Death in Chelsea: How did Mark Saunders come to die in a shoot-out with police?

It seemed Mark Saunders had plenty to live for – a well-paid job, brilliant career prospects, a happy marriage. So how did he come to die in a shoot-out with police? Andrew Johnson uncovers a dark and complex story
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The Independent Online

We seem to have been here before: a young man is shot dead by police, and the next day's papers fall over themselves with lurid headlines accompanied by pictures of armed officers in balaclavas and ballistic vests.

"Iraq veteran shot dead" was one headline in an early edition, implying a combat-crazed Rambo figure had run amok, unable to cope with the psychological scars of war. Mark Saunders, 32, the story went, had on Tuesday opened fire after an argument with his wife. It was also reported that, as a former Territorial Army reservist, he had received weapons training, a point that seemed to emphasise his skills as a marksman, as a killer – and as a greater threat to the public.

As with the case of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian electrician shot in 2005 after being mistaken for a suicide bomber by police, the original tale has unravelled day by day since the story broke.

Mark Saunders was not a trained killer but a brilliant family lawyer, described as "up and coming" by the Chambers and Partners guide to the legal profession, and seen as a likely QC. He was educated at Oxford, earned around half a million a year, and had apparently worked on Chris Tarrant's divorce settlement. He was in the TA, but left around five years ago and there is no suggestion he had been to Iraq.

He most likely did receive weapons training as a TA soldier, but the weapon he fired from his £2.2m home in the exclusive Markham Square in Chelsea, central London, was a legally owned shotgun, something the soldiers who contribute to army blogs say, scornfully, is not part of armed forces training.

There had been no argument with his wife, Elizabeth Clarke, 40, who said she and Mr Saunders had been "deeply committed to each other". Those who knew them described the pair as a "golden couple".

Ms Clarke hadn't even been in the couple's home at the time of the shooting. Indeed, he had thrown a cardboard box out of the flat during the siege with the words "I love my wife dearly" written on it.

So all that is left is a peculiar human tragedy – and the theory, not discounted by the Independent Police Complaints Commission, the body that investigates all police shootings as a matter of course, that Mr Saunders wanted to take his own life by the relatively new method of "suicide by cop". He was reported to have a drink problem and suffered from depression. Witnesses said he was drunk during the five-hour stand-off with police. His family have been left heartbroken and perplexed.

Although a drunken, emotional man wielding a shotgun represents an obvious danger, questions are now being asked as to the appropriateness of the police response, not least by Mr Saunders's father, Rodney.

"He didn't endanger anyone at all to my knowledge and we can only surmise what might have happened before the whole thing started," Mr Saunders said. "We will want answers as to why the police shot him."

On Boxing Day 2002, Eli Hall, 32, who had a history of violence, holed himself up with a hostage in his flat in Hackney after firing at police who were examining a car parked in the street. Police evacuated the entire street in which he lived and laid siege to the flat for the next 15 days, fearing that Hall had two firearms and a stack of ammunition. In the end the hostage escaped after 11 days and a fire broke out, killing the gunman.

The police have clear guidelines for opening fire in situations such as this. Once authorisation is given, Scotland Yard says the object is to disable the threat by firing at the torso. The aim is not necessarily to kill – unlike the clear shoot-to-kill policy followed with potential suicide bombers – but the possibility of fatality is accepted.

In the Saunders case, police said they believed the barrister represented a danger to the public and officers and feared he would open fire if they tried to evacuate the street. Mr Saunders died from five bullet wounds, from three different guns. Nine officers from the CO19 gun squad are believed to have opened fire.

Dr Nathaniel Cary, a pathologist, said at the opening of the inquest on Friday: "The multiple gunshot wounds present are associated with severe internal damage to the brain, the heart, the liver and the main vein of the lower body.

"The external and internal gunshot-related damage is consistent with a minimum of five shots having hit the deceased. There was no evidence of any injury attributable to a shotgun."

The Markham Square siege began at around 5pm on Tuesday, when neighbours heard shots fired from the flat and alerted the police. A neighbour, Jane Winkworth, said: "Mark came in and he was quite quiet. I was in the garden doing some shoe designs.

"About half an hour later I heard gunshots being fired into the garden. I assumed it was an airgun and he was shooting pigeons but after he fired two more I realised it was a proper gun.

"When I screamed at him to stop, he didn't say anything. It was as though he wasn't listening.

"I ran into the flat, terrified, and called the police. All he kept saying to the police was 'I can't hear you'.

"He was mumbling stuff like a drunk person would but he wasn't shouting or being aggressive apart from when he was shooting. The shots were very loud. They were absolutely terrifying."

Another neighbour, Lesley Hummel, said: "He was standing at the window, which he hadn't bothered to open. He was just firing through a hole in it. I went to the ground level and discovered he had been shooting at my daughter's bedroom window. Thank God they were not there."

The inquest has been adjourned until September, and the IPCC investigation will take at least six months, but the evidence so far seems to point to a brilliant but flawed man, praised by his friends and family, who also hint at something darker. Some aspect of that darker thing cracked.

One friend described Mr Saunders as "sensible and sweet", adding: "But he had an extremely wild side. He loved [his wife] very much but could not contain his greater love of red wine and whisky, and at all times of the day."

After the inquest his family released a statement saying: "Everyone who knew and loved Mark appreciated his warmth, generosity and sheer energy for life. He was a very talented and sociable person whose enthusiasm and charm touched so many people. We will always remember him as our caring, considerate and loving son and brother."

The De Menezes family were also left shell-shocked, confused and angry, and the Metropolitan Police, who insisted they had to make a split-second, life-or-death decision, have only just recovered from the fallout.

It took two years for the truth surrounding the De Menezes shooting to seep out. Those who held Mark Saunders dear hope that their questions will be answered much more quickly.