Ricky's parents face the torment of never knowing if his death was accident or murder

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WAS LAKHVINDER "Ricky" Reel murdered? Yesterday an inquest jury could not decide. The three women and six men who returned an open verdict after six days' examining the evidence were neither convinced the young man had suffered a terrible accident - as the police believed - nor that he had been murdered by racists.

The open verdict, in many ways, illustrates the cruel tragedy of this case. The chances are the 20-year-old's mother Sukhdev, whose frail figure has come to symbolise the "Justice for Ricky Reel" campaign, will probably always be haunted by the unanswered questions.

Mr Reel, her studious and devoted eldest son, was on a rare night out in Kingston upon Thames on 14 October, 1997 when he and his friends were attacked by white racists and scattered.

Apart from a fleeting glimpse caught on a security camera at 21 minutes past midnight, Ricky Reel was not seen again until his body was pulled from the Thames a week later.

His family are acutely aware the racist youths have never been traced. Mr Reel's friends were not asked to provide E-fits or shown photographs of known racists. Security camera footage of people in the area, shown on Crimewatch two years after the attack, failed to reveal clues.

The attackers were believed to have caught a bus out of the area. The new Metropolitan Police enquiry - instigated in October 1998 - has meticulously combed the records of the only bus to have passed at that time. No records or witnesses were found.

Despite collecting hundreds of hours of CCTV footage from nearby shops, investigating officers may have missed crucial evidence because others were not seized in time. One tape was destroyed before it was even viewed.

Mr Reel's parents, Balwant, a carpenter and Sukhdev, a housing officer, remain convinced the tapes could have provided vital clues about their son's last moments, the movements of his assailants and potentially crucial witnesses.

The court was told Detective Superintendent Charles "Bob" Moffat, the officer in charge, immediately dismissed Mr Reel's death as an accident believing he had fallen into the Thames while trying to urinate - his flies were undone.

His family, who insist a deep-seated phobia of open water would have prevented him approaching the river willingly, are convinced this was not true.

No forensic analysis was made at the scene where police assumed he had entered the river. Photographs were taken but no fingerprint examination was made or foliage checked. Pathologists described blunt injuries to his back. Were they caused as he fell into the water, or by being attacked?

Police said his clothing was "undisturbed" and handed them to his mother without making a forensic examination. She discovered her son's new shirt had been mysteriously torn.

In a disturbing echo of the Stephen Lawrence case, the family's concerns were "brushed aside", and it now appears too late to prove anything beyond doubt.

A Police Complaints Authority investigation by the Surrey force concluded that there had been "weaknesses and flaws" in the London investigation into the death and criticised three officers, including Det Supt Moffat, for neglect of duty.

In a bid to build bridges, the Commissioner, Sir Paul Condon announced in October 1998 a new investigation headed by Deputy Assistant Commissioner John Grieve of Scotland Yard's new Racial and Violent Crimes Task Force.

After a year of re-investigation, Detective Chief Inspector Sue Hill later said the team had failed to find anyone who could prove this was anything but a tragic accident. Picking up on an enquiry - a year after the incident happened - she admitted was an "impossible task".

She added: "I am my mother too, and I would want to know what happened to my son."

In life, Ricky Reel was a thoroughly likeable young man with a ready smile and an easy sense of humour.

In death, his case has turned into a political football between a police force determined to demonstrate it now takes race cases seriously and campaigners equally resolute in proving otherwise.

There may not have been a murder committed that night but the chances are that Mr Reel's family will never know.

And that, to many, is the true crime.