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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 August, 2003, 15:16 GMT 16:16 UK
Deepcut unresolved deaths
Deepcut Barracks
Surrey police have postponed an announcement on the findings of its year-long investigation into the deaths of four army recruits at Deepcut Barracks.

They have received a report from an independent investigator that challenged the theory that the recruits had taken their own lives. The soldiers all died of gunshot wounds between 1995 and 2002.

In the meantime, Newsnight has learned that cost cuts leading to a highly questionable training regime may have been a contributory factor in the deaths.

The army officer in day to day charge of training - who left just before the spate of unresolved deaths - gave Newsnight an exclusive interview.

Richard Watson reported.

JUNE SHARPLES:
(MOTHER OF ALLAN SHARPLES)

Unless someone shows me proper evidence was taken I'll never believe Allan took his own life. He was just a happy confident lad.

UNNAMED MAN:
I was astonished that no forensics were taken. And really I was alarmed that there was a sort of second class for soldiers as opposed to civilians.

DES JAMES:
(FATHER OF PRIVATE CHERYL JAMES)

There's no accountability. They had two deaths on their hands in a short space of nineteen weeks. Not one single person on that site said "Hang on, there's something wrong here."

MAJOR RICHARD ECCLES:
I've been in the Army for 25 years and in all those years in all the areas where I served we didn't have a single death of that sort.

RICHARD WATSON:
After 12 years at Deepcut Army training camp in Surrey, the mountains of Scotland are the new home for retired army major Richard Eccles. At Deepcut he was in charge of many aspects of the training regime before he left the army in 1993. He says he wanted to get out before the Government's cutbacks, known as Options For Change, kicked in.

MAJOR RICHARD ECCLES:
They saw the way the system was moving before I retired. When Options For Change came in and they cut the Army from 170,000 to 106,000, I saw it more as a cost-cutting exercise than a real change in the defence of the country.

WATSON:
The first of the four sudden deaths at Deepcut happened two years after Richard Eccles retired in 1993. But his unique insight into the culture at the barracks has been recognised by the police. He was interviewed recently by Surrey Police as part of their investigation into the deaths. He agreed to talk to Newsnight about his concerns.

MAJOR RICHARD ECCLES:
For them to be in an unsupervised environment, to enable them to commit suicide or be killed by other means is just appalling.

WATSON:
18-year-old Cheryl James, the second of the four to die, while on guard duty in September 1995. She was found dead near the perimeter fence with her loaded SA80 assault rifle in her hands, 11 days after her passing out parade. She had a single bullet wound to the face. The night Cheryl died she was on patrol, armed and on her own. Some say this was in itself a breach of the rules.

MAJOR RICHARD ECCLES:
I was at Deepcut during the height of the IRA crisis when the IRA were actually bombing the mainland and shooting on the mainland. In all that time I don't remember to order to issue live ammunition. It wasn't give to semi-trained recruits. It was given to what we call a "quick reaction force" of trained soldiers.

WATSON:
After pressure from the parents, the police re-opened their investigation 16 months ago. After taking more than 850 witness statements they concluded that there was no evidence of third party involvement. But this weekend a statement from an independent forensic scientist who's been working on behalf of the families have forced Surrey Police to postpone the conclusions.

FRANK SWANN:
(FORENSIC SCIENTIST)

We can't use terms like murder et because that's a matter for the courts, police and the Crown Prosecution Service. We just use terms that everyone understands forensically.

WATSON:
So highly unlikely they were self-inflicted therefore highly unlikely it's suicide?

FRANK SWANN:
That's correct,

WATSON:
But Surrey Police issued a statement tonight saying: "On August 1st Surrey Police received a single page report from Mr Frank Swann. The report gives no details of his findings, none of the scientific tests behind them and no rationale for his conclusions."

In Cheryl James case, as in two of the other three cases, Frank Swann is convinced he's right.

