. An extensive campaign built momentum on social media, with thousands calling for the police to step up their investigation.
Using the hashtag #FindRichard, Twitter users united in an effort to help find the teenager, sharing images of his face and information about his last known location on a variety of social platforms.
“Even in cases without significant publicity, the public can be reassured that work will be going on behind the scenes,” a Metropolitan Police spokesman told The Washington Post in a statement. “We are not aware of any formal complaints,” the statement continued, adding that the Met’s Directorate of Professional Standards is aware of the case.
Okorogheye was captured on CCTV footage boarding a bus in West London at 8:44 p.m. and again while leaving a taxi in the early hours of March 23 and walking toward Epping Forest, in the county of Essex, some 20 miles from home. This is the last known sighting of the university student.
Police confirmed Monday that they had found a body during a search of an Essex woodland and had alerted the family. As of Tuesday afternoon, the body had not been formally identified.
“On the afternoon of Monday 5 April the Met was informed by colleagues from Essex Police that the body of a man had been found in a pond in Epping Forest,” the statement said, adding that the inquiries into the case were ongoing and officers remained at the scene.
Speaking to British media outlets Tuesday, Joel said, “My baby will never come home,” adding that officers had told her the body they found matched the description of her son.
In an interview with Channel 4 News last week, Joel said that while she now considered officers to be taking her son’s disappearance seriously, she was originally told that “Richard is an adult, he can come and go at any time,” and felt strongly as though her concerns were overlooked.
The case of Okorogheye’s disappearance comes as backlash builds in the country after the publication of a government-commissioned report ordered by Prime Minister Boris Johnson following last year’s British Black Lives Matter protests. The study described Britain as a model for race relations and found there to be “no institutional racism” in the country — a declaration many deemed divisive and insulting.
Black Lives Matter U.K. said that the researchers’ findings overlooked “disproportionality in the criminal justice system — particularly as police racism served as the catalyst for last summer’s protests.”
Police in London were also widely criticized in March and forced to defend their actions after clashing with attendees and dragging mourners at a vigil for a woman allegedly slain by one of their officers.
Okorogheye’s case also comes amid protests in cities across the country, with thousands gathering in recent weeks to denounce a bill designed to give authorities broader powers to clamp down on peaceful protests. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill has been condemned by critics as “authoritarian,” leading to tense interactions with officers in which objects and fireworks were hurled in the city of Bristol in March.
Joel also said that police had confused her when they asked if her son was known to the police. She told them that police would not have had interactions with him because is a “good boy” who “avoids trouble.” She told the broadcaster that she believes officers let both her and her son down in those crucial early days.
“His favorite food is spaghetti,” she said, before the body was found. “It’s sitting there in the fridge waiting for him. I made a sauce for him.”
This report has been updated.