What really happened at Deepcut barracks?

The shocking 'suicides' of four young recruits at a Surrey army base remain mired in controversy. Key evidence was lost, clues were ignored, and the soldiers' families are still seeking answers. As a crucial inquest approaches, Brian Cathcart discovers how truth has also been a casualty
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Picture this. An Army barracks one Saturday night in March 2002; at about 9.30pm, a shot rings out somewhere near the fence to the officers' mess compound; after a moment of uncertainty, barked orders fill the air; there's a flurry of movement, and torch beams slice the darkness. The cry is heard: "Man down!"

Picture this. An Army barracks one Saturday night in March 2002; at about 9.30pm, a shot rings out somewhere near the fence to the officers' mess compound; after a moment of uncertainty, barked orders fill the air; there's a flurry of movement, and torch beams slice the darkness. The cry is heard: "Man down!"

Stretched out on the grass is James Collinson, a 17-year-old private from that night's guard patrol. A rifle lies across his chest; he has a bullet wound in his chin and the top of his head has been blown off. Blood and brains smear the ground. It is a dreadful sight. But some of those present - a few breathless, wide-eyed young recruits, a non-commissioned officer and perhaps a junior officer - know something that makes it even more alarming. Six months earlier, another 17-year-old private was discovered 100 yards from here, also shot through the head during a night patrol. It is only four days since the local coroner returned an open verdict on that death, stating: "I do not find that he took his own life."

So what are they thinking as they look down at this second corpse? And, as word spreads through the camp, what thought must surely go through the minds of everybody, right up to the commanding officer? This: "Is it really a suicide? After the uncertainties in the previous case, we need to make certain there's nothing suspicious here. There has to be a very thorough investigation."

That, surely, would be the reaction of any reasonable, concerned person. All the more so when you add a further detail: under Army rules, Pte Collinson was too young to be on his own with a firearm - so when he began his guard duty that night, he had been armed only with a torch.

In the interests of the young man's family, of his comrades, of the regiment, and of peace of mind and law and order, the circumstances demanded the fullest and most thorough police inquiry.

So what happened? The exact nature of the investigation that was actually carried out remains obscured by official secrecy, but the Collinson family, their lawyers and their advisers are convinced of one thing: it was not full and thorough.

Most of us know the essentials in the investigation of violent deaths, even if we've only picked them up from Inspector Morse or Silent Witness: the death scene is secured, photographed and painstakingly searched; the body and weapon are examined by specialists; all possible witnesses are traced; those closest to the deceased are interviewed; and so on.

Here is what the family's MP, Annabelle Ewing, told the House of Commons about the Collinson case: "There was no proper forensic post-mortem, no photographs were taken [at the scene] and fingerprints were not lifted from the gun. The scene was not secured, and witness statements conflicted with the two photographs that were taken of James's body on the night. Some 160 wedding guests who were at Deepcut base that night for a function were not automatically interviewed."

That wasn't all. No one noticed at the time that Collinson's jaw was broken. Detectives took no steps to interview his mother, even though she saw him hours before he died and could testify to his state of mind. And, if the death scene was searched, the searchers somehow missed his cap badge, which turned up by chance months later.

It all begins to sound like the botched Stephen Lawrence murder investigation of 1993. So we should hardly be surprised that, two and a half years after James Collinson's death, no one knows whether he took his own life. There isn't enough evidence to be sure.

Collinson's father, also James, doesn't believe it was suicide. His son, he insists, was not depressed or anxious, but happy, full of pride at being a soldier and making plans for his future. Of what happened after his son's death, Collinson says: "It's like the Keystone cops. There was a blatant lack of care, a blatant lack of respect. There was no real investigation at all."

The Government wants the Deepcut scandal to go away. It would like us to think that the deaths of four young soldiers at the Surrey barracks between 1995 and 2002 were probably suicides, and that the families are merely in denial. This summer, in a series of statements and parliamentary answers, the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, and the Armed Forces Minister, Adam Ingram, rejected calls for a public inquiry. It was a false alarm, they implied; the story was over.

But they are wrong. Several important acts of this drama have still to be played out and - even though it seems that the barracks itself may be closed to save money - the name Deepcut is destined to return to the headlines many more times.

