Operator who worked on biggest missing persons case of 1990s retires from Nottinghamshire Police

A Nottinghamshire control room operator who helped resolve one of the biggest missing persons enquiries of the 1990s is hanging up her headset after three decades.

By Lucy Roberts
Monday, 16th August 2021, 2:35 pm

Sam Sargent was part of a team involved in an international manhunt after Abbie Humphreys, who was just three hours old, was taken from the Queen’s Medical Centre by 22-year-old Julie Kelley, who had disguised herself as a nurse.

The adrenaline and urgency that followed in those few weeks in July 1994 – and the sheer relief when Abbie was found ­- made this one of many memorable moments of Sam’s 35-year career with Nottinghamshire Police.

At the news of the kidnapping, a special policing team in the control room was put together. They dedicated their time to taking calls and organising information on the case so that officers investigating Abbie’s disappearance were kept fully briefed.

Sam Sargent has retired after 35 years at Nottinghamshire Police.

“The force set up an incident room specifically for the case. We would have calls coming in from all over the world; reporting suspicious incidents or possible sightings. Information and support came flooding in both locally and nationally including a few calls from clairvoyants". Sam said.

“It was our job to make sure we gathered all this potential intelligence and that the officers investigating were kept fully updated with the latest information that was coming in.

“The adrenaline and urgency was felt by everyone within the investigation. Everyone got to work and set the wheels in motion to help find this vulnerable little girl, who was only three hours old when she was taken from the QMC".

“I remember putting in long hours during the period she was missing. I would go home, sleep, and then come back to work. It’s safe to say we lived and breathed that investigation.

“She was missing for 17 days, which especially in this situation seems like an age. Everyone pulled together, including the control room team and partner agencies, to gather and share as much information and intelligence as we could.

“It was such a relief when she was found safe and well. It felt like a huge accomplishment in that we had all done our respective roles well. I remember getting the update and I just felt so utterly overwhelmed.

“Now as a mother I look back and I can’t imagine what the family must have gone through. They both got the help they needed and it’s moments like that which give you a stark reminder as to why you do your job and how rewarding it is when there is a positive outcome.”

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Kelley was arrested and once at court was sentenced to three years probation.

Sam kick-started her time with Nottinghamshire Police as a keen 18-year-old back in 1986. Over her first few years, she spent time in the mail room before moving on to front counter roles at both Oxclose Lane Police Station and Sutton Police Station.

Having thoroughly enjoyed the direct contact with the local community and supporting those who asked for help from the police, she made the decision to take up a control operator role in the control room, which was based in Radford Road at the time.

This role turned out to be hugely significant for Sam personally, making lifelong friends who to this day she considers to be an extension of her family.

“It was just like a family, when you work with a shift you do become that close. We looked after each other, always making sure our colleagues on the street were safe. We also met socially and it felt like a real supportive community,“ said Sam.

“This really helps when you’re dealing with phone calls and incidents that can be distressing. To know that you have that extra level of support helps to process your thoughts and feelings afterwards".

“Over the years there have also been a number of mental health related incidents and concerns for safety which have come through to me, and as someone who is an advocate for raising awareness of this and helping people with their mental and physical wellbeing these have definitely stuck with me.

I’ve been on the phone a number of times with those who unfortunately are feeling extremely low and emotionally distressed. The main focus for me is always to keep them on the phone and keep them talking to ultimately keep them as safe as possible whilst we’re working in the background to triage various bits of information out and get them the help they need.”

In 2002, Sam made the move to force headquarters after a change which saw the control rooms move from a divisional set up to being split between the Sherwood Lodge headquarters and Mansfield.

“I thoroughly enjoyed the role and when the control rooms were moved I did find it really sad. It was a huge change and meant I wouldn’t necessarily be seeing these people which I’d grown so close to every day,” she said.

However, the move was meant to be and little did Sam know that her time at headquarters would turn out to bring a positive and significant change in her life. It was during this role that she met her husband, Lee, who was also in the control room.

