AN UNRESOLVED MYSTERY
All the names in this article, other than those holding a public office, have been abbreviated to initials for privacy reasons, although those familiar with the case may be aware of these and further details including the persons referred to.
On the 14th August, 1989 a man was found at the foot of the Grassington Bridge in North Yorkshire. He was unconscious and suffering from what were yet to be determined injuries. His bike lay, relatively undamaged, on the road above. The name of the man was R.J.N. We shall call him 'Don'. He was thirty four years of age.
Just over two weeks later on the 29th August, 1989 he died in Leeds Infirmary. His death certificate records, “(a) Terminal bronchopneumonia and (b) Injury to the brain when he was thrown from the pedal cycle he was riding when it collided with Grassington Bridge, Grassington on the 14th August, 1989.”
At an inquest on the 26th October, 1989, the Coroner for West Yorkshire (Eastern), Philip S. Gill recorded a verdict of Accidental Death.
Rationale for this Article.
It is impossible to gauge from just the contemporary newspaper reports what precisely happened on that afternoon in August, 1989, or how and by whom he was discovered in the grassy field or rocky bed beneath the bridge.
From a conversation with a local police sergeant soon after, it was clear that at least initially, the police themselves found it very suspicious. This was before a witness overlooking the bridge said she saw the accident happen and that he had collided with the parapet and been thrown over it to the ground about 25 feet below. We must assume therefore it was she who alerted the emergency services but this was never, as far as I am aware, made public.
Without her testimony, more complicated explanations might have been considered which might have included the possibility of the involvement of another vehicle, an intentional act on the victims part or even the involvement of a third party. Basically if it had not been an unavoidable accident, the only remaining question would have been to coin a phrase - 'Did he jump or was he pushed?' In a sense that is the niggling dilemma that has remained in my mind ever since, partly because of what in confidence he told me, and partly that I have never been able to substantiate or disprove what he claimed.
Of course, if either of these options applied to the case, it would reinvigorate questions that after all this time, are unlikely to be answered. There is however the matter of the man's credibility and a lingering doubts implanted by the inquest. From a personal point of view I need to resolve whether the story he told me, which in good faith I believed, had any basis in truth or not.
If it didn't, it would not reflect well on him, as it would suggest either intentional deception or an advanced state of neurosis or psychosis, none of which I would have ascribed to him. The alternative is that in whole or part his story was true. Even were it not to have had a direct bearing on the accident, it would certainly place it in a different light and more importantly validate his all too short life.
This article then sets out to fulfill a promise to myself, and to 'Don' - although I doubt he heard me – that despite my fears, I would do all I could to resolve the outstanding issues and endeavour to place them in the context of the personal story that he felt obliged to tell. This is my way of doing it and hopefully it might even elicit some of the missing facts from those that know. The reader will have to make up their own minds, whether the exercise is justified or not.
It may be worth noting that similar bicycle accidents have occurred in the vicinity and persons also recovered close to the bridge in question. (REF. 1.)
Newspaper or other public reports of the incident are very scarce and limited in detail. However on page 3 of the Yorkshire Evening Post of Friday 18th August, 1989 (four days after the accident) the following brief account appeared:
“Cyclist 'Critical'. A CYCLIST was today critically ill at Leeds Infirmary after plunging 25 ft from a river bridge in the Dales. R.J.N, 34, a mature student at Leeds Polytechnic, suffered multiple injuries at Grassington Bridge across the River Wharfe. Mr N. of Brudenell Grove, Leeds, was taken to Airedale Hospital, Steeton and later transferred to the Infirmary.”
The day after the Inquest on the 27th October, 1989 the same paper, in an article by Louise Ragan reported as follows:
“Cyclist died after plunge off bridge. A LEEDS barman nick-named 'The Lemming' because of his accident-prone nature, died after he fell off a bridge while riding his bike, an inquest heard.
“R.J.N., 34 of Brudenell Road, Burley, died in Leeds Infirmary on August 29, 15 days after the accident at Grassington Bridge, Grassington.
“Coroner Mr Philip Gill recorded a verdict of accidental death.
“In a statement, eye-witness Miss K M K said she had been sitting by her lounge window which overlooked the B6265 road at Grassington Bridge, over the River Wharfe.
“I saw a man riding down the hill very fast,” she said.
“Miss K said she saw the cyclist being flung over the bridge wall after hitting the wall on the bend of the road. He just seemed to be approaching the bridge too fast,” she added.
“She knew there was a long drop of 20 to 30 ft from the bridge to the fields below.
“PC Gary Towler, of North Yorkshire Police, said the hill approaching the bridge was very steep but there were warning signs on the road.
“Mr V P H W, a tutor and friend of Mr N., said in a statement that Mr N., a divorced man, had been studying for a degree course in environmental health. He had failed his final year as he had suffered from personal problems but was intending to retake the exams.
“He added that Mr N. was an experienced cyclist. He said he was known to his friends as 'the Lemming' because he was accident prone.” (END OF ARTICLE)
Some might think that in the matter of the premature accidental death of a relatively young man, these cursory reports are hardly adequate. We cannot gauge to what extent they accurately reflect the police investigation consequent on the accident or even necessarily a complete picture of the Inquest itself. The public it would seem is content to leave all procedures to the professionals without question and with only the briefest of details two and a half months after the event.
