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How did a promising footballer die in agony in police custody?

Family asks why warning that 19-year-old had swallowed drugs packets went unheeded
  • @ianherbs

Reece Staples had good reason to believe that 2009 would be the year he might set the football world alight. After taking his prodigious talents to Nottingham Forest, the expectation that he would soon feature in the first team saw him selected among the club's players for the Fifa 2009 Play-Station game.

He died before the year was half out. The 19-year-old was a victim of the struggle to adapt when he failed to make the grade but also, an Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) inquiry found yesterday, a victim of Nottinghamshire Police's failure to take appropriate care of him in custody.

Mr Staples, who was on Notts county's books before joining their neighbours Foresr, began his descent when the club released him at the start of the 2008/9 season. His girlfriend persuaded him to fly with her to Costa Rica in June 2009, to swallow packets of cocaine to bring to the UK. One of at least 18 packets which he swallowed burst in his stomach – leading to bizarre behaviour and his arrest, 24 hours after he returned.

An inquest into Mr Staples' death, which concluded yesterday, heard how he told his arresting officers, in Nottingham, that he had "swallowed some coke," had just returned from Costa Rica and that he was "going to die".

Police guidelines, introduced five years ago, state that anyone suspected of swallowing drugs must be immediately taken to hospital. But the officers, one of whom assumed that Mr Staples' reference to "coke" meant the soft drink, did not believe his comments. Three and a half hours later, he collapsed in a police cell, suffering from acute cocaine intoxication. He had pressed the cell's emergency buzzer 15 times, been given water and a blanket but died, in a convulsed state, on the floor.

The IPCC concluded that the officers had "failed to provide... an appropriate level of care" and found they had not taken Mr Staples' comments seriously and neglected to ensure the information he gave them was passed on to Oxclose Lane police station, where he was detained.

Once there, half-hourly checks on Mr Staples were not carried out with appropriate vigour. The IPCC also found that the Nottinghamshire force did not inform Mr Staples' mother, Clair Dunne of his death quickly enough. It took them seven hours.

An internal Nottinghamshire Police investigation into Mr Staples' death found the five officers who handled him – PCs Neil Haynes, Dominic Bramley, Ben Hensell and Iain Blackstock, and Sergeant Joe Wilson – guilty of misconduct, though not the more serious charge of gross misconduct, which could have seen them dismissed. All received final written warnings instead.

The inquest jury returned a misadventure verdict into Mr Staples' death after the deputy coroner for Nottinghamshire, Martin Gotheridge, told them to disregard the notion that removing the teenager to hospital on the night of his death might have saved him.

This was a point of contention as one of several scenarios, drawn up by a medical expert for inquest, suggested that had Mr Staples been removed directly to hospital on arrest, the cocaine could have been removed. The quantity of drugs in Mr Staples' body after the packet burst were "unsurvivable," Mr Gotheridge said. "Reece was doomed to die in any event."

Last night, the teenager's family, represented by solicitor Ruth Bundey, expressed dismay at the police conduct. "Without one word of discussion between them, they chose in isolation to disbelieve what he told them. Had he only received medical help, he might at least have stood a fighting chance of life."

Deborah Coles, co-director of the charity, Inquest, added: "What's so terrifying about this is the willful indifference to someone's deteriorating mental and physical states. There is a seam running through these cases where officers say: 'He was faking it'."

The inquest has concluded three weeks after The Independent and Bureau for Investigative Journalism found that the number of deaths in police custody – 15 in 2009, 21 last year – has been understated. The 2007 guidelines which should have led to Mr Staples being taken to hospital alluded to Christopher Alder, who also died on a police station floor, 14 years ago. After a mix-up of bodies, Mr Alder was only laid to rest two weeks ago.

Nottinghamshire Police issued new guidelines last September stating that suspects who say they have swallowed or concealed drugs must be taken immediately to hospital. The force's Assistant Chief Constable, Paul Broadbent, apologised at the inquest for the delay in staff training which he said was "unfortunate" and "regrettable".