Deepcut inquiry: Family ‘deeply saddened’ by ‘self-infliction’ verdict

Father of Private Cheryl James, Des James, speaks to members of the press with his wife Doreen James (with scarf) and other family members standing behind on June 3, 2016 in Woking, England. Picture: Getty Images
Father of Private Cheryl James, Des James, speaks to members of the press with his wife Doreen James (with scarf) and other family members standing behind on June 3, 2016 in Woking, England. Picture: Getty Images
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THE Army failed in its duty of care to recruits at a troubled barracks where four young people lost their lives in a seven-year period, a coroner has said.

A three-month inquest into the death of Private Cheryl James found a culture of bullying and abuse at the Deepcut base in Surrey.

Undated handout file photo of Private Cheryl James, one of the soldiers found dead at the Deepcut Army barracks. Picture: PA

Undated handout file photo of Private Cheryl James, one of the soldiers found dead at the Deepcut Army barracks. Picture: PA

And it said Pte James died as a result of an intentional “self-inflicted shot”.

Her family said it was “deeply saddened” by the verdict and accused Surrey Police of working to “unashamedly pursue a suicide verdict”.

Pte James, 18, died from a gunshot wound to the head in November 1995 - one of four recruits who died at Deepcut between 1995 and 2002.

Coroner Brian Barker QC said Pte James had died from “self infliction”, the result of an “intentional discharge”.

The coroner said Pte James had a “preoccupation with death” and would sometimes talk to her friends about what guests she would want at her funeral.

Mr Barker said: “There can be no reasonable doubt that Ms James carried out an intended action and knew that its consequence would be death.

“I’m satisfied so that I’m sure Ms James inflicted the fatal shot and intended to die.”

Pte James was one of four soldiers who died at Deepcut between 1995 and 2002 amid claims of bullying and abuse.

Privates Sean Benton, 20, James Collinson, 17, from Perth, and 17-year-old Geoff Gray also died from gunshot wounds.

A coroner earlier recorded a verdict of suicide for Pte Benton, but the inquests into the other three returned open verdicts.

A fresh inquest was ordered into Pte James’s death after High Court judges quashed the open verdict recorded in December 1995.

Tthe coroner said he was satisfied soot of gunshot residue was found on Pte James’ hand and face, meaning she was in contact with the rifle when the fatal shot was fired.

But he was also scathing about the poor quality of the initial investigation into Pte James’ death, saying there was an early assumption of suicide.

And he said the barracks had failed in its duty of care to its young recruits.

There were far too few officers to train and look after the young squaddies, who were left bored and indisciplined, Mr Barker said.

The coroner criticised the “insufficient” and “haphazard provision of welfare support” and criticised the lack of female officers at Deepcut, adding “the general culture of Deepcut in 1995 was far below the standard expected”.

Speaking outside Woking Coroner’s Court, Pte’s James’s father, Des James, with his wife Doreen at his side, said: “While we welcome the coroner’s findings today on the environment at Deepcut, we are deeply saddened by the coroner’s conclusions, having sat through all of the evidence ourselves, listened carefully to every word, read every statement and re-read every testimony.

“In short, it’s our opinion that it did not lead to this verdict.”

Mr James also criticised Surrey Police and accused them of having worked to “unashamedly pursue a suicide verdict”.

He said: “Any evidence that would tend to suggest a cause of death other than suicide was ignored or undermined; anything that would tend to suggest suicide actively pursued.”

Mr James said his daughter had been “happy, fun, generous and kind”.

“We love her dearly, we miss her every day and we always will. It is so hard to accept that we delivered her to that awful camp where we truly believed she would be safe from harm...

“We can only hope something good will come of this horrific journey but as of today, we cannot be sure of that.”

The inquest had heard that sexual promiscuity and heavy drinking were rife at the barracks while Pte James was stationed there.

Instructors and officers flouted Army rules and had sexual relationships with the young recruits, and some instructors “saw young females as a sexual challenge”.

