A Mother’s fight for Justice

By Anne Sebba, T2, The Times, 24 August 2010

When Sheila Blanco walks out on stage next month she will need every ounce of performing courage for which even her training as a classical pianist at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama forty years ago could never have prepared her. She will tell the audience at a benefit evening at London’s Bloomsbury Theatre why, after nearly four years, two police investigations and an inquest, she believes no one has yet been charged with the murder of her son, Mark, and why the family has to raise money to pursue its own investigations. Far from crumbling after years of campaigning, Sheila is relentless in her search for the truth. “The more facts I learn the more profoundly I feel the enormous injustice of it all,” she says gearing up for the event. “I believe it’s a matter of time until someone cracks under the pressure.”

On December 3rd, 2006 Mark Blanco, 30, a Cambridge graduate, was thrown out of a party attended by the singer Pete Doherty and hosted by the star’s self-appointed ‘literary’ agent, Paul Roundhill, a one-time crack cocaine user whose squalid East London flat, known as the “Hotel of the Sky”, briefly became a mecca for fans keen to catch a glimpse of the rock star. Mark’s body was found in the street below. Yet the street was at no time cordoned off as a crime scene and at 4.19 am, less than 4 hours after the alleged fall, the scene of the crime was declared “non suspicious.” Vital evidence was lost as forensics were not taken of Mark’s clothes nor from inside the flat. This would have been ‘a waste of police resources,’ Mark’s younger sister, violinist Emma Blanco, was told. CCTV footage, not downloaded for several days, of which Sheila has a copy, shows Doherty and friends walking past the body going on to another party. Not one of them went to his aid. Mark was left dying in the street. Within days, the detective in charge of the case told Mark’s family he was “98% sure that Mark jumped and was not forced over the railing.” Yet the coroner at the inquest at Poplar Coroners Court in October, 2007, Dr Andrew Reid totally rejected what Sheila Blanco calls an ‘insulting’ theory that Mark committed suicide and declared an open verdict.

“From the moment I, rather than the police, found Mark’s left glasses’ lens, near the gutter where his body was found, I felt sick at all the irregularities,” says Sheila.

Every day since then, appalled by what she describes as flaws in the investigation, Sheila has fought to secure justice for Mark even paying for private investigations. “I will never rest until someone is brought to justice. I just don’t think people should get away with murder. Within hours of Mark’s death, I was taken up to the flat by two policemen. In the lift they told me it was a well known drug dealer’s flat which had been operating for twenty five years. ‘Why don’t you shut them down?’ I asked. Oh you can’t because another one would just open up. That was my first shock,” Sheila recalls.

In the hospital Intensive Care Unit she asked the police to photograph Mark’s right black eye. Told it was not necessary, she steeled herself to take a photo on her daughter’s mobile phone. Emma asked about her brother’s missing watch and was told he was not wearing it. But when the watch appeared in an officer’s locker eleven days later along with Mark’s glasses, Sheila knew it was time to act.

“Sheila Blanco may not be unique – there have always been campaigning mothers,” says the Blanco family lawyer, Michael Wolkind QC. “But she has some very special qualities such as resilience, articulacy and determination. At the same time she is not obsessive. She has a life and has continued working throughout.” Now in her early sixties, she still teaches piano and lectures in English to international students at Guildford College. In 1971 she married Antonio Blanco Santiago, an accountant, but they divorced in 1987, after which she was a single mother. Both children were then brought up in Guildford, in the house where she still lives and where one room is now devoted to documents about Case 748. Most days Sheila hears from someone who knew Mark or who has information for the website she has set up:

Although she admits to feeling the strain – she broke her toe a few days ago and has not had time to have it strapped – she just carries on. “I can’t afford to breakdown now. I grew up an only child,” she explains. “After my father left home my mother, also a teacher, and the other women in the family always had to be strong.”

But while the campaign is driven by Sheila’s determination as Mark’s father lives in Spain and has had two heart attacks since 2006, both parents constantly support each other. “Mark’s grandfather fought in the Spanish Civil War and went to prison for his beliefs. Mark inherited some of that spirit and was always railing against injustice in his many essays. He was two thirds through a book at the time of his death.”

