Durham rugby players did not mean to buy heroin, inquest told

Two Durham rugby players who died after taking heroin during a tour of Sri Lanka did not mean to purchase the drug, a coroner has said.

Thomas Howard and Thomas Baty were found by members of the Clems Pirates team, part of the Durham City Rugby Football Club, lying unresponsive on their beds on the morning of May 13 last year, following a night out.

An inquest at Crook Coroner's Court heard how the two men, who were "not habitual drug users", had taken a substance known locally as "brown sugar", which was a cheap version of heroin.

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The men, who were also doing charity work during the tour, were childhoodfriends through playing rugby and had been working together for a workwear company owned by Mr Howard.

Pathologists said on Thursday that, although they had been given limited evidence from Sri Lanka, it seemed "highly likely" that the cause of death in both cases was "opiate toxicity".

A coroner was told how the investigation conducted by authorities on the South Asian island "does not sit right" and contains various inconsistencies. It was suggested by a tuk-tuk driver, who took the men in the early hours of May 13 from the Cleopatra nightclub in the centre of Colombo back to their accommodation at the nearby Kingsbury Hotel, that they had asked for heroin.

The inquest heard how the driver had then introduced them to another man, who supplied them with seven bags of brown sugar he had obtained from a drug dealer.

But Detective Constable Phil McElhone, who has investigated their deaths for Durham Police, said "something does not sit right" with the account of their deaths that was given by Sri Lankan witnesses, and that the two rugby players, both from Durham, may not have known what they were taking.

He said that, as well as the issue of the men clearly not being drug users, there were inconsistencies in terms of timings, the volume of the drug and the amount that the men paid.

Recording a conclusion of accidental death, coroner Crispin Oliver said the men had purchased the drug on the way home from the nightclub, saying:

Both men played for Durham City Rugby Football Club Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

The inquest heard how the men had travelled to Sri Lanka with the rest of their team on May 9, and had taken part in a match with the Ceylonese rugby team on May 12, before going out to the Cleopatra club.

Witnesses said that Mr Howard, 25, appeared to be "much changed in his demeanour" when he returned to the hotel after he is believed to have taken the drug in the early hours of the following morning, and was seen stumbling around before going to bed.

Meanwhile, Mr Baty, 26, stayed up a little longer and spoke with friends, with teammates saying he had "seemed a little bit drunk", kept "nodding off to sleep" and made random remarks unprompted during conversations including saying "brown sugar" while he appeared to be asleep.

The men were found unresponsive in their rooms later that morning.

Mr Howard was declared dead on May 13 at the Nawaloka Hospital.

Mr Baty was taken to the same hospital and died on May 15.

During the inquest, Paul Baty, father of the older of the two men, said his son had graduated with a law degree from Northumbria University, telling the court:

"He enjoyed his friends, he enjoyed enjoying himself, he enjoyed rugby. Even though he was a big fellow and seemed to be the heart and soul, he was actually very sensitive at heart."

He said that, having previously worked in a recruitment consultancy, his son had recently agreed to work for a workwear company run by Mr Howard.

Mr Howard's father, Robert, said of his son: "Thomas was a quiet lad. Once you got to know him, he was considerate, caring - he would look after you."

Mr Oliver paid tribute to the men and praised both families for attending the inquest.