Diane Gray, the mother of Private Geoff Gray, said she was now applying for the verdict on her own son’s death to be overturned.

Pte Gray was 17 when he was found dead from two gunshot wounds at the Surrey base in September 2001.

Mrs Gray said: “This case opens the doors for the other families to find out what happened to their children by having a new inquest.

“In the next few weeks we will be putting our application forward to the Attorney General to ask him to overturn our original verdict and look into new evidence and hopefully give us a new inquest.”

Mrs Gray added: “We shouldn’t have had to go through this, we should have known this from the very beginning, what happened to the children. We shouldn’t have to find out through ways like this.”

The Army said it was “truly sorry” for the low levels of supervision provided at Deepcut around the time of Pte James’ death.

20 year wait for family for investigation

The family of Private Cheryl James have waited almost 21 years for a proper investigation into her death.

At the outset of the inquest this year the 18-year-old’s father Des said he hoped for “justice” for his daughter, and he told coroner Brian Barker QC he wanted a “thorough investigation” into what happened.

The James’s have long asserted that the original probe into the circumstances of her death was not good enough, making an assumption the young private had killed herself, rather than properly examining all the possibilities.

The original inquest, less than a month after she died, recorded an open verdict.

Seven years later Surrey Police announced they would review her death, as well as those of three other recruits who died at Deepcut Barracks in that period.

Investigation dogged from the start

The investigation into Private Cheryl James’ death was dogged by flaws from the start, not least by Surrey Police and the Army.

From the moment the teenage soldier’s body was found on a grass verge near Royal Way Gate at Deepcut Barracks on November 27 1995, mistakes were made that compromised the scientific integrity of the scene and made it nigh-on impossible for investigators to be certain about their conclusions.

The inquest heard a “forensic pathway” was never adequately secured; one former Ministry of Defence police officer said there was no cordon and “no control” in place, and another likened the search for the gun cartridge presumed to be from Pte James’ rifle to a search for a “lost ball”.

Little more than an hour after her body was discovered, a coroner’s officer had made the decision that a full forensic investigation was not needed.

And within two hours of officers arriving at the scene police had found letters in Pte James’ quarters that suggested she was “troubled”, decided that there were no suspicious circumstances and came to the conclusion that it was suicide.

The dissection of the inadequate investigation drew an apology from former Surrey Police inspector Michael Day, who had been called to the barracks that day.

Alison Foster QC, representing the family, put it to him: “There was no fingerprint evidence taken from the gun. No swabs taken of Cheryl James’ hands or face. No fingertip search of the area around the body before it was moved. No ballistics testing of any cartridge case.”

He did not examine the body, weapon or scene himself, and conceded he relied on information from scenes-of-crime experts and his CID officer.

Apologising to Private James’ family during the inquest, he said: “Hindsight is a wonderful thing and if I had to make that decision again I would have without a doubt taken a different course of action.”

Private James remembered as fun loving by friends

During the three-month inquest, a complex portrait emerged of Private Cheryl James - that of a young woman who was deeply troubled but at the same time bubbly, happy and free-spirited.

The soldier, repeatedly spoke about death with her fellow recruits, often joking that killing herself was the only way to get off the base.

And an old school friend, Kathryn Hughes, said she would regularly bring up the topic of death, even making lists of who she would invite to her funeral.

But the inquest heard Pte James was not listed on a welfare register at Deepcut for soldiers who might have been having difficulties.

While at the barracks Pte James often got drunk with fellow recruits, enjoyed secret parties and on at least one occasion took drugs at a nightclub.

But she was also a fun-loving party girl with a wide circle of friends, a teenager who discussed the possibility of marriage with a boyfriend, planned a Christmas shopping trip and was excited about a potential posting to Germany.

Key events

5 April 1993 - The Royal Barracks, Deepcut, an Army base since around 1900, becomes the home of the newly-formed Royal Logistic Corps, offering training for young soldiers.

