Charity walk family speak out after trauma over son’s death

The Sheppard family prepare for their Coast to Coast walk. From left, Les and Julie Sheppard, Anita Templer (6), Niamh (12) and Patrick (13).
The Sheppard family prepare for their Coast to Coast walk. From left, Les and Julie Sheppard, Anita Templer (6), Niamh (12) and Patrick (13).

A BORDERS family has spoken of the heartbreak behind a charity walk being staged along Hadrian’s Wall at the end of next month.

Twelve members of Andrew Watt’s family will walk the 84 miles of the famous route to raise funds for the Penumbra youth project in Galashiels.

Project staff work to help young people deal with mental health issues. Andrew, 31, who suffered from a degree of paranoid schizophrenia, was found dead in a French country lane in September.

Tragic enough, but what followed should, says Andrew’s mum Julie Sheppard – who lives in the Ettrick Valley – serve as a warning to others of what can happen when a loved one dies abroad.

“It was because Andrew suffered from a degree of paranoid schizophrenia that we chose Penumbra as the beneficiary of our walk and we have their full backing,” Julie told TheSouthern this week.

“But we also want to use the event to raise awareness of what can happen when someone dies abroad. We don’t think many people will know what can happen and we hope that what we have been through will warn people of the problems that can arise.”

The family, which returned to the UK from France in 2009, had wanted Andrew to also return, but the Leeds University graduate had not wanted to leave his partner.

Andrew’s body was discovered in the village of Vimarce, near Laval in the Pays de la Loire region, where he was living with his French girlfriend.

But what happened next horrified not just Andrew’s grieving family, but also British Embassy officials.

“We flew out to France the day after Andrew was found. I was taken into a room – my husband was not allowed in with me – and questioned by the authorities in a manner I can only describe as appalling. I practically had to force my way out of the interview room,” said Julie.

“The French authorities put the cause of Andrew’s death down to heart failure due to ill health, but given the large amount of medication he was on, that cannot be certain.”

Andrew’s body was eventually released in December – three months after his death.

“The coroner in the UK wanted to do a second post mortem but we were then notified this wasn’t possible as Andrew’s brain and heart were missing. The French authorities had kept them for some reason without informing us,” explained Julie.

“We buried Andrew on Burn’s Night in January, but we only received the missing organs about five weeks ago.”

Julie also warned that the cost of repatriating a body can be prohibitive.

“Without insurance that covers the individual and taking into account how slow the French are in releasing bodies, we had to find £6,040, then a further £2,275 for the return of the organs when it was found they were missing.

“The whole thing is still on-going. The British Embassy has been involved and actually urged us to lodge a formal complaint with the French authorities.

“We did that, but as yet have had no reponse from the French. We are still waiting for answers and now have legal representation and have contacted our MP Michael Moore. All this has been going on while we have been trying to grieve for our son.

“It is unbelieveable that we have still not had a reply from French officials. You don’t expect to be treated like this by the authorities in a modern European country.It has been a terrible experience and the attitude of the French authorities has been nothing short of appalling. Inhumane, in fact, and I find the thought of going back to France very difficult.”

What has made the whole business even more saddening for the family is that they have had a life-long love affair with France, living on and off in the country for many years, with two of the children growing up there and able to speak fluent French.

Julie says the family is so angry about their experience that it has started a campaign to highlight the issues involved.

But while still determined to get answers from the French, Andrew’s family is now focusing on the positive aspects of May’s charity walk along the route of Hadrian’s Wall. As well as Julie, other family members making the trek, which starts on May 29, are Andrew’s stepdad Les, brother Patrick, 13, sisters Gemma, 30, Claire, 28, and Niamh, 12; his niece, Anita, 6; brother-in-laws, Donovan and Dan, plus 14-month-old nephew Harry and Andrew’s dad, Kevin Watt and his partner, Jenny.

Julie continued: “Basically, because of what Andrew went through, we felt it was appropriate we should do something to help other young people going through something similar.

“They do need help and understanding.”

Helen Pennington, manager of the Peumbra youth project, added: “We are very pleased they chose Penumbra as the beneficiary of the walk. Hopefully, all this will help raise awareness of some of the issues many young people have to face.”

Anyone wishing to sponsor the family or donate should contact Julie on 01750 52397.