Needless to say, there is nothing in these reports to indicate how the accident could occur to an experienced cyclist, on a wide unobstructed road, on a dry day in broad daylight? No explanation is suggested why Mr N. did not negotiate, or attempt to negotiate, the bend in the road in the normal manner or how a direct collision with the parapet would be possible, given all the factors.
There is no precise information here relating to the exact location of Mr N. or his bike or of his precise injuries and how he was treated on discovery. There is no precise information on timings and how soon after being witnessed going over, the emergency crews arrived and who called them. Nor is there here any indication as to the condition of the bike, either before or after the accident. (In fact I had it on reliable information at the time, that it was relatively undamaged and in a sound serviceable condition!)
This does not mean to say this information was not available to the Coroner from the police and other reports, only that it never entered the public domain and no newspaper considered it worth seeking the relevant information to provide greater clarity. However, there is no evidence here that the Coroner did raise these rather basic questions. If he didn't, perhaps he believed no useful purpose would be served by doing so.
On the wider point of public policy, it is a fair to say that this is not unusual. We, in this country, are totally reliant on the competence and thoroughness of the police and Coroner in such matters. We generally take a very relaxed approach to deaths and the causes of it, particularly if there is no immediate family involved to ask the appropriate questions and seek answers. There have undoubtedly been many cases where the process has failed the victim with an insufficiently rigorous investigation or consideration of the facts of the case.
What we can say with a degree of certainty, is that if we are to rely on newspapers either local or national, to hold the system to account, and to reveal the truth, we shall be seriously disappointed, as the above discussion demonstrates. The days of true journalistic investigation, it has been noted, are virtually over. They have become largely channels for the dissemination of an unquestioning 'official line' in almost everything.
It will be noticed the only indication of the actual circumstances that might lead to fatal consequences is reference in the first report to 'multiple injuries'. There is nothing relating to this topic in the fuller second one at all. We must take the whole cause of death, and the fact that it resulted from the accident alone, on trust. At least that is what the articles appear to suggest. As we shall later see, this might not be quite the complete or even accurate picture.
It also raises the more general question as to how confident we can be in the Inquest system to uncover the true cause of death in any situation and the adequacy of news media to discover and report circumstances accurately. Two notable cases relating to Princess Diana and David Kelly illustrate different aspects and weaknesses. There have been many more.
'Haunted' by circumstances.
This incident has haunted me for over a quarter of a century! Not only for the tragedy of a man losing his life at the comparatively early age of thirty-four, but also for all the unanswered questions and my failure to answer them. This is not for want of trying, although how much more someone else could have achieved is a constant irritant. Did I let the man down? Was it a simple accident as the official record suggests? Was Ron indeed just an accident-prone individual who lost control of his bike and tumbled over the parapet as a result?
Immediately after the accident I travelled north to see him in hospital and familiarise myself with the spot where it occurred. Some of the information I discovered, was to say the least, very surprising, raising further unanswered questions. There is no evidence that what I discovered was necessarily available to the Coroner, although it might have been. It certainly was not revealed to the public in the newspaper articles nor was I ever questioned by the police about the information that I passed to them and others verbally. Nor was I asked to give evidence at the Inquest, which I must admit I was quite relieved about at the time. If I had been I would probably had to retell the story written here. Nevertheless some of my reservations must have been followed up by the police who determined there was nothing to substantiate them, as the following recent letter proves.
Letter from Current Coroner.
In 2010, in a response to a rather belated enquiry, the current Coroner Mr David Hinchcliff, graciously replied that he had, “obtained …. the file relating to (the deceased's) Inquest.”After summarising the specific causes of death referred to above, he moves on to say the following:
“I can advise you that at the time this gentleman died, a friend of deceased expressed some concern about whether the death was an accident, as Mr …. had in the past referred to him being of a military background involved in covert operations and there could be people “who wanted to kill him”. These issues were fully investigated by the police who were satisfied there were no suspicious circumstances nor any other person involved in the incident. His injuries were, and the cause of death was, entirely consistent with, an accident. The concerned friend was entirely satisfied with the police enquiry and accepted that Mr …. may well have had “a walter mitty” character, there being no record of him ever having been in the Armed Forces.”
'Walter Mitty Character'?
The “friend” to whom he refers was probably me. I do not remember describing 'Don' as a “Walter Mitty character” but have to concede someone may have, even that it might accurately reflect the truth. It is certainly one of the few explanations left open when you are aware of his dramatic narrative, that will become apparent below.
However, I have to say that using this particular description and that of “the Lemming” both sit uneasily with what I knew of him, or of others that knew him. It presumably was published to create a certain image of the man and infer an explanation for his fatal accident. It also reminded me of the description that was applied, quite disgracefully it has to be said, to the weapons inspector, David Kelly, under somewhat similar suspicious circumstances. He too was described as a 'Walter Mitty character' entirely without justification, and purely it must be assumed to impugn his character and make more likely the possibility that he committed suicide. The parallel may be purely coincidental or alternatively may indicate common themes or possible causes. (REF. 9)
My connection with 'Don' began about seven years before his death in about 1982. In the autumn term of the previous year (1981) I believe he became a student on the BSc Environmental Health course at Leeds Polytechnic. (It is now the Leeds Metropolitan University) I was at that time a Research Associate and post graduate student employed on a Health Education Council extended project, whilst undertaking an MPhil.
