Inquest jury cannot return suicide verdict on Wentworth greenkeeper

Inquest jury cannot return suicide verdict on Wentworth greenkeeper

December 4, 2018

Inquest jury told they cannot return suicide verdict on Wentworth greenkeeper who drove his van into Thames because he was screaming for help as it sank

  • Father-of-one John Byrne, 39, drowned at Shepperton on December 8, 2016 
  • He was receiving mental health treatment and had left hospital two days before 
  • Mental health staff called police to say he’d called them planning to drive his car into the Thames – but police downgraded the call and didn’t respond 
  • Inspector Gary Cross told officers on the riverbank not to save the drowning Wentworth Golf Club greenkeeper because of ‘great’ risk to ‘untrained’ officers 

Wentworth greenkeeper John Byrne, 39, died after driving into the Thames – but an inquest jury has been told they cannot rule his death a suicide because he was heard screaming from the sinking vehicle 

An inquest jury has been told they cannot return a verdict of suicide on a greenkeeper who drove his van into the River Thames- because he was heard screaming for help as it sank. 

But in his summing up of the lengthy inquest into the death of John Byrne – who worked at the prestigious Wentworth Golf Club – the coroner advised they could decide his death was contributed to by Surrey Police and his mental health carers.

Police Inspector Gary Cross had told the inquest he ordered officers not to go into the river in December 2016 to try to save Mr Byrne, despite them standing on the river bank and watching the van become submerged and hearing the driver shouting for someone to rescue him.

The hearing in Woking, Surrey, also heard of police blunders in which 999 calls to warn that Mr Byrne was intent on harming himself were downgraded in the control room to a level where no police response was needed.

Jurors will consider evidence that 39-year-old Mr Byrne could be heard screaming and shouting for help as the van sank in the freezing river.

Some witnesses described him banging on the windshield in an attempt to get out as police watched from the river bank.

Officers also refused the help of a local marina owner who repeatedly offered his boat so that a safe rescue could be attempted.

Inspector Gary Cross (pictured) ordered officers on the riverbank not to enter the water to help Mr Byrne – who had been severely depressed – as he screamed for help from inside his sinking van in December 2016

The assistant coroner for Surrey, Darren Stewart, described the panicked scene on the banks of the River Thames from 8.20pm on December 8 2016, as horrified witnesses heard drowning Mr Byrne scream for his life.

The boatyard owner became increasingly frustrated as police seemed to ignore his offers of a boat while officers and firefighters watched amazed as air bubbles continued to rise from Mr Byrne’s van for hours after it became submerged.

The coroner revealed today that Richard Hawes had heard Mr Byrne screaming: ‘Help! Get me out of here!’

He said: ‘Ms Roxanne Sheila indicated she could hear a male voice screaming loudly, saying, “Oh my God! Help me! Help me!” and then hearing a loud banging noise from the rear of the van.

‘Police Constable Harry Biggs described in harrowing evidence his efforts trying to get his equipment off and get into a position where police could enter the water,’ said the coroner. 

Mr Byrne worked as a greenkeeper at the world-famous Wentworth golf course in Surrey

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‘He understood Mr Byrne’s cries to be cries for help both while the vehicle was above the water and then when the vehicle was below the water.

‘You will note that his decision had already been made not to enter the water by the time he received the order not to go in from force control room, on the basis that the vehicle had already been submerged.

‘Chris Murdoch, who owned a boating area nearby, walked up to the police and told them he had a boat but they told him they would get back to him,’ the coroner told the jury.

‘He pressed on and told another police officer that he had a boat and similarly he was advised that he would be got back to. You might have perceived a degree of frustration in Mr Murdoch’s evidence in the view that he was fobbed off.

‘But Mr Murdoch didn’t communicate to them in terms of his detailed understanding of the river. 

‘He has given evidence in relation to what appeared to be a mild night and his view that the water temperature was not particularly cold. Divers recorded that temperature as five degrees celsius. It is up to you, ladies and gentlemen, as to whether you consider that cold.’

The officer in charge of the case, Sergeant Danielle Mead (pictured) went off shift in the Guildford-based control room without carrying out a physical handover to a colleague

More than two hours earlier police had received a call from the mental health home treatment team saying Mr Byrne expressed his intention to drive into the river, but a series of blunders meant the call was downgraded and no officers were ever deployed. 

Including the officer in charge of the case, Police Sergeant Danielle Mead, going off shift in the Guildford-based control room and not carrying out a physical handover to a colleague.

The coroner told the jury: ‘You may find that such little information was provided in the last two hours to give an understanding and having a picture, it may be that you find that failure to make adequate records in terms of what was happening and to make informed decisions, may have had a causitive effect in terms of Mr Byrne’s death.’

The coroner told the jury of seven men and four women: ‘You have now heard all of the evidence. It is my job to sum that up for you and describe how you should rule.

‘I should remind you, you are not trying issues between parties, no-one is on trial. 

‘You are here to tease out the facts from the evidence that you have heard, to determine who was the person who has died, how, when and where did the death come about, how the cause of death arose and the sequence of events that led to and directly caused the death.’

‘The evidence you have heard supports only one medical cause of death, namely drowning. I direct you that you should record that fact as the medical cause of death.’

Giving the jury further directions on how to record a rider about what contributed to Mr Byrne’s death on the balance of probabilities, the coroner suggested the following headings to the jury:

  • Delivery of care to Mr Byrne by Surrey and Borders Partnership NHS Healthcare Trust while an inpatient at St Peter’s Hospital between October to December 2016
  • Deliver of care to Mr Byrne while under the care of the Home Treatment Team up to and including December 8 2016
  • Manner in while police responded to three calls on December 8 2016 relating to Mr Byrne’s welfare.

The coroner instructed the jury: ‘You may not find a verdict of suicide, you may not add that rider that neglect contributed to Mr Byrne’s death in any part of your conclusion.’

The jury retired to consider its verdict into the death of Mr Byrne, who was about to become a father of twins when he died and who lived with his wife Cheri in Shepperton, Surrey.

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