Police investigating the death of four soldiers at Deepcut Army barracks were accused of a cover-up yesterday after announcing they could find no evidence that the recruits had been murdered.
The families of the four, who all died of gunshot wounds at the Surrey camp, have always insisted they did not kill themselves. But yesterday, at the close of a million-pound investigation, Deputy Chief Constable Bob Quick announced that the matter was being handed over to a coroner because there was no evidence of foul play.
"It used to smell of a cover-up and it stinks of a cover-up now," said Jim Collinson, whose 17-year-old son, James, was found dead in March last year. "We hoped for more but knew this was what it would be in the end."
But the Surrey Police report did condemn the Army's treatment of its trainees, pointing out that the same issues had been raised repeatedly over the past 15 years. And, announcing that his officers would now be conducting a fifth investigation into the wider issues surrounding the 75 "untimely" army deaths involving firearms between 1991 and 2001, Mr Quick backed the families' call for a broader inquiry.
"The only thing to come out of this was their call for a public inquiry. It is a whitewash because Surrey Police has been left to reinvestigate," said Diane Gray, whose 17-year-old son, Geoff, was found dead in September 2001 with two bullet wounds to the head. "It is nothing new - a million pounds and this is all they have come up with."
His death in the Royal Logistic Corps Headquarters at the Princess Royal Barracks followed that of Private Sean Benton, 20, in July 1995 and Private Cheryl James, 18, five months later. All four incidents were investigated by the military police, which concluded they had killed themselves.
Mr Quick said: "It is inappropriate for the military police to investigate unexplained deaths on military establishments. A proper independent investigation should be carried out by the civil police." He added that each case should be treated as a potential homicide until evidence to the contrary had been found.
The force is waiting for a final report from the ballistics expert Frank Swann, who investigated the matter for the families and initially concluded that it was unlikely the gunshot wounds were self-inflicted.
But after 15 months interviewing 900 witnesses, taking 1,500 statements and involving two forensic and ballistic teams, Mr Quick said detectives had found no evidence of third-party involvement. "We have not been able to find any evidence that points to a suspect or points directly to the hypothesis of murder," said the Deputy Chief Constable. "There are elements of the inquiry which leave open that possibility."
Only a full coroner's inquiry could come to a verdict, he said, adding that it would be up to him to consider whether there were grounds to support an application to the High Court for new inquests. There has yet to be an inquest into Private Collinson's death.
"While we cannot publicly discuss the evidence prior to the inquest we are hopeful that it will throw significant new light on how and why each of these young soldiers died," he said.
While Mr Quick would not condemn the culture of bullying at the barracks, he said there remained key areas of risk for trainee soldiers that had previously been raised some 15 years ago.Reuse content