I observed and remembered him in the library for a peculiar reason. He had with him a young woman who appeared to hover about him to tend to his every need. She did not appear to be a student herself. I did not, as far as I can remember, interact with either of them at that stage other than for cursory acknowledgements, perhaps, but the incident stuck because it was so unusual. The significance of it will be revealed later.
I was attached to the Environmental Health course and undertook various ancillary roles such as giving the occasional lecture or supervising student projects. In this capacity I would bump into him periodically throughout the next two years, when prematurely he withdrew. As I remember it, during this time he worked at a local pub close to the University, to supplement his income. He was a lot (about ten years) older than most of the students on the course which lasted four years in all.
(I have tried my best to be accurate on dates although I must admit with the passage of the years and an absence of contemporaneous notes some unintended inaccuracies may have slipped in. No doubt I shall be corrected if I have erred)
Lake District Field Trip, 1983.
There is just one moment from that period that sticks in mind at an Ambleside Hotel where we resorted for a weekend's field trip to the Lake District in what I think must have been in the spring of 1983. This must have been towards the end of 'Don's' second year.
He was quite a tall and strongly built man who appeared to give off a rather remote and disenchanted aura. He sat in the corner of a bar and if I remember rightly expressed a certain disdain for the immature antics of the rest of the class. He also sported a rather wild beard and was a tad dishevelled. He had the look of a traveller or climber perhaps. I thought then the man must have hidden depths or alternatively felt out of place as he appeared a tad uncomfortable and isolated from the rest. It must have been that year that he decided to retire from the course and never did undertake the third year placement.
On the Move.
My circumstances changed with passage of time and as a family we moved to another address in Leeds in 1984, taking over the first floor of what had been a Hall of Residence. In the summer of 1985 my wife and family moved back to Cornwall. I expected to follow having come to the end of my contract but in the interim living alone in the house. A new offer of a Research Fellowship emerged and a new flat, so I decided to stay. It was an emotionally very turbulent time for me. My car was broken into and vandalised. On another occasion I awoke to find the house being burgled by thieves outside my bedroom door. I reached a very low point in that period, one of self doubt and isolation from family. My father passed away whilst I was there. Before Christmas that year I hired a Luton van and moved our furniture and effects myself. I seem to remember I asked for Don's help. I think he did and appeared to be sweating a lot.
Temporary Lodger and the Marines.
Prior to this 'Don' had asked if he could lodge with me temporarily, as he explained he was going through personal problems, which involved separation from his partner. This I believe was a different woman to the one in the library but I couldn't be sure about this. However it was also during this time in late night conversations, when he arrived back from his bar job, he related his quite astonishing story.
Sitting in the arm chairs either side of the old gas fire, with a can of lager in his hand, he told me that he had attended Leeds Grammar School where he had joined the Air Cadets (ATC) based there. (I subsequently contacted the school secretary – I am afraid now I cannot remember exactly when - who said he had indeed been a pupil there, although I never obtained a written confirmation of this detail) Details regarding Leeds ATC is at REF 2. As will be noted, a high proportion of ATC cadets go on to join the services.
This he said had convinced him to join the Marines when he left at an age of around seventeen or eighteen I assume. Given his date of birth (3.5.1955) this we assume would have been about the summer of 1972 or 1973 although if he had left at the minimum leaving age of sixteen it could have been 1971. The minimum age for entry to the Royal Marines is currently 16 years.
We need not be reminded that this was at the height of 'the troubles' in Northern Ireland. The Royal Marines themselves are said to have had 39 tours of duty there between 1969 and 2001. He claimed to have served terms there, although I don't believe we ever nailed a precise date or time-line to this. If what he said was true, we are forced to conclude his Service career fitted a window no longer than eight years at the most. From the late 1970's he was reported to be employed as a meat inspector or butcher in a slaughterhouse, in the Cromer region I believe, of Norfolk. He was seen there by another student on the course I was told.
He related his story with total conviction and seriousness, but it was the technical detail and the emotion that occasionally came to the surface at particularly poignant points that convinced me at the time that he was truthful. Needless to say I found it quite extraordinary.
This is supported and made more credible by the fact that his admissions tutor informed me at the time of the accident, that he had told him a similar story and provided details of a less well known training camp he had attended in the south of England. Unfortunately I cannot be sure what it was but it does at least prove a certain amount of corroboration
either to truth or fantasy.
'Service in Northern Ireland'.
He claimed he was posted to Northern Ireland where he had witnessed 'his mates being blown up in front of him' he said and that in one specific instance he had engaged the IRA in a stake-out in County Antrim.
I remember him saying that he 'was sure he had got at least one' as he escaped across fields. I asked if he had killed him and he replied he believed he had but the terrorist was over the border and could not be retrieved, so he was never absolutely sure.
During 'the troubles' over 500 Army and Royal Marine personnel were fatally injured, in addition to many thousands of IRA and UDA combatants and civilians. There was nothing in this part of his story that did not gel with what was common knowledge, or even my own experience when I had gone there. (Ref. 3)
Perhaps I should mention that all my attempts to trace any record of him being in the Marines have failed. The Royal Marines did 39 tours in the province. Operation Banner lasted from 1969-2007, 763 servicemen and women were killed as a direct result of terrorism. This includes 651 Army and Royal Marine personnel. The Royal Marines who are recorded as loosing their lives in the operation are respectfully listed at (REF. 4) below.
However, this is not the end of 'Don's' story which if anything, becomes even more remarkable.
