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Deepcut trainees left to take illegal drugs and drink under age, inquest told

Published 11/02/2016

Private Cheryl James, who was found dead from a bullet wound at Deepcut Barracks in 1995
Private Cheryl James, who was found dead from a bullet wound at Deepcut Barracks in 1995

Trainee recruits at Deepcut Barracks were left "running around" taking illegal drugs and drinking while under age, an inquest has been told.

Private Cheryl James, 18, was found dead from a single bullet wound at the Army training base in Surrey on November 27 1995.

Warrant Officer Sarah Ditchfield, who carried out her training alongside Pte James, described Deepcut as "chaotic" and said there was not enough supervision for the young trainees.

She told Surrey Coroner's Court on the fourth day of the inquest in Woking: "We were 17-year-old kids who had money in our pockets, there was nothing else for us.

"We were 17, there was a bar, we could get drinks - that's what we done.

"There wasn't enough NCOs (non-commissioned officers) to control the amount of recruits they had at the time," she added.

"Recruits were running about and didn't know what we were doing from one minute to the next.

"We would tend to ourselves, there was no accountability."

She said arguments and physical fights broke out between the young female recruits.

"Deepcut was worse than Leconfield - in Leconfield we had a day-to-day job to do but in Deepcut there was no ownership on us, we were just left," she added.

She admitted taking illegal drugs with her fellow recruits at a nightclub and said Pte James had taken speed, a class B amphetamine.

"If she went out she would take something, she would take speed."

WO1 Ditchfield broke down in tears as she recalled being told about the death of her friend.

She said Pte James's boyfriend Paul Wilkinson was "in bits" after hearing the news.

"Everybody was upset at the time, of course everyone was in bits. It wasn't just one individual - she was a friend," WO1 Ditchfield added.

She described Pte James, who was having a second relationship with another recruit, James Carr-Minns, as "fun-loving".

"I don't think she wanted to let anyone down, she was a fun-loving girl, got on with everyone and found herself in a situation where she didn't want to finish with one of them and end the relationship," she said.

Pte James was one of four young soldiers who died at the barracks over a seven-year-period, and a fresh inquest into her death was previously told forensic evidence shows she may not have killed herself.

A second inquest into the death of Pte James, from Llangollen, North Wales, is examining evidence suggesting she may have been sexually exploited by senior ranks shortly before her death.

High Court judges ordered the fresh inquest in 2014 after they quashed an open verdict recorded in December 1995.

Privates Sean Benton, 20, James Collinson, 17, and Geoff Gray, 17, also died from gunshot wounds at the barracks between 1995 and 2002.

The inquest continues.

Former Deepcut recruit Marina Fawcett told the inquest Pte James was desperate to leave the army and had made comments about shooting herself in the head.

Pte James had told her friend she joined the army because she "had no life" and was afraid she would "end up on drugs" if she went home, the inquest heard.

She allegedly "didn't give a shit" about being a soldier and had asked Ms Fawcett to go awol (absent without leave) with her.

"It was more than a passing comment because it was what she wanted to do," Ms Fawcett said.

"It's what I wanted too but we couldn't buy ourselves out."

On another occasion Pte James "joked" about killing herself, she said.

"She literally mentioned 'we're going to shoot ourselves on guard duty one day aren't we?' and I said yes," she added.

"She was saying it as general banter... I don't know why she said it, it just sounded like a laugh like when someone says something stupid.

"What she said that day just went over my head. She said to me 'we'll shoot ourselves in the head'.

"Them words stick in my mind, I can't forget that.

"I can't remember if it was a few days before (her death) or a few weeks before."

She added: "She was happy all the time, she was always bubbly. It was almost like she was on something."

One of the training sergeants "had a bit of a thing" for Pte James and "basically wanted to get it on with her,"' Ms Fawcett said.

He had been saying "slimy stuff" to the teenager but she turned down his advances, she added.

"She said he was horrible," she said.

"They (the senior officers) were on a power trip and they got a buzz off it," Ms Fawcett said.

"They were a corporal or a sergeant and we were only recruits."

Pte James was being "given a hard time" over her relationships and had been called a "slag" by her fellow trainees, the inquest heard.

On the morning of her death she told Ms Fawcett to "eff off" after they had an argument about her love life.

"I said to her something along the lines of 'you need to decide who you're going to go out with' and she basically said 'eff off and mind your own business'," she said.

"I might have been winding her up but I knew in a couple of minutes she would be fine.

"That was the last time I seen her and we were all in the guard room and she just seemed her normal self, she seemed fine."

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