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Stefan Sutherland: The Unanswered Questions

by | Thursday, 9th November 2017
Twenty-five-year-old Stefan Sutherland went missing on the evening of Friday 6th and Saturday 7th September 2013. He was last seen alive at a house in Shelligoe Road in the Caithness town of Lybster. His body was found ten days later on the shoreline at nearby Occumster Beach, just below the farm of his parents Sandy and Sandra, in the bare and beautiful Caithness coast.

Four years have passed since these tragic events. Stefan now rests in a carefully tended little graveyard, a few miles from where he was found. Like the farm where he grew up, it sits amongst the green fields of Caithness and looks out to sea. As yet, there is no gravestone; for the date of his death remains officially unknown.

View from Occumster towards Lybster

View from Occumster towards Lybster and North Sea

The questions raised by this case are many. The official responses have the monotonous tone of bureaucratic denial; familiar to all those who ask important questions of the authorities in Scotland. Some of the most important areas of uncertainty are explored in this article. This brief overview is far from exhaustive, but it is, however, sufficient to show why we should all be concerned by the events in Caithness in 2013, and by the response of the Police and Crown Office in the years following Stefan Sutherland’s death. 

What was the cause of death?

A preliminary external examination of the body by Dr Rosslyn Rankin found major head injury consistent with a fall from height and no findings to suggest foul play.

The first detailed answer to this question was given by Dr Natasha Inglis of the Department of Pathology in Raigmore Hospital, Inverness in a report dated 8th October 2013. It was “Head Injury due to (or as a consequence of) fall from cliff”. This was subsequently corrected on 19th December to read “Head Injury consistent with fall from height”. The description of the location where the body was found was subtly corrected from “on a stone beach at the base of cliffs” to “on a beach at the high tide mark”. The implication of the first report was that Stefan had died at Occumster, falling down the cliff to the spot where he was found. The second version implied a fall at some place unknown, into the sea, to be washed up at Occumster. The body was found around 50-70 m from the base of the cliff. In the following photograph, the shadow of the photographer is falling on approximately the spot where the body was found. It is clear that the original description “at the base of cliffs” was at odds with the facts.

Occumster Beach

Toxicology reports confirmed that Stefan had been drinking alcohol on the night he disappeared. Tests for a range of drugs were all negative.

A further supplementary report was issued on 9th April 2014, it included the sentence “this case has been reviewed and discussed with Dr R Rankin who feels the amount of fluid in the lungs and pleural cavities is consistent with drowning”.

On April 15th 2014, Marjorie Turner, Consultant Forensic Pathologist at The University of Glasgow, who was instructed by lawyers acting on behalf of the Sutherland family, issued a report based on a review of the existing autopsy records and related documents. This pointed out certain errors and omissions in the records, including the confusion of left and right. Ms. Turner notes that, from the evidence obtainable from the autopsy, it is not possible to exclude other causes of death, such as assault.

A year after the autopsy, on 27th October 2014, a further version of the pathology report was issued. This incorporated all previous comments and concluded that the cause of death was than less certain: “…there are also findings present highly suggestive of drowning. A head injury of this severity would have been rapidly fatal however death is rarely instantaneous and drowning could have been the terminal event”.

So now there are two official causes of death, a head injury and (perhaps) drowning afterwards. It should be noted that the head injury was of such severity that half of the top part of the skull and brain were both missing, and the body had to be identified using dental records.

When did Stefan die?

Stefan visited the pub in the Bayview Hotel in Lybster on Friday 6th. Timelines from witnesses are somewhat confused, but he left, it seems, just after midnight. He then went to Shelligoe Road; a short walk of no more than ten minutes.

Bayview Hotel, Lybster

Police Scotland confirm that “Alcohol levels are, in the main, preserved at the time of death. It is possible by comparing the difference between the blood/alcohol and urine/alcohol levels to obtain an indication of when Stefan’s last alcoholic drink was taken. The toxicologiost has reported that the ratio of urine to blood alcohol concentrations (1.25:1) indicates that Stefan was still just within the absorptive phase of alcohol consumption, suggesting that the last drink could be estimated to have been taken within 30-45 mins of death”.

Thus within 20-35 mins of arriving at Shelligoe Road, Stefan was dead. It therefore seems that he died on Saturday 7th September 2013.

The official death certificate does not reflect this; it merely states “found dead 2013 September Seventeenth 12:15 hours”.

Where did Stefan die?

Stefan, Police Scotland have stated, “died in the sea”. In other words he was alive when he entered the ocean. How, why and where he got in the sea has been the subject of considerable theorising.