'Selection for Clandestine Operations'
If I am not mistaken he claimed to be a junior officer. He stated that after a period of time, and I assumed by this he meant several 'tours', he was 'pulled out', chosen to do under-cover operations. This involved a selection programme that he recalled in some detail. He referred to a particular exercise on Dartmoor, in which he was required to tramp from one location to another over several days, without being caught by the 'enemy', which he said was acted by members of the Parachute Regiment. He said there was no love lost between the Marines and them, which made their role easier and more convincing. In fact he thought they relished the opportunity to be particularly mean.
He said that the mistake he made was to choose to 'hole-up' in a disused barn en route, already ear-marked by the opposition. Here he/they were apprehended. His description of what followed was particularly memorable as it was the first time I had encountered it. He said they were all hooded and hand-tied and bundled into a vehicle and taken to another location, where for what seemed like days, he was subjected to loud noise and other abuse, followed by intense interrogation that brought him close to 'throwing in the towel'. He didn't and was considered to have passed the test.
Those of us around today, having witnessed numerous television documentaries on the selection techniques adopted by the SAS and other specialist units, will recognise this is a very accurate description of what goes on. However I would remind you this was in 1985, when as far as I am aware the existence of these methods were much more novel and less generally well known.
Of course it is possible that he had read about them somewhere and just adopted them as his own account. If he had, he related the story with a low-key conviction that was wholly convincing - to me at least.
If it was a pack of lies, I still ask myself why he would spin such a yarn to a friend, particularly one providing him with accommodation, even if temporary, and who might easily be able to check out its veracity?
I have just read a review by David Chater in the Times (16.11.2015) of the previous night's episode of 'SAS: Who Dares Wins' on Channel Four. He says: “In the final episode, the recruits have to endure 24 hours of merciless interrogation during which time they are subjected to intense physical and psychological pressure. They are blindfolded, deprived of sleep, kept in stress positions, shouted at, bombarded with repetitive music and forced to watch Master Chef.”
This (with the one exception of Master Chef!) precisely replicates what he related to me over those nights before the methods had become widely known by the public I would suggest. Chater continues: “Testosterone alone won't cut it. 'We're looking for the grey man,' says one of the selectors. 'The grey man doesn't stick out. The grey man blends in.'”
That description of the 'Grey Man' perfectly describes 'Don' I would have said. To which we must add the the well known preference for unattached males for special operations. Don had said both his parents had died before he reached his twenties and as far as I can detect he had no immediate family. Of course this does not prove his story true but it does make it less likely to be a lie.
The next phase of his story is even more dramatic. He said that he was drafted back into Northern Ireland under the cover of filling the role of an assistant manager in a supermarket to infiltrate local extremist groups. I think he referred to the IRA but it is equally possible they may have been elements of the UDA. Shooting incidents involving supermarkets appear to have been not unusual. (Information on under-cover operations in Northern Ireland and some of the casualties is summarised at Ref. 5)
He said after he had been in this role for some time he got the feeling that people were getting suspicious of him and that his cover might have been compromised. Then he detailed how on a significant occasion he was paid a visit by a man with known terrorist connections. I believe he said it was an evening visit to his office which he said was above the shop and he was sitting behind his desk.
After a brief introductory conversation he said the man pulled a revolver on him. He then described how his training came into play and he responded almost instinctively, diving down to the floor to his left, whilst at the same time accessing the pistol he carried as standard equipment attached to his right ankle. From the floor in a prone position he said he fired several shots into the man, who fell dying. The detail relating to the location of his firearm is wholly consistent with standard practice for such personnel it should be noted.
He claimed that he hastily phoned his emergency contact who arranged all the details, removing the body of the man, clearing up the scene, and keeping the matter secret. He did not explain how and by whom this was done but we must assume it was by either the army or other security agency. He added that after a debrief he was lifted out of the Province by helicopter and brought back to the UK where he retired from all military service but remained protected by it. If true we must assume sometime later he took up his post in far-off Norfolk. In other words if true, we may assume the incident occurred in the latter half of the 1970's when the 'troubles' were at their height.
He claimed that he always carried an emergency number that he could call if he ever felt in danger, with the promise of immediate protection and removal. Was any of this true or was he living a complete fantasy? If the latter, he certainly lived it out to minute degree.
Justified Precautions or Paranoia?
On one occasion when he was staying with me, I returned to find some of the curtains to the large bay window drawn. As it was still light and I seldom pulled them, I thought this was a little strange. He admitted doing so because he claimed he was wary of sniper fire. Sure enough when I checked, it was only by virtue of angle and direction, where there was a possible line of sight into our first floor living room.
On another occasion he confirmed that he had 'clocked' all the vehicles and their registration numbers in the access road, and always took note of any changes when returning to the flat. Also although very undemonstrative, apparently he had physically thrown out a trouble-maker from his pub, which rather confirmed, when needed, he could handle himself.
He made it clear that he felt if the PIRA ever located him, he would be in very real danger that might require a change of address and circumstances. He claimed this was a tacit agreement he had with Government agencies.
On one level we might possibly conclude these might all be tell tale signs of paranoia, even a psychotic state of mind, but I have to say in all other respects he appeared to act in a very rational, reasonable manner with no attendant signs of mental instability. We all need our fantasies but if this was all a lie, 'Don' was living his!
On a more personal level he told me that both his parents had died before he was in his twenties. If I remember rightly, it was the one time I saw a tear appear in his eye. However there was another sensitive topic he shared with me, that certainly tied in with that very first observation of him in the library.
