LONDON // A British nurse will finally be laid to rest next week, more than 30 years after she died during an illegal drinks party in Saudi Arabia. But even the cremation of 23-year-old Helen Smith on November 9 will not signal an end to her father's unremitting campaign to find out how she died, he said yesterday. It has been his refusal to allow the disposal of the body that has resulted in the longest period in British history that known human remains have remained unburied.
Helen Smith's body has been preserved in a Leeds mortuary since it was flown back to Britain in May 1979, after she fell more than 20 metres from a balcony at an apartment in Jeddah during a party for expatriates. Her body was found the morning after on the pavement outside. Close by, impaled on railings, was the body of Johannes Otten, a Dutch seaman. The tragedy produced headlines around the world as the media focused on the hedonistic lifestyles of some expatriates working in the supposedly "dry" countries of the Gulf.
British and Saudi officials who investigated Smith's death concluded that it was a tragic accident, brought about by the nurse and Otten falling during a drunken, sexual romp on the balcony of their friends' apartment. However, Ron Smith, her father and a former policeman, suspected his daughter had been murdered and, when the body was returned to the UK, he refused to give permission for a burial or cremation, believing the remains could contain vital clues.
Accusing both British and Saudi officials of a cover-up, he embarked on a campaign for a public inquiry into his daughter's death, hoping her body might yield forensic evidence. Subsequent examinations did indicate that Smith might have suffered injuries before her fall. Mr Smith continues to claim that a high-level British official was at the party where his daughter died, but that this fact had been hushed up.
Mr Smith's demand for an inquest to be held in Britain was initially refused by a coroner, but he fought a lengthy legal battle that, in 1982, resulted in a ruling in his favour from the Court of Appeal in London. The decision fundamentally changed British law covering the deaths of Britons abroad with the judges ruling that, henceforth, any Briton who died of unnatural causes in a foreign land should be the subject of an inquest once the body was returned to the UK.
Fifteen years later, the ruling was cited as grounds for an inquest to be held in London into the death of Diana, princess of Wales, in Paris. The victory, however, was only a partial one for Mr Smith, not least because the jury at the inquest into his daughter's death returned an "open" verdict, meaning they could not decide if Smith had fallen by accident, been murdered or died as a result of misadventure.
Six post-mortem examinations have been carried out on her body over the years, most of them paid for by Mr Smith as he relentlessly pursued what he saw as a mission to unearth the truth of what happened in Jeddah. But he never got his public inquiry and now, at 83 years of age and in failing health, Mr Smith has finally agreed to his ex-wife's pleas that their daughter be laid to rest. "My ex-wife said that, while she and her children see no fault in my fight for truth, she felt we should organise the funeral while we were both still alive," he said. "Looking at it logically and dispassionately, I must agree."
The sealed container bearing Smith's remains was transferred last week from the mortuary to a private funeral home. Jeryl Sheehy, Mr Smith's former wife, from whom he was separated by the time of their daughter's death, has lived in the United States for many years but will return to England for her daughter's funeral. The body will be cremated in Wakefield and the ashes scattered on Ilkley Moor, a beauty spot Smith loved as a child. "All the children spent time there," her father said. "It holds many happy memories. It will be very emotional."
Smith, who came from Leeds, had been working at the Bakhsh Hospital when she was invited to a party in the sixth-floor flat of Richard Arnot, a doctor, and his wife, Penny. Although forbidden in Saudi Arabia, large quantities of alcohol were drunk at the gathering, including smuggled whisky and gin, and home-made wine. Inquests were held in Saudi Arabia on Smith and Otten and verdicts of accidental death were returned. Later, a pathologist reported that the nurse had suffered other injuries unrelated to the fall, indicating "some form of rough handling or assault prior to death".
Although Mr Smith accepts that it is now time for his daughter to have her funeral, he said he will never give up his battle to try to prove her death was more than an accident. "There will never be any closure," he said. "Helen's remains must, I agree, be disposed of. But I will never accept that there has been no cover-up, and I will not give up this cause for which I have been fighting the past 30 years."