Triple Jeopardy: An encounter with the man charged with three murders – and acquitted each time

 

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The Independent Online

What else was I supposed to do in those circumstances?" asks Arran Coghlan.

There is something slightly unsettling about someone asking you to help recreate the scene which led to him being charged with murder for a third time, especially when Mr Coghlan is playing Mr Coghlan and you are playing the soon-to-be deceased. But these are the lengths he feels he needs to go to, to demonstrate his innocence.

We've just reached the moment when Stephen "Aki" Akinyemi has lunged at Mr Coghlan. It's unclear when a 9mm Beretta pistol and a knife were introduced to the melee, in February last year, but it was certainly fateful. The struggle between the two men, at Mr Coghlan's detached home in the affluent Cheshire village of Alderley Edge, left Mr Akinyemi dead in an ensuite bathroom with a bullet through his temple. "I was trying to restrain him but that was not possible," says Mr Coghlan. "What then happened was a natural progression of me defending myself."

The police thought they would finally be sending Mr Coghlan behind bars for the foreseeable future on the day Mr Akinyemi, a 39-year-old figure from the local underworld, was found lying on the tiled bathroom floor. Over the course of the past 15 years, he has undoubtedly been a scourge to them, relentlessly showing up the shortcomings of their detective work. Even the decision to send a senior officer into early retirement, over the handling of one of his murder cases, was challenged by Mr Coghlan in a judicial review which heaped more criticism on the police service.

First, they charged him with the 1994 murder of a local gangster, Chris Little, who was shot dead in his car at a traffic lights. Then, with the terrifying killing of Little's former associate David Barnshaw, a 32-year-old drug dealer. He was acquitted of the Little murder, and the Barnshaw case collapsed. And since Mr Coghlan is here, on the other side of a walnut desk, in a minimalist office with water decanter, well-stocked fruit bowl and commissioned artworks that demonstrate that this is an individual with taste, it will be evident that he was acquitted of the Akinyemi murder, too.

You don't expect uncertainty to form a part of Mr Coghlan's make-up. His is an imposing physical presence and that he can take care of himself was apparent when he left two individuals who physically threatened him on the floor, one with a broken nose, earlier this year. Yet he is deeply uncertain about whether to discuss the course of his past 15 years. He suspects the nickname "Teflon Don" – which was bestowed upon the American mobster, John Gotti – will be dragged out again and that the conclusion will simply be that he must be lucky. "Well, I just ask you to hear me out and to be fair," he says, towards the end of a second telephone conversation.

Whatever your view of Mr Coghlan – and he does not deny that he was an uncompromising individual when, having left school and home at 15, he took up as a money lender – fairness has by no means followed him through the courtroom. The Barnshaw case, a £10m, three-year investigation, revealed that much, obscured though the police's failings have been by the gruesome story of how Mr Barnshaw was kidnapped with a friend, beaten, doused in petrol and set alight. A recording of a 999 call made by the friend, who escaped, included the victim's screams, audible in the background.

The jury was told the murder was carried out by a gang led by Mr Coghlan and that the motive was the protection of drugs turf. Less publicised was the cause of the case's collapse. A 13-page document containing evidence from an informant that another suspect might be responsible was not initially disclosed to the court and when it finally materialised the first eight pages were missing, removed by Detective Chief Inspector Kenny Caldwell, it was found. The judge, Mr Justice Penry-Davey, concluded that Mr Caldwell was "not telling the truth" and that another National Crime Squad officer, Darren Shenton, had prepared a report that was "deliberately misleading." Officers had simply wanted to convict Mr Coghlan "at any cost", the judge declared.

"You always get the sense of everybody thinking to themselves, 'this guy is taking the piss out of the system or the police', but each time I've proved it was them in the wrong," says Mr Coghlan, as he wades through evidence he says proves he was innocent of the three murders, a conspiracy to import cocaine and the assault of two police officers – those two men he left on the ground.

"The first thing you have to do is look at your legal team and ensure that they are not looking at you through jaded eyes, especially with a case history like mine. I don't roll over, you see. I don't die. People roll over all the time – I see that in jail. It's not that people in there would not ordinarily be capable. It's just they are allowing themselves to be beaten down in those circumstances and they have given up. I've always said the greatest crime is the inaction of a capable man."

This philosophy applied in the aftermath of the collapsed case, when Greater Manchester Police lifted DCI Caldwell's suspension and allowed him to retire early. Mr Coghlan found himself in unexpected company – the Independent Police Complaints Commission backed his case – when he judicially challenged the decision of GMP's Chief Constable, the late Mike Todd, to let Caldwell go – and won.

"No they won't have liked that one bit," Mr Coghlan reflects. "But I didn't make them suppress the evidence as they had done. I was just persistent enough to uncover it and expose it. Do you think they would have halted any of these cases unless they absolutely had no choice?"

