A senior coroner has recorded an open verdict after hearing the details of the untimely death of a “kind, loving, caring and talented student”. Romello McCook, an architecture student at Plymouth University, was struck by the GWR train on the morning of September 30, 2018, which instantly killed him.
At an inquest, held at Plymouth Coroner’s Court on Friday, evidence was heard from investigators from both British Transport Police (BTP) and Devon and Cornwall Police as well as statements from a pathologist, toxicologist, one of his closest friends and a statement from the train driver, Desmond Peet.
The recording, made by Mr Peet to BTP’s control room moments after his GWR Plymouth to Paddington train had struck the 22-year-old, was played to the court. Mr Peet was heard to say he had “just had a fatality”, before describing the location, close to where Embankment Road goes over the rail line, which he described as “Laira junction”.
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Mr Peet revealed he immediately put on the emergency brake when he saw a person and “got one blast [of the horn] out before I hit him”. He said the man “didn’t even look round when I sounded my horn”.
In answer to a number of questions from a BTP officer, Mr Peet – who had been a GWR train driver for 35 years and had been based in Plymouth since 2008 – described the person he hit as a “young guy” who was “strolling along… maybe he was lost”. He queried whether the man had walked off the platform in the early hours and kept walking towards Marsh Mills or whether he had tried to take “a short cut”, adding the man “looked like he was out for a Sunday stroll. It sounds really crazy”.
Pc Darren Blackwell of BTP was sent from his base at Exeter St Davids station to carrying out an initial forensic assessment of the incident also gave evidence to the court, stating he and a colleague had difficulty in gaining access to the track at that point, eventually using a set of Network Rail gates at the end of Finch Close.
A series of photos were shown to the court from the scene, which highlighted the bridge, a sign of a person which had a red circle round it and a line through it, with the words “No safe access while trains are running” just before it, and a large amount of foliage at the left-hand side of the bridge wall which narrowing the gap between the tracks and the bridge wall.
Pc Blackwell went on to note the photos were taken much later when the foliage had been hacked back and at the time it had grown over to one side and hung vertically. He said it was full of thorns and quite sharp and felt someone on the track would have most likely tried to walk around it – stepping much closer to the rail lines – rather than walk through it.
Pc Blackwell noted the man had “serious spinal structure damage”. He said he was handed the man’s wallet, which contained his bank cards, his donor card and his student union card.
However, while he was also handed trainers which had been found further up the track, there was no phone found on Romello or nearby. He said he did not find anything which indicated any suspicious activity and instead it “looked like a tragic accidental incident”, especially after the evidence he had heard from the train driver.
Mr Peet’s statement was read out by senior coroner Ian Arrow, which stated his train had struck the man a “glancing blow”. He confirmed he had previously been involved in fatalities during his service and “nothing about this incident suggested that this was a person intent in taking their own life” instead it was more likely the person was “trespassing and that this was a tragic accident”.
A GP report revealed no mental health difficulties, no medication and no illness, but did note Romello had confirmed at his registration with the surgery in 2015 that he drank alcohol “four or more times a week”, drinking “seven or eight units” on each occasion on a typical drinking day.
A post mortem stated the medical cause of death was “extensive base of skull fracture in a subject with evidence of alcohol intoxication”. Further toxicological tests revealed Romello had 148 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood and 226 milligrams per 100 millilitres of urine.
The pathologist went on to note this showed a “significant alcohol level well above the driving limit” of 80 mg per 100 ml of blood and 35 mg per 100 ml of urine. They added that at this level this could cause “slurred speech, impulsiveness and a loss of judgement” which could have contributed to his death as his unsteadiness may have meant he was able to move quickly in response to hearing the train.
Romello’s close friend gave evidence via video link, describing the 22-year-old as very sociable and friendly, capable of getting on with everybody he met, even within minutes. He said Romello and their group of friends would communicate via Snapchat to arrange days and evenings together and often go to the Student Union bar within the university grounds, as well as nearby clubs Switch and then Cuba.
He emphasised regardless of how much Romello would drink, all the time he knew him he “never saw him out of control” adding the Jamaican-born student was “always the voice of reason”. He told the inquest on that night he was not out with him but reiterated Romello “would become intoxicated but never to a point where he was unaware of his surroundings, where he was acting stupidly. I can say to the bottom of my heart that I’ve never seen him out of control on alcohol. Happy yes, but but never out of control.”
He also stated Romello was a “very social, loved human being” who would make friends with ease. He said to do something “this reckless” it would have taken “a huge amount [of alcohol].”
Kevin Chandler, a former BTP officer, now a forensic mobile phone examiner highlighted how he carried out tests based on information gathered by investigators as well as Romello’s parents who carried out their own inquiries, which focused on visits the student had made in his final hours. These included the Student Union bar, his student digs in Glen Park Avenue, the Switch nightclub, a property in Belgrave Road, Connaught Avenue, a Premier Store on North Hill, as well as Finch Road and the Laira junction rail sidings.
He explained the analysis suggested Romello’s phone may have been around the areas of Student Union bar Switch and his home at around 3.45am and onto 6.30am, then around the Premier store at 6.05am when he made a purchase, Connaught Avenue and Belgrave Road later that morning – but he could not say for any certainty he had entered a property in Belgrave Avenue, a place where he had gone to for a party in the past. Mr Chandler contested the accuracy of Google data which had been provided by the McCook family, saying he could not confirm it from his own investigations, and information could only be confirmed by the company Google itself.
