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Tragedy of Gary: Data Protection Act hampers search for missing friend

By Shepton Mallet Journal  |  Posted: September 06, 2012

Gary Ronald was a regular at the Bell Inn (pictured above) and the Prestleigh Inn

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Gary had his own seat at the bar – and woe betide anyone who sat in it.

In fact landlords at the Bell Inn, Evercreech, and the Prestleigh Inn put up a sign – “Gazza’s Corner” – to alert people that his seat in their hostelries was reserved for a real character.

But Royal British Legion stalwart Gary Ronald, who would have been 62 this month, died alone and his body lay unfound for weeks after he fell on hard times – despite desperate attempts by friends to find out where he had moved to and how he was.

Friends were worried when he completely disappeared off the radar.

He stopped answering his mobile phone and failed to appear at his usual watering holes.

And they claim were blocked in their attempts to find him by Somerset Social Services.

It was only thanks to persistent pressure from his worried best friend David “Digger” Collins and Digger’s sister Rose Taylor from Queens Road, Evercreech that police finally broke into his flat in Frome and found his body.

It is not exactly known how long he had lain there.

But friends say he had not been seen nor had he been answering his mobile phone for weeks.

Mr Ronald was well known in the Evercreech area having moved there several years ago.

He lived in Leighton Close and later Rodmore Crescent and had been a respected worker for several years as an engineer on fork lift trucks for firms in the Shepton Mallet area.

He had also been treasurer of the Evercreech British Legion for seven years until 2005.

Mrs Taylor said: “Digger was his best friend and he kept on at me for weeks to do something when he could not get hold of Gary. No-one had seen him, he wasn’t answering his phone and Digger was just so worried about him.”

Mrs Taylor said Mr Collins had gone to Frome many times on the bus searching for his friend but no-one had seen Gary for weeks at their usual pub meeting place. She called Social Services but they refused to reveal Mr Ronald’s address – saying it was protected private information under the Data Protection Act.

But Mr Collins finally found out from a mutual friend who was forwarding Gary’s mail to him that his new flat was in Whitewell Place, Frome. And another friend drove Mr Collins there at once to help him find Gary.

Mrs Taylor said: “It was a block of flats with a coded access. They waited around until someone came out and asked them if they knew Gary – the lady said she didn’t but she let them into the complex. They knocked on the door of the flat – but there was no answer.

“Digger came back so upset and said we had to do something to find Gary so I just rang the police there and then, and they were really helpful and they sent a car immediately while I was talking to them. They broke in and found him. They said he had been dead for some time, several weeks. It is just so very sad.”

Recording an open verdict at an inquest into 61-year-old Mr Ronald’s death, East Somerset Coroner Tony Williams said there was nothing suspicious about how he died.

However the condition of the body – due to the possible length of time before he was discovered – meant a post mortem had been unable to determine how he died, the inquest heard.

It is known Mr Ronald had been seen by an optician on February 28. But Mr Williams said there were no further sightings of Mr Ronald alive from March onwards and a letter from Mr Ronald’s sister confirmed his family had not had any immediate contact with him.

Mrs Taylor said this week: “Gary was a real character – everyone at the pubs knew him – and it is just such a very sad way for anyone to end their life.”

A handful of friends, including landlords from local pubs Mr Ronald frequented, attended his funeral service at the Mendip Crematorium at Shepton Mallet. They included Linda and Paul Walker from the Prestleigh Inn, and Steve McGrail, former landlord of the Bell Inn at Evercreech and also the Alhampton Inn.

Friends say a relationship break-up had sent Mr Ronald on a downward spiral and despite attempts by people who tried to help, and who provided him with accommodation, he ended up homeless. He was finally given emergency accommodation in Frome through Social Services with help from Mendip District Council.

Mrs Taylor said they were very grateful to staff at Mendip for helping arrange Mr Ronald’s funeral and who had been supportive too in their attempts to find him.

A Somerset County Council spokesman said: “We helped Mr Ronald out in 2007 and have had no further contact with him since then.”

“We are not allowed to give personal details without permission from the person.

“If people are concerned about the safety of any person, the police should be the first point of contact.”

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