In 2014, Police Scotland concluded that there were no suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of Stefan Sutherland, a young man from Caithness in the far north of Scotland. However, revelations by UK Column in 2017 and the Daily Record in 2019 forced a reopening of the investigation. This was announced in October 2019. Nearly two years later, on 7 September 2021—eight years to the day after Stefan died—Police Scotland issued the long-anticipated report.
The reinvestigation was called Operation Husten, the German word for “cough”. An odd choice, one might think, as “cough up” is a common idiom for handing over information reluctantly.
The remit for Operation Husten included the following:
- Establish the full facts surrounding the death of Stefan Sutherland
- Respond to allegations that witness statements were not recorded by Police Scotland
- Address concerns that Police Scotland failed to interview material witnesses
- Address family concerns regarding the failure by Police Scotland to seize and examine mobile phones
- Develop a strategic communications strategy [UK Column note: this is also known as public relations or propaganda]
- Maintain business as usual across affected divisions by supporting and reassuring staff
- Provide support to Police Scotland staff through briefings and health and welfare assistance
- Respond to spontaneous and pre-planned [community] events
- Maintain confidence in Police Scotland
Most of that remit might be summarised as reputation management by Police Scotland; that is to say, keeping Police Scotland’s image unsullied, and public sentiment untroubled by adverse media and social media reports. This concentration on brand protection is concerning, but at least the first item within the operation’s terms of reference was the all-important issue in the case: Establish the full facts surrounding the death of Stefan Sutherland.
So how well did Operation Husten perform in this vital task?
The operation was led by Detective Superintendent Graeme Mackie, a Senior Investigating Officer of the Major Investigations Team (MIT) based in Aberdeen. His report boasted of a further 170 witnesses identified and an additional 181 statements taken, 59 of which fell into the highest category of importance and were recorded on video. This was, according to DS Mackie, not just a rubber stamping of the previous investigation but a thorough, detailed and wide-ranging cold case investigation, “starting from scratch”.
This claim, unfortunately, does not survive a reading of the actual report. Page after page of analysis of Facebook posts forms the bulk of the document. To this is added cod psychology to conclude that Stefan was “depressed”. This unqualified adjective is woven into the picture to suggest suicide, as Police Scotland had already done at a previous stage of the Stefan Sutherland case. Yet even the Operation Husten report admits that Stefan had regular contact with his GP (family doctor) and that the GP did not consider him depressed.
Neither did his family; nor did his many friends at multiple football clubs, where he was a star player (he was voted the fans’ favourite at Helmsdale United FC). After stating without reservation at one point that “Stefan was depressed”, the report later admits that “there are also many factors that do not support this hypothesis”. The simple truth is that Stefan Sutherland had no clinical history of mental illness. The “Stefan was depressed” narrative came almost entirely from Facebook chit-chat.
To substantiate their inexpert conclusion of “depression”, Police Scotland refer in the report to a psychologist who apparently provided advice concerning the case. But there is no psychologist’s report included, and the psychologist is not named.
Stranger still, the main conclusion of the investigation seems wholly to rely on this anonymous psychologist’s opinion:
Based on the evidence and information considered, it was concluded by the psychologist that his death was either the result of an impulsive suicide or an accident that may have been linked inextricably with his depression/suicidality.
Who decided what happened? “The psychologist” did. What is the name of this expert? We do not know. What are the expert’s qualifications? We do not know. What were the expert’s brief and terms of reference? We do not know. Did the psychologist have any conflicts of interest? We do not know. What information did the expert have? We do not know. Did the psychologist talk to Stefan before his death, or to his friends and family? No. Did the expert talk to the suspect named by the family, Stewart Dixon, before Dixon’s death? We suspect not.
One of the few firm pieces of evidence in the report is the toxicology assessment. This showed no trace of any drugs, either prescription or recreational, in Stefan’s blood. That finding contradicted numerous references to cannabis-smoking and even cocaine-snorting in the Operation Husten report. So we know that, despite police insinuations to the contrary, Stefan was not taking any drugs for at least a substantial period before his death.
The toxicology report also estimated that Stefan had consumed between 367 ml and 438 ml of alcohol between 10 pm and midnight on 6 November, and that within 30 to 45 minutes of his last alcoholic beverage he was dead. This means he was very drunk indeed late that evening and could have had difficulty walking, will have exhibited slurred speech, and may have been at risk of vomiting when he left the Bayview Hotel in Lybster—less than an hour before his death. This does not leave much time. Timing is a critical issue in death investigations, yet no timeline is offered in Police Scotland’s “thorough and detailed” report.
Then there are the errors in the Operations Husten report. These include an allegation of an argument with his family on the night in question that is flatly refuted by the family—and that would seem entirely inconsistent with any reasonably reconstructed timeline of Stefan’s movements the night he died. The report also alleges that Stefan had wrecked his flat in frustration, but the owner of the flat reported no such incident, and Stefan’s security deposit as tenant was returned to the family in full.
Facebook messages between Stefan and his brother in Canada were wrongly claimed to have been between Stefan and his father, and were used to suggest lack of support for Stefan among his local family members in Caithness. The most charitable interpretation of the errors would be that they are slipshod, but after nearly two years of attention from the MIT, a high-level Scottish police team, that does not convince.
“No evidence” of homicide
Was there foul play? Despite their heavy reliance on Facebook chatter, Police Scotland are apparently able to answer that part of their brief definitively—and in a single sentence. After nearly two years of thorough reinvestigation, the police analysis in full on this pivotal question was:
There is no evidence to support this analysis.
Now, the last person to see Stefan alive was Stewart Dixon (whom, while he was alive, we referred to as Witness D in our 2017 article Stefan Sutherland: The Unanswered Questions). He was considered by Police Scotland to be a notorious local drug dealer. Dixon had previously assaulted Stefan, causing him to be hospitalised. Numerous witnesses place Stefan Sutherland in Shelligoe Road at Stewart Dixon’s house in the narrow window of time between his leaving the Bayview Hotel and losing his life.
Stefan Sutherland’s blood was found on the interior wall of Stewart Dixon’s house. Immediately after these events, friends of Stewart Dixon purchased large quantities of bleach. The sofa from Stewart Dixon’s living room was burned in the garden of his house the very day Stefan died. Stefan had a tablet computer with him when he disappeared; the remains of a tablet are visible in a photograph of this garden bonfire. A witness claims that Emma Crowden, who was with Dixon and Stefan that night, had admitted to them that Stefan was murdered in the house in Shelligoe Road.
“No evidence of homicide,” says Detective Superintendent Graeme Mackie—not insufficient or insufficiently reliable or credible evidence, but no evidence at all. Such a police assertion is simply not credible.
Not even a conclusion regarding suicide
And did the reinvestigation achieve its primary goal—to establish the full facts surrounding the death of Stefan Sutherland? The report states that:
It is not possible to make a definitive retrospective statement regarding whether Stefan took his own life in 2013.
In short, Operation Husten proved to be a two-year review of Facebook posts that produced an incoherent, inaccurate and often self-contradictory attack on Stefan Sutherland and on his family. It failed in its primary goal and its report places the responsibility for its main conclusion not on the police investigatory team but rather on the opinion of an unnamed psychologist.
Husten—we have a problem.