9 June 1995 - Private Sean Benton, 20, from Hastings, East Sussex, is found dead at the Princess Royal Barracks, Deepcut.

6 July 1995 - The inquest into Pte Benton’s death records a verdict of suicide.

27 November 1995 - 18-year-old Pte Cheryl James, of Llangollen, Clwyd, is found dead at Deepcut.

21 December 1995 - The inquest into Pte James’s death records an open verdict.

17 September 2001 - Pte Geoff Gray, 17, from Hackney, east London, is found dead with two gunshot wounds to his head while on guard duty.

19 March 2002 - The inquest into Pte Gray’s death records an open verdict.

23 March 2002 - Pte James Collinson, 17, from Perth, is found dead with a single gunshot wound while on guard duty at the barracks.

30 April 2002 - Surrey Police opens a joint investigation into the deaths of Pte Gray and Pte Collinson. The force later confirms they are also reviewing the deaths of Pte James and Pte Benton.

10 June 2002 - The families of the four soldiers launch a call for a public inquiry into their deaths.

3 October 2002 - The body of James Collinson is exhumed from a grave in Scotland. A forensic pathologist carries out a second post-mortem examination to try to establish how he died.

19 September 2003 - Surrey Police concludes there are no grounds for prosecutions over the deaths of the four young soldiers at Deepcut.

24 May 2004 - The Government rejects calls for a public inquiry into the soldiers’ deaths but announces an “independent” inspection regime into armed forces training.

29 October 2004 - New allegations of gang rape, systematic bullying and sexual harassment at Deepcut are disclosed in a leaked police report - 173 separate allegations in total.

30 October 2004 - The Government announces a new review of allegations of abuse and bullying at Deepcut but stops short of the full public inquiry demanded by families and MPs. Nicholas Blake QC is later chosen to lead the review.

10 March 2006 - The inquest jury looking into the death of Pte Collinson returns an open verdict.

29 March 2006 - The Blake Review criticises Army training, citing “harassment, discrimination and oppressive behaviour”, but concludes that the deaths were probably self-inflicted.

14 May 2009 - The Government again rejects calls for a public inquiry into why the four soldiers died after the publication of Army Board of Inquiry reports into the deaths of Pte Gray and Pte Collinson.

11 March 2011 - A review by Devon and Cornwall Police found Surrey Police failed to fully investigate a potential suspect known as the “unknown white male” in the death of Pte James.

25 March 2014 - The Attorney General grants Pte James’ family consent to apply to the High Court for a new inquest into her death.

18 July 2014 - High Court judges order a fresh inquest into the death of Pte James.

10 September 2015 - A pre-inquest review hears the body of Pte James was exhumed and reburied the previous month and bullet fragments from the body were undergoing further testing.

14 December 2015 - The MoD fails to submit crucial documents by an agreed deadline. Pte James’ father, Des, accuses the MoD of acting in an “extraordinarily arrogant” way.

11 January 2016 - Alison Foster QC, representing Pte James’s family, tells a pre-inquest hearing they have material suggesting the soldier “may have been sexually coerced or raped the night before, or before the time of her death”, and a direct allegation Pte James may have been ordered to sleep with a person by someone superior in rank to her.

1 February - Coroner Brian Barker QC rules that the inquest will not consider whether Deepcut barracks had a “culture of sexual abuse”, saying it was outside hearing’s scope to examine whether there was “sexually inappropriate treatment of female recruits within the chain of command”.

8 February - The inquest hears that new scientific evidence suggests Pte James may not have killed herself. Ms Foster says there is “distinguished pathological evidence” showing the injury may not have been self-inflicted.

9 February - Brigadier John Donnelly, director of personal services for the Army, apologises to Pte James’ family for the situation at Deepcut, which he recognised as having failed new soldiers stationed there.

16 March - Former Surrey Police inspector Michael Day apologises to Pte James’ family about the limited police investigation into her death.