Missing witnesses halt ‘cocaine death’ inquest

AN INQUEST into the death of a Coleraine father of two, said to have died from cocaine poisoning, was brought to an abrupt halt after three witnesses failed to turn up and a fourth left the court without giving evidence.

Coroner, Brian Sherrard, adjourned a sitting of Coleraine Coroner’s Court on Friday, into the death of 29-year-old Daryl Black, of Bushmills Road, after the deceased’s girlfriend and three friends failed to appear in the witness box.

The court heard that Mr. Black, an unemployed labourer with a life long history of substance abuse, suffered a seizure at a house in Old Mill Grange, Portstewart, on December 6, 2009.

He was treated at the scene but suffered a cardiac arrest in the ambulance and was declared dead at Coleraine’s Causeway Hospital.

Cause of death was given as “cocaine toxicity combined with amphetamine and alcohol”.

Sitting in Court No.2 in Coleraine, the inquest was initially delayed for over an hour as the family of the deceased sought reassurance from the coroner over fears that there was a delay in providing treatment for Daryl which may have contributed to his death.

Those present listened intently as Daryl’s last minutes were recounted by the paramedics and police officers in attendance on the day of his death. And afterwards, Daryl’s family, headed by his father William, were given the opportunity to put their own questions to the witnesses.

One such witness was family doctor, Ian McMaster, of Mountsandel surgery, who had been Daryl’s GP since childhood.

He recounted a life blighted by substance abuse and self harm which began with Daryl glue sniffing at age 13 and continued through cannabis, alcohol, ecstasy, amphetamines and cocaine.

During his long battle with substance abuse Daryl became increasingly paranoid and depressed claiming paramilitaries were after him before overdosing on at least two occasions.

Asked if they were aware of the extent of their son’s problems, Mr. Black senior refused to comment but his wife said she knew only about the cannabis and thought he had “kicked the habit.”

Taking his turn on the stand, paramedic of 23 years, Kenneth Moore, told how he and a partner were called to the scene at 1pm on December 6, arriving 25 minutes later to to find Mr. Black lying on his back on the living room floor. He was described as “thrashing around” and screaming with his girlfriend, Stacey Watton, and two males attempting to hold his limbs to prevent him injuring himself.

An ambulance man gave Daryl oxygen but found it difficult to restrain him or keep the mask in place until two PSNI officers arrived and helped the man’s friends to hold him.

Within a matter of minutes though, Daryl’s condition deteriorated and he had a seizure.

Constable Tracey Blair said she saw “blood and saliva coming from his mouth” and ordered that he be put on his side in the recovery position.

Daryl slipped into unconsciousness after this before being rushed on a stretcher through the small hallway to the waiting ambulance which had to be driven by police constable, Philip Graham, as his colleague began CPR and paramedics first intubated the patient then administered adrenaline and atropine.

His distraught girlfriend, who had accompanied him into the ambulance, was informed that Daryl’s heart had stopped and she was asked to leave the vehicle and meet them at Causeway Hospital.

At the inquest however, when girlfriend, Ms Watton, was called to the stand, court staff informed the coroner that she had “gone for a smoke”.

Later it was reported she had “disappeared from the building” and was no longer in the vicinity of the grounds.

Three other male witnesses, Paul Johnston, Thomas Campbell and Sean Owens - all present at the Portstewart house when the deceased first collapsed - also failed to turn up.

Condemning the “grave problem faced by all courts” where witnesses do not obey court summonses, the coroner said “it frustrates justice” and “impacts on the family members left behind”.

He offered the absent witnesses one more chance to explain their actions or face a charge of contempt of court and ordered that they be re-summonsed.

A police detective said that two of the absent men, Campbell and Owens, had been charged with drugs related offences after Mr. Black’s death.

Campbell had since been dealt with at the magistrates’ court, however, Owens had failed to turn up to court and was now the subject of a bench warrant.