He confirmed that the girl I saw there was indeed his girl-friend, with whom he had been besotted. This was certainly corroborated by my own observations. However he added a story that was new to me. Apparently she had disappeared out of his life rather mysteriously and without warning. He said he had had no word from her and didn't know where she had gone but worse was to come. After some months she had appeared in his life again to tell him that she had been pregnant by him but had had a termination without telling or discussing it with him.
Needless to say he was devastated by this. As far as I am aware this was not the woman to whom by the press account he had been married and divorced. However as we shall see, a mysterious, unidentified, unrevealed, woman does crop up again immediately before his fatal accident.
Intentional Self Harm.
One other personal matter was revealed, with direct implications for the final chapter of his life, in these conversations, namely that so devastated was he by the revelations from his ex-girlfriend, that earlier he decided to end his own life! Perhaps of even greater erie significance was his description of how he attempted to do it, as in some respects it replicated his final days.
He said he had travelled into the Dales with his tent, where with spirits and pills he had attempted suicide. Instead he woke up after a night and regained consciousness, and had decided to carry on living. With the passage of time, I cannot now be sure whether or not he said he had gone there with his ex-girlfriend but he might have done. Whether he did or didn't, I certainly confirmed later on that he had met a girl at a camp-site just outside Grassington, immediately before his death, of which more later.
Of course the question arises, given the circumstances, whether the accident of the 14th August, 1989 was in some way a repeat performance of that earlier attempt on his life? He was certainly camping in a tent at the time. Spirit bottles were found in his tent I was told and he had met a mysterious woman immediately before when he was staying there, who as far as I am aware never came forward or was identified by the police or Coroner.
Military Contacts Maintained?
I have referred to his claim that he maintained confidence and contacts that should he need them, could be implemented. One other detail if true, tends to support this assertion. Whilst staying with me he confided that he had applied for a post with the army or Ministry of Defence in some health and safety role and been short-listed for interview. I remember congratulating him and wishing him well. I believe I even agreed to act as a referee. At this stage he had only done two years of the degree course so I was rather surprised he had got an interview.
To this day I am not sure whether he did but the story seemed to be supported by the fact that when I saw him behind the bar soon after, his appearance had been transformed. He had had a haircut and his unruly beard had been trimmed short he said, in preparation for the interview. When I next saw him and enquired how it had gone, he said he had changed his mind and not attended it. Just another fantasy or an example of other mental reservations?
Now moving forward with the narrative, my time at Hammond Hall was limited. The Polytechnic authorities had no intention of keeping it open with all its attendant costs, just for me, so I had to move out prior to Christmas 1985. One night as I lay in my bed, all I could hear coming from the other room was Ron coughing. When I went to see him in the morning he was in a very poor state with a high temperature. I was in a fix because I knew I had to depart soon and there was no way I could leave him there. Nor was he in any fit state to be moved so I contacted the local surgery and the doctor, who's name I now forget, and he visited.
After checking him out I was surprised to be told he was suffering from pneumonia and would be admitted to hospital by ambulance. Strangely I can't now recall seeing him taken away but still remember my surprise how quickly the diagnosis was made and the swiftness with which he was taken to hospital. I had to return to Cornwall so wasn't able to visit him in hospital. Later in the next year when I had moved into new accommodation – a flat close to the University – on occasions I would see him back at work behind the bar at The Packhorse opposite the University. He told me little of his treatment other than confirming he was fully recovered.
This of course was four years before ' Terminal bronchopneumonia' was specified as the principal cause of his death. I am in no position to know whether a post mortem was carried out following his death as it is not referred to either in the Coroner's letter or the newspaper reports, but it would be quite possible unless the causes of death were provided by hospital doctors without it. I just don't know and haven't been informed.
Strange Telephone Calls
Fast forward to 1989. I had now moved to a new position as senior lecturer at a north London college, commuting weekly from my Cornwall home. At around 9 pm on the night of the 13th August, 1989 a very strange thing happened, strange because it has never happened before or since. This please note was the day before Ron had his accident.
The phone rang and I answered it in the normal way but instead of hearing a voice I heard a sound that is hard to describe resembling a strangled grunt. I asked several times who it was to no effect, so after a few moments put the phone down thinking it was a nuisance call. A few minutes later it rang again. This time my wife answered the phone but was equally unsuccessful. The third time I answered, this time asking who it was and what they wanted. I had a strong impression there was someone there but still declining to speak. On the fourth call I sensed something desperate and I spoke differently asking if they were in trouble or if I could help in any way. This time I heard what sounded like breathing – something approaching a sigh maybe – and then the phone went dead.
Such was the strangeness of the incident, we discussed it all evening and even when we got to bed. I think this must have predated the days when you could trace the caller's number. There is no indication this was associated with 'Don' but but the juxtaposition of two such unusual incidents could not be ignored, and I thought at the time it might have been an attempt to plea for help.
Two days later (15.8.1989) I had another call. This time it was from my ex-colleague, V. W. with the news that Don had been found at the bottom of a bridge and was in a serious condition in hospital. Given what Don had told me a chill ran down my spine. It grew worse when the circumstances as as far as he knew them were explained. The accident it appeared did not have a rational explanation. Rather obviously I outlined my reservations and concern in the light of all the details Don had told me. As far as I can remember, up to this point in view of their sensitivity, I had told no one. I probably also indicated my intention to drive up to see him. In my own mind I also resolved to make some inquiries of my own whilst there.
