John Merrick, 32, was a young businessman who had everything to live for
New father supposedly jumped 30ft from a lonely railway bridge and died
His parents insist their son did not die by accident but was a murder victim
From the very start, it was an ‘accidental’ death that just didn’t add up. A young businessman with a fiancee and baby son, a man who had everything to live for, supposedly jumped 30ft into the darkness from a lonely railway bridge to meet a terrible end on the tracks below.
The questions began within hours. Yet nearly three years later, amid the tangle of confused and confusing claims, only one thing remains clear – that this is a very peculiar tragedy, a real-life box-set mystery with a compelling cast of characters.
First there is the victim. John Merrick, 32, was the proprietor of a thriving Birmingham tyre business, with a close-knit family and a wide circle of friends, all of whom were devastated by his death. He had just become a father for the first time, and adored his baby boy.
There are his parents, Paul and Julie Merrick. Having started out as a chef, Paul built up several successful car firms, including Britain’s biggest dealership for unusual number plates. They insist their son did not die by accident, let alone suicide, but as a victim of a carefully executed murder.
There is John’s fiancee, Hayley Taroni, 34, and her father, Russell, a scrap metal millionaire who lives in a magnificent country mansion, Haselour Hall in Staffordshire.
There are the Staffordshire and British Transport Police forces, which Paul and Julie Merrick insist missed vital evidence.
Finally there are Sue Arnold, Staffordshire’s Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner, and her son Jon, a friend of John Merrick. He told police he had heard ‘rumours’ that John was stabbed – but refused to make a statement. He was at the scene of John’s death early the following morning and went on to the railway line.
It is a drama that features a battle over the corpse, a fire-bombed funeral parlour and a will that – if it is to be believed – was signed on Christmas Day.
Trying to make sense of it all are John’s grief-stricken parents.
‘Our lives came to an end that night, too,’ Paul said yesterday. ‘It still feels that everything that gave us meaning and purpose has gone.
‘We might be in pieces, but the more we’ve asked questions, the more suspicious we’ve become.’
The Mail on Sunday has carried out its own investigation and can reveal that:
Last night the Merricks’ solicitor, Neil Ross, of leading Birmingham firm Glaisyers, called on police to open a murder inquiry. ‘The evidence now suggests this was homicide,’ he said. ‘This was not an accident.’
The first Paul and Julie knew of their devastating loss came with a phone call from John’s fiancee, Hayley, at 1.30am on September 7, 2013. She had already called two hours earlier to say she was getting worried because John hadn’t returned to the house they shared with their son in the Staffordshire village of Clifton Campville.
They listened in horror via Hayley’s mobile, which she had switched to speakerphone, as a policeman knocked on her door, asked her to sit down, then related the dreadful news that a car had hit the side of a railway bridge on a lonely country lane, and a body – thought to be John’s – had been found lying next to the track, 30ft below.
From the outset, the police treated his death as a bizarre but tragic accident, an approach echoed by the local coroner, who held a short, formal inquest and recorded a verdict of accidental death.
John had one-and-a-half times the legal limit of alcohol in his blood, and having hit the bridge – a low-speed impact that caused little damage – he had, inexplicably, vaulted over its side. The coroner concluded that, plummeting on to the track, he had then been run over by a train and killed.
John was following in his father’s footsteps as a motor trade entrepreneur. He had moved in with Hayley and they were engaged. Hayley, who had a son from a previous relationship, gave birth to their son in December 2012.
Yet his parents and his friends say he seemed fearful. Ken Seal, who used to see John at least once a week, said: ‘For several weeks before he died, something was wrong. He seemed nervous, edgy, on his guard. But there’s no way he would have committed suicide in a million years.’
Late on September 2, the Monday before John died, Dave Golding, a Merrick family friend, was disturbed by a knock on his door on the outskirts of Tamworth. It was John.
‘He was out of breath and frightened out of his mind. He said some unsavoury characters – he wouldn’t say who – had been chasing him and tried to run him off the road. He’d managed to drive into a field and hid the car behind a hedge, then ran to my house.
‘He spent the night here and in the morning I took him back to his car. There was spilled takeaway food all over the inside: it had been hurled around during the chase.’
After work on the Friday, John borrowed a red Ford Fiesta from a friend, and met another friend, Nigel Keenan, at a pub on the outskirts of Birmingham. ‘We had a hilarious time,’ says Mr Keenan. ‘When we parted, he said he was going to get a Chinese takeaway and go home. You don’t buy a Chinese and then commit suicide, do you?’
In fact, John stopped for a further drink at a pub in Shenstone, near Lichfield, and picked up a takeaway from the Chinese restaurant nearby. He left at 10pm. At 10.10pm, he spoke to Hayley by phone for two and a half minutes. According to her statement to police, the call ended when he said: ‘I’ve got to go, I’ve got a problem.’ Less than an hour later, he was dead.
For Paul and Julie Merrick, the blows continued. The following week, they approached the Sutton Coldfield branch of undertakers Ian Hazel, and asked them to organise the funeral. When the firm contacted the hospital where John’s body had been taken, it was told his remains had already been released to another funeral home in Tamworth – on the instructions of Hayley and her father, who were apparently planning the funeral themselves.
After the Merricks threatened legal action, John’s body was released, and the Merricks organised his funeral. Some months later, Ian Hazel’s offices were gutted in an arson attack. The crime is still unsolved.
