Two independent inquiries concluded that Carole Johnson's grandfather died after accidentally setting fire to his hospital bed, but she still refuses to believe the official line. She talks to Stuart Arnold.

SITTING on the leather sofa in Carole Johnson's cosy house with two poodles and a Yorkshire terrier lazing by our feet, we are a million miles away from the cold and clinical surrounds of Darlington Memorial Hospital's now closed P1 psychiatric wing.

But that's exactly where this mother of four's attention has been for the past several years.

The former home help, from Washington, Wearside, has broken her silence ahead of the 30th anniversary later this year of the death of her grandfather Jonathan Longstaff to reject the explanation that it was an accident.

Mr Longstaff, 79, a smoker, burned to death in his bed while a psychiatric patient at Darlington Memorial Hospital, apparently as a result of fire caused by a match he dropped.

His death on August 23, 1975 was one of four unnatural deaths of patients from the psychiatric unit within the space of 27 days that summer.

Others to die were Rosemary Gibson, 21, of Newton Aycliffe, who overdosed after snatching a bottle of tablets from a drugs trolley; secretary Patricia Lupton, 22, of Darlington, who drowned in a bath of water and George Charters, 20, who snatched a hospital van and gassed himself with carbon monoxide fumes.

An independent committee of inquiry into the deaths was held following months of lobbying by families and a local councillor, Chris Binney, a fireman who attended the blaze that caused Mr Longstaff's death.

It highlighted a shortage of staff and the failings of hospital management, but ruled out any foul play.

Mrs Johnson, 59, who has never given any interviews to the media until now, sparked a police investigation five years ago when, during the course of researching her family's history, she came across a copy of the inquiry's report.

She says: "I was not and am not convinced my grandfather's death was an accident. Things did not add up and there were a lot of contradictions."

Durham Police were asked by Mrs Johnson to investigate whether there may have been a criminal element to Mr Longstaff's death.

Mr Longstaff, who lived at Gainford, near Darlington, was a First World War veteran and suffered from what was described as a "confusional state superimposed on an aggressive type of personality". He had been sectioned in the psychiatric unit after apparently threatening his second wife Josephine with a starting pistol.

His behaviour on the night of his death was described as "increasingly noisy, abusive and difficult" so he was put to bed in a separate room and given a tranquiliser dose. Just before 9pm it was discovered his bed was on fire with flames "going up to the ceiling" and although staff rushed quickly to the scene and put out the blaze, he died from his injuries.

The 2001 police investigation, codenamed Scarab, which was led by Detective Superintendent Harry Stephenson, traced witnesses from the time and also gained access to health authority and coroner's records and a forensic report.

But the six month long investigation found there was nothing to suggest Mr Longstaff's death was anything other than an accident, as originally concluded by a coroner, with him having set fire to his own bedding.

Mrs Johnson has no criticism for the police and believes they did all they could to investigate the circumstances surrounding her grandfather's death. But, despite the apparent weight of evidence against her, she will never quite agree with their conclusion.

She says: "I do not feel any different now to the way I felt about the death before they started their investigation. I feel that it was just a matter of too much time having passed and the trail going cold.

"I still believe somebody had a hand in his death and I can't believe anything else. He had a bit of a temper on him and don't forget he was in a mental hospital. You don't know what kind of people they had in there at that time."

Mrs Johnson has no intention of abandoning her quest to find out the truth, even writing to Tony Blair to express her concerns.

She says that, prior to the fire, her grandfather had not smoked his pipe for a few days and his pipe tobacco had dried out on the day of the fire. Yet a porter was said to have seen him smoking on two separate occasions before the blaze, while a box of Swan Vesta matches were found on the floor between a locker and his bed.

Forensic experts said that the fire could only have been caused by direct ignition, for example by a dropped lighted match or a cigarette, and by him alone, no other person being in the room. The hospital inquiry team was also told Mr Longstaff had a history of setting his house on fire, prior to him being admitted.

Mrs Johnson also questions the existence of a Mormon tract which at the time had reportedly been found on Mr Longstaff's locker opened at a page which said 'And They Shall Be Destroyed By Fire'. Police concurred with the inquiry's original findings which said it was, in fact, inside the locker of a patient who was at all times under observation in another room.

Another suggestion is that a bottle of inflammable liquid was left on Mr Longstaff's bedside table. But the hospital inquiry found there was no surgical or other volatile spirit or liquid found in his bedroom, while the forensic report following the fire made no reference to any accelerant.

Mrs Johnson also queries whether any threats had been made against her grandfather, but police said this was just speculation.

Finally, police said there was no suggestion at all a mysterious 'patient X', who was described as becoming increasingly restless and threatening to start a fire following the blaze, had anything to do with the death of Mr Longstaff.

The patient, who was transferred to the now closed Winterton Hospital at Sedgefield later that night, was referred to during the course of the hospital inquiry after nurses said they had seen in his notes reference to an involvement in two previous minor fires.

It was concluded that the man, who was later traced by police, was on a different floor of the hospital and was, at the time of the fire, being interviewed by staff.

During their own investigations, police traced Francis William John Falconer, a charge nurse who was duty on the ward at the time of Mr Longstaff's death, who said there was no possibility of anyone else having access to the ward and causing the fire.

Also spoken to during the police investigation was David Mason, a Newcastle-based solicitor, who was tribunal advocate to the original inquiry. In a letter to police, Mr Mason, who prepared the case to be presented to the inquiry and interviewed all the witnesses, said his conclusion was that Mr Longstaff had been smoking in his bed.

The letter, seen by The Northern Echo, says: "There was nothing suspicious about any of these unfortunate incidents. I have always taken the view that the death of the four patients within a month was nothing more than a statistical coincidence."

A Durham Police spokesman says: "The police investigation carried out into Mr Longstaff's death was an extremely tough and complex one considering the amount of time that had passed.

"While we accept that even now Mrs Johnson may never have total peace of mind in relation to what happened to her grandfather, we hope that at the very least she will be comforted by the knowledge that the officers involved left no stone unturned during the course of their inquiries."

Mrs Johnson tells how her mother, Audrey Clark, 79, Mr Longstaff's daughter, pursued her father's case as far as she could and even had premonition before his death.

She says: "She told me afterwards she felt somethin g was wrong and that before she found out about the death she had not slept at all that night. The next day she went out and bought the newspaper and just saw a little box saying 'Elderly man burnt to death at Darlington Memorial Hospital'. Now we don't talk a lot about it because it upsets her too much."

She adds: "The case was closed by the police, but it remains open in my mind.

"I'd still like to know what was going on at that hospital at the time as you just don't have that many unnatural deaths together."