The next day (16.8.1989) I rang the local police and spoke to a Sergeant who had been involved in the investigation. He was fairly forth-coming and said that they had been very concerned about the circumstances of the accident and couldn't really explain how it could have happened. I think he mentioned that 'Don' was camping in the area and various items had been retrieved including bottles of spirits from the tent but he didn't say where this was. I believe I passed on my reservations and details of 'Don's' fears. If my memory serves me correctly, the conversation was reasonably extended and lasted perhaps for fifteen or twenty minutes and more than one officer was spoken to. As far as I can remember, no mention was made of a witness to the accident.
When I put the phone down I was struck by a strange peculiarity, so strange I immediately asked my wife who was in the next room if she had noticed too? She hadn't, so I pointed out that at no stage in the conversations had I been asked for, or given, my name and address! Can you imagine a total stranger being given privileged information about a serious suspicious accident by a policeman, without him wanting to know who he was speaking to? Quite extraordinary! Either this was a very lax policeman or he was satisfied he already knew who I was!
It being the summer holidays, we resolved to travel north and combine it with a sort of camping trip, calling in on relatives and friends on the way. We stayed in a caravan owned by the a colleague's family for a night when the conversation centred around Don and his accident. Don's tutor had arranged for him to return to the course to take up from where he had left off. He was generally of the opinion that 'cock-up' was far more likely than 'conspiracy' for his accident and the way it had been investigated.
Despite being responsible for admissions at the time, for some strange reason I don't believe I ever enquired what Ron had done prior to joining the course initially in 1981 and he didn't volunteer the information either and has never done so since. I can only put this down to my naivete or nervousness at the time, as it could have resolved to a large extent Don's claims. Subsequently on completion of Police inquiries, he was to be given Don's bicycle which he informed me was virtually undamaged!
From there we drove to Grassington on I think Friday 25th August, 1989 and searched for a suitable place to camp, not having booked in advance. Rather incredibly the first site that we tried was the very one where Ron had stayed! Having carefully retraced my steps now with the aid of Google Earth I can be fairly confident this was 'Skirethorns'. (Ref. 6) His tent was pitched in the fairly confined space to the rear of the farmhouse and outbuildings. As it was full we moved on and found tent space at 'Wood Nook Caravan Park'. The fact that I had located his camping site almost miraculously and was able to speak to the owner who remembered him well, was almost too good to be true! I managed to have a long conversation with the owner and gained some fascinating information about his movements immediately before the accident. Indeed it was truly amazing.
He said that Ron had arrived on Friday 11th August, 1989 and set up his tent. At some time before the accident on the following Monday, he had been seen working on his bike, mending a puncture or something similar. After the accident the police had called and taken the tent and all its contents including empty spirits bottles. We must assume he cycled all the way from Leeds unless someone had given him a lift.
But much more significant was the information that he not only met a woman whilst he was there, but the relationship appeared quite close. This assessment was reached by the site owner on the back of seeing them both walking he thought to the nearest pub “ hand in hand” on the evening of Saturday 12th August. He said he remembered because he was pleased that they had company for one another and seemed to be getting on so well. I did not ask whether this information had been given to the police but I assumed it must have been.
This information appeared to be significant, so I inquired some more about the 'mystery' woman. Apparently she had arrived a day before Don on Thursday 10th August and they appeared to be immediately closely connected. From what I knew of Don, he didn't appear to be the type to strike up immediate or easy relationships with complete strangers. Was it someone he already knew and was the meeting pre-arranged? If nothing else, this appears a distinct possibility. Was it the old 'flame' with whom he had been so closely attached? Given what 'Don' had told me of his 'under-cover' work, the possibility of a clandestine contact also passed through my mind as a possibility.
He said that the woman was about the same age and “had a strange accent” that he couldn't quite identify. I believe at the time he showed me the visitor's book. Needless to say this information was never revealed by the police or Coroner, although it may have been in the possession of them both. I simply do not know. Nor do I know whether any attempt was made to trace her. I was told that a day after they were seen walking off together arm in arm, she packed up her tent and moved off.
In other words to clarify, it would appear that the 'mystery woman' arrived on Thursday, Don arrived on Friday, they were seen going out together 'arm in arm' Saturday, she departed Sunday, he had his serious accident Monday!
The parallels and possible connections with the earlier event he had described in our mid-night chats four years previously, relating to romantic attachments and complications and associated suicide intentions in a tent in the Dales cannot be over-looked. Or indeed if his story about being on an IRA hit list for his under-cover activities in Northern Ireland, might the meeting with the woman, have a more sinister aspect? Even after all these the years the questions hang in the air and ask to be answered.
A Nervous Investigator.
I have to say at the time I felt quite nervous, particularly as my children were with me and we were quite exposed. Maybe this was quite unjustified, the product of an overactive imagination. I did enquire of a number of people in Grassington itself and particularly some occupants of the terrace overlooking the bridge. However although some had seen emergency vehicles there and heard of it, none I met had witnessed the accident itself.
The hill approaching the bridge was indeed quite steep, with a left hand bend at the bottom (see image (Ref. 7)) As a cyclist myself I could not see in what circumstances this could result in a collision with the parapet, unless this was intended. Questions do arise in relation to the only witness statement. Did the lady in question make the emergency call to alert the police and if not why not, if as she says she saw him catapulted over the parapet after speeding down the hill? Who did make the first contact?
