Railway bridge death eight years ago was murder, police admit

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The Independent Online

Two shrivelled bunches of flowers mark the spot where Ian Lowery plunged to his death eight years ago. The 26-year-old fell from "Sugarloaf" bridge in Churchdown, a village near Gloucester, landing on a railway line where he was hit by a train.

Two shrivelled bunches of flowers mark the spot where Ian Lowery plunged to his death eight years ago. The 26-year-old fell from "Sugarloaf" bridge in Churchdown, a village near Gloucester, landing on a railway line where he was hit by a train.

His father, Rob, recalls his first reaction to his son's death. "Straight away I told the police, 'He's been murdered then.' My son was scared stiff of heights and would never have climbed on to the side of the bridge."

Officers from Gloucestershire Police, however, took a different view on discovering Mr Lowery's dismembered body scattered on the tracks just after midnight on 28 July 1996; they assumed it was an accident.

The body was quickly removed and trains were allowed to continue running without the area being properly searched. Clothes were returned to the family without being tested, and scuff marks found on the wall of the railway bridge were ignored. The failure to fully investigate the scene meant that the opportunity to gain forensic and witness evidence was lost. No pathologist was called to the scene and the subsequent post-mortem examination would later be criticised as "minimal" and "none challenging".

But despite an inquest verdict of misadventure, Mr Lowery's family did not believe his death was an accident.

Their suspicions have now been vindicated by an independent inquiry that has found the original police investigation to be seriously flawed. The death is now being treated as murder, but the police seem no nearer to finding a killer.

Mr Lowery's parents, Rob and Barbara, who still live in Churchdown, say they remember the day of their son's death as if it were yesterday. It was a Saturday night and their son had gone to the Hare and Hounds pub, and then on to a social club, but was keen to get home in time to watch Linford Christie run in the Atlanta Olympics.

He left the club at about 11.30pm and began the 30-minute walk home.

About five minutes from home, he approached the road bridge that crossed the railway. Somehow, he toppled over the four-foot-high wall and fell 40 feet to the track. The driver and mate of an 85-ton maintenance engine on the Cheltenham to Gloucester line saw the motionless body, but although they slammed on the emergency brakes the train could not stop in time.

Mr Lowery's family could not accept the official version - that he had been drunk and had fallen while walking along the wall on the bridge.

His father said: "He was petrified of heights. He wouldn't even stand on a ladder to change a lightbulb; his legs used to shake. Whenever he crossed the bridge he used to walk in the road.

"The only thing we can think that happened is someone tried to rob him and he ended up being thrown over the bridge."

The family's suspicions were raised further by the disclosure that their son's wallet - along with the cash inside - and a ring he always wore were never recovered.

The case was re-examined by the police in 1998, but no arrests were made. The Lowery family complained in 2001 to the Police Complaints Authority, later replaced by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) about the initial inquiry. A third investigation was launched, this time supervised by the PCA and West Mercia Constabulary. As part of the inquiry, Mr Lowery's body was exhumed and another post-mortem examination held.

Among the accounts that emerged during the new questioning was a report of a "man in black" leaning over the bridge at about the time of the death.

Two men were arrested in 2002, one on suspicion of murder, the other on suspicion of perverting the course of justice. Both were released without charge after the Crown Prosecution Service ruled there was insufficient evidence.

The IPCC announced last month that it had upheld complaints made by the dead man's family. Among its findings were that the 1996 investigation was "badly handled with officers failing to carry out a thorough and proper investigation and making a premature assumption of accidental death".

It also said the search of the death scene was "inadequate", and that possible clues, including contradictory witness evidence, were ignored.

Complaints against four officers were upheld, two of whom received a verbal ticking off while the others escaped punishment because they had since retired.

Gloucestershire Police have apologised to Mr Lowery's family and recorded the death as a murder. Mr and Mrs Lowery are now considering suing.