'Threats left McGowan scared to open the door'

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In the weeks before his death, Errol McGowan would wake up crying and shaking, utterly convinced he was about to be murdered, the inquest into his death was told yesterday.

Mr McGowan, 34, who was found hanging from a door handle on 2 July 1999, told friends that members of a racist gang were following him. Family and friends of Mr McGowan told the inquest that the "happy-go-lucky" joker they had once known had became consumed with abject terror, too frightened to even open his front door.

"The main thing on Errol's mind was that he knew they were going to kill him, one way or another. His worst fear was that he didn't know when it was going to happen or how it was going to happen. His biggest fear was what was going to happen to his kids and his partner, Sharon," said his brother, Leroy, 39.

"The biggest thing on Errol's mind was the harassment and the names [Robert] Boyle, [Eddie] Solon and [Scott] Cannon [all alleged members of a local racist gang]. One day he showed me where Robert Boyle lived but he would not even go past his house ­ he just pointed it out," added Leroy. "My brother told me he was being followed." Errol, the youngest of seven, turned to his older siblings for help. Five of them told the hearing yesterday how they had watched the racial harassment he was subjected to eat away at his character and confidence.

Sharon Buttery, Mr McGowan's fiancée and the mother of his two youngest sons, said that the intense harassment came at a point when he had just begun to sort out his life and find stability in their once volatile relationship. They had planned to get married and buy a house. "I thought that we had got everything together for the first time in years," she said.

The court heard that the Mr McGowan was worried about his mother ­ who had just suffered a stroke ­ being unable to see his eldest child and some trouble his youngest son, Omar, then aged eight years, had been getting into. But all that had been eclipsed by the racial harassment he suffered as well as being told that he was on a white supremacist hit list.

"I remember one night Errol woke me up about 4 o'clock and he put his arms around me. He was crying and I could feel he was shaking. Other times I would walk into the bedroom and he would be there like this [head in hand] and would say 'I don't know what I am going to do'. He really thought he was going to get murdered by somebody," Miss Buttery said.

She convinced him to go and see a doctor for his headaches. He was prescribed Prozac for depression and to help him sleep, she said. Asked if she thought Mr McGowan had ever contemplated taking his own life, she answered firmly: "No, never, never."

She added: "Errol was in a situation where he thought Robert Boyle and his friends were going to attack him very soon ... he was hoping for the police to sort it out."

He became so frightened that he began to arm himself with a heavy piece of electrical cable as defence against any possible attack.

Mr McGowan's older brothers explained yesterday how they had persuaded him not to take the matter into his own hands, but to turn to the police instead. His faith in the West Mercia officers diminished when he felt nothing was being done to protect him.

"I think if he had had his own way he would have gone out and given them a good kicking. Reflecting on everything now, it would have been better for him to give them a good kicking and then he would not be where he is now," his eldest brother, Clifton, 47, told the court.

He admitted that his youngest sibling, in an attempt to placate his friends and family, reported the matter to the police but withheld some of the information his family had insisted he should pass on.

Pointing out that Errol had never told officers he was being followed, Ronald Thwaites, QC, representing West Mercia police, asked his 37-year-old sister Lorna: "There seems to me some doubt in my mind as to whether the police knew as much as the family appears to know about this harassment?"

"Yes you are right," she replied. Miss McGowan admitted her brother had been having a relationship with a second woman in the month before his death, but insisted that this had not placed any pressure on him. The young woman ­ Kate Phillips ­ with whom Mr McGowan had had an "intense relationship" until three months before his death, also gave evidence yesterday with his fiancée sitting only feet away.

She insisted the relationship had "cooled off" after a mutual decision, and that Mr McGowan appeared happy to remain good friends. He had, however, called her repeatedly to relay his fears about the harassment.

Other neighbours, friends and colleagues from the Shropshire town all described a marked change, both in character and physical well-being, during Mr McGowan's last few weeks.

A neighbour, Roberta Heneghan, described how he had told her about his problems in a tearful, disorientated and frenzied state one day.

A bricklayer, Colin Edwards, said Mr McGowan was a cheerful, honest hard worker, and had resigned from his job the day before his death by saying that he was "losing his head". When cross-examined by Mr Thwaites, Mr Edwards agreed that this could have meant he was losing his mind.

But, responding to further questioning by Chris Williams, representing the McGowan family, he also agreed that it could just have meant he was very frightened.

The inquest continues.