Widow defends suspect in Oxford death

Wife does not believe professor husband was murdered as his best friend is released by police

The widow of a leading Oxford academic, who died in mysterious circumstances, spoke last night in defence of the friend arrested after the death, insisting the whole matter must be a tragic accident.

Professor Steven Rawlings, 50, a "much-admired" tutor, was visiting his friend and fellow lecturer Dr Devinder Sivia on Wednesday night when paramedics were called shortly before 11.30pm. He was declared dead at the scene as Dr Sivia, 49, was arrested and led away in handcuffs.

Yesterday, both staff and students at the university said they were devastated by the loss as both families insisted it must have been a case of a terrible accident as the two men had been "inseparable friends" since their university days three decades ago.

Last night Prof Rawlings' wife Linda said: "Steve was a well-loved, caring, intelligent, sensitive man. Steve and Devinder were best friends since college and I believe this is a tragic accident.

"Steve is a man of integrity, kindness and a very accessible person. Steve was the love of my life and we have known each other all of these years and he has never changed, even though he has achieved so much and has all these qualities. I will miss him more than anything else in the world.

"I do not believe that Steve's death is murder and I do not believe Devinder should be tarnished in this way."

As Dr Sivia, a maths lecturer, was released on bail until 18 April, Detective Superintendent Rob Mason said: "I would emphasise that the police are investigating all potential circumstances that could have led to his death. We are mindful that ultimately the death may be a matter for a coroner's inquest rather than a criminal court."

Despite initial reports that Dr Rawlings died of a heart attack, a Thames Valley Police spokesman said that a post mortem had proved "totally inconclusive" and that further tests were being carried out.

Yesterday Professor Rawlings's wife was being cared for by family liaison officers at the couple's thatched cottage near Wantage, Oxfordshire. In nearby Southmoor, Abingdon, officers continued to search Dr Sivia's bungalow, emerging with box loads of files.

Yesterday Dr Sivia's father said the two men – colleagues in the astrophysics department of Oxford University and and co-authors of a mathematics book – were "like brothers". Retired maths teacher Gurbakhsh Sivia, 80, said: "It is a shock, it is a tragedy. It is hard to believe and hard to understand what happened."

Explaining that his son had told him he hoped the matter would be sorted out, he continued: "He is shocked himself. He was his best friend. He said nothing of a fight or a falling out. I can't believe they would have fallen out.

"They have been friends since they were students at Cambridge University. I think for more than 20 years."

The two men – who published the book Foundations of Science Mathematics together in 1999 – had both taught at the university for many years.

The former BBC Radio 4 controller Mark Damazer, now Master at St Peter's College where Prof Rawlings worked, said he was a highly respected academic. Dr Sivia was based at St John's College.

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