Whitear inquest halted as new evidence emerges

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The inquest into the death of Rachel Whitear was halted suddenly yesterday as detectives announced they had two new lines of inquiry to follow up, more than seven years after the university student died.

The 21-year-old's death became a cause célèbre after her parents released stark images of her body slumped on the floor to illustrate the terrible consequences of drug abuse but questions have since been raised about how she died.

Coroner Ian Arrow was due to sum up yesterday but announced that he was adjourning the hearing at Exeter County Hall until today at the request of the police.

Detective Chief Superintendent Paul Howlett – who led the Wiltshire force's reinvestigation into the death – said new information had been passed to him which, if true, was capable of influencing the proceedings.

It was reported that a potential witness had called police after reading coverage of the inquest and realising they may have important information.

The coroner said the new information came from the Hereford area, where both Ms Whitear, her former boyfriend Luke Fitzgerald and his brother Simon came from.

The former Bath Spa University student died of a heroin overdose the day after leaving her drug addict boyfriend, now aged 33, in an attempt to get clean and start a new life. Her body was discovered by her landlord in her bedsit in Exmouth, Devon, on 12 May 2000. She was in a crouching position on the floor still holding a capped syringe.

The first inquest in December 2000 recorded an open verdict though no post mortem examination had been carried out. Following complaints about the original Devon and Cornwall Police investigation by Miss Whitear's mother, Pauline Holcroft of Ledbury, Herefordshire, Wiltshire Police were appointed to reinvestigate the death. Her body was exhumed from a churchyard to enable a post mortem examination and further tests to be carried out. Last October the High Court granted permission for a second inquest.

Yesterday Mrs Holcroft, 57, who has campaigned for years to uncover the truth about her daughter's death, said the latest developments had come as a complete surprise. She said: "I had no knowledge of it until we arrived. We did think today would be the culmination of the inquest."

She said: "Wiltshire Police are keeping us informed but they need to carry out further investigations. We just have to wait and see. We would rather have the delay than rush through and get something wrong."

The inquest at Exeter heard earlier from one surprise witness, a friend of Simon Fitzgerald in 2002 whose name was only given as J. She said he had told her his brother had helped 21-year-old Rachel take the fatal injection and called him in to organise a cover up. Simon Fitzgerald, she claimed, moved Rachel's body, swapped the syringe for a new one, and cleaned up the bedsit.

Luke Fitzgerald gave evidence earlier in the week, denying he was present at the time of her death or even knew where she lived.

Towards the end of his evidence Mrs Holcroft from Ledbury, Herefordshire, asked: "Did you love my daughter and what is your last memory of her?"

Insisting the question was "very challenging", he replied: "I know the last time I saw her was not pleasant. I was not happy with her, she was not happy with me.

"The question did I love Rachel – I did not really know what love was. I do not want to give the impression I was heartless – I know I cared," said Mr Fitzgerald, who told the inquest he had not been involved with drugs for five years. Speaking directly to Miss Whitear's family he said: "I hope this inquest brings a lot of what you want to know, and closure. He described as "lies" claims that on the night Miss Whitear died he was supposed to have been present. "I played my part in her substance misuse," he said, adding: "To save you the heartache of going down that road, I was not there. I was not directly responsible for Rachel's death. I thought you should know that."

Fitzgerald, in a statement to the inquest, said that a former girlfriend had made "all sorts of unfounded allegations", adding: "I did not attend the scene of Rachel Whitear's death, and I did not even go to Devon in April or May 2000."