Wales

My brother Darren Thomas, a gentle soul, murdered in jail

Darren and Jeremy Thomas
Image caption Growing up in the Cardiff suburbs, Jeremy Thomas (right) recalls always doing his best to protect his older brother Darren

Cardiff Prison failed to properly assess the mental state of a prisoner who went on to murder his cellmate, a watchdog has said.

A report by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman highlights "frailties" in risk assessments on Colin Capp after he began showing paranoid behaviour.

Capp was sentenced to life imprisonment last May for the murder of Darren Thomas.

Here Jeremy Thomas recalls the loss of his brother who he describes as a gentle, lost soul and the circumstances which led to him being in prison.

Rituals, however illogical they seem to others, can be a source of comfort when you are grieving.

Every morning, on his train journey to work, Jeremy Thomas looks at the barred windows and grey walls of Cardiff prison and sends up "a little prayer" to his late brother.

"I tell him I love him, I look to the sky and point upwards and say 'get me through the day'."

Jeremy, it seems, sees his late brother as a talisman - someone who, although he was the one in need of protection on earth, is now looking out for him from the afterlife.

Darren Thomas was murdered in March 2014.

He had been arrested in Cardiff city centre and just days later he was found dead in his cell. He had been brutally attacked.

It was a tragic end to a life which, in some ways, seems never to have properly got started.

Image caption Darren Thomas at home cradling one of his three nephews in more settled times

Darren, who was 45, had led a nomadic existence, drifting between rented accommodation, friends' sofas and homeless hostels, punctuated by spells on the streets.

He had served 12 short-term prison sentences between July 2011 and January 2014 after breaching an Asbo prohibiting him from entering Cardiff city centre between 0800 GMT and 2000 GMT. The intention was to stop him begging.

On 28 February 2014, Darren himself rang police from Queen Street and told them he had breached the Asbo once again. He wanted to be arrested. He missed the relative security of prison.

After magistrates gave him a 12-week jail term, he was allocated a cell with Colin Capp, a 23-year-old from Inverness, doing time for arson after setting his girlfriend's flat alight.

Darren was described on reception into the prison as "quiet, timid and frail".

'Sustained and vicious attack'

Vulnerable to bullying in jail, he had asked to be taken to B1 landing, where prisoners who find it difficult to cope on the main wings are accommodated.

He was the fourth inmate to share with Colin Capp - three earlier cellmates asked to be moved.

On the second night of sharing, Capp dragged Darren from his bed as he slept.

Capp - later diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic - wrapped a plastic bag around Darren's head and strangled or suffocated him, before stabbing him 100 times in the neck with a ballpoint pen.

"Mum and I used to talk about getting that phone call," Jeremy says.

"We thought it would be in the winter, that he'd be found frozen out on the streets or have taken an overdose.

"To hear that he'd been murdered somewhere he should have been safe, was a bolt from the blue, nothing you'd ever expect.

Image caption After his death in 2014 there were questions over why Darren Thomas was put in a Cardiff prison cell with arsonist Colin Capp

"But then I didn't even know he was in prison - he hadn't told us. We only realised after his death how many times he'd been in and out of prison for begging.

"He'd even been inside on one occasion over Christmas, which broke my Mum's heart."

Jeremy agreed to make a formal identification of Darren's body that evening.

"I stood beside his body and told him, 'you haven't always been a big brother to me, but I need you to step up now'," he recalls.

"I don't know what was going through my mind. I was thinking about the time we'd lost, all the wasted years, time we could have spent together."

Jeremy found it comforting that his brother looked at peace. Finally.

"He looked…untroubled," he says, "which I hadn't seen in him for a while.

"There was always something behind his eyes. He never looked settled, happy. But all that turmoil was gone."

Jeremy admits that his resilience had helped him deal with the turbulent events of the past few years.

He wishes Darren had possessed just a fraction of this resilience. If he had, it might have made for a different life story.

His brother was someone who struggled with life - relationships, learning, sociability and sensibility.

Growing up in a terraced home in the Cathays area of Cardiff, Jeremy recalls always doing his best to protect his older brother.

Image caption Darren Thomas was 'vulnerable from an early age' his brother says

"My brother was vulnerable from an early age; he was bullied through school," Jeremy says.

"He was soft, he hated violence and would never fight back or stick up for himself, and as soon as people see a weakness they focus in on that.

"I used to protect him a lot, growing up, as he was often misunderstood; I was always sticking up for him.

"He was a gentle soul, he had a lot of questions for everybody. He had some love in him, but he found it hard to show emotions.

"He didn't make strong friendships. For a time he had to wear one of those big head-braces for his teeth, bless him, that made him a target.

"He'd make friends with the wrong people and he'd get tarnished with the same brush.

"He'd say of the school troublemaker 'oh he's my best friend' - he didn't have good judgement about people."

'Lost soul'

An awkward, accident-prone, often clumsy child, Darren was not lacking in intellect; he had a Mensa-grade IQ.

On leaving Roath Park primary school, Darren was sent to Cathays High School rather than Howardian Comprehensive, where most of his contemporaries and his brother went.