FRANK SWANN:
The gunshot residue, the position of it on the hand and everything else, we don't consider to be consistent with someone holding onto the weapon and firing it at themselves.

WATSON:
You think it's consistent with what exactly?

FRANK SWANN:
Well we can't say whether somebody else fired it. All we can say is that we are satisfied that she did not.

WATSON:
These inconsistencies will now be reviewed by Surrey's forensic team. But beyond these detailed questions, both Frank Swann and the families have serious concerns about the failure of the original Army team to collect forensic evidence at the scene.

FRANK SWANN:
There were no forensic teams at the time called in. The decisions were made by the Army, by the Military Police and by the SIB, the Special Investigation Branch of the Military Police. It's clear to us that they were made very shortly after the various people arrived at the scene. So they took what I thought was a cavalier approach, certainly on one of them where they adopted the one bullet, one body, one weapon equals suicide.

DES JAMES:
I think the thing that angers me the most is of course the assumption of suicide which really laid the foundation for the series of ineptitude that followed. All we asked in 1996 of the MoD is "Were there fingerprints taken and was it my daughter's thumbprint overlying the trigger? Are you absolutely sure about that?". They just wrote back and said that there would be no point in taking fingerprints because it was a pooled weapon.

WATSON:
So the Army took no forensics and the police failed to follow up at the time. The former Deepcut officer we spoke with told us it should have been clear which authority had the lead role in investigating a suspicious or unexplained death.

MAJOR RICHARD ECCLES:
It would be a police-led investigation. A death involving a weapon cannot be handled by the people responsible for those weapons. It's the police and only the police who should do those full investigations, supported of course by Army, but not led by the Army.

WATSON:
But with the Army investigating the Army, alarming mistakes were made. The bullet which killed Cheryl James was lost and objects close by the other dead soldiers were cleaned before being swabbed. Firm conclusions about the cause of death will be hard to reach. Both Frank Swann and the families are frustrated about the lack of forensic evidence gathered by the original Army investigation team. This, they argue, is indicative of an arrogant and shoddy culture at Deepcut.

The breakdown in the ability of the army to investigate itself and in the way they train new recruits is the central issue for our source, the retired officer who oversaw training for so many years.

Surrey Police have told us they will report on the wider issues about the alleged culture of bullying at Deepcut.

Our source says that before the defence cuts, when he was there, any bullying would have had more chance of being stopped because there were more non commissioned officers.

MAJOR RICHARD ECCLES:
I just can't understand how a system went from a well- ordered regimental structure of approximately one NCO to ten recruits, to one NCO for 50 or 60 soldiers. It is not possible for one NCO to look after 60 soldiers and know each of them, to be able to identify those who have problems.

WATSON:
Three years ago June Sharples' son Allan died from a single gunshot to the head. He was training at Europe's biggest army camp in Yorkshire. Once again, in the Sharples case the Army appeared to assume it was suicide.

JUNE SHARPLES:
I've only found out what happened to Allan's gun when Frank Swann, the investigator, was doing a report on Catterick. He found out that Allan's gun was cleaned and put back on the rack. His uniforms thrown away, no forensic evidence. Why was this done?

WATSON:
The Ministry of Defence declined to be interviewed but a spokeswoman said that the rate of suicide at Deepcut and army training camps in general is in line with suicide rates amongst similar groups of teenagers elsewhere.

MAJOR RICHARD ECCLES:
I believe the training systems in place today are not as good as they were in the past. It is this failing the soldier, not one particular organisation, whether it be the police or the officers in command or in charge that night.

WATSON:
At Deepcut and elsewhere serious questions remain about the Army's failure to investigate thoroughly, evidence the families argue of a disregard for soldiers and the truth. With 188 non- combatant death from guns in the Army over the past 10 years, the families are lobbying hard.

This transcript was produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.



WATCH AND LISTEN
Newsnight's Richard Watson
reported on the concerns of the man who used to run the training programme at the Deepcut base



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