Body of 'heroin victim' exhumed

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The Independent Online

The mother of Rachel Whitear wept today as she watched the remains of her daughter being exhumed nearly four years after she died.

The 21-year-old heroin addict's coffin was removed from her grave and loaded into a new casket before it was wheeled out of the Church of St Peter, in Withington, near Hereford, before being driven away in a hearse to Hereford County Hospital for a post mortem examination.

The exhumation is part of a fresh inquiry into the death of Miss Whitear, who was originally thought to have suffered a fatal drug overdose at her bedsit in Exmouth, Devon, in May 2000.

But an inquest recorded an open verdict and no post mortem examination was carried out at the time.

Miss Whitear's mother and stepfather, Pauline and Mick Holcroft, stood a few yards away from the tent which had been put up over their daughter's resting place as gravediggers and police forensic officers guided the casket to the waiting hearse.

The couple huddled together amid intermittent hail and rain showers, and Mrs Holcroft sobbed as the Rev Nicholas Varnon read a short prayer.

The exhumation, which took nearly five hours to complete after excavations resumed at 6am, is part of a fresh inquiry into Miss Whitear's death, conducted by Wiltshire Police and supervised by the Police Complaints Authority.

It was launched last year after Mr and Mrs Holcroft raised concerns about Devon and Cornwall Police's handling of the original inquiry.

Detective Chief Superintendent Paul Howlett, who is leading the inquiry, told reporters that the post mortem examination would be carried out by two Home Office pathologists and was likely to take around six hours.

The officer said the pathologists hoped to analyse hair and soft tissue in the hope of finding out more about the levels of heroin in Miss Whitear's body at the time that she died.

Mr Howlett continued: "If there are further lines of inquiry, we will pursue them. The important thing here is we need to be methodical.

"We need to get greater clarity about the levels of heroin. That might help the experts offer an opinion on the circumstances of Rachel's death."

Referring to the decision by Mr and Mrs Holcroft to attend the exhumation, Mr Howlett said: "There is a mother and daughter relationship and I am not surprised that she, (Mrs Holcroft) wanted to be there at this time."

Images of Miss Whitear kneeling over still clutching a syringe after she was discovered dead were used as part of an educational video to warn schoolchildren about the dangers of drug abuse.

Photographs were also splashed across newspapers and television screens and Miss Whitear's parents won widespread praise from anti-drugs campaigners for their decision to release the images.

Miss Whitear had abandoned her degree studies in psychology and sociology at Bath University before moving to Exmouth in January 2000.

She died on 10 May and her body was discovered a few days later.