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Prison officer did not know Baxter was a suicide risk

Quinton Wendell "Woolly" Baxter (File photograph)

A prison officer charged with the welfare of a paedophile who died within days of being incarcerated at Westgate has told an inquest that he was not aware that the inmate was a suicide risk.

During the second day of testimony yesterday, Jonathan James, a prison officer on duty in the maximum-security unit where Wendell “Woolly” Baxter was held on the night he died, also agreed that Baxter had appeared “very normal and friendly” in the hours before his death.

Baxter, who was a well-respected football player and coach, was jailed for 11 years in June 2017 for a string of sex offences against young boys over several decades dating back to the 1970s. He died in his prison cell ten days later.

His victims included top footballing brothers Andrew and David Bascome, who came forward in 2016 about their ordeal.

Questioned by attorney Elizabeth Christopher, who is representing Baxter’s family, Mr James said that he spoke to the inmate shortly after starting his shift in the evening on July 1, 2017.

The prison officer said that Baxter had called out to him “Hey, James, cool”, at one point when Mr James was carrying out his round of cell inspections.

Asked by Ms Christopher if anyone had told him that Baxter was a suicide risk, Mr James replied: “No.”

He also agreed with Ms Christopher that he was “taken aback” and “shocked” by subsequent events.

In earlier testimony, Mr James said that he had carried out inspections of all cells in the wing every 30 minutes. During his fourth round of inspections shortly before 11.30pm, he said he saw Baxter in his cell standing on a chair with a sheet around his neck. After the two men made eye contact, Baxter jumped.

Questioned about the incident by Ms Christopher, Mr James repeated his account but added one detail — that he had shouted out “Baxter, what are you doing?” just before the prisoner jumped.

Ms Christopher then asked Mr James to comment on footage taken from security cameras in the maximum-security wing.

The footage showed Mr James run back to the pod’s control room after the apparent suicide to raise the alarm and obtain a key to Baxter’s cell. He returned to the scene in less than a minute and then spent a further minute administering CPR to Baxter.

He made one further trip to the control room before going back to Baxter’s cell to give first aid for a second time, remaining with the prisoner for three minutes.

Mr James agreed with Ms Christopher that he had spent “a fair amount of time trying to bring Baxter back”, but that there was no indication that this would happen.

Asked if he had made any observations while administering CPR to Baxter, Mr James replied: “He wasn’t responsive.”

Ms Christopher suggested that Mr James was more qualified than other prison officers to give first aid because he had previously worked as a hospital orderly.

Mr James disagreed with that. Instead, he agreed with police sergeant Lyndon Raynor, the coroner’s officer, that he had received basic medical training similar to his colleagues.

Eugene Johnston, representing the Crown in the inquest, asked Mr James how suicidal inmates were treated.

Mr James went on to explain that they would be placed on suicide watch, which involved moving them to a cell without sheets, clothing or chairs. These inmates would then be on around-the-clock watch by a nearby corrections officer who would not let them out of their sight.

He said that had Baxter been on suicide watch, he would not have had the sheet or chair used to take his life.

Mr James added that despite Baxter showing no signs of life, it was a “natural reaction” for him to perform CPR.

He said: “At the time I was determined to try and revive him.”

Mr James described Baxter as “heavy” and estimated that he was about 300lb. When questioned by a juror, he added that Baxter was shorter than six feet.

At the start of yesterday’s proceedings, Ms Christopher expressed concern at The Gazette’s earlier coverage of the case, which had detailed Baxter’s extensive record as a child sex abuser while in a position of trust.

Aura Cassidy, the coroner, agreed, describing yesterday’s newspaper article as “distasteful”. She advised the jury not to read it, but did not order any reporting restrictions on the press.

The hearing continues.

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