A Belfast teenager who drowned under the wheels of a police vehicle in a Co Antrim river after a car chase was nearly twice over the drink-drive limit and had been sniffing butane gas, an inquest was told today.
Raymond Robinson, 19, died in Threemilewater at a place known as The Glen outside Whiteabbey at 1.30am on a Saturday morning in late April 2004.
He had abandoned the car he was driving after being chased by two police cars and disappeared down a steep embankment into the river.
Outlining the case, Coroner Brian Sherrard told the jury at the Belfast inquest that, in the dark, a following police car went over the edge of the embankment and ended up on top of the teenager.
He drowned in two feet of water when efforts to free him failed.
Mr Sherrard told the jury they would have to decide whether any reasonable police precautions could have avoided the death and whether any defects in police systems contributed to it.
He said the police had been alerted to Mr Robinson when a member of the public phoned the police about a white Seat Toledo which, the caller alleged, had left a filling station driving erratically with occupants that had been sniffing gas.
The coroner said evidence would be given that a PSNI officer, Constable John Bull, saw the Seat drive through red lights on the Shore Road.
He gave chase with his siren on and blue lights flashing, as did a second police car. The Seat turned into a side street, went up a cul-de-sac, mounted the footpath and entered a grassy area known as The Glen, with police in pursuit.
When Mr Robinson abandoned the car and went down the embankment the police car followed and ended up on top of him pinning him face up to the bottom of the river bed.
Dr Peter Ingram, the pathologist who carried out the post mortem on the unemployed labourer, said the teenager died from fresh water drowning.
Fractures to the skull, pelvis and ribs which he suffered were all survivable, he added.
Blood tests proved Robinson was almost twice the legal drink drive limit and had also been inhaling butane gas.
The pathologist said there were also traces of cannabis in the blood but it was impossible to say when in previous days the teenager had smoked the drug.
Forensic Scientist Arnold Young, who carried out further tests on lung, brain and blood samples at the request of the Police Ombudsman, said the teenager was intoxicated by two forms of butane gas in the same way he was by the alcohol.
“Mr Robinson was under the influence of these gases at the time of the incident.
“The quantities would indicate deliberate exposure – recreational uses – not just minimal environmental exposure,” he said.
Two partially empty cans of Ronson gas lighter refills were recovered from the Seat, he said.
He said the butane “can cause dizziness, and impaired balance, a staggering gate, possibly collision with objects and falling.”
Fire officer Alan Chism, who freed the body of the teenager from under the car said it had been impossible to say whether the police car had slid down the steep embankment or had been airborne and landed on him.
He said the spot where the teenager died was well know to the Fire Service as a place where cars were dumped and burned out.
A Police Ombudsman’s report in 2006 after an investigation into the death described it as “a tragic accident”.
Former Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan said: “No individual officer was guilty of misconduct”.
However she said “severely deficient” police training and pursuit policies may have contributed to the fatality.
The inquest is expected to continue for several days with 10 PSNI officers due to give evidence.