Deepcut families call for inquiry after review criticises police

Investigations into deaths of four private soldiers at Surrey barracks ignored possible suspects

Jonathan Owen
Sunday 13 March 2011 01:00

Fresh demands for a public inquiry into the deaths of four young recruits shot at Deepcut Army barracks were issued last night after a new review revealed serious shortcomings in the way police investigated the cases.

The long-awaited review by Devon and Cornwall Constabulary, released to the families last week, claims that possible suspects in the controversial deaths of the soldiers at Deepcut were not properly investigated. The deaths, which took place between 1995 and 2002, were surrounded by allegations of bullying and intimidation of recruits at the barracks in Camberley, Surrey.

Investigations by military police and Surrey Constabulary were criticised over failures to collect evidence. Some relatives of the victims believe there has been a cover-up by a military chain of command keen to see the deaths dealt with as suicides.

In 2003, Devon and Cornwall Constabulary was brought in to review how Surrey detectives had handled the cases. A 140-page report, the result of a two-year review, was last week made available to the families after a long-running campaign to see its findings in full.

The review found that Surrey police were aware of a number of theories suggesting specific individuals could have killed the soldiers but that it was impossible to say whether or not those concerned should have been considered suspects or simply eliminated from inquiries.

However, in the case of Private Cheryl James, who was found dead with a gunshot wound to the head in November 1995, it found Surrey Constabulary failed to fully investigate a potential suspect, an "unknown white male", who "should have been subject to a Trace and Interview action".

Her father, Des James, called for a public inquiry: "It was clear to us that the investigation was about a suicide, not an open-minded investigation to find out what had happened to my daughter and the other three boys."

Cheryl James was one of the recruits found shot dead at the barracks. Sean Benton, 20, was found dead with five bullet wounds to his chest in June 1995. In September 2001, Geoff Gray, 17, was found dead with two gunshot wounds to the head. And less than a year afterwards, in March 2002, James Collinson, 17, was found dead with a gunshot wound to the head. While Mr Benton's death was declared a suicide, open verdicts were returned at coroner's inquests into the others.

Geoff Gray, whose son of the same name died at Deepcut, described the Surrey investigation as "shambolic": "Any faith I had in them has gone. They didn't have the right mindset from the outset; they were using the suicide route only .... This is not some bereaved family criticising Surrey police but another police force and it's got to be taken very seriously."

Mr Gray is also calling for an inquiry: "Let's have an independent public inquiry where we can subpoena witnesses and seize documents."

Colin Sutton, a recently retired detective chief inspector at Surrey who led investigations into the deaths of Mr Benton and Mr Collinson, admitted there had been pressure to treat the deaths as suicides: "There was a pressure on to me at the beginning to go down certain roads and that really came in the form of an internal review that was done in Surrey.

"It was a case of 'why don't we get on with these suicides?' My reaction was 'at the very, very start if we'd not made the assumption then that they were suicides then we'd all be in a much healthier position now and I'm not going to make that mistake again and you should not be perpetuating it'."

He added that attempts to treat the deaths as suicides "actually made no difference because I just ignored it".

Asked if the deaths were murders or suicides, he said: "We were unable to find enough information or enough evidence to prove that either way and I think that's still the case."

Surrey Police issued a statement this weekend saying that it took "an open-minded approach" to the matter and "considered all hypotheses with equal weight".

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