Record of Investigation Into Death (With Inquest)

Coroners Act 1995
Coroners Regulations 1996
Regulation 14
Form 4

I, Christopher P Webster, Coroner, having investigated the death of

Theresa Rachael HOWELLS

WITH AN INQUEST HELD AT HOBART in Tasmania on 9 and 10 May 2011

Find That :

(a) Theresa Rachael Howells ("Ms Howells") died on 1 December 2006 at Boulters Road, Molesworth in Tasmania.

(b) Ms Howells was born on 5 September 1980 at Hobart. She was at the time of death an unemployed Beauty Therapist.

(c) Ms Howells died as a result of asphyxia due to hanging at a work shed used for temporary accommodation at 1 Boulters Road, Molesworth.

(d) There is no finding that any other person contributed to Ms Howells’ death.

Background Information :

A formal Inquest was held into the circumstances surrounding the death of Ms Howells on 9 and 10 May 2011.

Mr Tom Cox was Counsel assisting the Coroner.

Mr Luke Justin Small ("Mr Small") who was, at various times, the defacto partner of Ms Howells was represented by Mr Craig Mackie, Solicitor and Barrister.

Circumstances surrounding the death :

At approximately 3.45pm on 1 December 2006 a female motorist on Boulters Road, Molesworth was hailed down by Mr Small in the entrance to his home at 1 Boulters Road, Molesworth.

Mr Small was yelling for help and when the motorist stopped he ran back to the shed on his property with the motorist.

When the motorist entered the shed she saw Ms Howells lying on the floor in the shed.

Mr Small was crying and lying on top of the deceased’s body. The motorist felt the pulse but none was present and the arms and legs of the deceased were cold to touch.

The deceased’s tank top was rolled up and over her chest.

Mr Small was asked whether he had called the ambulance, but he had not. He telephoned the ambulance but was distressed and unable to speak clearly.

The motorist grabbed the phone from him and spoke to the ambulance service.

When the ambulance arrived the ambulance officer observed that the deceased’s fingers and toes showed signs of post-morbidality. Her foot was hyper-extended and her toes were flexed as she was on "tippy-toes". The deceased had ligature marks around her neck and there was a rope and a noose near her body.

A post-mortem was performed by Dr Chris Lawrence, the State Forensic Pathologist for Tasmania.

The relevant part of his report stated:

"The deceased has a past history of poly-drug abuse and depression. She has a history of some domestic problems with a defacto. Police expressed some concerns regarding her death. Examination at the scene suggests that the death was probably a hanging.

Autopsy reveals a characteristic ligature mark consistent with a hanging. There are some bruises on the thigh. These are not completely explained but may have been caused during attempts to get the deceased down. There are no other significant traumatic injuries, although there are some needle marks in the anterior abdominal wall.

Toxicology reveals a large number of illicit and prescription drugs … it is possible that this combination of drugs could produce a serotonin syndrome, which would tend to cause agitation although there is no way of assessing clinical behaviour in autopsy. Given that there are needle marks on the anterior abdominal wall it is possible some of the drugs could have been administered and could have caused a degree of incapacitation. However, based on what I saw at the scene and at autopsy, I think the drug levels are most consistent with a suicidal hanging under the influence of stimulants."

Mr Small was interviewed at length by the police shortly after the death. His appearance at those interviews differed substantially from his appearances at the Inquest.

When interviewed by the police he appeared agitated, incoherent and gave a rambling explanation. He appeared to be under the influence of drugs.

On Mr Small’s account he and the deceased had lived in a defacto relationship in the past but that relationship had finished.

Ms Howells had, only one or two days before, come to his house and requested accommodation. Mr Small was prepared to allow Ms Howells to stay a short time but not to begin their previous relationship. On the day of her death she was to move from Mr Small’s property and according to him he had been in the process of packing her belongings.

At sometime during 1 December 2006 Ms Howells indicated to Mr Small that she had an intention to commit suicide. She obtained a noose from the shed, which Mr Small had fashioned many years before and had kept in the shed.

Ms Howells requested Mr Small to assist her to tie it but Mr Small left the shed to retrieve his two dogs which had run off into the bush.

Mr Small then returned and continued the discussion with Ms Howells.

He stated that during his discussion Ms Howells was seemingly standing in the shed but he was not paying particular attention to her.

He later became aware that she was standing in the shed with the noose around her neck. He initially thought that she was pretending to have committed suicide and continued to speak to her. It was only later when she urinated that he realised that something was untoward and realised that she had actually committed suicide.

He then grabbed Ms Howells and attempted to support her body and with the other hand pulled down the rope from the roof support.

It did not appear that the rope was actually tied to the roof support as it came away without him untying it.

Forensic investigation conducted on behalf of the police indicated that it was possible, although difficult, for Ms Howells to have died as a result of hanging herself from the beam of the shed in a manner described by Mr Small.

Evidence obtained by the police from Ms Howells’ medical reports indicate that Ms Howells had suffered psychiatric problems including anxiety and panic episodes of depressive symptoms; a history of self-harm; and a history of chronic amphetamine abuse.

Mr Small’s evidence was unconvincing and at odds with other evidence of independent witnesses and, indeed, in parts his evidence was extraordinary.

In particular Mr Small denied that he and Ms Howells had ever had an abusive relationship and denied any altercation with Ms Howells on the morning of her death, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. He denied being a drug user, although he admitted that he negotiated the supply of drugs to Ms Howells and purchased drugs on her behalf from a bikie gang. He also stated that he was leaving the State because he was frightened of the drug supplier, who had sent him bullets in the post.

His version that he spoke to Ms Howells for some minutes while she was hanging from the beam of the shed without observing appears extraordinary.

His delay and reasons for not calling the ambulance, but instead hailing down a passing motorist, also appears strange.

He gave evidence about Ms Howells consuming liberal quantities of alcohol on the morning of her death yet there was an absence of alcohol in her system.

His evidence was that he wanted Ms Howells to leave the relationship and that he was to give her a lift in his vehicle on his way to sell his bike. None of her belongings were in the car or on the trailer, despite other belongings belonging to him, as well as his dogs, being in the vehicle. Because of the unreliability of the evidence of Mr Small I am unable to accept his evidence unless corroborated by independent evidence.

One simple explanation for Mr Small’s account of the circumstances of Ms Howells’ death was that at the time leading up to her death he was adversely affected by drugs and/or alcohol. This would be consistent with his appearance and demeanour in the first police interview.

I am left with the following undisputed evidence, namely:

  1. Ms Howells was found dead with a noose lying beside her.
  2. The State Forensic Pathologist believes that her death was consistent with asphyxia caused by hanging.
  3. At the time of her death toxicology revealed the presence of many drugs, greater than therapeutic levels.
  4. Ms Howells had a history of psychiatric problems, including a history of self-harm.

Although I am able to conclude that Ms Howells died as a result of asphyxia due to hanging at a work shed on Mr Small’s property, I am unable to conclude whether or not she died as a result of a suicide or an accident when, in order to gain sympathy from Mr Small, she pretended that she was going to commit suicide but such actions tragically resulted in her actually hanging.

I am unable to reach any conclusion that any other person contributed to the death of Ms Howells by encouraging her or actively assisting her to commit suicide.

Comments & Recommendations :

Before I conclude this matter, I wish to convey my sincere condolences to the family of the deceased.

This matter is now concluded.

DATED: the 30 day of May 2011

  

Christopher P Webster
Coroner