TWO rugby players on a charity tour of Sri Lanka were killed by a heroin overdose after buying it thinking it was a different drug, a coroner has ruled.

Thomas Baty, 26, and Thomas Howard, 25, were found by members of the Clems Pirates team, part of the Durham City Rugby Football Club, lying unresponsive on their beds on the morning of May 13 last year.

An inquest at Crook Coroner’s Court heard how the two men, who were “not habitual drug users”, had taken a substance known locally as “brown sugar”, which was a cheap version of heroin.

Pathologists said although they had been given limited evidence from Sri Lanka, it seemed “highly likely” that the cause of death in both cases was “opiate toxicity”.

The men, who were also doing charity work during the tour, were childhood friends through playing rugby and had been working together for a workwear company owned by Mr Howard.

During the hearing, the coroner was told how the investigation conducted by authorities on the South Asian island “does not sit right” and contains various inconsistencies.

It was suggested by a tuk-tuk driver, who took the men from the Cleopatra nightclub in the centre of Colombo back to their accommodation at the nearby Kingsbury Hotel, that they had asked for heroin.

The driver had then introduced them to another man, who supplied them with seven bags of “brown sugar” he had obtained from a drug dealer.

But Detective Constable Phil McElhone, who has investigated their deaths for Durham Police, said “something does not sit right” with the account of their deaths that was given by Sri Lankan witnesses.

Recording a conclusion of accidental death, coroner Crispin Oliver said the men had purchased the drug on the way home from the nightclub.

He said: “Possibly being deliberately diverted and probably on the solicitation of someone they met on the way, they acquired a substance known as brown sugar.”

“This is a local name for a form of heroin. They had no knowledge of this substance and would not have known it was heroin.”

He said the men had taken the drug, possibly as an experiment, while intoxicated with alcohol.

He added: “It is not know how much they took. However, neither of them were drug users and whatever amount it was, in each case, it proved fatal.”

The pair were seen on CCTV going to Mr Baty’s room and when they emerged Mr Howard was seen stumbling along the corridor, before going to his room.

Several teammates described seeing Mr Baty, who had stayed up a little longer.His roommate, Patrick Douglas, said: “It seemed like he was very drunk. he was falling asleep and slurring his words. and he eyes were rolling around. I have never seen him like that before.”

Asked repeatedly if he had been taking drugs Mr Baty replied no, but later in a dreamlike state slurred with words “brown sugar”.

Teammates found the men, unwell, later that morning and raised the alarm, calling for urgent medical assistance. They were taken to Nawaloka Hospital in Colombo.

Mr Howard, a business owner, died early that afternoon and Mr Baty, a law graduate, died on May 15.

Mr Oliver said: “I am satisfied that neither was a drug user, I think this was probably a one-off occasion and it was certainly, at this stage, an accident.”

Addressing both men’s loved ones, he added: “I hope that no other family has to go through what you families have gone through. This shouldn’t have happened and it has been a terrible experience.

“I hope it goes as a warning to people when they travel to far off parts of the world that they have got to be careful about what they might be encouraged to acquire and to take.

“These two boys, who had a fantastic life each together, and had a fantastic future, had it taken away in circumstances that can only be called genuinely tragic.”

During the hearing, Paul Baty, father of Thomas, said his son had recently agreed to work for a workwear company run by Mr Howard.

He added: “My son was so excited to be working with his friend and their company was going from strength to strength. They had big plans together, They were hard working lovely lads.”

He added: “Even though he was a big fellow and seemed to be the heart and soul, he was actually very sensitive at heart.”

Mr Howard’s father, Robert, said of his son: “Thomas was a quiet lad. Once you got to know him, he was considerate, caring - he would look after you.”

Mr Oliver paid tribute to the men and praised the “first-class” work of DC McElhone, who had pieced together their last moments, despite inconsistencies and deficiencies in the investigation by Sri Lankan authorities.