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Tuesday 5 June 2001
Jury members in the inquest of a black man found hanged in Telford were yesterday warned that they would hear “shocking evidence” of racism leading up to his death, as well as threats to his life. The coroner, Michael Gwynne, gave the warning as he opened the inquest into the death of Harold “Errol” McGowan, whose body was found in a house in the Shropshire town on July 2 1999.Mr Gwynne urged the all- white jury of seven men and four women to focus solely on the evidence relating to Mr McGowan’s death and ignore anything they had heard about that of his nephew Jason who was found hanging from roadside railings in Telford on January 1 2000.Mr Gwynne also urged the jury not to be influenced by the death by hanging in Telford of Johny Elliot whose body was found last Thursday. Mr Elliot was a friend of Mr McGowan and the third black man to be found hanged in Telford in the last two years.
Mr Gwynne told the jury that after studying papers relating to the case: “It became abundantly apparent to me when reading the file that once again a number of fundamental problems in our society, and in particular racism and unacceptable behaviour, have been brought into the public arena.
“I have to warn you that some of the evidence you will hear you will find quite shocking. Be that as it may, you must listen to it.” Mr McGowan, 34, worked on a building site and as a doorman at the Charlton Arms pub and hotel in the town.
Just five days before his death, the coroner told the jury, a woman phoned the Charlton Arms. She asked if Mr McGowan was working that night and when told by a receptionist that he was not, the caller said: “Well he’s a black bastard and he’s dead.”
The coroner told the jury that they would hear that Mr McGowan had told a friend of the racial harassment he was suffering and that three days before his body was discovered he had expressed his concern to the friend in a 45- minute conversation.
Mr McGowan had gone to the police about the harassment and death threats and Mr Gwynne said it had had a terrible effect on him. Colleagues and associates from the Charlton Arms would be called, said the coroner, and the jury would hear evidence of the graffiti scrawled on wood panelling inside the hotel. Mr Gwynne said: “You will no doubt be astonished to hear of the amount of harassment they encountered on a regular basis. You will be horrified to hear of the racial harassment Mr McGowan suffered and the effect it had on him.”
On the day his body was found Mr McGowan had left his home early in his van. By 12.17pm his long-term partner Sharon Buttery called the police to report him missing because he had not turned up at work. The inquest heard that Miss Buttery told West Mercia officers that Mr McGowan was depressed and was on Prozac.
Malik Hussain, a friend, went looking for Mr McGowan and spotted his white van outside a house belonging to another friend of Mr McGowan’s.
After shouting and banging on the door without reply, Mr Hussain called the police.
The first officer on the scene, Sergeant Mark Churms, told the jury he had to break into the house, which was secure. “I picked up a brick, a stone to the right of the door and smashed a window in the centre of the front door.” That front door led directly into the lounge where Mr McGowan was suspended by an electric flex which had been cut off from an iron and attached to the door knob. Mr Churms said: “I touched Errol’s neck to see if there was any pulse, there wasn’t. Errol’s body was cold and there were some signs of rigor mortis.
“Errol’s back was against the door and he was sitting almost at a right angle position with his legs touching the floor. His bottom could be described as being one inch, possibly two inches off the floor.” Mr Churms said that there were no signs of any forced entry into the house and none of the objects near Mr McGowan’s body appeared to have been disturbed or broken. By the time Mr Churms had arrived, Doreen McGowan, Mr Gowan’s sister, had arrived having been alerted by a family friend. She screamed and ran into the house. She saw her brother’s body.
The first day of the delayed inquest was attended by the six brothers and sisters of Mr McGowan. Watching also was his mother Icyline, 65.
Peter Herbert, counsel for the McGowan family, criticised Christopher Bestall, the first forensic investigating officer on the scene. He said the decision by Mr Bestall not to wear protective plastic covers on his shoes risked contaminating the scene. Mr Bestall admitted that this was a possibility but denied that he had been told by police officers that the death was a suicide before he had even begun his examination. West Mercia police’s investigation into Mr McGowan’s death was heavily criticised by his family. Mr Gwynne told the jury that they would hear from 60 witnesses and have nine statements read out.
They would hear a tape of a phone call Mr McGowan made to the police complaining of death threats and also see a video reconstruction. The jury will also hear evidence of an anonymous letter received by police on January 31 2000 which led them to widen their investigation and also of allegations of the involvement of “certain organisations in the death”, said Mr Gwynne.
The inquest is being held at the Moat House Hotel in Telford and is expected to last at least four weeks.
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Telford man committed suicide, jury found
by The Guardian Staff and agencies
A black doorman who was found hanged committed suicide, an inquest jury decided today. Errol McGowan was found hanged from a door handle at a friend’s house in Urban Gardens, Telford, Shropshire on July 2 1999.The jury of six men and four women took nearly eight hours to reach a majority verdict of eight to two. The inquest heard how Mr McGowan received death threats and was victimised in a campaign of racial harassment in the weeks leading up to his death. But in his summing up, the coroner, Michael Gwynne, said there was insufficient evidence to return a verdict of “unlawful killing”.Members of Mr McGowan’s family have said they do not accept they verdict. They have criticised the West Mercia police for treating the death as a suicide when his body was discovered. Six months later Mr McGowan’s 20-year-old nephew, Jason McGowan, was found hanging from railings near a sports centre in the town on New Year’s day 2000. The family say that both men were murdered. An inquest into his death will be held later this year.
The family’s solicitor Errol Robinson said: “The verdict is not accepted by the family because the opportunity to give a definitive answer as to how Mr McGowan died was lost forever on July 2 when the police mindset resulted in the scene not being treated as a crime scene, which the circumstances and background clearly dictated. “All witnesses, police and experts, accept this failure meant that third party involvement could not be ruled out.
“There was a clear agenda in the police evidence given at the inquest to argue for a verdict of suicide that would provide a justification for their failings and incompetence.
Mr McGowan’s brother Clifton added: “Personally I am not surprised by the verdict. It is a sad day for us to receive a suicide verdict.” Earlier the hearing heard how Mr McGowan and two doorman at the Charlton Arms Hotel, Telford, suffered racial abuse by a gang of 10 to 15 white youths. Members of the McGowan family claimed police repeatedly ignored or dismissed their race-hate fears. The jury was told that Mr McGowan visited police on at least two occasions and told them of the racial abuse he was suffering. On one occasion he phoned them and told them he feared for his life.
The inquest heard that Mr McGowan had other problems in his life, including pressures on his relationship with his partner Sharon Buttery. The jury was told by forensic pathologist Dr Nathaniel Cary, who reviewed the findings of the post-mortems carried out on Mr McGowan, that third party involvement could not be ruled out. However, Dr Cary stressed there was no “direct evidence” of someone else being involved in the death.
Two other pathologists, who actually examined the body, had earlier told the jury that there were no signs of a violent struggle or third part involvement.