Initially, Ian Hazel was told by Hayley that John had left no will. But the next day, one arrived by fax, sent by a solicitor. John’s signature on the will bore little resemblance to the one he used on other documents seen by this newspaper, including his passport. Moreover, the will was dated Christmas Day, 2012.
‘Who makes a will on Christmas Day?’ asked Mr Merrick.
He also noticed that the Lawpack will form stated it was ‘copyright 2013’. It also bore a serial number. Lawpack’s head of printing told The Mail on Sunday: ‘That code indicates that the form was printed in (and available from) January 2013.’ The Merricks complained to police, alleging the will was a forgery. The Crown Prosecution Service decided to take no action but an appeal is pending.
The row over the will drove Paul and Julie to question everything they were being told about John’s death.
The mysteries kept on surfacing. For example, the bridge where John died was not on any conceivable route between the Chinese takeaway and the house he shared with Hayley. To drive to the bridge would have involved a lengthy detour. Two witnesses told police they came upon John’s Fiesta, skewed across the road at an angle of 45 degrees to the parapet. There was no street lighting, but they said they saw a man get out and vault over the bridge, and later, after several trains had passed, the same man lying close to the line.
Yet there were contradictions between their first and later statements. For example, one witness said the man got out of the passenger door – implying a second person must have been driving.
One of them said the man who jumped was several inches taller than his own height, 5ft 10in – but John was 5ft 7in. The other witness described him as wearing grey tracksuit bottoms and a white T-shirt, yet John was dressed in a burgundy shirt with cufflinks, a padded jacket, and jeans.
The witnesses said they saw two other men at the other scene, and had an altercation with them. They have not been identified.
Central to the coroner’s finding of accidental death was the post mortem, conducted at Heartlands Hospital in Birmingham, which concluded that John suffered ‘multiple fatal injuries in keeping with train accident’.
But although John had supposedly been killed by a high-speed train, photos taken by Paul Merrick the following morning show there was almost no blood on the track.
Moreover, the paramedic who tried to treat John said there was ‘no bleeding’ from his deep cuts, though when he and his colleague tried to resuscitate him, they had to administer intravenous saline because there was so little fluid in his body.
Mr Merrick says: ‘If his blood was not on the track or in his body, where had it gone?
‘I believe he must have bled out after being attacked somewhere else – and then was dragged to the railway to make it look like an accident.’ There was no oil on the track, as found on his body. This must have come from somewhere else, Mr Merrick said – perhaps where he was attacked. The Merricks gave the report to Home Office forensic pathologist Dr Calder.
His report states: ‘The overall pattern of injuries do not form… a pattern which would accord with being struck by a moving train’, while some of John’s injuries were caused by ‘a sharp instrument’, including his forearm wounds which were apparently ‘defensive in nature’.
Furthermore, John’s injuries ‘do not relate to being caused by a fall from a considerable height’.
Dr Calder told The Mail on Sunday: ‘If he had jumped or was pushed from such a height, you would expect his legs to be broken – probably his femurs, and maybe his pelvis, as well as his lower legs. I’ve seen quite a few collisions with trains, and they are pretty destructive… You would expect there to be a lot of blood around. This just doesn’t add up.’ He called on the police to exhume John’s remains.
Exasperated by what they viewed as police incompetence, the Merricks made a formal complaint. It was dealt with internally by Staffordshire Police, and rejected.
A letter to the Merricks from the British Transport Police last year added it would ‘not be beneficial’ to exhume John’s body. It also stated there was ‘no evidence’ to support the claim that he was murdered.
Adding to the sense of drama is an unusual connection to Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner Mrs Arnold, through her son Jon. One of her jobs is to monitor complaints against the police.
Jon had known John and Hayley. Early in the morning on the day after John died, the Merricks drove to the bridge and found Jon and a friend there. Mr Merrick said he seemed to be ‘looking for something’ on the line and embankment. Jon told police that Mr Merrick had asked him to go to look for John’s wallet – a claim Mr Merrick vehemently denies.
A police document seen by this newspaper – a witness statement by a detective constable on the case – records that Jon Arnold said in the presence of his mother that he had ‘heard rumours the deceased may have been stabbed multiple times’. But he declined to make a statement, saying – without further explanation – he was ‘concerned about the repercussions he might suffer’.
Paul Merrick is desperate for answers. ‘I don’t know who killed my son, or why. But however long this takes, we won’t give up. If anyone knows anything, I beg them to please contact us via The Mail on Sunday.’ He said he would pay a £100,000 reward for information that solved the mystery.
Last night Hayley Taroni refused to comment. Her father Russell said he would double the reward for information to £200,000, but added he did not believe John was murdered. He said he had ‘no idea’ why the dates on the will appeared confusing, adding: ‘All I do know is that he didn’t have two baked beans to rub together. He owed me £20,000.’
British Transport Police said its enquiries had found no evidence of third-party involvement.
Mrs Arnold, who is coincidentally a neighbour of Mr Taroni, said: ‘I knew John and was fond of him. My sympathies are, and always have been, with John’s family.
‘In the light of the new findings, I’m sure the police will want to consider instigating a measured and appropriate case review in order to uncover if, in fact, a crime has been committed and gone undetected.’