James Collinson's inquest has yet to take place. It could come this autumn, and there will be at least two furthercourt proceedings. A police reinvestigation of the deaths is itself being reviewed by another force. As a result of the scandal, a parliamentary committee has begun examining the Army's handling of young recruits. And the bereaved families, with support from more than 200 MPs and from Amnesty International, are still demanding a public inquiry.

All of which reflects another truth that ministers and the Army seem eager to obscure, a truth that the events following Pte Collinson's death underline - this is about something bigger than whether four young soldiers really killed themselves (although that question remains central). The families and their lawyers believe that the available evidence shows that the authorities - Army, police, government - repeatedly failed in their duties, not only in their handling of these deaths but also in many other ways, over a lengthy period. And yet, as far as is known, not a single officer or official has been disciplined for this.

They argue also that these failures have been compounded by official defensiveness and denial, and by an extreme reluctance to be open about what has gone on. Minimum disclosure, both to the families and the public, has been the rule.

The result is a long list of unanswered questions. In the Collinson case, for example, no one has explained why an investigation that should have been, in the circumstances, nothing less than textbook perfect appears to have been rather less than that. Who made the decisions that led to the shortcomings? Did they have appropriate expertise and resources? Was there incompetence or negligence?

To take a specific point: the Collinsons have been told that their son borrowed a gun from a colleague, and that this was common. "We don't know what these young lads get up to out there on their own," is how they say one officer put it. If that is what occurred, then why - in a camp where another 17-year-old had recently been found shot - was it allowed to happen? What had been done to prevent it? Who was responsible for policy on this matter in the Army - and in the camp?

And this is just one aspect of one case in the tangled story of Deepcut barracks. The basic facts are well known: four privates - Sean Benton, 20; Cheryl James, 18; and Geoff Gray and James Collinson, both 17 - died from gunshot wounds at the Surrey headquarters of the Royal Logistics Corps, the first two in 1995 and the last two in 2001 and 2002.

In each case, the Army was quick to say that it had been suicide, and though the parents had doubts, there didn't seem to be much they could do about it. Importantly, all four families believed theirs was the only such case - until March 2002.

That month, Pte Gray's parents attended their son's inquest, and were astonished by what they found. There was no jury, they were not allowed an adjournment to get legal representation and the whole affair was over in a couple of hours. Also, although the evidence showed that their son had been shot twice in the head, with each shot sufficient to end his life, no expert witness was produced to explain how this was possible.

A statement from another soldier suggested that Gray may not have died at the spot where he was found. Corporal Craig Filmer, second in command of the guard on that night, said the body was eventually discovered at a location that had already been searched three times after shots had been heard, and that he and other soldiers also heard suspicious movements in the area.

Shocked, the Grays had just begun writing to MPs to alert them to these facts when they heard - by chance, through a friend - of Collinson's death. They made contact, and found the Collinsons equally full of doubts about their son's supposed suicide. It took a few more weeks to discover that there had been two more gunshot deaths at the base in 1995, a connection made by television researchers following up the story.

Deepcut was suddenly national news. Public concern grew as evidence emerged pointing to bullying and sexual harassment at the base, which appeared to have been used as a dump for young soldiers awaiting postings. And the concern increased when details of some of the earlier investigations leaked out.

In Gray's case, the clothes he was wearing when he died were destroyed - on the grounds, apparently, that the bloodstains made them hazardous to health. Before the gun found by his body could be properly examined it was returned to stores, where it could not be identified among dozens of others. Key documents were shredded. It did not take a conspiratorial mind to consider that these were matters in need of closer scrutiny, or to conclude that the military police were not the right people to carry it out.

By the summer of 2002, therefore, the civilian Surrey Police were looking into all four deaths, and government ministers, rattled by the public outcry, were insisting that the problem was in good hands.

Over the next 15 months, Surrey Police interviewed 900 witnesses and took more than 1,500 evidential statements. In September 2003, they completed a report more than 2,500 pages long. A press release said that "no evidence has come to light so far to indicate any prospect of a prosecution directly related to these deaths," but gave no further details.

