A coroner has raised serious questions after hearing how the PSNI took three hours to gain entry to a flat where a man had taken an overdose.
Police told the inquest into the death of Terence McCartney (42) they had no means of getting into the apartment block where he lay dead or dying.
The well-known gay rights campaigner, known as Terry, had taken a combination of prescription drugs and alcohol.
The court heard that an hour before his body was found, Mr McCartney’s sister Caroline Ferry found a Facebook message from him that read: “Thank you for everything. Tell mum I’m sorry.”
He had also been assaulted just hours before he died in a suspected homophobic attack, although his injuries were not major.
Questioned by coroner Jim Kitson, one PSNI officer told the court there was no policy or procedure for keeping contact details for keyholders to apartment blocks in the city, or on how to gain entry to them.
The inquest heard that police had received an emergency call at 6.30am on February 5, 2013 from Mr McCartney's friend, Christine Hegarty.
She was very distressed after a telephone conversation she had just had with him, in which Mr McCartney told her repeatedly: “It's too late, it's over.”
A short time into the call Mr McCartney's speech became very slurred and he started making gurgling noises and could be heard gasping for air.
Ms Hegarty told the court she then used a second phone to call the police while trying to keep her friend talking.
But she said she ended the call to Mr McCartney on the advice of police — without having obtained an exact address for him.
Ms Hegarty explained that although she had previously seen Mr McCartney on a daily basis, he had moved to an apartment in John Street three weeks previously and she was unsure of the exact address.
Police were dispatched to John Street 10 minutes after Ms Hegarty made the call.
Two officers successfully gained entry to one block of apartments there, and were able to establish that Mr McCartney wasn't known there.
But two other officers were unable to gain entry to the second block — Meridian Court apartments — where Mr McCartney was living. A police officer told the court that neither he nor his colleague knew the code for the outer door that would allow them inside. He said that even though they rang the internal buzzers of all 30-plus apartments, no-one answered.
By the time police gained entry to Mr McCartney’s flat at around 9.30am, he was already dead.
The call dispatch officer who was on duty at the time confirmed that there was no policy or procedure within the PSNI in Derry whereby they held contact details for keyholders of apartment blocks, or other details to gain entry.
Mr Kitson voiced his concern about this and said: “If something like this happened in the city tonight does it not concern you that you would not be able to gain entry?”
The officer said it was a matter of concern but added: “There is a large number of apartments in the city so it would be quite a task to actually go around and get codes into all of them.”
Mr Kitson said that this failure to gain entry “was one factor in this case”. He ruled that Mr McCartney had sadly died as a result of choking.
He said this had been brought on by a failure of his gag reflexes due to the effects of the high levels of alcohol and prescription drugs in his system.
“Having heard from Terry's family and friend Christine and from his GP it is clear that Terry was a gentleman who clearly had issues around substance abuse who had previous indulged in self harm and had attempted suicide,” said the coroner.
“I am not satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that this was a serious suicide attempt, but was a cry for help.”
Terence McCartney's grieving mother wept as she listened to harrowing evidence about the final few hours of her son's life during his inquest in Londonderry yesterday.
Coroner James Kitson heard from Mr McCartney's friends how he was prone to binge drinking and had in the past taken ‘legal highs' but that he had hoped to go to a detox centre to get help to stop drinking.
His substance abuse was confirmed in a statement from his GP who also provided evidence that Mr McCartney had a history of self-harm and previous suicide attempts.
Margaret McCartney, who is wheelchair bound, was comforted by her family during the difficult and painful evidence about her son.
The court was told how he had been assaulted by a group of men in what is understood to be a homophobic attack on Shipquay Street at around 1.30am on February 5, 2013.
However results of a post-mortem showed that although there were minor cuts and abrasions on Mr McCartney's face consistent with a fall to the ground and a punch to the mouth they would not have contributed to his death a few hours later.
One witness, Gavin Gillespie, told the court that he had been driving around Derry with two friends between 1am and 2am on February 5, 2013 and saw Mr McCartney on Shipquay Street.
Mr Gillespie said they stopped and spent some time with Mr McCartney and shared a bottle of whiskey Mr McCartney had with him.
They left but returned 45 minutes later and saw Mr McCartney still there — but by now there was also a group of around 15 men present.
Mr Gillespie said he got out of the car and his two companions left. Mr McCartney was being verbally abused by some of the crowd, with one man in particular “being mouthy”.
Mr McCartney was described as being polite and had “tried to calm things down”. Mr Gillespie said he left the scene after trying to “stand up” for Mr McCartney when the man who was being abusive to Mr McCartney challenged him.
Mr McCartney's friend Christine Hegarty told the court that when she was talking to him just a few hours later he had said: “You should see the state of my face.” He added: “I am fed up with all of it.”
Ms Hegarty added that she offered to take Mr McCartney to hospital but he repeatedly told her: “It's done, it's too late.”