THE family of a woman found dead in bed after a fire are demanding police reinvestigate the case because they believe she could have been murdered.
The badly burned body of Lorraine Sheppard (58), who was known as Poppet, was found by her son Ryan after he was alerted by a neighbour who noticed a bedroom window at her bungalow in Irvine Way, Somerford, was blackened and smashed.
An inquest in Bournemouth heard that fire investigators believed she had fallen asleep smoking in bed and the cigarette had set the duvet and mattress alight. The blaze, which had occurred overnight on the 29th of October last year, had been confined to the bedroom and was burnt out by the time the neighbour noticed something was wrong.
But angry friends and family of the dead woman said that explanation “just does not add up” insisting that police should taking another look at the case. They pointed out that Poppet’s beloved dog was shut in the living room although “it never left her side”; the bedroom door was also closed – something she was not in the habit of doing; and that a fire alarm in the hallway had been partially removed. The key safe outside was also open and the spare key missing.
Speaking at the inquest, Poppet’s sister-in-law Shelley Taylor said: “She was scared of fires, she never ever smoked in bed. She was fanatical about taking precautions against fires, before bed she would go round checking all the plugs were off.
“She always, always left her bedroom door open and she would never have left the dog shut away. That dog was her life, it went everywhere with her. It slept with her.
“None of this adds up. To take that fire alarm down she would have had to stand on a chair – she is tiny – and use a screwdriver, she wouldn’t have done it.”
The hearing was told Poppet had been a heavy drinker and smoker which is why she may have had the fire detector taken down to avoid false alarms. But a post-mortem examination showed that on the night she died the level of alcohol in her blood was low.
The cause of death was asphyxiation and Graham Kewley of Dorset and Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service said he believed Poppet had been overcome by toxic smoke from the memory foam mattress.
He said investigations showed the seat of the fire was the mattress and the likely scenario was that a cigarette had continued smouldering between the duvet and the mattress, eventually setting it ablaze.
A small window had blown out but the fire itself was contained mainly to the bed and did not spread because the bedroom door was closed. No smoking material was found, but Mr Kewley said he believed it could have been destroyed in the blaze.
Det.Sgt Mark Portelli of Bournemouth CID said police had investigated Poppet’s death but believed there was no third party involved.
He said he was aware that her handbag and mobile phone had not been found in her home but thought they could have been burnt in the blaze.
But questioned by Mrs Shelley, he admitted that police had not been aware that Poppet’s phone had been ringing out after she was dead. He said: “In that case it can’t have been in the fire.”
Mrs Shelley said: “Well, don’t you think that is suspicious? We would like the phone traced if possible and the phone records examined.”
DS Portelli said efforts to trace the phone would only show it had been used in the Christchurch area but he said he would be reporting the fact it had been still working to his superior officer.
Poppet’s granddaughter Katie Nichols told the detective: “She had so many unsavoury characters in her house. The dog not being found with her, her bag and mobile gone, her pillow covered in blood.
“Someone had seen her with a black eye a few weeks before. To us all of this is very suspicious.”
Coroner Brendan Allen heard Poppet was an alcoholic but after moving to the bungalow she had, according to Mrs Shelley, started to turn her life around.
She said: “She was planting flowers in the garden, she had moved to this beautiful bungalow, it was a new start for her. She was getting well. Everything was beginning to get a little bit better for her.
When we went to the house afterwards, everything was immaculate, there was food in the fridge, the washing up had been done.
“There were not bottles everywhere, she was definitely not on a session at that time.
“Even if she had been she would never shut the door on the dog, he was always by her side, that to me above all raises questions.”
She added: “When she was drinking she was a nuisance, someone could have snapped. Some people she hung around with were capable of that sort of behaviour. Especially when she moved to Somerford.
“If she was sober that night that strongly suggests to me that there was someone else there.”
A statement from a friend of Poppet, Anthony Bowen, who had recently been staying with her before her death, was read out to the court.
In it he said he had been asked to leave her home after they argued.
He claimed he had often seen her fall asleep when drunk and once she had done so while holding a lit cigarette.
Mr Bowen said that he had last seen her at 7.30am on 29th October.
According to police he was the last person to see her alive but at the inquest another friend of Poppet, Christopher Beck, said he had seen her later on that day.
Mr Beck said he saw her about noon and when he asked her where her dog was she said it was with a friend who had taken it for a walk “to the quay”.
Mr Beck added: “I’ve contacted the police to tell them this and that I was the last person to see her alive but they have not been in touch with me.”
The coroner said he would normally have ruled Poppet’s death “accidental” but he felt unable to do so, explaining: “There are questions attached which remain unanswered and unexplained by the evidence.”
He said these included the fact Poppet never closed her bedroom door, that she never left her dog alone, never smoked in bed and that the fire detector was missing.
Mr Allen said: “There may be a reasonable explanation for this but I don’t feel able to conclude an accidental verdict with these questions unanswered so I am recording an open one.”
Speaking after the hearing, Mrs Taylor said: “We want the police to reinvestigate, Poppet was terrified of fire, she was fastidious about making sure things were switched off, and she wouldn’t have removed the smoke alarm. She was not stupid either. To us nothing about this makes sense.”