- 05 Apr 07
Garda heavy-handedness isn’t confined to Donegal. As stories of harassment, corruption and cover-ups escalate, we report on the treatment suffered by one grieving family, whose son mysteriously died after a short time in police custody.
Imagine your brother or best friend leaving the house to go to the shop. He says a cheery ‘see ya’. Imagine, now, that these are the last words he ever says to you.
The next time you see him, he is lying unconscious on a hospital bed, with bruises and cuts all over his body. How did this happen? You find out that he was arrested and detained. That he was just two and half hours in Garda custody. So what exactly happened? You wait and hope and suffer. For three long, unendurable months, he lies there, in a coma. Then, your brother dies. Now, you know you will do anything to uncover the truth. But it won’t be easy. In fact, it will be so much harder than you ever dreamed. But you know there is no other option than to fight. You owe the brother that you loved that much at least..
THE BRUISING TO HIS BODY
This is the nightmare reality with which the family and friends of Terence Wheelock, a resident of Summerhill in Dublin’s north Inner City, have had to live, for almost two years. Just after midday on June 2, 2005, Terence, then only 20 years old, was arrested by the Gardaí, following an incident involving a stolen car. There is no reason to believe that Terence was involved in any impropriety – but at the time he was taken to Store Street Garda station. Neighbours claim they saw Terence being assaulted by the Gardaí during the arrest. Just under three hours later, Gardaí in Store Street called an ambulance. According to the Garda version of events, Terence had been found unconscious in his cell. The ambulance brought him to the Mater Hospital but he never regained consciousness. According to Gardaí, Terence had committed suicide.
However, factual evidence produced by Terence Wheelock’s family during the inquest into Terence’s death, would seem to contradict the Garda version of events. The Wheelocks believe Terence was the victim of Garda brutality and that high-ranking members of the force have actively attempted to cover up what happened to him. They have been campaigning for an independent inquiry into his death.
“I believe my brother was beaten by the Gardaí,” says Larry Wheelock, Terence’s brother. “There are witnesses, who were detained at the same time as Terence, who heard Terence screaming from his cell.”
The Gardaí said Terence had no bruises when he was admitted – yet four hours later he was taken to the Mater Hospital with bruising and cuts. In a press statement, issued in June 2005, an official statement read: “The Gardaí see no reason for (bruising) nor were they noticed by the Gardaí… who attended the incident.” Gardaí have made sworn statements that Terence had no injuries on admission to the Garda station.
“They say he committed suicide,” Larry says, “yet the mark on his neck is clean. There are no other cuts. They claim he hanged himself from a low level, which would have required a number of attempts and should have left more marks than just a clear line.”
Photographs seen by hotpress of Terence’s body, taken while he was in the Mater Hospital, reveal extensive bruising and cuts on Terence’s back and legs – and his arms are visibly swollen. These photos are currently being examined by the State Pathologist as part of the inquest into Terence’s death that has been ongoing since last November.
WHY WERE HIS CLOTHES NOT EXAMINED?
The Gardaí had refused to give the family access to Terence’s clothes. However, unknown to Gardai, access was granted during the course of the inquest. There was vomit and blood on the clothes. An independent forensic expert, who examined the clothes, has stated that the blood on Terence’s clothes is not consistent with the story that he hanged himself. It is this kind of detail that the family is now forced to wrestle with.
Larry explains: “The blood on Terence’s clothes and the region where the blood was found has given my family major cause for concern.”
While there may be an innocent explanation of how the blood got there, the fact that the State had these clothes in the Garda forensic lab, but failed to test the blood for almost 20 months, only adds to the sense of distrust the family have for the Garda investigation. Larry adds: “Did they hope that we would never get access to them? The Minister for Justice promised the family an ex-gratia payment to help pay for independent forensic experts to come from England – but he (subsequently) reneged on that promise. He asked us why we didn’t trust the State’s forensic lab testing!”
In the final analysis, the State failed to examine the blood on the clothes of a victim in a potential murder investigation, says Wheelock.
Larry is convinced that this was more than just an oversight by the Gardaí.
Members of the force who had dealt with Terence while he was in custody were cross-examined during the inquest. Unaware that the family had access to the photographs and clothes, in their evidence they made no mention of blood or vomit on his clothes. Why?
