'We miss him every day', says mother of son who died in Devon and Cornwall police custody

Thomas Orchard suffered a cardiac arrest after being held down, handcuffed and placed in restraints – with a webbing belt wrapped around his face. Credit: Family Handout

The mother of a church caretaker who died after being restrained in police custody more than a decade ago has told an inquest of how she misses him every day.

Thomas Orchard, 32, suffered a cardiac arrest after being held down, handcuffed and placed in restraints – with a webbing belt wrapped around his face.

He died in hospital seven days after being arrested and brought to Devon and Cornwall Police’s Heavitree Road custody unit in Exeter in October 2012.

The inquest at County Hall in Exeter heard Mr Orchard, who had paranoid schizophrenia, began to suffer a deterioration in his health and from 28 September was seen by several different medical professionals.

Mr Orchard’s mother, Alison Orchard, told the hearing she and her family had limited contact with him during this time.

“Throughout it all Thomas was much loved, kind of deeply loved, even though at times he wasn’t easy to be around,” she said.

“With the medication as well as a healthy appetite, Thomas put a lot of weight on during this period, but he then started to go to the gym and he was getting fitter.

Alison and Ken Orchard, the parents of Thomas Orchard, at a previous hearing Credit: PA Images

“He walked everywhere, so, by the time of his death, his lifestyle, ironically, had become healthier than it had been for years.

“Until just a few days before his death everyone thought he was doing brilliantly.

“At some point in late September or early October 2012, we now understand that Thomas stopped taking his medication and that he told work he wasn’t well although he still attended church and took communion.

“On the morning of October 3 Thomas’s father Ken received a call from Thomas’s mental health care team to say that he had not attended a meeting they had scheduled with him and, shortly after, two female police constables came to my home to take me into the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital where Thomas had been admitted.

“Both Ken and I joined him there and my immediate impression was that he had already died. He was formally pronounced dead a week later, on October 10.”

Describing her son to the jury, Mrs Orchard said: “Thomas was a complex person.

“He was a man of contradictions: soft yet stubborn; caring yet unconcerned; funny yet serious; on the edge of society yet profoundly conventional; deep yet superficial.

“Living with paranoid schizophrenia, Thomas frequently found the world a scary and incomprehensible place and that could make him behave in ways which were hard to understand and could appear hostile.

“Despite this complexity, Thomas was a genuine person and a man of integrity; we never knew Thomas to lie, and he expected the same standards of honesty from those around him.

“He was deeply insightful and had a gift for getting to the core essence of anything and everything.

“We miss him every day.”

Earlier, the jury had heard Senior Coroner Philip Spinney give an outline of the evidence it is likely to hear in the coming weeks.

He said Mr Orchard was experiencing a mental health crisis when he was arrested in Exeter city centre at 11am on 3 October after being abusive to members of the public.

He was dealt with by seven police officers, handcuffed and restrained around his legs before being driven to the custody suite.

After arriving at the custody suite, the emergency response belt (ERB) was placed around his head due to concerns about spitting and biting.

Mr Orchard was carried to a cell and placed chest-down on a mattress, where he was searched while handcuffed, in restraints and with the ERB around his face.

The ERB and restraints were then removed and Mr Orchard was left alone in the locked cell – where he lay motionless for 12 minutes before custody staff re-entered and commenced CPR.

Mr Orchard was taken to the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital where he died on 10 October having never regained consciousness.

Custody sergeant Jan Kingshott and civilian detention officers Simon Tansley and Michael Marsden were acquitted of manslaughter by gross negligence following a trial in 2017.

Later, the office of the chief constable of Devon and Cornwall Police pleaded guilty to breaches under the Health and Safety at Work Act.

In the health and safety case, a judge ruled they could not be sure that the ERB was a contributory factor in Mr Orchard’s death, Mr Spinney said.

The inquest continues.

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