New inquest into Deepcut death to probe ex-instructor
THE new inquest into the death of Private Sean Benton, who was the first of four young soldiers to die at Deepcut ‘s Princess Royal Barracks (PRB) within seven years, will look into allegations that his former instructor bullied other recruits.
The second pre-inquest hearing examining the wider circumstances around the death of the 20-year-old was held at Woking Coroners’ Court on Wednesday afternoon.
Pte Benton, from Hastings, East Sussex, was discovered with five bullets in his chest in June 1995 shortly after he had been told he was to be discharged from the Army.
He was the first of four young soldiers to die of gunshot wounds at the PRB between 1995 and 2002.
The inquest heard that witnesses will be called to discuss allegations that Sergeant Andrew Gavaghan harassed, bullied or abused Pte Benton and other recruits.
Judge Peter Rook QC said Sgt Gavaghan will be “investigated in the abuse of other soldiers” and added that the former instructor can call on his own character witnesses.
He told the inquest that such evidence is “capable of being called on the important issue of whether Sgt Gavaghan did harass, bully or abuse Pte Benton, provided the evidence is of significant probative value”.
Sgt Gavaghan will be among 150 witnesses, including fellow recruits, MOD personnel and expert witnesses such as doctors, professors and a psychiatrist.
It was ruled that evidence will also be given regarding Pte Benton’s “difficulty” in passing phase one of training at Pirbright before joining PRB and letters written by Pte Benton will be examined.
It was also proposed that enquiries should be put to witnesses including past disciplinaries, with some exceptions.
The fresh inquest comes after more than 20 years of campaigning by his family, who raised concerns that questioning of a retired sergeant over his conduct may be curbed.
A Royal Military Police investigation led to an initial inquest finding of suicide, even though no evidence was given about his experiences at Deepcut.
Speaking after the hearing, Pte Benton’s sister Tracy Lewis said: “It won’t be easy to listen to people give evidence about bullying and abuse, but it’s so important to us to learn the truth about the toxic environment we fear Sean lived in. It’s what our mum fought for 20 years for.
“We’re grateful that the coroner has decided to allow a wider range of allegations to be heard than just those affecting Sean directly, and are hopeful we will find answers to the questions we’ve been asking for so long.”
According to military legal expert Rhicha Kapila, the fresh inquest into Pte Benton’s death shows “there is a deeply rooted culture of fear of coming forward”.
The partner and head of the military department at solicitors Bolt Burdon Kemp said: “Sean was put in the care of a trusted establishment, and it is absolutely right that the inquest review will look into his state of mind and any third party action involving his death.
“It is important that the scope of Sean’s fresh inquest is widened so that the truth is uncovered and his family and the public get the answers they need.”
The third pre-inquest hearing will be heard at Woking’s Coroners’ Court on November 17 ahead of the full inquest on January 24, 2018.
(Left) Private Sean Benton and (above) Deepcut’s Princess Royal Barracks