Day after day, we heard how a happy-go-lucky father was turned into a man in fear of his life

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The Independent Online

The inquest of Errol McGowan was introduced like a horror film – with a stern public warning of its frightening and disturbing contents.

The Telford and Wrekin coroner, Michael Gwynne, told the members of the jury they would be "horrified" by the "shocking" evidence that would be put before them.

For five weeks the facts were relayed; of how a happy-go-lucky, physically fit man, who had three sons, was hounded into a crying, shaking wreck because of the colour of his skin.

During hours of evidence, the dead man's mother, brothers and sisters sat listening and churning over in their minds the possibility that the racist tormentors who had promised to murder Mr McGowan had fulfilled their threat.

Mr McGowan, 34, was found hanging from a door handle in a house in Wellington, Telford, that he had been minding for a friend, in July 1999. The flex of an electric iron was around his neck and there was no suicide note. For weeks he had been telling friends and family that he expected to be killed.

For some, including the coroner, who said he had lived all his life in Wellington unaware of such tensions, the facts of this case were a "distressing" revelation.

But the McGowan family had demanded that the wider circumstances of the death of Mr McGowan, a builder and part-time doorman, be investigated. The inquest brought the relatives face to face with the gang accused of harassing Mr McGowan, and with the police officers they believed had failed to protect him or properly investigate his death.

Without the family's tenacity, the hanging would probably have passed public notice as another suicide. That it was not such a case became apparent at the inquest, even more so when the coroner pointedly told the jury that it should not consider the hanging of Mr McGowan's nephew, Jason, six months after the first death, nor the hanging of Johny Elliot, another member of Telford's small black community, who was found dead just before the hearing opened.

Mr Gwynne listened to more than 60 witnesses, and nine written statements over 21 days. The proceedings took place in the conference room of the Moat House hotel.

Before the inquest could start, a lengthy procedure took place to ensure that none of the jurors was a friend of the family, knew witnesses or was linked to the police. From a pool of 56 (55 white and one Asian), an all-white jury of six men and four women were chosen.

Mr McGowan's mother, Icyline, sat in the front row of public seats as the inquest began with a description of the discovery of her son's body.

That police had not followed the usual procedures for a suspicious death soon became clear. Under questioning from the family's barrister, Peter Herbert, Christopher Bestall, a forensic investigator for West Mercia police, admitted he had not worn plastic covers on his shoes, putting the scene at risk of contamination.

When Christopher Lisk, a police surgeon, made the same admission, the coroner intervened. He said: "There therefore has to be the possibility of contamination. The lesson to be learnt – in future when doctors are asked to go into a scene of this nature – is that they do wear anti-contamination clothing just as Dr Lisk says he does in other scenes of crime."

Dr Lisk said he had seen no evidence of foul play at the time. Swapna Ghosh and Kenneth Scott, the pathologists who had done the post-mortem examination, agreed that Mr McGowan had died from asphyxia due to hanging. They said there was no evidence on the body of signs of violence and he had not been under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

But Dr Scott told Mr Herbert that he could not exclude the possibility that Mr McGowan may have been killed after being rendered unconscious.

The hearing then switched to the chilling events leading to Mr McGowan's death.

John Booth, the manager of the Charlton Arms hotel, where Mr McGowan had worked as a doorman, stood at the witness stand and drew his fingers across his throat. He then held two fingers to his head.

Mr Booth was demonstrating gestures made outside the hotel by men in passing cars to Mr McGowan and his two Asian colleagues, who believed they were being harassed by "white supremacists". Mr Booth said: "It was racial. He told me it was racial abuse."

He said that staff had received anonymous telephone calls for Mr McGowan saying: "He's a f****** black bastard and he's dead." The manager added that since Mr McGowan's death his pub had been smashed up by "an element of people in the town known to us as being racist".

The coroner said to him: "It's a very sorry state of affairs, is it not, that you are giving evidence about?" Mr Booth said: "Yes, it is. Absolutely dreadful."

Mr McGowan's Asian colleagues Malik Hussain and Kailash Jassal, told Mr Gwynne of a race-hate campaign against the doormen by a gang of 10 to 15 men who were barred from the premises.

Mr Hussain, who was accompanied by four private security guards, described how he and Mr McGowan had contacted the police, but he said the officers "didn't give a damn" about the harassment.

Mr Jassal said Mr McGowan had become terrified that he would be killed by far-right extremists and quoted him as saying: "Somebody is going to die in this town before the police do anything about it."