At this point, something remarkable happened. The report itself was not made public, nor was any substantive summary released. This key document, said by its police authors to throw "significant new light" on the deaths, was not even shown to the dead soldiers' families, who received briefings but are far from satisfied.

So, while the Prime Minister himself hailed a "very detailed" piece of police work as proof that further inquiries would be a waste of time and money, what really happened was that the affair was given a new layer of obscurity. An investigation set up to put the public's mind at rest became, in effect, an official secret - and the unanswered questions remained unanswered.

The families and their lawyers were outraged. "It is a grossly unsatisfactory position," said William Bache, solicitor for the Benton and James families. "It's all very well saying that there has been a wonderful police investigation, but the families have not been shown the results. The very people who ought to be the beneficiaries of all that effort are being prevented from seeing the report."

Bache said also that what extra information the families picked up only heightened their concerns. The James family learnt that fragments of the bullet that killed their daughter Cheryl - important * * evidence, by any measure - were retrieved at post-mortem examination but later disappeared. In the case of Sean Benton, who died from five bullets to the chest, his shirt was taken away and washed. "I have many years of experience in dealing with the Royal Military Police," said Bache, "and I have never, ever come across anyone washing an exhibit with blood on it."

Lembit Opik, the Liberal Democrat MP, whose constituents include the parents of Cheryl James, has demanded that the Surrey Police report be published immediately. He said it was a test for ministers: "Either there is nothing wrong, in which case they have no need to be so secretive: or there is something wrong, in which case they need to be frank and open.

"Put it another way: if they are perfectly comfortable that the Surrey report covers everything and answers every question, then let them show it to us." He added, however: "All the signs are that it does not." And this is another problem.

Since 2002, the families have been unhappy with aspects of the Surrey Police's handling of the case, arguing in essence that the force, like the Army, approached the deaths with the mindset that they were suicides; and that it remained too close to the Army as it investigated. The families doubt that the report is complete or conclusive.

The Surrey force, which does not accept these suggestions, brought in the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary to carry out a review of what it had done. It is clear that a detailed examination is under way, due to be completed in September. Will this report be made public? A Surrey spokesman said: "The Devon and Cornwall review will not be published, as it is an internal review commissioned by and for Surrey Police as an audit of our investigation. We will, however, be sharing its findings with the families." This sounds like a similar procedure to that adopted with the original report.

The Deepcut controversy is now moving into a new phase, in the courts. The first legal tussle will be the inquest into James Collinson's death, which has yet to be held - two and a half years after the event. There is no more vivid measure of how far matters have changed than a comparison between this and the inquest into the death of Geoff Gray in March 2002. On that occasion, the proceedings took place in a small coroner's court with no jury. There were barely 20 people present, including a couple of local reporters, the court staff and the witnesses. It was over in an afternoon.

For the Collinson inquest, scheduled for this autumn (a date has yet to be set), the coroner's staff are expected to take over a whole conference centre to accommodate a case likely to last two to three weeks. There will be a jury, a large media presence and teams of solicitors and barristers representing the Collinson family, Surrey Police, the Army, the Ministry of Defence and one or two individual officers. Presiding will be Michael Burgess, already in the public eye as the coroner responsible for the inquests into the deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales and Dodi Fayed.

However, it will be a limited procedure, addressing the usual coroner's questions of who has died, when and how. Only the Collinson death is likely to be discussed in any detail, and examination of such matters as the management of the camp or the quality of the investigation will be curtailed.

One issue that has already surfaced is that Surrey report. That was presented to Michael Burgess, the Surrey Coroner, last September, and it is he, technically, who still holds the key to it. The Collinson family's solicitor, Girish Thanki, therefore applied to the Surrey Coroner for the relevant sections so that he could have the information necessary to represent his clients.

Surrey Police objected on the grounds that witness statements contained in the report could not be released without the permission of those who had given them. According to Thanki, he and his clients were offered the chance to read part of the report provided that they guaranteed to share it with no unauthorised person. This means, for example, that they could not seek expert opinions unless the experts were approved by the very police force whose findings they might be questioning. Thanki and his clients are unhappy with these terms, and a negotiation is under way.

