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Death of teenage soldier at Deepcut barracks ruled as suicide

Private Geoff Gray, 17, was found dead in the early hours of September 17, 2001.

Private Geoff Gray was found dead at Deepcut barracks in 2001 (handout/PA)
Private Geoff Gray was found dead at Deepcut barracks in 2001 (handout/PA)

A soldier found with two gunshot wounds to the head at the notorious Deepcut barracks took his own life, an inquest has found.

Private Geoff Gray was 17 when he was found dead in the early hours of September 17 2001 – just nine months after beginning his training.

He was the third of four young recruits to die at the barracks between 1995 and 2002 amid allegations of a culture of bullying and abuse.

Five spent cartridges were found next to Pte Gray’s body.

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Pte Gray’s family, including mother Diane, maintain he would not have taken his own life (John Stillwell/PA)

Sean Benton, 20, Cheryl James, 18, and James Collinson, 17, also died from gunshot wounds.

During the inquest, Woking Coroner’s Court heard the barracks were on high alert in the days after the 9/11 attacks in New York and – contrary to orders – Pte Gray had gone on patrol alone when he died.

The family of Pte Gray believed another recruit or recruits may have shot the teenager and have never thought their “army barmy” son would have taken his own life.

Pte Gray – described as “capable and disciplined” by his superiors – was originally from County Durham but had grown up in Hackney, east London.

His family said “he loved every minute of being in the army” and he had no history of mental health problems or reported any bullying to them.

Pte Gray had been due to commence his HGV driver training at a different barracks the week after his death and had been itching to leave Deepcut, his family said.

An open verdict was recorded in the first inquest into his death in 2002, but a fresh inquest was ordered after former Attorney General Jeremy Wright said he was satisfied fresh evidence had come to light.

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Four recruits died at Deepcut barracks in Surrey between 1995 and 2002 (handout/PA)

After a five-month inquest in which evidence from 91 witnesses was heard, Coroner Peter Rook QC concluded Pte Gray’s death was suicide.

He noted the investigation had been hampered by inconsistent witness statements indicating the soldier’s body may have been moved and seeming to implicate another recruit.

The presence of two gunshot wounds and no prior history of mental health also raised questions about the cause of death.

Following a review of the ballistic evidence, including fresh analysis by independent experts, Mr Rook concluded Pte Gray was shot at very close range by the SA80 rifle found next to his body.

He found that if on automatic mode, the weapon could fire 11 rounds a second and that it was possible for a single burst of five shots to have been fired – with two hitting Pte Gray and three missing him.

“The ultimate position is that the forensic evidence is consistent with self-infliction but does not rule out infliction by another,” Mr Rook said.

But he concluded: “The scene and nature of the act rule out any suggestion that this may have been functional or attention seeking behaviour not intended to be carried through to its inevitable conclusion.”

He said there was no evidence of an intruder at the scene, no-one would have any motive to want to harm Pte Gray, and there was no direct evidence of the involvement of another person.

“It follows that I conclude that at the moment he pulled the trigger, Geoff had the specific intention to end his life.”

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The coroner stressed the inquest was not a public inquiry into the wider culture of Deepcut (PA)

Despite the suicide conclusion, Mr Rook noted: “There is no evidence from any witness that even remotely suggests that Geoff was bullied or subject to excessive discipline at Deepcut, or that he had any obvious or unobserved welfare problems for which he was not receiving support.”

He also emphasised the inquest into Pte Gray’s death was not a public inquiry into the wider culture of Deepcut.

During the inquest, two of Pte Gray’s contemporaries reported him making joking comments about shooting himself on the night of his death.

His complaints were apparently made in frustration at increased guard duties all recruits were subject to in the wake of 9/11.

Pte Jack Blackburn recalled Pte Gray saying: “I’ve done two 24-hour shifts on the weekend. I feel like shooting myself,” before adding: “If I shoot myself first will you shoot yourself second?”

A few hours earlier, Pte Paul Craig overheard someone he believed to be Pte Gray saying “I wonder what it would be like to have a bullet in the head”, while playing computer games during a break from guard duties.

Mr Rook was critical of both Surrey Police and the Royal Military Police’s Special Investigation Branch (SIB) for their “lackadaisical” handling of the case.

“It is clear that the very early assumption of suicide made at the scene led to a limited scene investigation, an absence of contemporary witness accounts were recorded and an early opportunity to explore important inconsistencies between search witnesses was lost,” he said.

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Pte Gray was the third of four young recruits to die at Deepcut between 1995 and 2002 (PA)

Neither force was clear who was leading the investigation, with Surrey Police believing they had handed the reins to the SIB, while the SIB thought they were only assisting Surrey Police, Mr Rook said.

The forensic examination of the scene was so half-hearted that a 1in piece of Pte Gray’s skull was found a year after his death, the inquest heard.

His rifle had also been moved “out of the way” by one of the soldiers who found the body, and no photographs were taken of the position of the cartridges.

Pte Gray’s clothes were earmarked for destruction just a day after his death by the coroner without forensic examination, while his boots were returned to the barracks to be reissued to another soldier.

Mr Rook finished: “The first investigation was cursory and conducted with a closed mind. Mr and Mrs Gray should never have been put in this situation and they were correct to pursue a fresh inquest.

“The poor quality of the investigation led to the necessity of this highly protracted [second] investigation – by the time of this inquest memories had become impoverished and it became necessary to investigate matters in great detail to understand what occurred.”

He was critical of the fact Pte Gray had only been subject to a routine post-mortem examination rather than a forensic post-mortem, despite being the third young recruit to die at Deepcut.

Mr Rook emphasised that at 17, Pte Gray was still a child and that today his death would have prompted a multi-agency response with close involvement from his parents.

Speaking outside court, the Gray family said they were “shattered and saddened” by the suicide conclusion.

In a statement read by their lawyer, John Cooper QC, they said: “Geoff was a happy-go-lucky lad. He had everything to live for, he was described as having a zest for life and being ‘Army barmy’.

“He trusted the Army, his family trusted the Army. This was an Army family.”

The statement continued: “Early assumptions made by Surrey Police, the MoD police and the Royal Military Police, SIB and even the coroner’s office contributed to the difficulties we still have now in coming to a just decision.”

It added: “The family have been fighting for 17 years for justice and the truth, (suicide) is the view of just one tribunal and one coroner’s court.

“We ask everyone watching this now to get a copy of this judgment and to read it and to come to your own view as to whether you agree this was suicide, because we still have profound, profound concerns.”

Pte Gray’s mother, Diane, was critical of Woking Coroner’s Court for refusing to grant a jury inquest.

She said her son’s death “still didn’t make any sense”.

Mrs Gray was also critical of the practice at Deepcut of sending very young trainees out on night patrols in just small groups with very powerful weapons.

She added that the family would continue to push for a public inquiry into the culture at Deepcut.

PA

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