Worker tells court of moment he found two men lying dead in apple store

Ashley Clarke, who died at Blackmoor Estate
Ashley Clarke, who died at Blackmoor Estate

AN EXPERIENCED fruit packager working on a Tory peer’s country estate today told a court how he found two young men lying dead in an apple store in a ‘foetal position’.

Scott Cain, 23, and Ashley Clarke, 24, were discovered unconscious in the apple storage unit on the 2,500-acre estate owned by Tory peer and Earl of Selborne, John Palmer.

Jurors heard they diedafter being ordered by farm manager, Andrew Stocker, 57, to retrieve apples from a ‘highly dangerous’ cooler.

The storage chiller on the Blackmoor Estate, near Liss, Hampshire, had a ‘controlled atmosphere’ of just one per cent oxygen – far less than the 21 per cent needed to survive.

Winchester Crown Court heard Mr Cain, of Liphook, Hampshire, was ordered to hand-pick the fruit and enter the container while holding his breath – a risky process known as ‘scuba diving’.

He was ordered to do so by Stocker as he wanted to win the Marden Fruit Show, an annual competition held in West Malling, Kent, the court heard.

Paul Metherell, who was in charge of the packhouse while Stocker was on holiday in the Maldives, today told the court that when the men did not return he knew that something had gone ‘terribly wrong’.

At around 3pm on February 18, 2013, they were discovered by frantic colleagues who tried to save father-of-one Mr Cain and amateur rugby player Mr Clarke, who grew up in Emsworth and played for the Southsea Nomads.

Mr Metherell had worked at the packhouse for nine years and assumed extra responsibilities on the site while Stocker was in the Maldives.

He said: ‘The instructions to open the hatch had already been given by Mr Stocker to Scott before he went away on holiday.

‘Scott told me he was going to get samples that morning from stores three, six and 20 and said he was getting the apples for the Marden Fruit Show.

‘He said in the morning that it would be Ben Stocker, Mr Stocker’s son, who would accompany him.

‘Ben was not available in the afternoon so Scott asked if Ashley Clarke could help him get the apples.

‘At 3pm I was aware something had gone terribly wrong.

‘Will Murphy, who also works on site, found me and said to me “they are still in the store”.

‘We both rushed up the stairs and went to the top of the store and looked through the hatch.

‘No one else was up on the roof, and I saw Scott and Ashley lying one metre below the hatch.

‘They were both lying in a foetal position – as they were on their side on top of the apples. Scott’s legs may have been on top of Ashley.

‘We then used straps to pull Scott out and then we went back to pull Ashley out.’

Rachel Higgins, who was engaged to marry Ashley Clarke, worked with him after finding him a job at the Blackmoor Estate – which produces high-quality fruit.

Miss Higgins, who was an office administrator at the packhouse, told the court she heard Stocker order Mr Cain to get the apples before he went on holiday.

She said: ‘The conversation took place in the office. Mr Stocker asked Scott to get the samples on the Monday morning.

‘He asked Scott to get them ready for the Marden Fruit Show in Kent.

‘He said to him “I need you to do the usual for the samples – if you could do the same as last year, we’re laughing”.

‘And I think Mr Stocker was referring to the fact we won the competition the year before and I believe it is an annual event.

‘He gave Scott the names of three apples.’

Lord Selborne, 75, is a member of the Conservative party and entered the House of Lords in 1992, becoming a hereditary peer in 1999.

Blackmoor Estate has been growing and storing fruit since the 1920s and has a reputation for high-quality storage and service, winning numerous awards for long term storage of Cox, Bramley and Gala apples.

It won the Marden Fruit Show Society prizes for long term storage of Gala last year, and the packhouse manager won the best store manager award.

Stocker, of Bordon, Hampshire, denies two charges of manslaughter through gross negligence.