Deepcut inquest: Soldier Sean Benton was 'punched and kicked' by instructor in days before his suicide

Dominic Nicholls
Sean Benton, the first of four soldiers who died at the Deepcut Barracks in Surrey between 1995 and 2002.  - PA

The death of soldier Sean Benton at Deepcut Barracks in 1995 was caused by  "self-inflicted" gunshot wounds to the chest as a coroner formally concluded he committed suicide. 

Peter Rook QC, at an inquest at Woking Coroner's Court, said: "I'm satisfied that the fatal wounds were self inflicted."

The long-awaited inquest into the death of Private Sean Benton at Deepcut Barracks 23 years ago earlier heard he was "punched and kicked" by an instructor in the days before his suicide.  

Mr Rook described a toxic culture at the barracks and said Pte Benton was frequently the recipient of harsh treatment.

Mr Rook made the remarks as he gave his ruling into the death of 20-year-old Pte Benton, who was found dead at Princess Royal Barracks, Surrey, in June 1995.

The soldier, from Hastings, was found with five bullets in his chest at the Surrey base shortly after being told he was to be discharged from the Army.

He was the first of four soldiers to die there between 1995 and 2002 amid claims of bullying and abuse. Privates Cheryl James, James Collinson and Geoff Gray also died from gunshot wounds.

Profile | Pte Sean Benton

The inquest has heard evidence from more than 170 witnesses over 40 days since it began in January at Woking Coroner's Court.

The proceedings were triggered following a campaign by Pte Benton's family after the initial inquest - held a month after his death - recorded a verdict of suicide. His parents died before the second inquest was granted.

Members of his family, including his sister Tracy Lewis and twin brother Tony Benton, were among those in court as the coroner began his ruling.

Tracy Lewis (right) and Tony Benton (left) arrive at Woking Coroner's Court, ahead of the verdict of the inquest into the death of their brother, Private Sean Benton, at Deepcut Army Barracks. Credit: Steve Parsons/PA

After hearing from witnesses who described their experiences at Deepcut as "awful", the coroner said: "This is not an inquiry into the Army at the time." The court heard that there had been little oversight or supervision at the barracks. 

The Coroner said Pte Benton had been an "engaging and spirited man" who had been frustrated and disappointed not to be allowed to pursue his dream of becoming a driver in the army. 

Pointing to evidential difficulties in holding an inquest 23 years after the soldier's death, Mr Rook said "memories fade in time. Some witnesses have died and some have not been traced."

Deepcut Army deaths

The court heard how Pte Benton had twice taken drugs overdoses in his teenage years.

The first incident was seen as a "cry for help". He took a second overdose a fortnight later, although a psychiatrist said there were no major causes for alarm.

During his time at Deepcut, the coroner said the young soldier was described by colleagues as "cocksure" and "likeable", although he had run-ins with senior staff. Witnesses described severe reprimands for trainees and bullying by officers.

The hearing was told in the early hours of June 9 1995, Pte Benton - dressed in full military clothing - approached two juniors on guard duty and told them one of them was required to speak with a senior, and that he was needed to relieve her. The guard did so, having no reason to disbelieve her colleague.

The coroner said: "It is clear Sean devised a carefully planned ruse to trick the guard into handing over the weapon."

Pte Benton said he would then go on solo patrol and gun shots were heard a short time later, the coroner said. He recorded the cause of death as six gunshots to the chest and made a finding of suicide. Pte Benton left a letter to his family in which he said: "Sorry. I'll always love you all."

The coroner said the first round injured the soldier, but that a second round - fired by Pte Benton when two officers arrived at the scene - proved fatal.