The Barnshaw trial was not the only potentially life-changing experience for Mr Coghlan before he was arrested and charged with the murder of Akinyemi last year. He went up in the world, purchased a £2m converted chapel at Alderley Edge where he is now settled with his partner and two children. But he was left fighting for his life after he was repeatedly stabbed in the back in a Stockport bar on New Year's Eve 2009. The company he keeps is not always typical Alderley Edge.

The Akinyemi case – or "this", as he calls it, pointing to the wound running from the bottom of his face to his neck – is what exercises him though. He was arbitrating, he says, between Mr Akinyemi and another man over the nickname, or "tag", they both laid claim to. They were to meet the other man, who didn't show and Mr Akinyemi, who had set off for the meeting in a bullet proof vest, became irate and then violent. Mr Coghlan produces a Crown Prosecution Service document which shows there was enough evidence to have charged Mr Akinyemi with a rape, committed at knifepoint two weeks before his death, though he was never arrested. "The police knew there was an issue involving Aki so they kept him free to see what would happen with me," Mr Coghlan alleges.

His impromptu office reconstruction of their struggle and description – with blood patterns and bruising patterns related in immense detail – disproves the police case that Mr Akinyemi was shot in cold blood, he says. But navy blue paint molecules on the knife were the most significant factor that Tuesday afternoon. He had been charged before they had matched the paint to Mr Akinyemi's own bedroom and suggested that he came armed. "They said I had shot him in the temple, stabbed myself in the neck and put the knife in his hands," Mr Coghlan says. "And navy blue paint? This is Alderley Edge. Creams and browns here." He smiles and you smile. Mr Coghlan is engaging, charming, articulate and this is not the first time he has displayed an excellent line in dry humour. Then you remember the individual whose role you have just been playing – lying dead on the bathroom tiles with a bullet through his head.

Mr Coghlan, who served nearly six months on remand for the killing, had been out of prison for six weeks before he was arrested on a drugs conspiracy charge. "I believe that arrest was designed to make me crumble and, mentally, go under after the Aki case," he says. The evidence he produces in his defence is, again, vast: a diagrammatic web he calls the True Matrix, mapping telephone calls between different groups presented in court as one, to demonstrate no association between him and his co-accused, who were arrested five months before the Akinyemi case collapsed.

You sense that Mr Coghlan worked harder to prove his innocence in this case than any. He became determined to undergo a lie detector test and, when the trial judge rejected this request, ensured his lawyers cited a contemporaneous Home Office White Paper, recommending their use in some cases. He ensured they contact the academic who had contributed to that paper. In the end, the critical evidence which saw the drugs case dropped had an echo of the Barnshaw case. A transcript of one of Mr Coghlan's tapped conversations was mistranscribed.

One piece of evidence in the trial which brought Mr Coghlan's acquittal of the Chris Little murder was of a telephone call which revealed the arresting officer did not consider him guilty. In this case as all the others, Greater Manchester Police were unwilling to enter into a discussion, on or off the record. "Whatever he wants to say he can say," said a spokesman. Mr Coghlan has spent nearly five years on remand in total and his 15 months behind bars for the more recent two charges have had an effect. He had established a business, Advice and Consultancy, mediating between parties and providing input into businesses, before the Akinyemi case. Its offices are on a smart business park in Cheadle Hulme, south Manchester. It went bust while he was behind bars. "You can't run a business from the inside," he says.

He says he is planning to re-launch the business, with one arm of it, True Matrix, potentially assisting people with complex legal cases.

He is also in the process of a civil action against Greater Manchester Police, though it is the recent request from Cheshire coroner John Pollard that he appear at the inquest into Mr Akinyemi's death which takes him into new territory – a courtroom where he actually wants to be. "They have indicated that they would subpoena me," he says. "But I have indicated that I will gladly appear. I want to demonstrate that this was a case of lawful killing."

The Failed Cases

Court Case 1

Chris Little, known for setting his rottweillers on rivals, was dubbed crime's Mr Big of Stockport. In 1994 he was shot dead while stopped in his Mercedes at traffic lights after a Ford Grenada drew up beside him. Mr Coghlan knew Little but said he was never involved in drugs and was at home at the time of the murder.

Court Case 2

Drug dealer David Barnshaw, formerly an associate of Mr Little, was kidnapped with his friend, John Berry, and bundled into a car. Mr Berry managed to call police on his mobile before escaping. On the taped call someone could be heard screaming. Barnshaw's body was later found in the car. He had probably been made to drink petrol before being set alight. A drugs turf war said to be the motive. But the case against Mr Coghlan, who said he was babysitting at the time, collapsed when it was shown that police had failed to pass on evidence of another suspect and a senior police officer was said by a judge to have failed to tell the truth.

Court Case 3

Stephen 'Aki' Akinyemi, a criminal, was shot dead in Mr Coghlan's home in 2010. He had asked Mr Coghlan to mediate in a dispute but became violent. Paint identified on a knife had come from his home, which proved he had gone armed. He also had a gun that went off during a struggle.