He said he was prepared to say Romello was “in the vicinity” of the property in Belgrave Road, but explained the information provided by the McCook family of Google location history was not definitive evidence. He said this was due to the different sources of data Google harvested from mobile devices as people walk around, including linking to wifi network sites which the phones may have logged into before, even as the phone passes the property.
The court had already heard from a detective sergeant with Devon and Cornwall Police who had carried out a review of all the logs that night which may have indicated other incidents which may have been connected to Romello, his friends or his untimely death. However, the officer said a thorough examination found no such links or connections.
Det Chief Insp Stephen May, senior investigating officer with BTP, said he carried out a review of the case following concerns raised by the McCook family. He told the court he had met with the McCook family, spoken with the fatality investigator, examined the evidence of the train driver, the paramedics, Devon and Cornwall Police and BTP officers who attended the scene.
He noted there was a “quite forensic examination” into evidence, such as Romello’s clothes, carried out by BTP which was “not normal in a non-suspicious death”. He confirmed he had also spoken with a man who had been with Romello that night at Switch up until at 4.30am.
Friends who had been with Romello that night were also spoken to, but their statements did not provide information which would help explain why Romello had gone to the train line.
Det Chief Insp May noted the family’s main two concerns were how did Romello become so intoxicated and how did he gain access to the railway line. However, asked by Mr Arrow whether after all his inquiries he could answer those concerns, he replied “no” adding all the inquiries made had left police “none the wiser to this day”.
He did note that Romello’s mother and father had visited him the day before his death and that the 22-year-old had been awake “for approximately 28 hours at the time of his death” which may have had an effect on him when combined with the large quantity of alcohol he had consumed. He also noted the pathologist’s report highlighted that because a body sheds alcohol from the system over a period of time it was possible to estimate that at the time of his death Romello had been “four times the drink drive limit”.
He accepted that due to the lateness of the start of his inquiries, any council or store CCTV which could have assisted with tracking Romello would have been lost or erased by that stage. Asked to speculate, Det Chief Insp said Romello had only moved into his student digs in Glen Park Avenue a week or two before and “could have been mistaken in the direction he was going”.
He added that there was “no evidence or intelligence for me to consider this was anything but a non-suspicious death”.
In answer to questions from a legal representative from BTP, he went on to explain that Romello had no drugs in his system, had never been in trouble with the police, was of good character, was not someone who would get into trouble when drinking and was considered to be the “pacifier” and that he did not lead any kind of reckless lifestyle. In a moving statement from the family, read out at the inquest by their legal representative, they described how Romello was their only child and had been born to them in Jamaica.
They said: “Losing a child, your only child, is is the most devastating experience for any parents to live through” saying that the three of them “never separated” and they travelled and lived in “in different countries as one happy family”.
Romello was “very happy, healthy and vibrant and making friends was just so natural and instinctive for him”. They remarked on his ability to make friends, saying that “you could not wish for a more loyal friend than Romello. He “lived for his friends” and developed a love and passion for music while attending a school in the Turks and Caicos Islands. At prep school his teachers “loved him loved him and the community adored him”.
They stated: “They referred to him as the little bright boy from Jamaica. He won almost every academic competition in his school year groups while we were there. Even as a young adult, he still just displayed these childhood trophies in his bedroom as he always tells us, this is where I started.
“The teachers at Romello’s primary and secondary schools here in the UK described him as a kind, loving, caring and talented student who was always willing to participate in lessons and because he was so gifted and talented in so many areas he would always help others.”
His parents revealed due to their son’s “brilliant, kind attitude and selfless qualities” his school created the “Romello McCook award for excellence in design and technology to honour his memory”.
They spoke of how he worked hard to gain the necessary qualifications to study architecture, and on gaining a place at university he fell in love with Plymouth, particularly its climate, complaining of how cold it was whenever he went home to visit his parents in Oxford.
His parents, Lawrence and Vivienne, discovered his journal after his death, noting that in it they wrote: “always make time to have fun with friends”. They revealed how he always looked out for his friends, even taking off his shoes and offering them for a female student who had had too much to drink and could not walk home in high heels.
They wrote: “We lived for Romello. As an only child, he was our heart and our light.” Romello’s death resulted in the couple not being able to celebrate significant days or holidays.
They added: “There’s no joy or significance to life for us anymore. His loss is greatly felt and the trauma will never go away. Our family life will never be the same.”
They said relatives were still bereft and heartbroken at Romello’s death and they noted how the student had planned to become an architect so that he could travel the world and build hospitals for people.” They noted how he was able to make friends and was incredibly sociable, “the life of the party” and “a happy, loving guy”.
This made it particularly hard for his parents to know that for a young man who was always up for a social gathering, he was “found dead in such a remote place and for all his friends saying they were not out that night is heartbreaking and makes absolutely no sense to us”. They added: We have lost a kind and loving son, who meant the world to us.”
Mr Arrow, taking into account all the evidence presented to him, he said that he believed that Romello had become “very heavily intoxicated” and had “very little concept of what he was doing that day”. He said it was extremely said that his parents had only seen him the day before his untimely passing. He said it remained unclear as to how and why he was on the railway line that morning.
Mr Arrow said he would record an open conclusion, stating that there was nothing to indicate there was anything suspicious about his death, that there was no indication that he intended to take his own life and that no other party was involved.
Mr Arrow offered his own condolences to Romello’s parents, saying it was clear he was “well liked and well loved and I’m sure as people have said his loss is severely felt by you all”.
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