In the most tense scene of the inquest, Rob Boyle, the leader of the gang alleged to have tormented Mr McGowan, was brought from prison to give evidence. Boyle, 30, who is serving a sentence for racially aggravated public disorder, denied involvement in Mr McGowan's death, but told the hearing that he had partially lost his sight in one eye "due to a black and Asian beating". Under questioning from Ronald Thwaites QC, for West Mercia police, Boyle's friend Mark Morris, 37, admitted telling police he was racist. "If you lived here you would not like Asians either," he said. Asked if he had anything to do with the National Front or race terror group Combat 18, he said: "Not yet".

Earlier, Rob King, the door manager at the Charlton Arms, said that he had been approached by another member of the gang, Eddie Solon, who had said: "f****** niggers and Pakis should be off the doors."

When Mr McGowan and Mr Hussain went to Telford police station to complain of the harassment on 17 June 1999 – four months after the Macpherson report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager from London – PC Maurice Wright did not log the matter as a racial incident. PC Wright told the inquest he had drawn the wrong conclusion.

The hearing was played a recording of an anguished telephone call from Mr McGowan a week before he died, telling police he was receiving threats and was "in fear of my life". Sergeant Ian Farmer admitted the call was logged as "low priority". Mr Herbert accused the force of "incompetence" and a "glaring failure".

Superintendent Colin Terry, in charge of investigating racial incidents in Telford, told the inquest he had never heard of Combat 18.

Mr McGowan's fiancée, Sharon Buttery, told the inquest: "I remember one night Mr McGowan woke me up about 4 o'clock and he put his arms around me. He was crying and I could feel he was shaking. He really thought he was going to be murdered." The couple had brought forward their plans for marriage, and planned to buy a house.

The hearing moved to the events of 2 July, when Mr McGowan left home for work. His body was found eight hours later at 5 Urban Gardens. Neighbours said they had heard banging at about 7.30am and saw two people outside the house three hours later.

Two detectives who assessed the scene, Detective Sergeant Gordon Dolan and Detective Inspector Phillip Pledger, formed the view that there was nothing suspicious at the scene because there were no signs of disturbance or forced entry to the house. The detectives denied they reached a "premature conclusion".

The jury was told that 13 members of the McGowan family went to Telford police station on the night of the death, intending to help with the investigation by providing names and information. But they were given the impression that officers had already decided Mr McGowan had committed suicide.

Noel McGowan, Errol's brother, said the family was told to pay £10,000 for its own private forensic examination. Detectives, who believed forensics and fingerprinting could produce unnecessary complications, deny having said this.

On the morning after the death, Roy Barnett, a Telford café owner, was visited by the Boyle gang, who followed him outside. He said that Boyle told him: "Don't incriminate me in any of this." Mr Barnett said he had been told by Mr McGowan shortly before he died that "if anything happens to me it's Rob Boyle that did it".

Police later sent files to the Crown Prosecution Service in relation to the harassment of Mr McGowan. But with the chief witness dead, the CPS said there was insufficient evidence to prosecute.

The matter would probably have rested there if it had not been for a similar hanging on 1 January 2000, of Jason Mr McGowan, who had been trying to investigate his uncle's death.

After the intervention of Jack Straw, at the time the then Home Secretary, Chief Constable Peter Hampson ordered a new investigation into the deaths with "a presumption of foul play". He also apologised to the family.

Detectives called in Roger Ide, a Home Office hangings expert, who made a reconstruction of Mr McGowan's death using a dummy, and concluded there was no third party involvement. But Nathaniel Cary, a Home Office pathologist, said it would have been possible for others to have been involved in the death and said it was "dangerous to always exclude the relatively unlikely".

Dr Cary criticised the police approach to the case. "With its background of racial harassment ... I would have expected this to have been a full-blown suspicious death investigation."

The pathologist said the dissection of Mr McGowan's body should have taken place to look for signs of bruising to the wrists, limbs and back. He said it was "possible and plausible" that third parties had been present at Mr McGowan's death.

Tristram Elmhirst, West Mercia police's senior forensics expert, said he was involved in the case only when it was reinvestigated eight months after the death. He agreed he was in "a position of ignorance" over the presence or otherwise of third parties due to the possible loss of evidence.

Paul Millen, who trains forensics officers at the National Police College in Durham, said the police had made "too many assumptions". He described the failure to take fingerprints from the door and surrounding wall as "an embarrassment".

But while there were clear signs that Mr McGowan had been harassed, no evidence was found of a third party inside 5 Urban Gardens when he died, even after the case had been re-investigated by a team of officers, on a scale similar to that deployed in the Jill Dando murder inquiry.

With this in mind, a majority of the jury decided yesterday that Errol McGowan's death could only be explained by his having taken his own life.