Whitear's ex-boyfriend denies causing her death

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The former boyfriend of Rachel Whitear, whose death from a heroin overdose shocked the nation seven years ago after her parents released photographs of her taken just after she died, was momentarily lost for words yesterday after being confronted by the girl's mother over his alleged role in her death.

In a tense exchange at the second inquest into the death, Luke Fitzgerald, 32, said he had taken drugs with Rachel, who died when she was 21, and that the scene when he last saw her was "not pleasant". But he denied being present when she died or being "directly responsible" for her death. A key witness has claimed Mr Fitzgerald conspired to cover up the death.

Rachel, from Herefordshire, was found on 12 May, 2000 on the floor of her bed-sit in Exmouth. Images of her body were used in an anti-drugs campaign.

Pauline Holcroft, Miss Whitear's mother, yesterday challenged Mr Fitzgerald, who has been accused of leading her into use of the class-A drug: "Did you love my daughter, and what is your last memory of her?"

Mr Fitzgerald paused, and said: "On the question of whether I loved her, I don't really know what it was. I do not want to give the impression that I was heartless ... I obviously played some part in Rachel's substance misuse but ... I was not there when she died. I am not directly responsible for Rachel's death and I think you should know that."

Mrs Holcroft said that in the winter of 1997, after she had split up with Mr Fitzgerald, her daughter admitted to her that she had been using heroin.

"She started using it when she was with Luke," she said, adding that Rachel had been "trying to get her life back in order". However, the pair continued to meet.

Mr Fitzgerald said he had not been involved with drugs for five years, and that the first he knew of Miss Whitear's death was when the police called him.

A witness to the hearing – a woman referred to as "J"– was a girlfriend of Mr Fitzgerald brother at the time. She has alleged that his brother, Simon, was called by Luke Fitzgerald on the night of Miss Whitear's death, and asked to help with a cover-up.

She said Mr Fitzgerald had "stormed out" after a fight with Rachel but went back around two hours later to find her dead.

The witness claims the brothers then took Rachel into her flat and put her into the crouching position.

Alexander Forrest, a pathologist, told the court there was evidence to suggest the syringe in Rachel's hand was not the one that had been used to inject her. Mr Fitzgerald dismissed the claims as "lies."

The current inquest is due to end on Friday.