'I am racist' admits man at Telford inquest

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The Independent Online

Six men, all alleged to be members of a racist gang that harassed a black man found hanged in mysterious circumstances, gave evidence yesterday at his inquest.

The men, who are all accused of being part of a group whose leader, Robert Boyle, is serving a sentence for racially aggravated public disorder, were speaking on the sixth day of the hearing on the death of Errol McGowan. Several of them admitted to a chilling dislike of "Pakis'' while others insisted they did not even consider the term offensive.

Mr McGowan, 34, was found hanged in a house he was looking after for a friend in Telford in July 1999 after complaining to police that he had been subjected to racist death threats.

Mark Morris, a 37-year-old groundsman, said "maybe'' when asked if he had ever heard his associates use the word "nigger''. Mr Morris, who attended the same school as Mr McGowan in the Shropshire town, had denied being a racist.

However, he agreed under cross-examination by Ronald Thwaites QC, the barrister representing West Mercia Police, that he told police: "I am racist, yeah, but I don't go around saying it ... as long as I keep that to myself I can think what I like.'' He added yesterday: "If you lived here you would not like Asians either." Asked if he had ever been a member, or taken an interest in the activities of the National Front or the white supremacist group Combat 18, he said: "Not yet''.

As his reply was met with an audible gasp from the largely black and Asian audience in the public gallery, he added quickly that he had "slipped up'' in what he had said.

Peter Herbert, representing the McGowan family, asked Mr Morris to comment on a statement made about him to police by Sinead McGowan, the wife of Errol's nephew Jason, who was found hanging in similar circumstances six months later. "He said, 'Have you ever been with a nigger?' I replied, 'Don't use those words with me, but yes'. He slapped me and called me a slag, then whenever he saw me he would shout abuse,'' Mrs McGowan had told detectives.

Angrily denying that the incident had ever taken place, Mr Morris said: "I am standing here taking this crap. If you actually have anything to charge me with, then charge me.''

Another alleged member of the gang, Raymond Bannister, was asked to explain why it had been claimed that his blue Escort Cabriolet had been seen driving past the Charlton Arms, where Mr McGowan worked, on the night of his death. It was said that people inside the car were celebrating the death and making throat-slitting gestures at other doormen.

"I would not allow anybody to shout racial abuse out of my car,'' Mr Bannister said, simply responding "not sure'' or "no comment'' to questions put to him in cross-examination.

Mr Boyle's brother Stephen, Eddie Solon, Scott Cannon, and Thomas Mann were also witnesses at the inquest. At the end of their evidence, Telford and Wrekin coroner Michael Gwynn asked Mr Bannister: "You and some of the other witnesses we have seen appear to have been less than co-operative with police in their investigation and this inquest into the death of Errol. Do you agree?"

"Do you think you and your associates have been co-operative?'' Mr Bannister said: "Yes''.

The jury and members of the dead man's family watched in silence as a CCTV video of Errol McGowan, taken two months before his death, was played to the inquest. It showed Robert Boyle and several of his friends approach Mr McGowan's friend and fellow doorman, Malik Hussain, in a take-away shop and a violent confrontation ensue.

Mr Hussain, who was arrested along with Mr Boyle after the incident, had all charges against him dropped. He had complained to the Commission for Racial Equality that it was a racist attack. Yesterday the Asian man said that police had failed to take him and Mr McGowan seriously when they went to them only weeks before the death complaining of racial harassment.

"We didn't take the law into our own hands and start a racial riot. Errol wanted to do it properly and go to the police,'' he said. "We felt nothing had been gained by going to the police station. I don't think they understood how deep the problem was and how far it was going.''

The inquest heard how a man called Dean Gordon had told police on two occasions that he had met three white "City [football] fans'' in Birmingham one night and had been shown a piece of paper with the names of Mr McGowan and Mr Hussain on it. They said there would be retaliation towards them for a "kicking'' Robert Boyle had received, adding that he hated "niggers and Pakis and he was going to get them sorted out'', Mr Gordon said.

The witness also claimed that Mr McGowan had been approached by Mr Hussain and had lent him £10,000 for a Class-A drug deal that had turned sour. When Mr McGowan asked for his money back, Mr Gordon suggested, he was told "not to make a fuss and keep quiet about this because they were dealing with some real heavies from out of town''.

The inquest continues.