Agony of losing both our ‘stupid boys’ to ecstasy – and why drugs should be legalised
Published by The Mail on Sunday (12th June, 2016)
The boy’s room at the top of the house looks like any teenager’s bedroom, with school pens stacked neatly on the desk and a roll of sticky tape lying on the floor. There are posters of favourite pop stars on the walls, along with one for the film Goodfellas – a movie that Jacques Lakeman watched so many times with his father, Ray.
At the base of the bed is a red futon, where Jacques’ younger brother Torin would often sleep when the boys wanted to watch videos together and talk late into the night.
But for 18 months, their mother Sarah has been unable to bear entering this room. And her husband can no longer bring himself to watch that favourite gangster film. For the memories are too intense, too painful, too overpowering, of how the tight-knit family on the Isle of Man was destroyed by drugs on one terrible night in November 2014.
Their two sons, Jacques, 20, and Torin, 19, born just 15 months apart, died beside each other in another room – above a pub in Bolton – after taking ecstasy. It was their first weekend away together. They had gone to see Manchester United play football.
The bodies were found two days later, slumped on the floor after taking about six times the lethal dose of the drug, bought from abroad on the internet’s undetectable dark web.
‘I just can’t go up there,’ said Sarah, 52, a teacher of languages. ‘It is so difficult going on with life. I can only cope by thinking that one day they might walk through the front door again, otherwise it is so horrific you would not want to be alive.
‘I feel so angry at their wasted lives. They were both so talented, so creative and had so much to live for. They were intelligent kids. But it was so stupid of them to die like this.’
The Lakemans have not spoken before in depth about the loss of their only children. Their raw grief is palpable and Sarah is in tears several times as she talks to me.
‘I try to remember the happy times we had as a family,’ she said. ‘But then things flash into your mind – often little things, like walking down the road when they were young and holding their hands.’
Now Ray, a retired primary school teacher, has taken a dramatic step: he has backed Anyone’s Child, a group of similarly bereaved parents campaigning to avoid such tragedies – by legalising and regulating drugs.
‘I don’t want others to suffer from the pain and memories,’ said Ray, 66. ‘Children need protection but the law is not stopping them taking drugs, so we need a safer approach.’
His step is brave, if controversial. But he would never have considered campaigning for this cause until those fateful events that ripped apart his family almost two years ago.
The last time Ray saw his elder son was when he drove him from their house with its lovely sea views to catch the ferry to Liverpool. ‘I had bought tickets to see Manchester United,’ Ray recalled. ‘He chose the game against Hull because he thought they would win and, when a friend of his could not go, he invited Torin.’
Torin had just started his second year studying physics at Aberystwyth University. He was an athletic, competitive teenager who followed his brother’s lead into chess and sport. They arranged to meet in Manchester, booked a hotel room and were excited about seeing each other.
Ray and Sarah also felt pleased. After several difficult years, it seemed the family was back on track. ‘We felt happier than for a long time,’ said Sarah.
Jacques, a talented musician bullied for his flame-red hair, had especially challenged teenage years. He was sometimes in trouble for drink and drug abuse, leaving school early and struggling to hold down work as he focused on playing his guitar.
His parents thought alcohol the main problem so emptied their home of any drink after it began disappearing. They discussed dangers of drugs with their sons. Torin disliked his brother’s substance misuse.
At the time of their deaths Jacques had moved to East London, where he lived with his grandmother and was training to be a chef. Sarah said: ‘He told me, “I’m going to be a famous chef by the time I’m 30.” ‘
Despite such optimism, she was worried on the day of the match. ‘I felt sick all that morning. It was intuition. I told my sister something terrible was going to happen.’
The couple became concerned on the Sunday night after Ray rang his mother and found Jacques had not arrived back. They spent the night desperately trying to track them down: ringing their phones, reporting them missing and awaiting a call that never came.
‘We knew something was seriously wrong because Jacques, for all his faults, would never have let his grandmother down,’ said Ray. ‘We sat all night in bed with our phones and laptops beside us.
‘We kept running through all the possibilities, coming up with all sort of scenarios. We didn’t want to say the worst but I think we knew we were telling ourselves stories.’ The following day, at 7.45pm two police officers arrived at their house.