Sheila is searingly honest about her son, insisting that “just because somebody has died, they shouldn’t be turned into angels.” But, she admits, he was “very bright, a one off.” He could read before he was three, won a scholarship to the Royal Grammar School in Guildford where he skipped a year and then read philosophy at Trinity College, Cambridge.

“But he could be a bore and was awfully naughty. He had a great sense of humour which school teachers didn’t find amusing. He spoke French and Spanish fluently and one Christmas decided to teach himself Swahili. That holiday he would only speak to us in Swahili.”

He never settled at one job having been a speechwriter, IT consultant, antiquarian books dealer, actor and magician at various times in his short life. “He once sent me a Mother’s Day card ‘from your son who will never own a mortgage.'”

Sheila believes it was Mark’s curiosity to try everything – “perhaps naively, he wanted to see what life was like in Whitechapel”- which led to his destruction. He went to Roundhill’s flat, excited about the play he was acting in at the local George Tavern, The Accidental Death of an Anarchist, and hoping to persuade Doherty to attend. But Doherty, who has had more than 25 court appearances for drug and other offences, was not interested, though. “He was only interested in getting drugs,” said Wolkind, who offered to act for Sheila without charge as soon as he heard about the case. “The idea that Mark would have committed suicide after a rejection from Pete Doherty was ridiculous. The police involved in this “investigation” are apparently allergic to finding any crime.”

Sheila takes up the story: “Mark is known to have had an altercation at the flat with both Doherty and Roundhill. At the inquest, I heard Roundill admitting to punching Mark three times in the face and setting his cap alight and tearing his jacket. While Mark was confronting Doherty, the pop star asked his minder, Johnny “Headlock” Jeannevol, to “have a word” with Mark.”

After the inquest in October 2007 the coroner also ordered a police review and a second investigation. That is ongoing but a year later Sheila commissioned a flight dynamics expert to reconstruct Mark’s fall. Professor Richard Wassersug, an expert in anatomy and neurobiology and Corinna Cory, a security expert with the engineering consultancy, Arup, reported: “Given the nature of his injuries…the two most likely explanations are that he was backed into railings and pushed over or he was not conscious and was dropped over the railings.

In February this year Sheila had an e- mail from the police saying that they were “considering whether there is sufficient ambiguity to necessitate a further interview with Jeannevol.” Yesterday they added: “The investigation is ongoing and we are reviewing the information and will be interviewing further people in connection with the case.”

But last December, in frustration at the lack of progress, Sheila decided to consult her local MP Anne Milton who sent the case dossier to the Attorney General. It is currently being examined by the Crown Prosecution Service.

Sheila insists the campaign to find justice for Mark is not therapy, “in fact the reverse as I haven’t had time to grieve.” But she doesn’t want time to cry – a selfish activity. “One shouldn’t waste tears. I am just absolutely indignant. Mark would have done such a lot for other people.”

She admits she works hard to control her emotions. “It’s the only way of getting through it, isn’t it?” she asks, as if anyone else could ever imagine the pain of losing a child in this way. The worst moment, she says, was having to stay for tests to ensure that Mark, an organ donor, was ‘brain dead’ before his kidneys, liver and pancreas could be given away. But the joy from knowing he has helped save the lives of three others is immeasurable. Recently she even met one of the recipients.

Sheila insists she is not nervous about compering the fundraising event at which daughter Emma will play the violin accompanied by Cuban guitarist, Ahmed Dickinson Cardenas. Michael Wolkind, to whom Sheila says she is forever indebted, will make a “guest appearance” and there will be an auction of some of Mark’s antiquarian books – the ones Sheila can bear to part with.

“I will say on stage that this is a broader issue than just a fight for Mark – it’s a fight for anyone who has been dealt injustice. The UK is not a third world country and any individual who dies in unusual circumstances deserves to have his case investigated thoroughly. Mark did not receive that and I want to know why.”

Further information about the benefit evening on September 15,