Hanged men's family say: at last police take us seriously

The McGowans of Telford, harassed, abused and disbelieved, are on the way to finding the truth about two sinister deaths
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The Independent Online

All the McGowans asked of police was to take their fears seriously. The black family who had made their lives in a Shropshire market town had become the targets for racial harassment, attacks on their children and death threats.

First Errol McGowan was found hanged in Telford. Six months later his nephew Jason, who had been investigating the death, died nearby in chillingly similar circumstances.

When Errol's body was found last July the McGowans immediately told detectives they believed he had been killed, and gave the names of a group of men they said had been harassing him and other members of the family.

But the officers dismissed their concerns, says the family. "They seemed to come with preconceived ideas," said Leroy McGowan, Errol's brother. "[They] came with assumptions and tried to prove them."

Three months after the death of Jason on New Year's Day, detectives investigating both hangings are working on a "presumption of foul play".

Deputy Assistant Commissioner John Grieve, Britain's most senior officer in the detection of racial crime, told the McGowans the investigation is a murder inquiry.

Mr Grieve, the head of Scotland Yard's Racial and Violent Crime Task Force, has spent several days in Telford examining the case after being appointed special adviser to the investigation. Errol, 34, a builder and part-time doorman, was found hanged in a house he had been minding in Telford last July.

The flex of an electric iron was tied around his neck, then to a door handle just three feet off the ground. He had told police he had been subjected to death threats.

His nephew Jason, 20, who had begun to investigate his uncle's death, was found hanging from roadside railings.

Now, at last, the McGowans feel they are being listened to. Leroy McGowan said: "This is the way we wanted the investigation to go in the first place. All we wanted was a proper investigation.

"But because the police did not take us seriously we have had to campaign and battle just to get to this stage."

They have also had to fight the hostility of sections of the local media and Shropshire politicians who contemptuously treated the family's claims as though they were some sort of slur on the good reputation of Telford.

But the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, became concerned and met the family and their legal advisers last month.

Michael Mansfield, the leading human rights barrister, agreed to represent the family well before the case had received any publicity, after being called in by Birmingham solicitor Errol Robinson.

London solicitor Imran Khan, who with Mr Mansfield represented the family of murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence, also agreed to join the legal team.

West Mercia Police insist they "recognised immediately" that Errol's death was a "serious incident", and when Jason died, "the likelihood of sinister implications was immediately recognised".

But on 1 February, as concerns continued to grow, the West Mercia Chief Constable Peter Hampson ordered that the investigation into both deaths should be re-opened and that Errol's inquest, due on 28 February, was postponed.

Mr Hampson appointed Det Supt Mel Shore to head the new joint investigation and placed a team of 47 staff at his disposal. But the McGowans were worried that the new inquiry could be an attempt to cover past mistakes.

They said they had "no confidence" in West Mercia and called for Mr Grieve's task force to be handed the investigation.

The meeting with Mr Straw was on 1 March, and shortly afterwards Mr Hampson, who had resisted calls to give control to Scotland Yard, announced that Mr Grieve had been made "special adviser" to the inquiry. The family now regards Mr Grieve as the de facto senior investigating officer.

Then last week, in a further attempt at conciliation, Mr Hampson formally apologised to the family in a letter.

He said: "I am very sorry that the service we have given you in the past has been less than satisfactory and hope that you might be able to accept this apology."

The McGowans, who would like Mr Hampson to make his apology publicly, feel that with the police now making a presumption that the deaths were the result of foul play, they may at last be on their way to finding the truth. Mr Grieve is also heading the investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence and led the team which successfully prosecuted the racist killers of the black musician Michael Menson.

The McGowans believe the family owes a debt to these two London families.

Leroy McGowan said: "Because of the campaigning of the Lawrences, the Mensons and other families we have managed to get very far in quite a short period. Maybe now we can get justice after all."