Stephen Bennett inquest - open verdict
THE death of Stephen Bennett, who was found hanged from a mango tree in a remote part of India, remains a mystery, a coroner has ruled.
The 40-year-old travelled to Mumbai for a two-week winter break, but was found dead 75 miles away in jungle near the town of Roha, off the tourist trail.
Before he was discovered on December 11 2006, the former actor from Cheltenham phoned his family to say he feared for his safety.
Gloucestershire coroner Alan Crickmore said the case was "full of holes" because of his legal inability to compel foreign witnesses to give evidence at the inquest. He delivered an open verdict.
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British Home Office pathologist Dr Stephen Leadbeatter, who examined the father-of-two's embalmed body, found the most likely cause of his death was hanging.
But he said he could not tell how Mr Bennett, who had recently split from his partner, had come to be hanging in a strip of jungle.
The coroner said he was satisfied that when Mr Bennett flew out to Goa with two friends – to scatter another person's ashes – he had not gone there because he was being threatened.
But he had no way of knowing what led up to the death of Mr Bennett.
The coroner told the inquest in Shire Hall, Gloucester: "It is more likely than not Mr Bennett went there effectively on holiday after the break-up of a relationship.
"The evidence of his GP suggests that whereas he had suffered from depression when there had been critical incidents in his life, there is no medical evidence to suggest he was predisposed to killing himself.
"Having said that, it seems to me to be clear that when Mr Bennett was found hanged one possible explanation on the pathological evidence is that he hanged himself.
"However it is equally the case that, on the pathological evidence I've got, I cannot exclude the possibility that he was killed. He may have been killed then hanged, he may have been hanged to kill him.
"It is conceivable, but hard to justify that somehow this was a terrible accident."
After the case Det Insp Steve Bean, of Gloucestershire police, confirmed that six men arrested in India on suspicion of murder had pleaded not guilty and were due to stand trial.
They are currently on bail and no date has been fixed.
Mr Bennett's father Carol (above) said after the case: "I am disappointed and was hoping for a verdict of unlawful killing."
Mr Bennett's sister Amanda has claimed that gangsters in the region may have ordered her brother's death as a warning to two other men who owed a drug debt of more than £40,000. His family have also criticised Indian police over their handling of the investigation into his death and have claimed that there has been a cover-up by local officials.
The inquest heard that Indian police first thought Mr Bennett's death was suicide because he had left his wallet behind with £300 inside.
His family told officers they would not accept that as he was "not that type".
Later, investigators claimed that Mr Bennett was murdered, at one point reportedly working on a theory that hysterical villagers had killed him after a woman feared a sexual advance.
Mr Bennett died less than a fortnight after British charity worker Mike Blakey, 23, was killed in Dharamsala.
The Foreign Office has said more than 600,000 British tourists visit India every year and most journeys are still trouble-free.
This week, the Indian government insisted that sex attacks on foreign tourists were being taken seriously, following the release of a rapist on bail after serving three months of a 21-year jail sentence.