Mother and autistic son in 180ft death leap

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A devoted mother struggling to cope alone with her young autistic son, described as the "apple of her eye", jumped 180 feet (50 metres) to her death while holding his hand.

The bodies of 38-year-old Helen Rogan, a qualified occupational therapist, and her 11-year-old son, Mark Young, were discovered by a relative on a footpath under a disused bridge in the Derwent valley, Co Durham, on Monday.

The alarm was raised after the driver of a taxi that regularly took the child to the Thornton Hill special needs school in Sunderland failed to get an answer at their home. Durham Constabulary said the discovery of the bodies, at the foot of Gill Bridge, near Moorside, just after 10am yesterday, was being treated as an unlawful killing and a suicide.

Miss Rogan, who separated from her partner several years ago, had given up her job to care for Mark but appeared to have been under pressure coping as her son grew up. One of her neighbours, Elizabeth Murray, said Mark, diagnosed autistic at the age of two, was "a beautiful little boy". She said: "To look at him no one would have known he was suffering any illness. It looked as though Helen was coping well with looking after him on her own but social services started making inquiries recently and I believe Helen was worried that Mark might be taken into care. I don't know whether that had anything to do with what happened."

Another neighbour, who declined to be named, said: "Mark was the focus of her whole life but things have been getting harder for her. [He] was growing up and becoming more of a handful than he ever was before. He was the apple of her eye and it is hard to imagine her doing anything to harm him. I know that she would have been unable to carry on living without him and he would have been lost without her."

Miss Rogan, who had recently returned from a holiday in Spain with Mark in time for the new school term, apparently drove him to a car park near the bridge in her dark blue T- registered Ford Fiesta on Monday. They then walked together across fields to the centre of the bridge, a disused railway viaduct, at its highest point above the valley

Police are studying a number of notes that had been discovered at the family home in the Blackhill area of Co Durham.

Durham social services confirmed that Mark Rogan was "a client" but would not comment on the nature of the department's involvement in his upbringing.

Detective Superintendent Harry Stephenson of Durham Constabulary said the force's inquiries indicated "a very close and loving relationship between a mother and son". He said: "This is an appalling tragedy and one that has been very traumatic to deal with even for some very experienced police officers. It would seem Miss Rogan was finding it difficult to cope with her personal circumstances but despite all that she seemed devoted to her son and prepared to do anything for him.

"Obviously, it will be for the coroner to decide on how Miss Rogan and her son met their deaths. At this stage we have no reason to treat this as anything other than an unlawful killing and a suicide."

Miss Rogan met her partner 15 years ago when they both worked together at the same hospital in Durham, later living in the south of England for about five years. She returned north to be near her family when they parted and remained close to her younger sisters, Joan, 30, and Bernadette, 37.

Her mother, Mary, who also lives in Blackhill, was too distressed to comment yesterday.

A post-mortem examination showed that Ms Rogan and Mark died from injuries consistent with a fall from the bridge.

A spokeswoman for the National Autistic Society urged parents struggling to cope to contact social services or its helpline. "This is an absolutely tragic situation. There is no need for anyone to feel they have to cope alone," she said. The helpline number is 0870 600 8585.