Terence Wheelock: looking for justice

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In June 2005 Terence Wheelock fell into a coma while in custody in a Dublin city centre police station. This 20 year old man never recovered from the injuries he sustained in a police cell and three months later he died. The family and friends of Terence Wheelock are still waiting for a credible and complete account of what happened in the station. This article tells the story of Terence Wheelock, the campaign for an independent inquiry into his death and the response of the the Irish state. A lot of the material used in this article was gathered in interviews with one of his older brothers, Larry Wheelock, who led the campaign looking for an independent inquiry into his Terence Wheelock’s death (21).

So who was Terence Wheelock?
Terence grew up in Dublin as one of the youngest members of a large and tight knit family from the north inner city. He was a lively young man who loved both football and music and was very well liked in his local area. His friends talk about him with great affection and if you walk around area where he spent his youth you will see graffiti, using his nickname Fuzzy, remembering him written on hoardings and street corners.

According to his older brother Larry Wheelock in his early teens he got“in with the wrong crowd”. As a consequence even though Terence “was by no means a hardened criminal” he did end up in and out of trouble over the next few years. His brother says this not only brought him legal difficulties it also meant that the police singled him out on the streets. By the time of his fateful arrest there was little love lost between the police and Terence and Larry Wheelock says that less than two weeks before the gardaí “had hurt his arm badly”.

Late on a sunny morning on the 2nd June 2005 Terence left his house on an errand.  The police arrived on the scene looking for a stolen car on Sean O’Casey Avenue. The robbed car was on the street with a small group of lads around it. Terence was there and arrested with three other young men on suspicion of being involved in the theft of this car. After a scuffle the men were put in a police van and brought into custody to Store Street station in the city centre. Subsequently some of the men would plead guilty to robbing the car but insisted that Terence had not been involved in the robbery.

What happened in Store Street station that afternoon is still not known. What is beyond dispute is that he was put in a cell late that morning and that just under two hours later he was unconscious and very badly injured. He was rushed to hospital but he never recovered consciousness. Terence spent three months in a deep coma before dying in September 2005. The gardaí have always claimed that his injuries were sustained during a suicide attempt when he tried to hang himself.  However, five years after the incident the family have still grave concerns about what took place in that cell.

How the campaign came about
When the family was notified that Terence had allegedly tried to commit suicide his brother Larry’s initial reaction was that  he“didn’t believe it.. I thought Terence might be feigning something after a bad baiting - that he was acting. My ma was worried… she got a mad feeling in her stomach, in her womb, a mad empty feeling is how she described it”. Despite this sense of foreboding and shock  his mother, like the rest of the family were convinced that Terence  had not been suicidal. On the contrary he had been in good form and full of plans for the future in the days before he was taken into Store Street.

In the following days the questions and worries about what had occurred multiplied for the Wheelock family. There had been bloodstains on his clothes and unexplained bruises, cuts and abrasions on his body when they first saw him in hospital. They knew that Terence’s relationship with the police was not good and knew many people who had receiving a beating from the gardaí in similar circumstances.  The behaviour of individual gardaí when they were dealing with family members and a strangely defensive press release from the Garda Press Office about Terence’s hospitalisation created further disquiet in the Wheelcok family. Something was really amiss. The family contacted a lawyer and demanded that photos of the injuries be taken by a hospital photographer (22).

Later they discovered there were anomalies and deletions in Terence’s custody records, and found out that renovations of the cell where he was detained were done a day after he was taken out of Store Street on a stretcher. Accounts given by others arrested and detained with Terence of what they heard and saw on the day intensified the family’s concerns saying that they heard shouts from the cell. Understandably, news that a senior garda, Oliver Hanley, who had previously served in Store Street for over a decade, was going to be responsible for the investigation into what had happened did precious little to allay the stricken family’s fears.

Establishing the Justice for Terence Wheelock campaign
With little trust in police investigating police and no clear answers to the growing number of questions, the family and friends of Terence Wheelock decided to  set up a campaign asking for a independent public inquiry into the case. Within three months they managed to build a well-supported and highly visible justice campaign based in a community that has long suffered from heavy handed policing. From 2005 to 2008 the Justice for Terence Wheelock Campaign tirelessly pushed the case in the media and regularly organised meetings, protests and vigils which drew hundreds of supporters (23). His name became a synonym for police brutality and posters featuring Terence Wheelock’s face became a common sight on Dublin walls and lamposts. This was in spite of the fact that early in the campaign Larry says that he and other Wheelock family members had encountered serious police harassment.

Certainly in the north inner city the relative longevity of the campaign meant that received wisdom about demanding justice from the stateshifted away from a defeatist and pessimistic attitude to the idea that the state and the police can be put under scrutiny. When this is put to Larry he agrees:

“What we have shown is huge.… Even after my family was harassed out of their home, even though I had charges thrown… at me and my brother… we [kept] going.  It has inspired a lot of people to, at the very, very least, complain” about police brutality.