Jeremy remembers Darren had an unerring memory for facts and figures, particularly anything relating to his passion: motorbikes and Formula One.

"He had a great ability to retain detail," Jeremy says.

"He'd read motorbike magazines all the time, and a motorbike would go past us and he'd know everything about it, reel off all the relevant information.

"He never worked, apart from some work experience from school, but he'd have been amazing in a garage, engines were his thing."

Image caption Jeremy, a father of three boys, describes his brother as a 'lost soul'

It is not certain if Darren had an undiagnosed condition such as autism, dyspraxia, dyslexia, conditions which are much more widely recognised today.

"We knew there was always something not quite right about him…you couldn't quite put your finger on it," Jeremy says.

"But he was never nasty or malicious. He was like a lost soul."

The brothers would spend part of the summer holidays with family in London, where their father, a lorry driver, was from.

"When we used to travel to London with my dad, I remember Darren looking at people sleeping under the arches and he'd say 'that's how I'll end up one day'," Jeremy recalls.

"Not that it was his dream or vision, or something he necessarily wanted, but he could see himself living that way."

In his mid-teens, Darren suffered a serious head injury when he fell against the tail lift of a lorry while helping his father.

The injury brought on severe epilepsy, a cruel irony as it meant Darren was not allowed to ride the motorbike which his father recently bought him and which he had coveted for so long.

Then when Darren was 16, the boys' parents split up. The teenager's behaviour deteriorated. He was eventually arrested for throwing bricks at a passing train.

Image caption Darren with his mother: Jeremy says the guilt over not being able to protect her son is something that will never leave

Darren was referred to Whitchurch psychiatric hospital for assessment, but Jeremy remembers that "the doctors would always say there was nothing wrong with him".

Darren left home not long after and became increasingly isolated from his family. He drifted from one rented property to another and began sleeping rough for periods of time.

"He was beaten up a few times and had possessions stolen from him by so-called friends," Jeremy recalls.

"Mum stopped going into Cardiff city centre in case she saw him. He had long hair and a long beard, he looked a sight, and was always limping because he had really bad athlete's foot.

"One time I ran into him on a night out and he had a big lump on his face where someone had hit him - he was just on his way to the Cardiff Royal Infirmary.

"It would knock the stuffing out of me, seeing him like that, and it broke mum's heart.

"But he would never come home. He knew the system and seemed comfortable in that world. He'd say 'it's not so bad.'

"I'd stay out with him sometimes to keep him company."

The family endured constant worry as Darren frequently overdosed on prescription medication and, often, called his brother or mother for help.

Jeremy does remember his brother having a girlfriend at some point but, when the relationship ended, he overdosed once again.

'Wasted away'

Around 10 years ago, Darren's vulnerability spiralled after he started taking heroin. He had not previously been involved with drugs to any great extent.

After a heroin overdose, he was admitted once again to a psychiatric unit. Jeremy has a vivid memory of going to visit him with his distraught mother.

"He came out of his room and the heroin had aged him so much, he was like an old man with sunken cheeks, like someone who'd been on a desert island and wasted away," he says.

"He was ravaged."

Darren was given a methadone prescription subsequently but continued to struggle with his demons.

Jeremy tried to reassure his mother that Darren was a grown-up, that he made his own decisions good or bad, that they could not stop him embarking on the life he chose.

"For mum I don't think the guilt will ever go," he says.

Image caption The pain of his brother's death is still raw for Jeremy

"She's getting stronger but still finds it hard to talk about Darren."

There is an inevitable resentment that his brother's lifestyle and its impact on his family took an increasing toll on his mother as the years went by.

There is a complex mix of emotions: grief, frustration, sorrow and even anger even at what they have been through.

There is also anger that the system could offer nothing better than a prison cell to someone who was homeless and vulnerable, rather than any kind of threat to society.

Cardiff Prison organised a memorial service for Darren.

"The prisoners lit candles for him - it was very humbling," Jeremy remembers.

"They all wrote cards to mum as well and she wrote back thanking them. It was shocking to see how young some of them were.

"They had a look in their eyes which reminded me of Darren when he was younger."

After the service, Jeremy was given a tour of the prison by the governor. He collected his brother's pitifully few belongings and spent time in the cell where he had been murdered.

"Seeing Darren in the morgue was hard but sitting in that cell was tougher," Darren recalled.

"They'd cleaned it up, obviously, but it was horrible.

"I put some flowers on the bed and said a Jewish prayer, as there's some Jewish in my family. I'm not religious, but I wanted to see, was his soul there?"

It is two years since Darren's death but the pain is still raw as Jeremy talks about one of the last times he saw his brother.

Jeremy explains that he was en route to meet his girlfriend and had made an effort to look presentable.

He bumped into Darren as he walked through Cardiff city centre.

The brothers chatted briefly but when Darren, dishevelled as ever with long hair and straggly beard and "not the most fragrant," asked for a hug before they parted. Jeremy refused, concerned that the aroma might cling to him as he met his date.

"That's a regret, something that niggles away at me" he says.

"I'd give anything for a hug from him now."