The double life of a celebrity lawyer who hid a dark secret

Drink and drug binges left doctors fearing for Mark Saunders' life
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The Independent Online

On the evening of Tuesday 6 May, Mark Saunders should have been having dinner with the television presenter Chris Tarrant, the latest high-profile client for whom the high-flying barrister had handled a divorce case.

Instead the Oxford law graduate was holed up in his £2.2m townhouse, in a five-hour armed siege that would end in his death.

Asked the question as to whether the police were correct to open fire on Saunders, the inquest jury yesterday answered yes. The unanswered question was what had made Mark Saunders, a 32-year-old family law barrister earning about £500,000 a year, act the way he did?

No one will ever know for sure. But over the past fortnight, the inquest into his death heard his longstanding addiction to drugs and alcohol most probably played a part.

Brought up in the Cheshire village of Alderley Edge, Mark Saunders attended the private King's School in Macclesfield. It was during this time, Saunders' GP Susan Horsewood-Lee told the inquest, that he started drinking, aged just 13 and that by the time he reached sixth form he was struggling to control his alcohol intake.

Saunders went on to study law at Christ Church, Oxford, before moving to London to join the Queen Elizabeth Building chambers where he met Elizabeth Clarke, whom he married in August 2006.

He was in the Honourable Artillery Company of the Territorial Army for three years until 2002 before being discharged for failing to attend training.

In 2004 his alcohol dependency peaked, according to Dr Horsewood-Lee. In 2005 he was drinking "out of control" and drank excessively five nights out of seven. His tolerance for alcohol was low and he would become belligerent and slur his speech after just three drinks. That year he received a police caution for being drunk and disorderly.

His GP told the hearing that he drank 120 units a week, the equivalent of four bottles of spirits. On his medical notes one consultant psychiatrist wrote: "He is at risk of serious injury. Considering the paranoid and belligerent state he finds himself in during the binges, there is a real risk that he may be set upon, stabbed or killed during one of these altercations

"I am in absolutely no doubt that he must abstain completely from all mind-altering substances."

Dr Alessia Ciani, also wrote: "The six weekly binges left him feeling down and concerned about the consequences of his destructive behaviour. He feels unstable. Extremely euphoric and excited about life, slipping very quickly into feeling unhappy, putting on a mask to function in his daily life."

His wife told the court that Saunders had sought help. "I know he contacted Alcoholics Anonymous and went there on three or four occasions – but he felt it wasn't for him, and it didn't work out."

Mrs Saunders had known about her husband's drinking and had spoken to him about it. "When I first started to see Mark I was aware that he was drinking heavily in a social context," she said "I made it clear to him that if our relationship was going to progress, that would need to change."

Saunders' friend, Alex Booth, explained that the barrister would often hurt himself and lose his phone when drinking, adding: "He completely lost touch with reality... you could not engage with him."

Mrs Saunders added: "What Mark wanted to do was control the drinking, to be able to be a social drinker. There were occasions, probably every three months or so, when it went wrong." She said that he would be ashamed at having lapsed and would to avoid her for a few hours, then send an apologetic text. Eventually he was prescribed Prozac to "even out his moods", but his wife had no idea that he had begun to use cocaine heavily. A post-mortem examination showed that he had taken the drug several times in his final six months and in the 48 hours before his death.

Saunders had kept the extent of his alcohol abuse hidden from his extended family and colleagues. Friends described him as charismatic and fun. His sister Charlotte, speaking in a newspaper interview several months after his death, said: "I'm aware that he had drink issues in the past – a couple of years ago when he was having a difficult relationship he told me he was drinking more than he should be, but that's pretty typical of a lot of people.

"We are not talking about someone who is going into work drunk or with a bottle. Mark did a lot of high-profile divorces and had a heavy caseload – there is no way his clients would allow a drunken alcoholic be in charge of their cases. You are not tipped to be a high court judge if you are rolling in drunk every morning."

But it appears that despite being involved in the divorce cases of Tarrant and Piers Morgan – who described Saunders as "arrogant and extremely condescending" in his book – Saunders' career successes masked his battle with alcoholism.

His wife claimed in court that he had been teetotal since March 2008. But, she explained, he would suffer "blips" every few months which would invariably see him embark on marathon drunken binges.

On 6 May the day had begun well. His wife said that in the morning he had seemed happy and discussed a holiday they had planned to India. Later he drove his mother-in-law to the train station.

But then he suffered his final blip. At 1.30pm he went to Kensington. Mobile phone records show he phoned escort agencies, while the post-mortem examination, which showed he had 225mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood in his system, three times the drink-drive limit.

A taxi driver who drove him to his home on Markham Square told the inquest that as Saunders left the cab he said: "I am going to die".

At 4.40pm, he fired the first shot from his Beretta shotgun. In the hours that followed, he gave police negotiators an insight into his fragile state. He told them how he loved his wife, but that he had "duped her" and "fucked around" and that he "was not capable of being the man she needed".

In the half hour before his death he played music by The Doors loudly as officers struggled to make contact with him. The only contact he made was with his wife and friend, Mr Booth, sending them both text messages. Mrs Saunders' was blank. But Mr Booth's quoted lyrics from the band he had been listening to as he died. It read: "This is the end, my only friend, the end.X'.