From an early stage in the investigation, there seemed to be an assumption by Police Scotland that this was a case of suicide. A picture was painted of an unhappy, depressed young man without money, prospects or friends. Information was gathered from a few witnesses and carefully selected Facebook posts to substantial this narrative. However, the picture revealed by his family and friends is not consistent with this account. On the contrary, Stefan, it seems, was a charming, popular and extravert young man. He was the fans' choice for Player of the Year at Helmsdale Football Club. He was making plans for his future and was just about to start a major project: building a family home with his father. So many came to the funeral that the church was too small to hold them. One of the mourners wrote the following in the book of condolences: ”The Only man who could truly charm the birds out the trees. Will never forget you, love Angela xxx”. His medical history was free from depression or other mental illness and he was not taking any anti-depressant medication. All in all, his character seems impossible to reconcile with the police portrayal of suicide.

An accidental fall from a cliff was also the focus of much police speculation. They surmised that a shortcut home along the cliffs had gone tragically wrong. However, the land in question is extremely challenging, with steep-sided rivers cutting through to the sea, fences (some electrified), rough ground and no recognised path. In daylight this “shortcut" route takes almost twice as long as walking on the road. On a moonless night, such as the one on which Stefan disappeared, it would be almost impossible. Under this analysis, the accidental explanation melted away.

Phases of Moon, September 2013

Is there reason to suspect foul play?

Amongst the last people to see Stefan alive was a man we will call Witness D. There was history between Witness D and Stefan. On June 17th 2012, Witness D had viciously attacked Stefan with knuckle dusters at his house in Shelligoe Road. Stefan was rendered unconscious and taken by ambulance to Caithness General Hospital. The police have stated that “following a full investigation into this incident, Witness D was subject of a report to the Procurator Fiscal (PF)”. No prosecution followed: there has been no explanation as to why no action was taken against Witness D in connection with this assault.

Police Scotland have “learnt that Stefan entered the dwelling (of Witness D in Shelligoe Road) of his own accord” on the night of his death. How they learned this, and from whom, is not revealed.

Shelligoe Road

Police Scotland have also stated that Witness D boarded a fishing boat called 'Kingfisher' at Scrabster on Monday 9th September 2013. They interviewed the captain of the vessel, who confirmed that Witness D had joined the crew on that date. Publicly available plots of the boat’s progress show it heading north from Scrabster and returning to port on September 15th, two days before Stefan’s body was found. Police Scotland spoke to Witness D and obtained his statement on Sunday 15th.

In addition to the assault, which was the subject of a report to the PF, Witness D made threats to kill Stefan.  Furthermore, police liaison officers stated that cleaning and changes to furnishings at Witness D’s house in Shelligoe Road, which took place in the short time between two visits by investigating officers, were sufficient to make them suspicious.

When Stefan’s family and friends called for the house in Shelligoe Road to be forensically examined, Police Scotland initially responded that a search would require a search warrant; they considered that there were no reasonable grounds to apply for a warrant. When it was pointed out that Witness D had moved from the property, and that it was unoccupied, permission was obtained from the local authority to conduct a search “on an informal basis”. The search was made on 28th January 2014 and the report provided to the Sutherland family more than a year later, on 12th February 2015.

The forensic samples from the house in Shelligoe Road included one from a swab of a blood stain on the living room wall. DNA testing identified this as Stefan’s blood.

Police Scotland explained the presence of Stefan’s blood as follows: “As you are aware, Stefan was injured at that address in an assault that took place on 17th June 2012. It is not possible to age the blood stain that was recovered and therefore it is not possible to exclude the possibility that the blood stain was deposited in the living room in that earlier incident.”

Is there another explanation?

The police state that Stefan died in the sea. But there seems another plausible explanation; that Stefan died in Shelligoe Road.

He was seen entering the road; but not seen leaving. Within half an hour of arriving at Shelligoe Road he was dead. Shelligoe Road was the home of the man who had viciously attacked Stefan just over a year before, and who had subsequently made threats on his life. Could Police Scotland really not justify applying for a search warrant under such circumstances?

What can be done now?

The question of what can be done four years after the events of September 2013 brings us back to the multiple pathology reports and their admitted errors. For there seems to be two clear alternatives, either:

Stefan died in the sea as the police have stated, and was in the sea for ten days from 7th to 17th

or

Stefan was murdered and his body concealed. Under this scenario, it was placed in the sea much later, perhaps on 15th or 16th. Therefore the body may have spent only two days in the sea, and eight decomposing on land.

The sea is cold and salty. Both of these factors preserve tissue. Could a suitably qualified forensic specialist differentiate between these two scenarios using the data gathered in the original post mortem? If they could, it may show whether Police Scotland need to open a murder investigation and the Crown Office need to reverse their decision that there is “no public interest” in a holding a (discretionary) Fatal Accident Inquiry.

An appeal for information

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