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Man who died after swallowing ounce of cocaine was inadequately searched by police, jury concludes

PUBLISHED: 16:49 01 April 2019 | UPDATED: 16:49 01 April 2019

Suffolk Coroners Court in Ipswich Picture: ADAM HOWLETT

Suffolk Coroners Court in Ipswich Picture: ADAM HOWLETT

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Suffolk Police say they look to learn from cases where they could do better after a man died from swallowing an ounce of cocaine following an "insufficient" search by officers.

Lee Sparks, 26, of West Street, Icklingham, died on Christmas Eve, 2015, after he was detained at Tesco supermarket in Fordham Road, Newmarket on suspicion of shoplifting.

An inquest last week concluded he had died after swallowing an ounce of cocaine to avoid facing prosecution, and that failures in communication lead to an “inadequate search” of Mr Sparks before he ingested the drugs.

The jury had heard that Mr Sparks was detained at around 5.45pm on December 24, 2015, by staff who suspected he had committed a shoplifting offense two days earlier.

Up to nine people, including members of the public, helped restrain Mr Sparks before officers from Suffolk police arrived at the scene.

Summing up the evidence, area coroner Jacqueline Devonish said staff members at Tesco had told the jury they had seen a package poking out of Mr Sparks’ pocket, which they believed to contain a white powder, while he was being restrained.

One staff member told the jury he was “100% sure” he had seen the package.

Those helping to restrain Mr Sparks noted that he has been unsteady on his feet and red-eyed at the time, believing he may have been under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

When officers arrived, Mr Sparks was placed into handcuffs and taken over to a police van and searched.

At one point, officers said they had asked him to open his mouth so they could check if he had anything stored in there, but he refused.

When they reached Bury St Edmunds Police Investigation Centre, he was searched again, but nothing was found.

Mr Sparks then informed officers that he was feeling unwell and had swallowed an ounce of cocaine.

He was rushed to the Accident and Emergency department at West Suffolk Hospital in Bury St Edmunds but soon after getting there he suffered a fit.

Medical staff spent more than an hour trying to revive Mr Sparks before he was pronounced dead.

Following five days of evidence, a jury concluded that he died as a result of misadventure, giving a narrative conclusion.

They said: “The misadventure being that Lee Sparks ingested an ounce of cocaine in order to avoid detention and arrest for possession of an illegal substance.

“This was possible due to the failure to share information and inadequate communication to police officers in relation to the suspicion of a drugs package in Lee’s possession by a police officer on the scene.

“This lead to the inadequate search of Lee’s possessions, clothing, person and the surrounding area in order to locate the suspicious package.”

A spokesman for Suffolk Police said: “As a force, we continuously review our procedures to make sure we provide the best quality service to the public and ensure that our procedures are fully compliant with national protocols in such circumstances.

“Where we could have done things better, we will look to learn from those cases and, where appropriate, make suitable changes.”

Following the conclusion of the inquest, Mr Sparks family said: “Lee was our loving son. He is deeply missed every day by his family and friends.

“The jury concluded that police officers failed to do their job properly and as a result Lee died.

“Their conclusion confirms what we have always believed.

“We hope no other family has to go through what we have suffered over the last three years.”

A Tesco spokesman added: “We are saddened by the tragic death of Mr Sparks and send our condolences to his family and friends.

“We have fully assisted the coroner with their enquiries.”

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