There are other suspicious factors. There was, on the face of it, a considerable time-delay between when the Gardaí supposedly found Terence unconscious in his cell and when they rang for an ambulance. Furthermore, when the ambulance came, Terence was found in the hall, not in a cell. The cell in which he had been detained was cleaned before the Wheelock’s legal team could examine it.
ACCUSATIONS OF HARRASSMENT AND INTIMIDATION
There is another, more personal element to all of this. According to Larry, Terence was a healthy, happy-go-lucky young man. He had no previous history of self-harm. For him to have committed suicide, Larry insists, would have been entirely out of character.
He had just bought new clothes for a party he was going to the following night. On the morning he was arrested, Terence was painting his bedroom wall. The paintbrush had broken and he had gone out to buy a new one when the Gardaí arrested him. “Terence was a very intelligent young fella,” explains Larry. “He did his Junior and Leaving Cert. He boxed as a child, he played football. He was really well liked in the area and had lots of friends. There were over 1,500 people at his funeral. Weeks previous, he had finished doing a safety pass course to get construction work on sites, as he wanted to work with his younger brother.”
People living in the area around Summerhill and in most working class areas consistently complain about heavy-handed treatment by Gardaí. Now, the ‘Justice for Terence’ campaign is going from strength to strength, with Dublin City Council recently passing a motion supporting the campaign’s call for an independent inquiry into Terence’s death.
The campaign has received widespread support from across Ireland. But as the Wheelock campaign has grown, so too, it seems, has the level of Garda harassment. Larry believes they are trying to intimidate potential witnesses and diminish support for the campaign. The Wheelock family say that they have been directly targeted by Gardai.
On May 17, 2006, less than 12 months after Terence’s death, there was an incident involving Gardaí – some of whom, it is claimed, were involved in Terence’s arrest. The Wheelocks were having a meeting that evening with the parents of John Maloney, who died shortly after leaving Garda custody, in 2003, and whose family are also campaigning for an independent investigation. Gavin, a younger brother of Larry and Terence, had been out leafleting for the campaign. He was arrested by the Gardaí and brought back to the Wheelock house. Up to ten Gardaí stormed into the house, while another 20 gathered outside.
For weeks afterwards, the Wheelocks claim that up to ten Gardaí were stationed outside their home. “The harassment escalated to a point where my mother felt she had to leave our family home of 20 years,” explains Larry. “A lot of people in the area have been threatened with eviction or Anti Social Behaviour Orders for displaying support for the campaign.”
The family has written and spoken to An Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, the Minister for Justice Michael McDowell and the Garda Commissioner, asking them to allow their family its democratic right to protest and campaign.
The Taoiseach assured the Wheelock family that he would give them a copy of documents they were legally entitled to, such as the internal Garda report on Terence. Sadly, they are still waiting for them. But now that the general election is looming, Larry is vowing to ensure the Taoiseach hears of their campaign.
THE NEED FOR AN INDEPENDENT INQUIRY
There have been 27 deaths in Garda custody since 1997. Hundreds of people attended a public meeting in the Mansion House last year to detail their personal stories of intimidation at the hands of the State’s police. Some of these deaths may have been innocent – but the question asked again and again is: how can truth or justice be achieved when the Gardaí are investigating themselves?
Article 2 of the European convention on human rights guarantees an independent inquiry into deaths that take place in State custody. But the family believe that the scope of the coroner’s court is not broad enough to answer all the shocking questions that have arisen in this case. Whatever the outcome of the coroner’s report, the family has vowed to continue the campaign for an independent inquiry.
“The country will find out soon what really happened to Terence that day in Garda custody,” says Larry. “The family knows what went wrong and that information is very disturbing. We can’t begin to grieve until someone is held accountable for Terence’s death. What I’ve experienced during the course of our investigation into Terence’s death, will shock this State to the core. It is no longer good enough to accept Garda versions of events, of deaths in Garda custody. There needs to be an independent mechanism put in place. I’ll never let it go until we get the truth and justice for Terence and our family.”
Minister McDowell is constantly banging on about how the Gardaí need to crack down on offenders. The Terence Wheelock story suggests that he would be better employed rooting out the criminal behaviour of members of his own force. In the meantime, an independent inquiry is the least the Wheelocks and other families in their situation deserve.b
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