She said: “I had known Lee briefly before but as a result of the move I began to crossover working with Lee and his group."

“I remember one incident, which I believe is a key moment when I realised Lee was the one for me. He had taken a call from an elderly lady who had unfortunately had her handbag stolen. Afterwards, he went round all the women in the office and asked if they had spare handbags. He got a collection together and subsequently took them to the lady for her to choose a new handbag as a replacement for the one that was stolen.

“He truly went above and beyond in this and it showed how caring and dedicated he was to helping people.

“We got married in 2008, after four years and two children together.

“When I say the friends I made through policing are like family, there’s no better example of this than at our wedding.

“We were facing various challenges that present themselves when you’re looking after two children and the wedding was always something we’d been working towards in the future.

“However, we were so humbled when we found out they had all clubbed in and virtually organised the wedding for us.

They pulled out all the stops, including arranging a police guard of honour at the church, a friend learned to play the flute for the opening ceremony. Another friend arrived from Wales to take me to the church in his dad's red Jaguar which incidently matched my dress. As we walked into our reception we were met by the full police band which totally blew us away".

“It was most certainly a marriage created by friendship and love and it was an extremely special day.”

After 35 years in the force, which has seen many career and personal developments, Sam is now retiring from policing. However, wanting to help people is something she says has always been at the heart of who she is, and as a result she is now forging a new career as a counsellor.

She said: “Whilst I was a control operator I was also a force contact for any wellbeing issues, where it was my role to get involved with wellbeing meetings and understand how we could improve physical and mental wellness in officers and staff.

“This included taking a look at various plans we were looking to put in place as well as what was already being actioned. Most importantly, we offered a safe space for people to just come and talk.

“I know how listening live to certain jobs can be quite emotionally draining, as well as the effect shift work can have on wellbeing, so we just wanted to create this option for those who were struggling.

“It’s something I’m passionate about and as a result I have now completed a degree for counselling, which I did at 53 years of age.

“If there’s something I’ve learned from the experience, it’s that it’s never too late to work towards a specific goal or change career path, and that includes taking up and switching into different roles within policing.

“I have set up my own counselling service and it’s been great to be able to help and support an increasing number of people. I’m also doing some charity work plus some targeted sessions with people who are unemployed, helping them to realise their true self-worth, to be in the best position possible in terms of their wellbeing to find and stay in work.”

Policing will always be with Sam though, having made many friends and also proudly watching as two of her nieces forge their own careers in the police.

She said: “It’s amazing to see them feel inspired to help people in the way that I do.

“There’s not a day that goes by where I haven’t loved my job or looked forward to going to work, and to still feel the same passion after 35 years is something I think speaks for how brilliant a career in policing can be.

“It does make me really happy that my nieces have been inspired to get into policing. There have been a number of times where they have been on shift at the same time as me and we’ve spoken on the radio, and to see their enthusiasm and dedication to the job makes me feel extremely proud.”

Sam’s Chief Inspector, Simon Crane, said: “Sam has worked across all groups during her time in the control room and with many colleagues. I know that she is universally popular and respected by all.

“Sam is a positive, warm and engaging person who will be ideally suited to her new job as a counsellor.

“I know that I will not be alone though in missing her and especially her distinctive, infectious laughter, and she takes with her all of our good wishes for the future.”

Chief Constable Craig Guildford said: “Operators in the control room are at the forefront of all incidents and are very often the first point of contact when people need us.

“Sam’s career just goes to show what policing is all about, being part of a team, being dedicated and working together to help people, and inspiring others to do the same.

“She has been an absolute asset to the force and I know those she has worked with and those she remains friends with have seen that first hand.

“We thank Sam for dedicating so much to Nottinghamshire Police. Thirty-five years is a brilliant achievement and it’s great to hear she will continue her passion for helping people as a counsellor.

“We wish her all the best with her new venture.”