As one of the few sustained community based initiatives in the past decade asking questions about the nature of policing, it also became a reference point for other families who have experienced police brutality across Ireland. This meant that scores of people approached campaign members with stories about mistreatement and harrassment. At the height of the campaign in late 2007 the informal network that had built up between families and campaigns resulted in a high profile public meetings where hundreds of people from all over country discussed Garda brutality (24).

Exhausting all legal avenues and exhausting a campaign
Over the same period the family also fought a legal battle for a full independent inquiry.  This was a gruelling process for the family and included attending a number of sittings at the Coroner’s Court (which is convened to establish the cause of death when it is not clearly of natural causes). Amid controversy in early 2007, a split jury found that Terence died as a result of a suicide attempt. Much to the dissatisfaction of the Wheelock family and their supporters the court refused to accept independent forensic evidence, explain anomalies in garda accounts or admit an independent engineer’s report that found the garda account of events implausible if not impossible.

In July 2007 the newly formed Garda Ombudsman announced it was going to investigate the case “in the public’s interest”. Family members decided to cooperate with the Ombudsman but maintained their call for an independent inquiry for two reasons. Firstly, the family had very little faith in the state after their experience of the garda investigation led by Garda Hanley and after what had transpired at the Coroner’s court. Secondly, the campaign was looking for an inquiry with a broader remit than the Ombudsman’s investigation which would look at events before Terence’s arrest, including patterns in the garda behaviour in the area, and would also examine the claim that family members had been harassed and intimidated after the campaign was established.

Nonetheless, the announcement of the Garda Ombudsman changed the dynamics of the campaign. Despite the fact that the family was ambivalent about the process there was still some residual hope that they would get answers through the official channels. This and the difficulty of sustaining a very active campaign with a small number of part-time organisers and very little resources over a long period meant that the number of public events steadily diminished. Increasingly the campaign was focussed solely on legal and media work. By 2009, although the Wheelock family felt increasingly disconnected from the Ombudsman’s investigation, the absence of a visible campaign meant that many people assumed that the case had been dealt with in a more or less satisfactory way.

In March 2010 the Ombudsman finally published a detailed report on Terence’s case (25). It found 'insufficient evidence' of an assault on Terence Wheelock by the gardaí during the arrest and no 'credible evidence' that he was mistreated in any way during his detention at Store Street Garda Station. The only criticisms made of the gardaí were of the station procedures. While the report does address some of the concerns raised by his family it fails to answer their most serious fears. The greatest weakness of the report is that it consistently takes Garda accounts at face value. The family were shellshocked at the findings and now see the whole process as a complete whitewash. In particular, there are serious concerns that a pattern of Garda brutality in the area has not been taken seriously at all (26). Overall, the Ombudsman report is really far too little and far too late.

Five years on from the death of Terence Wheelock, it now seems like we will never know what happened at Store Street. At this point it is still pertinent to ask why the onus was on a grieving family to point out that the gardaí should not investigate themselves. It is still pertinent to wonder why the concerns of that family, backed up by hospital photos and independent engineering and forensic reports, were not dealt with in any substantive way for four years. In fact, amazingly it was the family who had to justify themselves for asking the questions in the first place and only got a response once they were backed by a large public campaign - a campaign that Larry says discovered that “police brutality is all over the country, it is prevalent and Terence’s story is not shocking to a large proportion of our population”. Finally, it is pertinent to inquire what would have happened if the family had in their grief decided not to ask questions - would Terence Wheelock have been just another anonymous statistic, another young man who died after 'something' happened in custody?
 

WORDS: Garda Research Institute


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21. Much of the material for this article was taken from an extended interview in 2007.  See http://www.wsm.ie/content/interview-larry-wheelock-%E2%80%9Cno-justice-j...
22. Some of the photos of the injuries can be seen online http://www.kenfoxe.com/2010/03/terence-wheelock-and-his-injuries-part-2/.
23. See the Village and Indymedia for a fuller account of the case and the campaign.
24. Meeting in the Royal Dublin Hotel, Dublin on November29 2007 which brought together hundreds of people with statements and interventions from the Wheelocks, Moloneys, the Rossiter family in Clonmel and residents from  Erris. See here for a report http://www.indymedia.ie/article/85288
25. The full GSOC report is here http://www.gardaombudsman.ie/GSOC/Section-102(4)-Mr-Terence-Wheelock.pdf
26. A story looking at the background to the family’s concerns about a pattern in Garda brutality can be accessed here http://thestory.ie/2010/04/13/new-details-relating-to-terence-wheelock-case/

 

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