Two strange men were seen knocking at the door of a house in Telford the morning of the day Errol McGowan was found dead inside, an inquest jury was told yesterday. Evidence at the hearing into the doorman's death suggested the men, unknown to a couple who passed them at 10.30am, may have arrived three hours after Mr McGowan pulled up there in his van in July 1999.
Mr McGowan was said to have jump-started the van and left his nearby home unusually early, between 6am and 6.30am. Nobody saw him arrive at 5 Urban Gardens, the scene of his death, but his cream-white Renault van was seen there from 7.30am.
The first man to see it, Zafar Iqbal, said there was a "hammering noise ... like something knocking on a door or bricks" at 7.30am. He said the noise could have come from number 5, where Mr McGowan was found hanging from a door handle at 3pm.
The two unknown men were seen by neighbours, Gillian Lane and her partner, Silvester Locke, as they set off shopping. One, described as "probably Asian", said "How-do?" politely to Mr Locke. The other man, white and in his 20s with fair hair, said nothing.
Detectives did not show the couple photos in an attempt to identify the men and the couple were unable to provide information to help create police sketches, the inquest heard.
Mr Locke said he did not ask them what they were doing, although they knew the occupant was on holiday and the couple had been asked to watch the house while he was away.
Curiously, Mr Iqbal said he saw Mr McGowan's keys inside the van, with two packets of sandwiches, which he may have bought that morning. Mr McGowan had almost certainly not slept in his bed, as usual, the night before, his partner, Sharon Buttery, told the inquest.
She said he was with his fellow doormen Malik Hussain and Kailash Jassal. She says she heard a conversation among them in which Mr McGowan appeared to be asked, against his wishes, to seek violent revenge on a local racist, Robert Boyle, whom he had come to fear.
She says she heard Mr McGowan say to his friends: "Look at the state of me."
Mr Malik said: "It's got to be sorted out once and for all."
Mr McGowan: "I've got a lot to lose."
Mr Jassal: "If we've got to do it, do it."
Mr Malik: "If we don't sort it out they will take you on your own. There's no point in you [Errol] coming with us in this state. If the police ask us questions, you'll crack up."
Ms Buttery told the inquest: "I knew that one day they would all end up fighting. I never expected Errol to die. I just thought there was going to be one big fight."
Mr McGowan had asked her: "Do you think I've lost it?" Then he told her, "I've got a lot to lose" and asked if she would wait for him if he went to prison.
Ms Buttery contacted Police Constable Darren Evans to report Mr McGowan missing after midday. He said she was agitated by her fiancé's "dramatic" personality change and "paranoid" fear for his family's safety after an incident with Mr Boyle.
"She did not say as much", PC Evans told the inquest, "but Sharon seemed concerned that Errol would kill himself."
The inquest continues today.