Could she have been mistaken and seen a different cyclist going down the hill and connected the two incidents in her mind and assumed they related to the same person subsequently? After all what cyclist does not go down that hill at speed? How, when and by whom the accident was reported to police and ambulance is critically important in such incident. The apparent absence of information on this point is highly frustrating to anyone wishing to know what really happened that day.
The condition of the bike, as we have already noted, was reported to be hardly damaged. How can this be reconciled with the account of a head-on collision with a stone wall at perhaps a speed of thirty or forty miles per hour? Of course the exact location where he lay would have a bearing on this as we might expect him to be further away than if he just dropped off vertically. When I was there there were no indicators as to where he might have been found.
Then there was the evidence of the site owner where he camped. Were blood alcohol or any other substances taken? They certainly don't appear to have been referred to at the Inquest although they may have been in the evidence presented to the Coroner. Was his blood alcohol level checked as part of the standard casualty procedure?
Hospital Visit and Strange Injuries.
On the way back to Cornwall, I visited 'Don' in hospital on Sunday 27th August. He was unconscious but otherwise looked remarkably well. He was clean shaven with short hair. It was unclear whether this had been happened since he was admitted or it reflected his earlier state. In any event it was not the long-bearded look I had been used to. Nor was there any evidence of the stubble that might have been expected if he had not been shaved since the accident two weeks previously. I have to say I thought at the time he might well have the appearance of an army officer now, rather than the 'beatnik look' with which I had been familiar. If anything it reinforced my belief that 'Don's' story about a military career, might have been more plausible.
I was in no position to know whether his unconscious state was the result of medical intervention or brain injury. He was not on a general medical ward, more a side room to himself but did not appear despite his condition to be receiving any intensive care or been subject to any invasive surgery that could be seen. He was breathing unaided and connected to a drip as far as I can remember. He was in a semi-reclining position and showed no sign of discomfort or distress.
I spoke to one of the nurses present who showed the usual reticence to discuss his situation although she did confirm the fact that he was relatively undamaged physically with no broken bones, scratches or even bruises. Certainly none were evident on his head and face, upper body or arms when I saw him. The doctors she confirmed had been very surprised by this fact in view of a twenty five or thirty feet fall onto exposed limestone river bed or maybe just a grassed field, depending on where he landed.
I must admit this has puzzled me also. The evidence of my eyes and the nurse's account certainly did not support the newspaper's view that he was suffering from 'multiple injuries'. In fact it appeared to be suffering from very few!
I sat by his bed and held his hand and talked to him hoping that on some subconscious level he could hear me and know that someone cared. It was very noticeable that there was an absence of family or friends during my visit or even the usual signs of interest with cards etc. It rather confirmed his story that both his parents had died when he was still in his teens and he had limited family. It is not at all clear whether in fact he had close relatives.
Little did I think at that point that two days later, I would be informed that he had succumbed to his injuries and medical condition. Indeed I might have been one of the last (discounting professionals) friends to see him alive. As far as I am aware the medical aspects of his death were never questioned. In particular we might wonder why in a hospital setting he should die primarily from pneumonia of the lungs and bronchus.
I was unable to attend the funeral so I cannot report on it. I wasn't invited to give evidence to the Inquest, although it appears my concerns to some extent were reported, investigated by police and found to be baseless. So what you may ask is the point of recalling my story?
I have to say I am not really sure. Maybe I feel guilty that I was not more thorough in following up leads or trying to corroborate elements of his story. Maybe it will jog the memories of others that might have known him, so that a more complete an accurate picture may emerge of his life and particularly that period that spans the 1970's as to whether he was indeed in the services or saw action under cover or otherwise in Northern Ireland.
And who was the woman he undoubtedly met in that Grassington camp site immediately before his accident and why wasn't she referred to or located by police? Did it have a bearing on what happened later?
How can the description of the accident be reconciled either with the condition of the bike or his injuries. Why after such trauma would pneumonia be the chief cause of death, had the previous illness been a factor or why if injury to the brain was a factor were there no obvious signs of injury or surgical intervention?
Even if the act of a third party can be ruled out, an intentional act by 'Don' himself can not be. If the latter, did his meeting with the woman precipitate it as it had done apparently seven years previously? More sinister explanations can only be ruled out if the one witness' testimony is completely accurate and reliable. I was never able to trace or speak to this lady I regret to say. Perhaps I didn't try hard enough.
None of these questions have been answered – at least to me - perhaps because they were never adequately posed? I was utterly convinced by his night time stories. Even if they were 'tall' ones, making him indeed a 'Walter Mitty character', this still does not explain the many other intriguing idiosyncrasies.
Some might think we should leave poor 'Don' to rest in peace. There may be others like me, that cannot rest until an answer to the outstanding questions are known. For if, and I am not saying it did, the system failed him, either before or after his death, it can fail anybody. In an increasingly dangerous and uncertain world, that is an issue that affects us all. And if what he said was indeed a true reflection of his activities for the British armed services, it would be an unjustified disservice to label him as a fantasist or as a Walter Mitty Character.