Sarah said: ‘When the police turned up at the door, I told them, “You are here to tell me my sons are dead.” ‘ Ray added: ‘I knew immediately. I think we’d known all day.’
The bodies had been discovered by a cleaner at The Grapes pub in Stoneclough, Bolton, five hours earlier. One was prostrate on the floor, the other behind a bed.
The last time either of them was seen alive was 9.30pm the previous night, when Torin had gone down from their room to request the wi-fi password. Earlier they had enjoyed a drink while chatting with other customers about United’s triumph.
There was no sign of drugs in the room, but toxicology tests revealed almost six times the lethal dose of MDMA (the chemical name for ecstasy) in their bodies. Jacques also had almost three times the drink-drive limit of alcohol in his blood.
‘I got straight on the phone and told everyone,’ said Ray. ‘That was my way of dealing with it, and within seconds friends had turned up at the house, which helped Sarah a bit.’
Next day they went to identify the bodies. Sarah, distraught, could not stay in the mortuary beside them, walking out straight away after saying ‘stupid, stupid boys’ through her tears. Ray stayed on a while to talk to his sons.
The couple assumed Jacques had obtained the drugs. But police found Torin had bought powdered MDMA and amphetamine through the secretive ‘dark web’, which cannot be discovered with normal search engines. After the match, he had sent his flatmate at university a text message suggesting he felt he had received less drugs than ordered from a foreign dealer called ‘Stone Island’.
‘I feel angry at Torin for buying them,’ said his mother. ‘He used to be so anti-drugs after seeing his brother’s behaviour. The only comfort I take is knowing they were having a nice time, that they were happy and together when they died.’
The funeral was in Harrogate, where the family had cremated the boys’ grandfather two years earlier. The coffins were draped in Manx flags, there was music from favourite bands and a clip of Tony Hancock, whose comedy they loved.
Sarah says she barely left her home for the next three months until coaxed out by friends. She was kept going by work, finishing off a Spanish A-level ‘that I knew the boys would have wanted me to finish’, and then returning six months after the tragedy to her job at a local secondary school.
‘You can’t shut yourself off from life,’ said Sarah. ‘But I can’t help looking at people having babies, having grandchildren, their kids going off on gap years, and thinking about the boys. But you have to block your thoughts and carry on.’
Having retired, Ray cannot bury himself in work. He puzzles over the missing last hours of his sons between the end of the match and their arrival three hours later at the pub, and wonders why they didn’t stay at the hotel Jacques had booked in Salford.
He copes through his ‘Jactor’ project, named after his sons, which encourages people to leave Warhammer toys – which Jacques and Torin collected – in spots they visit around the world in their memory. They are already in more than 80 countries, with pictures recorded on a Facebook site.
Now Ray has joined Anyone’s Child, a campaign for bereaved parents seeking safer drug policies. It was founded one year ago by Anne-Marie Cockburn, an Oxford mother whose 15-year-old daughter died after taking ecstasy.
The group argues that illegality simply hands the drug market to gangsters. This increases risks for users since there is no control over what they take, while fuelling crime and failing to prevent widespread usage.
Ray said: ‘We have to be realistic. I told my boys that drugs had potential to kill but it did not stop them. Now I can go to schools and say drugs are dangerous, they killed my two boys. But it will not stop them being used.’
The campaign wants to see drugs legalised and state regulated, with licensed vendors and dosage controls. ‘The only thing that would have saved my boys was to have a safer system so they knew what they were taking,’ said Ray.
‘We insist on the safety and control of alcohol, tobacco, even sugar – so why not with drugs? No one is advocating the taking of drugs. But whether we like it or not, they are being taken and the laws on prohibition are not working.’
Despite their share of problems, this was clearly a contented family looking forward to the future until crushed by the most appalling events imaginable. As Ray says, the boys may have been killed by stupidity but their deaths were unnecessary.
During our day together, this friendly man dug out poems and spells he used to write and hide in trees during a period when his sons were infatuated with wizards. He was clearly a loving father; his voice faltered several times while telling me his heart-rending tale.
Drugs have destroyed this family, as they have many others around the world. ‘I have come to accept that this is, sadly, what kids do,’ said Ray. ‘But if they had known what they were taking, my boys would be alive today. I don’t want more families to suffer like mine.’