A MAN who died in the back of a police van had been gassed by officers minutes earlier, an inquest heard.
The identity of those involved in the arrest and death of Seaham grandad Leonard McCourt will remain a secret, after North Durham Coroner Andrew Tweddle granted them anonymity in the hearing.
Mr Tweddle refused to say why the four police officers cannot be named, but he told the inquest jury the officers would be referred to as A, B, C and D, and give their evidence from behind a screen.
The first day of the inquest at the Coroners’ Court in Crook Civic Centre was told Mr McCourt, 44, was arrested outside his home in Ash Crescent, on September 11, 2010, after a member of the public dialled 999.
Detective Superintendent Darren Ellis, of Durham police’s professional standards department, said: “The caller reported a man outside in Ash Crescent, Seaham, who was shouting and swearing, and who appeared quite drunk,
“He was also kicking the door of the empty house next to his own.
“The call was given top priority and the first officers were on the scene within five minutes.
“There are no cells in Seaham police station, which means an arrested person would be taken to Peterlee.”
Mr Tweddle told the jury other witnesses, including the four officers, will give their accounts of the arrest later in the hearing, which is expected to last about two weeks. He said evidence would be given which showed Mr McCourt was subdued by using some sort of spray.
Mr McCourt’s brother Launzie said: “My brother was a really nice bloke who was always there if you needed him.
“I’ve heard it bandied about that the police might have formed an adverse impression of him, but I don’t know how.
“He was a big man, about 6ft 4ins, and could be boisterous when he’d had a drink, but I never had an argument with him and the fact that 300 people turned up for his funeral tells you he was well-liked.”
The inquest heard Mr McCourt suffered from depression and was in the voluntary care of the community psychiatric nursing team.
“There were times when he would drink excessively as a means of trying to cope with his problems,” said nurse Robert Redfern, who dealt with Mr McCourt in the years leading to his death.
“He admitted to me he would sometimes get involved in fights, but I never felt any threat or hostility from him.”