Telford inquest hears of racist abuse: 'Tell him from me he's a black bastard and he's dead'

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The Independent Online

John Booth, a hotel manager, stood in the witness box yesterday at the inquest of one of his black doormen and drew his hand across his throat.

The gesture, accompanied by another of holding his fingers like the barrel of a gun pointed at his head, provided a chillingly graphic image of the harassment and death threats suffered by his former employee Errol McGowan in the months before his death.

Asked by Michael Gwynne, the coroner, about the nature of the abuse against Mr McGowan, Mr Booth said: "It was racial. He told me it was racial abuse." The exchange provided a frightening and depressing ending to the second day of one of the biggest inquests in Britain in recent years.

Harold "Errol" McGowan, 34, was found hanged in a house in Urban Gardens, Telford, on 2 July 1999. A hearing scheduled to last four weeks and to hear from 60 witnesses will attempt to establish how and why he died.

At the opening of the inquest on Monday, Mr Gwynne, the Telford and Wrekin coroner, warned the all-white jury of six men and four women that they would be "shocked" and "horrified" by the evidence they would hear. Yesterday that became clearer when Mr Booth, the general manager of the Charlton Arms hotel in Telford, described a meeting he had held with Mr McGowan and two Asian doormen, days before the hanging.

Mr Booth said that in the days before the meeting, two anonymous telephone calls were made to the hotel by a female caller, leaving messages for Mr McGowan saying: "Tell him from me he's a f****** black bastard and he's dead."

Mr Booth said: "A meeting was called on the Friday night the week prior to Errol's death where there were some great concerns in relation to some abuse that had been going on. It was racial abuse from people passing in cars from the front of the hotel and also people on the front [of the hotel]." He demonstrated the gun and neck-slitting gestures.

Mr McGowan told his employer that he had contacted police about the matter and Mr Booth suggested they also seek assistance from the brewery's security chiefs. Mr McGowan asked to think things over but days later was found dead.

Mr Booth said that his door staff were involved in a dispute with a man called Rob Boyle and his associates, who had been barred from the premises, a decision he agreed with. He said that at the meeting, Mr McGowan and the Asian door staff had expressed the view that "white supremacist groups" were active in the area. White staff at the hotel were not targeted. Mr Booth said that within the past year his premises had been "smashed up" by "an element of people in the town that were known to us as being racist".

He said the Charlton Arms no longer employed black or Asian door staff but added: "I don't make those decisions." The coroner said to him: "It's a very sorry state of affairs, is it not, that you are giving evidence about." Mr Booth said: "Yes, it is. Absolutely dreadful."

The story of Mr McGowan's demise is being recalled in the unlikely setting of a Telford hotel, where a large conference hall with green-painted walls hung with modern prints has been set aside for the hearing. A dozen members of Mr McGowan's family have so far listened to evidence from every witness. The dead man's elderly mother, Icyline, has sat behind the family lawyers throughout, always wearing a brimmed hat and occasionally confiding in Mr McGowan's fiancée, Sharon Buttery, the mother of his two children.

Also present at the inquest have been Errol's elder brother, Clifton, clutching a walking stick after a recent operation, alongside his wife, Dawn, and Errol's sisters Lorna and Doreen. The dead man's other brothers, Noel, Leroy and Desley, have also been present. Most of the family have been dressed in black.

In a brief appearance at the stand yesterday, Ms Buttery told the hearing that she had been due to marry Mr McGowan between eight and 12 weeks after the date of his death. She said she had heard rumours that her partner had been involved in an affair, which had finished.

Earlier, the jury heard conflicting opinions on the circumstances in which Mr McGowan's body was found, hanging a few inches above the floor with the flex of an electric iron around his neck and tied to a door handle.

Nicholas Gent, who was the first paramedic on the scene, told the inquest: "There was very little tension on the ligature. It didn't seem tight enough to have asphyxiated him, in my opinion. The impression formed was that perhaps death had occurred in some other way but that was just my first gut reaction."

Mr Gent, who also told the jury that he had not been advised by police to wear protective shoe covers, also noticed other physical differences from other hanging victims, such as the "comfortable" look of the dead man, a lack of swelling or bloodshot eyes.

But the jury then heard from Dr Christopher Lisk, who has worked for West Mercia police since 1985, that Mr McGowan had died from hanging. He said that he had seen other examples of "low-level" hangings, particularly at young offenders' institutions, where there were few available ligature points.

Dr Lisk said it was not unusual for people who had committed suicide to appear comfortable. He told Ronald Thwaites QC, representing West Mercia police, that he could see no evidence of suspicious circumstances, foul play or third-party involvement in the death.

A consultant pathologist, Swapna Ghosh, said that she had examined Mr McGowan's body at the mortuary and concluded that he had died from "asphyxia due to hanging".

Dr Ghosh said she could find no evidence of marks on the body to suggest involvement in a struggle or violence. There was also no sign of drink or drugs in his system.

A Home Office pathologist, Kenneth Scott, who did a second post-mortem examination, supported Dr Ghosh's findings and said there was no evidence of external injuries other than the ligature mark around the neck and a small bruise on the leg.

But questioned by Peter Herbert, representing the McGowan family, he admitted that he could not exclude the possibility that Mr McGowan had died after being rendered unconscious by methods that left no injuries. Mr Herbert suggested that could have happened through the application of a special neck hold, or by a blow that had left no mark or if Mr McGowan had fainted through fear. Dr Scott said he could not rule out those possibilities because he was not present at the death but said there was no physical evidence to support them.

Dr Scott agreed with Mr Herbert that it was important to establish if there was a third party in the room with Mr McGowan when he died. "If you can categorically say that there was nobody else in that room then the things that you have raised would not be possible."

He told Mr Herbert that he had not been told that "two unidentified men" had been seen outside the house where the body was found on the morning that he died. The hearing continues tomorrow.