Whatever verdict the Collinson jury reaches, one inquest will not have the scope to answer all the questions about all the deaths. So the families' lawyers are opening up other fronts. They are applying to the Attorney General for the inquests into the Gray, James and Benton deaths to be re-opened, a request that may end up being argued in the courts. They describe these earlier proceedings as having been "perfunctory". Open verdicts were recorded in the cases of Gray and James, while Benton's death was recorded as suicide.

The families' lawyers are also likely to go to court in an attempt to force the Defence Secretary to hold a public inquiry. The precedent for this is the case of Zahid Mubarek, the young man killed at Feltham Young Offender Institution after being put into a cell with a known violent racist. The Home Office initially refused to hold an inquiry, but Mubarek's family challenged the decision in the courts. Their case was upheld in the House of Lords last year, and the inquiry opened in May.

In that case, the Lords ruled that the state had a duty to investigate publicly the death of a prisoner in its care when there was a chance that death was caused by official failures. On behalf of the Gray and Collinson families, Thanki and colleagues are working on a case contending that the state has similar duties towards soldiers in its care. Bache, for the Benton and James families, plans a similar initiative.

As with the Collinson inquest, the issue of disclosure of the Surrey report is central to all these proceedings. Without it, the families and their lawyers believe they are operating in the dark. Even if that report proves to be flawed, as they suspect, it remains the principal repository of data about these deaths, from forensic reports and contemporaneous documentation to witness statements and analysis - all grist to the mill of legal action.

Almost a year after the report was completed, Surrey Police now hold out a glimmer of hope, saying that they plan eventually to disclose the information the report contains to all four families. There are important caveats: no time frame has been given, and they insist that release is conditional on the consent of those who assisted the investigation.

The families' lawyers welcome this, but have important concerns. "It seems that if anybody says 'no' we will not see their evidence, which is hardly satisfactory," Bache says. "The police may have relied on that evidence, but we'll have no way of knowing how good or bad it was." Thanki agrees: "We need unrestricted access if we are to be able to present our cases effectively. My clients need to be in full possession of the facts."

Meanwhile, in the House of Commons, another process is under way. The Select Committee on Defence has begun an inquiry into the issue of how the Army as a whole discharges its duty of care towards young soldiers. It has already heard some striking testimony. The inquiry was prompted by the one outcome of the Surrey Police investigation that has seen the light of day: after completing its report on the Deepcut deaths, the Surrey force published some supplementary findings in relation to the management of Deepcut between 1995 and 2002. Young recruits, it found, were often underemployed and undersupervised, and little attention was paid to their welfare. Worse still, though year after year reports and complaints were written about the need to address this, very little was done.

Lieutenant Colonel Richard Haes, for example, wrote a report early in 2001 warning that "the current situation is tenable only so long as there is no major incident or complaint". His recommendations were shelved. In evidence to the committee of MPs, Haes (now retired) spoke recently of a "reluctance to address the difficulties and put resources into it". This raises another question about Deepcut, one that could be put to those individual officers who were reluctant to make changes: if the Haes report had been acted upon, might Gray and Collinson still be alive?

No, Deepcut isn't over, and that is hardly surprising. Viewed from the outside - which is how we have to view it, given the limited public knowledge - the affair remains an enigma. The trickle of details (the broken jaw nobody noticed, the burnt clothes, the lost bullet, the neglected reports, the stories of bullying) raise understandable public concerns about incompetence and negligence - or worse - and the surly official response has only served to increase those concerns.

Between the families and the authorities, meanwhile, trust has broken down. By now, the parents have difficulty taking anything that the police, the Army or the Government tell them at face value. That is why they want an independent inquiry.

The questions are certainly important. How did these soldiers die? Was there bullying and neglect? How were the investigations conducted? Were the police too close to the Army? Was Deepcut properly managed? Have mistakes, or worse, been made and covered up? Who takes responsibility?

In other cases of serious public concern - Stephen Lawrence, Victoria Climbié and Soham among them - there have been independent inquiries. The facts have been disclosed, the key players publicly questioned and conclusions drawn.

In this instance, however, the Government - which itself does not appear to be implicated - has refused to take that course and so, instead, has chosen to face a long and bruising battle in the courts, in Parliament and in the media. It is as mysterious as everything else about Deepcut.