How the stigma of suicide is starting to be lifted

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The Independent Online

The graves of Jason and Harold "Errol" McGowan are among the most colourful of the hundreds that fill Wellington cemetery. Lying head to foot, both are stacked with flowers, some real, some synthetic.

Yesterday, tucked among the petals covering Jason's grave, was something so seemingly out of place that at first it looked like litter dropped by someone with no regard for where they were. It was a lager bottle, its label now fading but its contents intact, with a handwritten note fixed with tape. "Jason, this is as close as I could get to celebrating my birthday with you," it read. "It was hard for me to come here but even harder for me to leave." It was signed "Macca", the nickname of Jason's close friend Mark Fielding, one of the last to see him alive.

It is only three months since Jason's death, nine since the death of his uncle Harold, and for the friends and family of the two men the suffering still weighs heavy. But they try to take what comfort they can from the signs that suggest a change in the way the deaths are being investigated is under way. "I know it has been nine months," Doreen McGowan, Jason's mother and Harold's sister, said yesterday, "but then I think of the family of Stephen Lawrence and how they have been fighting for seven years."

Private tragedy became public news in January when The Independent reported the McGowan family's belief that the two men, found dead in unusual circumstances, had been the victims of racist killers.

The language was strong and unfettered: there was talk of racist gangs, racial harassment, insults, death threats and even lynchings. At times it all sat rather uncomfortably with the image most people associated with a quiet Shropshire town. Yet the McGowans were adamant. "We are convinced that both Harold and Jason were killed by racists. They had no reason to take their own lives," said Clifton McGowan, the brother of Harold.

The circumstances of the deaths were what convinced the family that they were not dealing with suicides. Harold, 34, a builder and father of three children, was found dead in an empty house on 2 July last year, hanged by a flex from an electric iron. Although Harold had been depressed, his family point out that he had not left a suicide note and that he was deeply attached to his family. They also say the cause of his depression was a sustained campaign of racial abuse during which he had been attacked twice by white gangs and suffered a series of death threats.

The circumstances of Jason's death were, if anything, even more suspicious. The young man, who worked at the offices of a local newspaper, had been very close to his uncle and had taken upon himself the task of trying to investigate his death. Despite all of this he was positive about the future.

In this frame of mind, Jason, his wife, Sinead, and their friends had celebrated Millennium Eve at their local public house, the Elephant and Castle, in Wellington, a small satellite town now swallowed up by Telford. Having decided not to bother with New Year's resolutions because his "life was already perfect", he went outside for some air at around midnight and never returned. His body was discovered at 6am, hanging from railings at a nearby leisure centre. "Jason knew I found Errol's body and knew how it affected me. He would not have put me through this," his mother said at the time. "When Errol died Jason said, 'If he killed himself why didn't he leave a note?' So he would definitely have left a note."

Though the family were convinced of foul play, others were not. Many people in Telford and further afield felt the McGowans were seeing conspiracies where none existed.

But perhaps more surprising was the reaction of some sections of the media - particularly in its attitude to those newspapers, primarily The Independent, which had pursued the story. The local paper, the Shropshire Star, though sympathising with the family of one of its employees, said there was scant evidence of foul play.The Sun, which the McGowans say never spoke to them, poured scorn on the claims and the decision of this newspaper to report them. Other, traditionally liberal newspapers, largely ignored the story before deciding they had to follow it.

But the McGowans persevered with their campaign and steadily their efforts bore fruit. On 1 February the Chief Constable of West Mercia, Peter Hampson, ordered the investigation into both deaths be reopened and that Harold's inquest, due to be held on 28 February, be postponed.

The new investigation was set up under Detective Superintendent Mel Shore, leading a team of 47 staff. But the McGowans felt any new inquiry could still be tainted by the attitude of those involved in the first. On 1 March, at a meeting with Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, the family spoke to Assistant Deputy Commissioner John Grieve, head of Scotland Yard's racial and violent crime task force. He said he was prepared to help look into the case.

Three weeks later his involvement was formally announced. In a development that undoubtedly upset some elements of the West Mercia force, it was decided Mr Grieve and members of his specialist team would act as advisers to the detectives in Telford. "We see the role of the special adviser as de facto the senior investigating officer," the family's solicitor, Imran Khan, said at the time. "As far as we are concerned, Mr Grieve is in charge of the investigation."

Whether this is a view shared by the detectives investigating the deaths is not clear, but it seems some changes have already been made. The McGowans say local people with information that may be useful have been more prepared to come forward since Mr Grieve's involvement.

But crucially, given the announcement last weekend that the inquiry team was now "making an initial presumption of foul play", the family and friends of Harold and Jason believe that someone is finally taking them seriously. That is all they ever asked for.