Family of hanged Telford man condemns police inquiry as 'public relations exercise'

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The Independent Online

John Elliot remembers with painful clarity the moment in which he identified the body of his son, the middle child named after him. "I saw him lying there. His teeth were clenched and there was a look of agony on his face. I will never forget that," he said yesterday.

The death of John Elliot Jnr, 43, the third black man to be found hanged in Telford, bore striking similarities to the previous two cases – Errol and Jason McGowan. The Elliot family says it has evidence that John Elliot's life had been threatened shortly before he died and is adamant that he was murdered. But they insist it was drugs and not ethnic differences that led to his death. They believe he was killed by dealers to whom he owned money.

More worryingly, however, the Elliots assert that they are being "fobbed off" by the investigation into the death – an investigation that they say is nothing more than a public relations exercise, even though West Mercia police had been sharply criticised for its handling of the McGowans' deaths.

Mr Elliot, 70, a former Olympic boxing contender, initially put his faith in the police. But after more than four months of what he describes as inaction, he has chosen to speak publicly. "We don't think they are pursuing the investigation with the vigour that they should be," he said. "They are just saying things to make us feel better – it is patronising. You put questions to them but you don't get answers."

The dead man's brother-in-law, Andrew, who did not want to give his surname because he fears reprisals from the men who may have killed John Elliot, said: "The police are just dragging it out, hoping everyone is going to settle down and forget about it."

Errol McGowan, 34, was found hanging from the doorknob at a friend's house in July 1999, after complaining of repeated racial harassment. His nephew Jason, 20, died in January last year, found suspended from railings beside a busy road. The family fear they were killed by racists.

John Elliot Jnr, who had four children, had also been threatened. Two weeks before his body was found, the "worried and nervous" man told his younger brother Ricky, 39, he owed money to dealers. "He said, 'Whatever happens in the near future, if I die, you must all look into it,'" his father said.

The relatives say that, contrary to police evidence, they have learnt that the door to his flat had not been locked.

While two post-mortem examinations have found no signs of struggle, a mark was discovered on the back of the dead man's head."The police just said it must have been caused by his head resting on the stairs. They have just dismissed it," said his sister Michelle, 41, who is also fearful of giving her surname.

On the day he disappeared – Monday 28 May – John Elliot telephoned his mother, as he did daily, to tell her how he was looking forward to taking out his youngest daughter, eight-year-old Sinead, at the weekend. That was the last his family heard of him. John Elliot, while living with his wife and children, kept the flat in Hadley – the place where he was born and died – and would disappear there sometimes, though rarely for more than 24 hours.

Michelle visited the flat on 31 May, a Thursday, because she was concerned that their mother had not heard from him since Monday. Unable to get in, she noticed a kitchen window open and asked some passing teenagers to help. One slipped into the house and opened the front door. He told the family he did not have to unlock it.

"John was just lying there on the stairs. He was so straight, as if he was standing to attention. All I could see was John and this belt around his neck," she said. A curtain tie was attached to the belt and looped around the banister. "I could tell he was dead," she said.

Michelle, a former care assistant, is convinced he could not have killed himself in such a position. In fact, most members of the large family insist he did not commit suicide. "He adored that little daughter of his. There is no way he would take his life," Mr Elliot said.

There is another hanging linked to the three cases. A white acquaintance of all the men, Paul Hotchkiss, 38, had been found dead in November 1998 after an argument with his girlfriend. John Elliot Jnr, Errol McGowan and Paul Hotchkiss knew each other. All worked at times on the pub doors and all mixed in connecting circles. Jason McGowan was close to his uncle Errol.

The Elliots are convinced that they were all killed by the same men. Of course, there have been no public claims that either of the other men had anything to do with drugs. Paul Hotchkiss's relatives believe the accidental verdict at his inquest was correct, while the McGowans' family say they may have been killed by racists.

There may be little evidence for the Elliots' theory: but it is given considerable support in a town that has seen its drugs trade grow.

But whether the theory is fact or fiction, the Elliots' fears and frustration with the police investigation remain very real.

A spokesman for West Mercia police said yesterday: "We continue to maintain close contact with the family, who have raised a number of these issues with us. Some of these have been thoroughly investigated and we have found no evidence to support them, and other inquiries are still ongoing. This has been a major investigation, ongoing since May."

That gives Mr Elliot little consolation. "At first when John died, I just could not believe it. Even now I break down at times. If the good Lord had taken my John, I might understand, but he was murdered."

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