Family's dismay as events surrounding death of 19-year-old found in River Ribble at Penwortham remain a mystery

The truth about how a teenager drowned in the Ribble Ribble after a night of drug taking will never fully be uncovered, an inquest heard yesterday.

Thursday, 30th January 2020, 6:00 am
Updated Thursday, 30th January 2020, 10:40 am

Michael Brooks, 19, of Preston Foyer in Lawson Street, Preston, went missing in the early hours of Sunday, January 14, 2018, after taking the ‘legal high’ 2CB.

Coroner James Newman heard how a nine-minute gap where Michael was in Avenham Park with a friend cannot be fully explained - and that there was no evidence to support two conclusions options heard in court- that either he was forced into the water at knifepoint, or accidentally fell into the water.

Michael’s body was found three weeks after he went missing, in the River Ribble at Penwortham, following extensive searches by his family, friends, police, fire service and mountain rescue teams.

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Michael Brooks, 19

Preston Coroner’s Court heard that in the hours before he disappeared, Michael had taken Novel Psychogenic Substance called 2CB, which he was seen snorting.

The court heard how he had taken some of the substance before meeting up with friend-of-a-friend Connor Rishton at the Greyfriars pub in Friargate, Preston, in the evening of Saturday, January 13. He then took two more lots of the drug during the course of the evening.

Connor had been at the pub with his ex-partner Georgina Mather, her mother, and his daughter with Georgina. Michael knew Georgina through the Princes Trust, and she suggested he came and met up.

Georgina recalled that Connor had said he was meeting with Michael that evening “to get wasted”, which she took to mean getting drunk. When she discovered he meant drug-taking, she took Michael to one side, and told him “Michael’s not reliable, he won’t keep you safe”.

Michael was described "a happy chappy"

She said Michael reassured her that he was capable of looking after himself, but Georgina told Coroner James Newman that she was worried about Michael was in danger “from Connor himself”.

Explaining this, she described incidents of physical violence and name-calling in their relationship, which had come to an end, and “explicit messages” she was aware an ex-girlfriend of Connor had been sending to Michael.

Unaware of the conversation between Georgina and Michael, Connor left the pub with Michael, telling the court they took a ‘key’ of powdered 2CB on their journey from the pub towards Connor’s flat in Ingol, as “we thought it would be a fun journey”.

But Connor reacted badly to the drug, experiencing muscle tightening and vomiting, with Michael forced to get a soft drink from a takeaway that he poured into Connor’s mouth.

Michael's friends and family hold a remembrance event at the park

After this, the men caught a bus toward Ingol, to collect Connor’s ID for stay at Michael’s flat, but left the bus after Michael started hallucinating.

After walking the rest of the journey to Connor’s flat in Ingol, and then back to Michael’s flat at Preston Foyer in Lawson Street, Preston, the men met up with two other friends at around 11.30pm.

Connor said: “In the flat it (the drug) had started to wear off, so we took some more, but we started throwing up, the trip had hit straight away.”

He added that “Michael didn’t like to be inside while tripping” and “couldn’t wait” to get out of the flat.

Michael's family say they will always have questions

Connor said: “Michael said he was going to go and I didn’t think it was a good idea to go alone.”

Connor said he went after Michael, who, due to the drug, felt like he was being tied up by the string on his room key.The pair started to walk off in the direction of Avenham Park, where Michael was known to enjoy watching the stars at night.

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Connor said: “He kept running off and I had to run to catch up with him”.

On their journey he said they stopped briefly in Cheapside and then Winckley Square to talk, with a pattern of Michael running away and being caught up by Connor.

Inside Avenham Park they descended steps towards the fountain, where Connor said Michael stopped in front of a hedge.

He said: “I assumed his trip made it seem bigger. I got down there, near the bandstand, to help him round. When I got round it, I couldn’t see Michael anymore.”

He added: “I looked around but it was dark and I kept hearing things like manic laughter, so I panicked. I couldn’t see him anywhere.”

Connor said he thinks he saw one person sat on a bench in the park, and two people walking past, who appeared to be his ex-partner and her new boyfriend, but due to the drug-taking, their faces were distorted.

Cold and anxious, he said he then left the park to return to the flats, which he thought Michael would seek out.

