'We had to get out. Life in England was destroying us'

Four years after Leah Betts's death, her family have withdrawn to Scotland. Her father explains why grief and anger provoked the move.

Look," says a man in a soft Cockney accent, gazing out over the countryside. "See that? It means today is going to go well. I feel good now." The incomer, pointing out a floating butterfly from his new home in Scotland, is the father of Britain's highest profile ecstasy victim, Leah Betts.

Today Paul Betts seems happy. As he settles back into his garden chair, he breathes a sigh of satisfaction. In fact, Betts cuts a figure of total contentment.

His new surroundings are partly the reason. It's two months since he uprooted his family from the Essex home in which Leah died to start a new life more than 500 miles away in the Scottish Highlands. He has bought eight acres of land in the middle of nowhere, from where he continues a remarkable (some would say over-zealous) crusade against drugs that began shortly after his daughter's life support machine was turned off.

"Before I first came to Scotland I thought it was a cold, bleak, miserable land full of tight people," he says. "I know better now. It's a great place with great people. In England we felt we were prejudged. Scots people are totally different. I've become part of a civilised race."

Apart from digs at the English, there is a real sense that for the first time since Leah's death on her 18th birthday almost four years ago, her father is finally moving on. No longer has he to put up with the house in Latchingdon which became a deeply unhappy place. Nor will he be frustrated by what he perceives as the "backward" drugs strategy in England that thwarted his attempts to stop other kids following Leah's tragic example.

The lives of Paul, his wife Janet and their youngest son William changed beyond recognition when Leah died. They went from being average parents who knew next to nothing about drugs to Britain's foremost unofficial experts on illegal substances, particularly ecstasy. Today their lives revolve around the anti-drugs voluntary organisation and confidential helpline which they run.

Their knowledge of drugs is now extensive, and their contentious conclusions - that the long-term effects of cannabis are just as dangerous, if not more so, than heroin, and that tobacco and alcohol are a bigger menace than ecstasy and LSD - form the backbone of their anti-drugs campaigning. "Yes, I know what drug abuse is all about," says Betts, a former smoker, who watched in agony as his father died of cancer 17 years ago. "The only difference is that mine was legal."

Do not, though, expect Betts to tell kids not to use drugs. "Parents find it difficult to accept that there is a pleasurable side to drug taking. They see the dross, the bad side, and think that their kids have got to be off their heads to use drugs."

Leah's death in November 1995 was the culmination of the Betts family's own annus horribilis. A few months earlier Paul had been medically retired from his job as a police inspector after he was called to a wedding where an angry mother was trying to halt her daughter's marriage. She "canned" him with a soft drink tin, the ring pull sliced his eyebrow, curled round the eyeball and severed an artery. He is going blind in his right eye.

On Christmas Day 1994 his mum Sarah died and his Aunt Blanche, who had cared for her when she was ill, passed away shortly afterwards. Their youngest son William almost died there as well. Ten days after having his tonsils removed he haemorrhaged, and lost three pints of blood in three minutes. His life was saved only after a frantic dash to hospital.

After being asked to talk to a local Jewish society about the heartbreak of losing Leah, Paul and Janet went on a massive learning curve and became the virulent anti-drugs campaigners they are today. But the sheer intensity of their crusade soon took its toll. William, a vulnerable 11-year-old when Leah died, was mercilessly bullied at school. Paul, meanwhile, spent most of the week reliving his awful experiences at venues around the country, then returned to the house where it all happened, inhabited by a family threatening to self-destruct.

"We had to get out," he says. "That house holds only memories of grief for me. Every time I got back it reminded me of the terrible things that had happened there. If we had stayed put our family would have been destroyed."

The Betts's aren't backward at coming forward. They tend to tell it like it is and then some. The result has been threats from drug dealers and accusations from others that they were cashing in on their daughter's death. Their approach also drew heavy criticism from official anti-drugs agencies who dismissed the couple as hysterical, grieving parents intent on scaremongering. And all the while the drug problem has been growing.

Betts believes that Scotland outshines the rest of Britain in tackling the problem with its hard-hitting zero tolerance policy. It's a contentious opinion, even in Scotland. "I've never met the Betts's but opinions of them in our field vary from being excellent to reactions that are not very complimentary," says one senior Scottish drugs officer. "I don't agree that Scotland is doing a better job, though. Mr Betts's perception may come from the fact that we are a much smaller country, and it's always easier to appear more co-ordinated when you've not got as much to deal with."

Certainly Scotland's lack of ethnic diversity is a major factor in making the problem appear more contained, and Scotland's willingness to call people in from outside suggests a more open approach - although this could also indicate a lack of self-confidence in the Scottish drugs agencies.

The family now lives off Paul's police pension, and has accepted only travelling expenses and charity donations. So far, they say, their crusade has left them more than pounds 10,000 out of pocket.

Paul's only regret in moving was leaving Leah's grave behind. Yet he feels that she is with him. At one of his first public meetings, when he was feeling down, a butterfly suddenly appeared. It hovered around briefly, then the evening went wonderfully. Similar "sightings" have happened since.

"You can call me a cranky old man," he says but I feel as though Leah is saying she's with me and I should keep up the work. If I've got a problem and a butterfly appears, I know everything will be OK."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.


ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    The Green Recruitment Company: Operations Manager - Anaerobic Digestion / Biogas

    £40000 - £45000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Operation...

    Recruitment Genius: IT Projects Engineer

    £18000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Account Director - OTE £60,000

    £40000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Inbound Sales Executive

    £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Inbound Sales Executive is required t...

    Day In a Page

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent