The despair that drove a ruined man to kill his family

An inquest yesterday heard how massive debts led to tragedy for an apparently happy household. Jonathan Brown reports
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The wife and daughter of the gun-obsessed tycoon were already dead – killed by single shots to the back of the head – when he set fire to the ultimate symbol of his squandered success – the family's £1.2m Georgian mansion Osbaston House.

Mr Foster, allegedly consumed with despair over the collapse of his business empire and the impending loss of his late-won lifestyle with its fast cars, shooting club and country pursuits, laid down on top of his wife's body as the smoke and fumes overcame him.

Still in this charred embrace, the couple, who had been married for 20 years, were eventually discovered covered by rubble from their collapsed bedroom floor. Their remains were only identifiable through DNA and dental records.

Evidence heard at the inquest into the deaths of Christopher and Jill Foster and their 15-year-old daughter Kirstie yesterday painted a distressing picture of the tragic events surrounding the fallen tycoon. The inquest faced a difficult task in trying to answer the questions left unresolved since fire swept through the Fosters' five-bedroom home in Maesbrook, Shropshire, last August.

A former associate of the Wolverhampton-born businessman described how Mr Foster had told friends he would rather die than return to the relatively humble life he believed he had left behind forever after striking it rich with a patent for fireproof technology a decade earlier.

But having amassed debts of up to £2mand seen his company forced into liquidation 10 months earlier, he was at the end of his tether. Mark Bassett said Mr Foster had told him that his financial situation had become perilous and he feared for the future. He said: "Jesus, they are not having my stuff, I will top myself before that. They will carry me out in a box."

Although the Fosters enjoyed an outwardly happy and enviable lifestyle, the family breadwinner had become suicidal, the inquest heard. He believed his wife and daughter would be unable to cope with the loss of their material wealth and privileged status, his former friend explained, particularly the prospect of moving out of the grand mansion and its 16 acres which had been their adored home for the past four years.

"He suggested to me that he would wander down to the woods at the edge of the grounds and take a gun with him and commit suicide," Mr Bassett said. "He felt they had become accustomed to a certain standard of living, a certain quality of life, and it was his opinion that they wouldn't be able to cope if they needed to take a few backward steps," he added.

Patrick Kelly, a financial investigator, told the court that at the time of his death Mr Foster had 20 different bank accounts, one of which was overdrawn by £330,000, and there were three mortgages on Osbaston House. In October 2007, as his company went into compulsory liquidation, a £3m freezing order was placed on his assets, leaving him without any income.

Four months before the fatal blaze, the businessman had told his GP, Dr William Grech, that he had considered taking his life but had given no indication that he might hurt his family.

He had been off his food and sleeping badly, the doctor said. "He did not give any specific details about his business problems, although I got the impression they were big," he said. Another associate, Peter Grkinic, told the inquest that his friend said his only option was to "disappear", although he believed him to be joking.

The family of Mrs Foster, who was 49 when she died, declined to attend yesterday's hearing. Mr Foster's elderly mother Enid and brother Andrew sat through evidence that coroner John Ellery warned in advance would be "detailed and distressing".

On the first of two days of proceedings, the family was shown a picture of a man thought to be Mr Foster roaming the grounds of Osbaston House in the early hours of 26 August. He was carrying a rifle in his left hand while the burning house could be seen close by. The court heard that the 50-year-old had most likely not shot himself and may have been alive for "tens of minutes" after the fire took hold at three different locations across the rambling vine-covered mansion.

Pathologist Dr Alexander Kolar said that while he could not definitely rule out shooting as the cause of death because of the extreme heat of the fire, there were no penetrating wounds to his brain or vital organs. He said the cause of death was inhalation of products of combustion.

Both Mrs Foster and Kirstie were shot in the back of the head by a .22 rifle before the fire started, the pathologist said. The popular horse-mad teenager's body, disfigured by the intensity of the blaze, was found amid charred rubble in a space below where her bedroom had been.

Four dogs and three horses, once much-loved family pets, had also been shot. It was close to the kennels that police recovered a German-made rifle fitted with a silencer along with unused bullets and empty cartridges. It is believed Mr Foster had earlier parked a horse-box across the driveway to the premises, shooting out the tyres to prevent emergency services gaining access to the property.

The inquest also heard claims – dismissed by police – that the family may have been the victim of possible kidnap threats, receiving letters threatening to abduct Kirstie and chop off her fingers. In evidence DC Paul Rogers said Mr Foster also made allegations in December 2005 that he was being blackmailed over a property deal in Cyprus. Two defendants were prosecuted and found not guilty at Shrewsbury Crown Court in November 2006.

He said officers would be investigating fresh claims, put before the inquest by Stephen Langton, representing Mr Foster's mother and brother, that a lorry driver who alerted emergency services to the blaze had spotted three men loitering at the premises earlier in the day.

The inquest continues.