CCTV footage shows a nine minute period between Michael and Connor walking into the park together and Connor walking out alone.

On returning to the Preston Foyer, he told the manager on reception he had lost Michael, but said that after her face “turned into a gargoyle”, he left the building and went to his sister’s house, where an ambulance was called and he was hospitalised for checks until 10am the following day.

Miss Mather said Connor visited her home to see their daughter in the afternoon of Saturday, January 14 and was struck by how he said he could be charged with involuntary manslaughter if Michael was found dead, as the last person to see him.

She said: “I thought it was strange because Michael hadn’t been found and Connor was talking about manslaughter and murder charges”.

The court heard that two people - Kerry McWilliam and Thomas Francis - were in the park in the early hours of that morning, and reported that they heard a splash in the water between 1am and 2am, but that their judgement had been clouded by drink and drug taking.

A statement by Kerry said that she heard splashing around at around 1.30am opposite her when she was sitting on the south bank of the river at Penwortham.

She also describes “mumbling” and that she and Thomas had gone over the tram bridge and used the torch lights on their phones to look for a silhouette figure waist-height they thought they had seen in the river, but to no avail.

A statement by Michael’s friend Kurt Gregson was read to the court, describing how he had become worried about Michael’s whereabouts in the early hours of the morning, and checked the Foyer several times before heading to bed.

Michael’s disappearance was reported to the police at 11.30am that morning by Zoe Robinson, project worker at Preston Foyer, who was approached by a group of Michael’s friends, including Connor.

She said: “They were all quite concerned. Their behaviour alerted me because one doesn’t move without the other one behind.”

A police search of Avenham Park and the river was started soon afterwards, involving drones, boats and emergency service personnel on foot.

The court heard that it wasn’t until Michael’s mother Joanne Brooks reported seeing something suspicious in the water at the river at Penwortham on February 5 that a police boat was sent out and Michael’s body was discovered the next day, partially submerged and caught on a tree.

Dr Helen Stringfellow, a pathologist at the Royal Preston Hospital, stated that the cause of death was drowning.

She said he had fluid in his lungs and in his stomach that was consistent with ingesting fluid.Urine and blood toxicology tests showed a presence of 2CB, which Dr Stringfellow described as a psychogenic drug with similar properties to LSD.

She said it has hallucinogenic properties that may last for several hours, reaching their peak one to three hours after being taken.She said there was no evidence of injuries to his body.

The court also heard hearsay evidence of Jodie Addison, who reported to police that her friend, Megan Drury, had told her that Michael was unlawfully killed.

A statement by Jodie said Megan had a friend referred to only as X, and he said he was behind Michael’s disappearance.The statement said Jodie had been told that Michael had got into a drugs debt with a local gang, and that when he was in Avenham Park on the evening of his disappearance, he had met two members of the gang - X and Y.

She said she was told that when Michael said he couldn’t pay the debt, X said he would stab Michael, or he would be pushed into the river.

According to Jodie, Megan told her that Y pushed Michael into the river at knifepoint, crying as he did so.

A statement to court by Megan denied that she made any such disclosure or had any such conversation and residential care home records show that Y had signed in at 12.42am, having been with his girlfriend earlier in the evening.

Detective Inspector Nick Hill, who lead the police investigation, said there was “no corroborative evidence” linking X and Y to Michael’s disappearance, and nothing to suggest a third-party involvement in his death.

In a statement to the court by Joanne Brooks, where she described him as “my absolute world”, she said: “I can’t accept he has gone and we have no answers.”

Adding: “Michael would never have gone into the water through his own choosing.”How is it he goes into the park with someone he has known only for a couple of hours and is pulled out of the river weeks later and nobody thinks it’s suspicious?

”I’m not a crazy mum looking for closure, I’m a heartbroken mum looking for answers”.

Recording an open verdict, Mr Newman said: “With all the will in the world, I don’t think we’ll ever get all the answers because of where it happened.”

He added: “It is not safe to return an accidental verdict, and no evidence for unlawful killing.”He reassured the family he thought Michael would have passed quickly, due to the conditions, with little suffering.

Experts estimate the temperature of the water would have been between five and 10 degrees Celsius, likely to have resulted in Cold Water Shock, which affects breathing and a person’s ability to swim.