- There have been similar recent fatal accidents in the area and a man was found not far from Grassington bridge. (see: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3186122/Brilliant-heart-doctor-killed-cycled-Yorkshire-Dales-bike-hit-bridge-plunging-50-feet-rocky-stream-notorious-accident-blackspot.html and http://www.cravenherald.co.uk/news/13784974.Skipton_man_whose_body_was_found_in_the_River_Wharfe_at_Grassington_is_named/)
- (Try as I may the only reference to it now that I could find was this: http://www.yorkshireeveningpost.co.uk/news/latest-news/top-stories/seacroft-school-to-get-army-and-air-cadets-base-1-2799948 That there was a squadron based at Leeds Grammar School is confirmed here: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=9gC1BQAAQBAJ&pg=PA406&lpg=PA406&dq=air+training+corps+leeds+grammar&source=bl&ots=qIBH1JL8Dd&sig=xr9QD81A77BXB2-3LtdcRQOAAhk&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CCQQ6AEwATgKahUKEwj2rtbEo5rJAhVIRBQKHXykD6w#v=onepage&q=air%20training%20corps%20leeds%20grammar&f=false There are currently two Squadrons based in Leeds Central 168 and North 208. From http://www.yorkshireeveningpost.co.uk/news/latest-news/top-stories/leeds-air-cadets-squadron-flies-high-1-3058421#ixzz3rr7x01n8 we get this quote: “Spokeswoman Ene Kitching said about a quarter of cadets go on to join the RAF but others volunteer for the Army or Marines.)
Royal Marines. Current Entry Requirements. http://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/careers/royal-marines/how-to-join-the-marines/rm-eligibility#age
3. A comprehensive list of IRA/PIRA engagements with British forces is here:
Marine L Allen, Marine Anthony David, Marine John Shaw, Marine Andrew Gibbons,Marine Graham Cox, Marine John Macklin, Cpl Robert Miller, Marine Gary Wheddon, Marine Adam Gilbert,Cpl Dennis Leach, Marine Michael Southern, Marine Neil Bewley, Sgt William Corbett.
No details are given as to the circumstances so it is impossible to cross reference any details.
Royal Marine Fatalities Northern Ireland for the period 1.1.1970 – 31.12.79.
Wednesday, 26 July 1972 Royal Marines, 40 Commando, Unity Place, West Belfast, Northern Ireland, on foot patrol, shoot by IRA ALLEN, Lennerd (sic) D, Marine, killed
Tuesday 17 October 1972 Royal Marines, 40 Commando, West Belfast, Northern Ireland, on patrol four weeks earlier, shot by IRA DAVID, Anthony P, Marine, DOW
Sunday 29 April 1973 Royal Marines, 42 Commando, New Lodge Road, North Belfast, Northern Ireland, on mobile patrol, shot by IRA sniper COX, Graham D, Marine, killed
Friday, 18 May 1973 Royal Marines, Knock Na Moe Castle Hotel, Omagh, Northern Ireland, IRA car bomb destroyed hotel REED, Derek B, Sergeant, RM (attached), killed as he was leaving hotel. (Not included in the above list.)
Thursday 28 March 1974 Royal Marines, 42 Commando, Antrim Road, West Belfast, Northern Ireland, on mobile patrol, shot by IRA seven days earlier MACKLIN, James, Marine, DOW (He is listed as JOHN Macklin above)
Tuesday, 13 August 1974 Royal Marines, 45 Commando, Crossmaglen, County Armagh, Northern Ireland, in observation post, booby trap or remote-controlled bomb attack by IRA
LEACH, Dennis, Corporal, P028362E, SOUTHERN, Michael J, Marine, P029081M,
Sunday, 21 August 1977 Royal Marines, 45 Commando, possibly X Coy, Turf Lodge, West Belfast, Northern Ireland, on foot patrol/cordon and search, shot by IRA sniper BEWLEY, Neil, Marine RM, killed; Marine Bewley's parents subsequently presented a cup, known as the Bewley Trophy, to 45 Commando(with thanks to Ralph Howard-Williams, Operations Officer at the time)
Thursday 17 August 1978 Royal Marine, 42 Commando, Forkhill, County Armagh, Northern Ireland, on foot patrol, remote controlled car bomb detonated by IRA MILLER, Robert K, Corporal, RM, killed
Sunday, 12 November 1978 Royal Marines, 42 Commando, Crossmaglen, County Armagh, Northern Ireland, on foot patrol, remote controlled-bomb detonated four days earlier by IRA WHEDDON, Gareth C, Marine, RM, DOW (also listed online as 21 November)
If there was any truth in Ron's story, the last two events listed here might fit his description of witnessing a colleague being blown up.
A comprehensive list of IRA/PIRA engagements with British forces is here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chronology_of_Provisional_Irish_Republican_Army_actions_(1970%E2%80%9379)
Undercover soldiers 'killed unarmed civilians in Belfast' 21 November 2013
6. Skirethorns Skipton, North Yorkshire BD23 UK Google Ref. 54 04 15.95 N - 2 01 59.00 W
7. Grassington Bridge (looking south) – the approaching hill on the left. The witness Mrs Kathleen Mary Kinder, is assumed to have lived in one of the terraced houses shown.
8. Criticism of Leeds Infirmary by the Coroner
Coroner criticises 'unacceptable' treatment of Mike Tindall's grandmother
A coroner has criticised a hospital's "unacceptable" treatment of England rugby player Mike Tindall's grandmother in the hours before she died of a stroke.
Margaret Shepherd died in Leeds General Infirmary, West Yorks, 10 days after she was hit by a car reversing into a parking space.