Inquest Into Mother And Daughter Deaths

An inquest's heard how a distraught mother threw herself off cliffs after leaving a suicide note in which she described how she wanted to join her four-year-old daughter - who she said had accidentally drowned the previous day.

A coroner recorded an open verdict into the death of Keira Madden, who was found dead at her West Sussex home on July 3 last year, after hearing it could not be proven that she had definitely drowned or that it had been an accident.

The child's father, Steve Madden, told the inquest at Chichester Magistrates' Court that he thought there was foul play after he heard evidence that she had lied about having an inoperable brain tumour in an attempt to stop the custody battle going on between them.

Mrs Madden, 40, had developed depression since their marriage had broken down, and had tried to kill herself by taking an overdose in the past, the inquest heard.

At a court hearing two days' before Mrs Madden's death, she had claimed she had the brain tumour and had asked to spend the next couple of days with Keira, even though Mr Madden was meant to be looking after her on the Saturday.

The suicide note, which was read out to the inquest, said:

"There was a horrible accident. I was swimming with Keira and she usually rests on my back. I felt her grip go and as I turned over to see what was wrong she was unconscious. By the time we got to the shore she was dead.

"I wanted to bring her home and put her to bed where she was peaceful. I wanted to pass away with her but I couldn't find the means so I left for Beachy Head so I could be with her quickly.

"I'm so sorry. I love her so much. Cathy.''

Pathologist Dr Olaf Biedrzycki said a post-mortem examination on Keira found she had suffered no physical trauma and showed no signs of disease.

"One the balance of probability it is likely to be drowning,'' he said.

He said it is much harder to find signs of drowning in children than adults and it is also harder to tell if resuscitation attempts have been made as children's ribs do not break as easily as adults'.

When asked if he would like to say anything, Mr Madden said he found it difficult to believe that if Keira did accidentally drown during a trip to an unknown beach, no one else noticed it happen or saw Mrs Madden in distress on what was a hot day in July.

Mr Madden said police told him they had interviewed around 2,000 people in their investigation because there were several beaches near their home in Bognor Regis that they were known to visit.

"No one heard a scream. No one heard a shout from her. It's sad to say but I believe it was foul play,'' he said.

The inquest heard that although it was not certain that Keira and Mrs Madden had gone to the beach at all, neighbours who saw them leaving the house on July 2 and were the last to see the girl alive, noticed that Mrs Madden was wearing a swimming costume under her clothes and was carrying a beach towel.

Summing up, West Sussex Coroner Penelope Schofield said:

"There is no doubt there is so much suspicion surrounding the circumstances of Keira's death. You may all have different theories of what happened.''

She said she was "not satisfied to a reasonable standard that she was unlawfully killed'' nor could she be satisfied that Keira's death was an accident.

Holding Mrs Madden's inquest separately but straight after her daughter's, the coroner recorded a verdict that Mrs Madden "took her own life''.

A statement from Ross Hardy, a chaplain at Beachy Head, was read out. He described how he spoke to Mrs Madden before she ran and jumped off the 200ft sheer cliff in front of them.

The inquest heard that a local resident had spotted Mrs Madden's green Renault Megane parked on the verge outside his house near the notorious suicide spot at 5.15am on July 3 and when it was still there hours later, reported it to police.

When officers put the details through their system they traced it to Mrs Madden and could see that she had been arrested under the Mental Health Act near Beachy Head some months previously.

Officers were sent to her home but got no answer at the door, and because it was not known what had become of Keira, the incident was categorised as high risk.

The inquest heard that Mr Hardy eventually found someone of Mrs Madden's description on the clifftop along from Beachy Head, one of the hills known as the Seven Sisters. She was around five metres away from the edge and was facing inland, and when he spoke to her she seemed composed and told him various things about herself which he later found out to be untrue.

Because she gave him a false name and details and was not in the distressed state he was expecting, he thought he might have found the wrong woman so continued to look around although did not move from her side.

When he told her he was looking for a suicidal woman, she replied: "I can't imagine being like that.''

The inquest heard that Mr Hardy tried to contact his colleagues and police on his mobile and two-way radio but could not get through at first. When he eventually did speak to them, in a lowered voice so she could not hear, she started to become "agitated''.

He said: "She started to run purposely towards the edge. She had no emotion on her face.'' He added that she ran right to the edge before falling feet first downwards.

The Coastguard recovered her body and a post-mortem examination showed she had died from multiple injuries consistent with a significant fall.

Giving evidence, Mrs Madden's father Peter Oates described the former travel agent as "bubbly and lively'' but also as someone who had a history of being deeply affected by relationship breakdowns.

His daughter, who married her husband in May 2001, had tried to make the relationship work but found it hard when Mr Madden moved to Germany for his job as a computer programmer, Mr Oates said.

She and Keira joined him there for a while but she became lonely and returned to the UK. Their relationship eventually broke down, he added.

The inquest also heard from health workers, including family GP Dr Jo Parsonage who said Mrs Madden had taken anti-depressants for the first time in 1996 and had continued with them on and off since then.

As well as the overdose attempt, she had also gone missing for a few days in March 2009 and was eventually found and detained by police in the Beachy Head area.

Dr Parsonage said Mrs Madden's depression occurred in phases but that when she last saw her, two weeks before she died, there was "no hint of suicide''.

Detective Superintendent Simon Bates, of Sussex Police's major crime department, said the investigation afterwards showed that in retrospect nothing suggested Keira had been in any danger before she died.

He added that although Mrs Madden had said before the custody hearing that she had been diagnosed with the tumour at Southampton General Hospital, later checks on this found no record of her claim and that the post-mortem test also found this to be untrue.

Asked if he had any comment, Mr Madden said he did not know what his estranged wife was worried about as he was leaving her financially secure and expected her to win the custody battle.

He questioned whether the anti-depressants she had been prescribed could have had a role in the deaths and criticised the health service for not informing him of what she had been taking and the side-effects involved. He was told however that doctor-patient confidentiality would have disallowed this.

Mr Madden said:

"I don't know if it was the drugs that made her flip out, or what. Like I said earlier, it seemed to be premeditated.''

Outside the court, his mother Patricia Madden read out a statement on his behalf and said the family hoped publicity from the inquest might prompt any other beachgoers who might have seen what happened to come forward.

It said:

"My family and I came to court today in the hope that we would find out what really happened to my Keira on those fateful and tragic days at the beginning of July last year. She was a beautiful, intelligent little girl, full of life and laughter. A life tragically cut short.

"Although it's difficult to come to terms with, we strongly believe her death was not an accident. In reaching an open verdict today the coroner indicated that although foul play cannot be proved, circumstances suggest that it was not an accident.''