Heroin addict's body to be exhumed after doubts about her 'overdose' resurface

The extraordinary case of Rachel Whitear took a new twist yesterday after it was announced that her body is to be exhumed amid growing concern that she did not die from a heroin overdose.

The death of the 21-year-old drug addict in a rented room in Exmouth, Devon, in May 2000 attracted worldwide attention after photographs of the dead student were published.

The pictures of her bloated body, bent double alongside a discarded heroin syringe, are among the best-known and most shocking anti-drug images of modern times.

But an inquiry was ordered after complaints from the Rachel's mother and stepfather that the police and coroner's court had failed to properly investigate the case.

Further doubt was cast on the cause of death when a Devon coroner said he was certain she had not died of an overdose because the level of heroin in her blood was too low.

The officer in charge of the fresh investigation said in a surprise announcement yesterday that Ms Whitear's body was to be dug up from her grave at St Peter's church in her home village of Withington, near Hereford. No date has been set for the exhumation but it is expected to be carried out in the next few months. On Ms Whitear's gravestone is the epitaph: "Peacefully resting where no shadows fall. A dearly loved daughter, sister and friend."

Detectives only decided to have the body examined in the past few months after forensic scientists convinced them that it might be possible to obtain fresh clues about the cause of death.

The inquiry has been hampered from the start by the failure of the coroner and the police to order a post-mortem examination.

Forensic scientists hope to be able to check the level of drugs and any other toxic substances in the body by analysing tiny traces of human tissue. Examination of the skeleton will also reveal any breaks or injuries that could indicate foul play.

The police also want to discover whether there is any evidence to support the theory that Ms Whitear died of asphyxiation. In heroin overdose cases, the drug can repress the body's system and the person can die because the body "forgets" to breathe.

Ms Whitear's mother and stepfather, Pauline and Mick Holcroft, held a news conference yesterday in Hereford at which Mr Holcroft said: "This has obviously been a very difficult few years for Pauline, myself and our family, culminating in today's announcement.

"Nothing can prepare a family for this. Although we are enormously saddened, we are coming to terms with the fact that an exhumation of Rachel's body is necessary."

Asked for her reaction to the decision to dig up her daughter's body, Mrs Holcroft replied: "It is very upsetting. All we really want is a closure on it, but we know that may never happen. This is an opportunity to find out. It is difficult to live not knowing or understanding what your daughter died from."

Detective Chief Superintendent Paul Howlett, of Wiltshire Police, who is leading the inquiry on behalf of the Police Complaints Authority, promised that the examination of Ms Whitear's remains would be thorough. He said: "Rachel was buried without any post-mortem examination of her body being conducted beforehand. I am still unable to ascertain with any degree of certainty the cause of Rachel's death.

"After discussion with a suitably qualified forensic medical expert, I am advised that, despite the passage of time, the completion of the post-mortem could still possibly provide forensic evidence that would assist in identifying the cause of Rachel's death."

One question officers will address is the possibility that someone else was involved in Ms Whitear's death. Asked if there was heroin in the syringe she was clutching when her body was discovered, Mr Howlett would only say: "I think it is inconclusive at this time."

Ms Whitear's death has been surrounded in controversy from the very beginning.

The publication of the images of the young woman crouched on the floor in a foetal position with blackened arms and a swollen face was shocking. The impact of the death was heightened by the squalid nature of her end compared with the bright start to her life.

An intelligent and sociable teenager, she came from a stable and loving home. She excelled as a pianist, left school with 10 GCSEs and went on to Hereford Sixth-form College, where she gained two A-levels. Five of the six universities to which she applied offered her a place. But as she was choosing which offer to accept, she started going out with Luke Fitzgerald, then aged 24, who had been a heroin addict for three years. She started to take drugs with her new boyfriend, and soon became hooked.

In January 2000, she moved to Exmouth with her boyfriend and took a series of low-paid jobs and would sell anything to raise money for a fix.

In March that year, she decided that her relationship with her boyfriend was over and, in May, she secretly found new digs for herself in a rented room. On Tuesday 9 May she left her ex-boyfriend a note, telling him that she needed her own space. Her body was discovered three days later by her landlord.

Devon and Cornwall Police treated the death as a routine overdose but, at her inquest in December 2000, the Exeter and Greater Devon coroner, Richard van Oppen, recorded an open verdict. He based his decision on toxicology results, which showed 0.05 micrograms of the drug per millilitre of blood. Experts said that 0.15 micrograms was the level of dose needed to kill. Mr van Oppen concluded at the inquest: "There is only one thing here today of which I am certain - Rachel did not die from heroin."

After the inquest, the family made a complaint about Devon and Cornwall Police, which referred the case to the PCA.

The family was puzzled by several aspects of the case including why the young woman, who had not taken drugs for a week and had just started a new job, would have taken heroin.

The Holcrofts have also raised their concerns about the ex-boyfriend's role. In August last year, Mr Fitzgerald was arrested on suspicion of manslaughter and questioned about the chain of events that resulted in his former lover's death. He was released without charge after no evidence was found that he was involved in her death.

Despite the coroner's insistence that Ms Whitear could not have died from an overdose, it is understood that the police inquiry has obtained expert advice that although the amount of heroin in her blood was low, it was enough to kill her. Tolerance declines rapidly if an addict desists from taking the drug even for a short period.