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Deaths of Upminster mother and son 'could have been avoided', inquest hears

PUBLISHED: 07:00 08 October 2019 | UPDATED: 13:49 14 October 2019

Officers guard the house in the aftermath in July 2017. Picture: Ann-Marie Abbasah

Officers guard the house in the aftermath in July 2017. Picture: Ann-Marie Abbasah

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A vulnerable mother and son found dead in their bathroom were known to police and safeguarding teams in Havering, an inquest heard.

Police had been called to the house by a concerned member of the public in May, the court heard. Picture: Ken MearsPolice had been called to the house by a concerned member of the public in May, the court heard. Picture: Ken Mears

The bodies of Vera Savage, 89, and John Savage, 54, were discovered in their house in Blyth Walk, Upminster in July 2017.

A suicide note in John's handwriting was found stuck to the door and both were pronounced dead at the scene.

An inquest into the deaths opened on July 18, 2017 and resumed yesterday at Walthamstow Coroner's Court, with family members and witnesses saying they believed the deaths "could have been avoided".

Senior coroner Nadia Persaud is due to give a conclusion next Monday and will also consider the need for a wider inquiry.

The events of July 10

Officers guard the house in the aftermath in July 2017. Picture: Ann-Marie AbbasahOfficers guard the house in the aftermath in July 2017. Picture: Ann-Marie Abbasah

Vera and John Savage had lived alone for many years and were described by family members as "reclusive" and "co-dependant".

They isolated themselves further, the inquest heard, after the suicide of Vera's husband and John's father, Reg Savage, in 2005.

The court heard that John had struggled to care for his mother, who had dementia and was physically frail, while himself dealing with depression and alcohol abuse. He had attempted suicide in February 2017.

At 9.30am on Monday, July 10 a support worker visited the house to find a note stuck to the door.

It read: "12 Blyth Walk, 9th July, 2017. Suicide. Call police. Side gate unlocked. Back door unlocked. JS. Call police."

The Metropolitan Police's DI Rita Tierney said other notes in John's handwriting were found inside the house, including one that said life was "bad to worse" with "no future".

The pair were found in the upstairs bathroom, with Vera lying in the bath in her nightdress and John slumped behind the door, covered in blood.

DI Tierney said both were found with a single stab wound to the neck that matched the blade of a kitchen knife found on the floor.

Paramedics attended and pronounced both people dead at the scene at 9.58am.

Di Tierney told the court: "Based on our observations I was satisfied I could interpret a likely murder of Vera by her son, who had subsequently committed suicide."

"He wasn't supported at all"

A family friend broke down in tears as he described his last phone call to John Savage the day before the bodies were discovered.

Darren Carmichael, a former physics teacher, had known John and his mother for 25 years and had deputy power of attorney over Vera.

He told the court: "Losing John was losing a future. John felt more than he showed and found it difficult to cope as an individual, but together we worked as a team."

From around spring 2016, he said, Vera began to "slow down" and show signs of dementia, which were most pronounced in the small hours of the morning.

John, he said, began to suffer "the most horrific sleep deprivation" and stopped keeping diaries and bathing.

In November 2016, the pair fell victim to a firm of "cowboy builders" and were left £50,000 out of pocket, which Mr Carmichael said had "broken" his friend.

In February 2017 he called police and ambulance services to Blyth Walk after receiving a "stammering and spluttering" phone call from John, in which his friend told him: "I can't take it anymore."

John was found in the bathroom with his throat slashed. He was taken to Whitechapel Hospital for surgery, then sectioned and placed in Goodmayes Hospital, while Vera was placed in respite care at St Joseph's.

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Nursing staff initially sent Vera home and despite promises to the contrary, Mr Carmichael said, the blood had still not been cleaned from the house when she arrived. Left without a carer, he said, she was found wandering in the road later that night.

John Savage, he said, convinced staff at Goodmayes to discharge him two weeks early, initially without medication, and again without the house having been cleaned.

In addition, he said, John was referred to a drop-in service for alcoholism, rather than a community psychiatric service for depression.

From there, Mr Carmichael said the pair's living situation deteriorated even further as Vera required more hands-on care.

John, who he said had obsessive compulsive disorder, "couldn't control the environment" but was also "paranoid and scared" about her going to a residential home.

Despite being "incapable of looking after her", he said, John was unwilling to accept interventions from social services.

He described their level of support for John as "farcical", adding: "He wasn't supported at all. He was left to get on with everything… [and] felt everyone was against him."

The last time they spoke on the phone was on Sunday, July 9, when his friend told him Vera was due to be placed in a nursing home on Tuesday, thanking him for "everything you've done for me and mum". The next day, their bodies were discovered.

Safeguarding concerns

Witnesses told the court they had raised concerns about Vera and John's worsening plight to the authorities in the months before their deaths.

Next-door neighbour Paula Winter said she emailed police and Havering Council in December 2016 and April 2017, alarmed by what she described as "screaming and shouting and banging" emanating from the house.

On one occasion, she said, she thought she heard John threaten to kill his mother.

In her second email, she wrote: "Something needs to be done about this man… It won't be long before he injures himself or his poor mother."

A builder, Marc Laporte, also called 999 on May 31, 2017 on overhearing an explosive exchange in the house.

He said: "I couldn't believe what I was hearing. It sounded like he was going to kill her.

"I feel the system and society let them down. I strongly feel all of this could have been avoided. When I heard what had happened, I couldn't sleep."

Sally Welsh, John's cousin, said the wider family had struggled to stay in touch with the pair as John "didn't like to interact with the outside world" and did not pick up the phone.

In a joint statement, other relatives said the pair had become "increasingly reclusive and increasingly dependant" and were, in their view, "vulnerable".

They added they hoped the inquest would establish if the deaths were preventable, and whether lessons could be learned for future safeguarding of the elderly.

They added: "At first glance, it seems that this tragedy could have been avoided".

More than 25 other witnesses, including Havering Council workers and doctors from North East London NHS Foundation Trust, are due to give evidence in the case between now and Friday.

Ms Persaud has also considered whether any of the responsible authorities breached their obligations under Article 2 of the Human Rights Act - the right to life - in the way they handled the Savages' case.

At present, she told the court yesterday, any failures to protect the pair from risks to their lives were not "at a sufficiently high level" to compel a wider inquiry - but this would be kept "under review".

The inquest continues.

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