'Teagate' poisoning probe leaves bitter taste for Sheffield tree campaigners

A couple accused of poisoning workers carrying out tree-felling in Sheffield want an apology after police dropped their investigation into '˜Teagate'. Chris Burn reports.
A police investigation into Sue and John Unwin over a claim they poisoned tree-felling workers has been dropped.A police investigation into Sue and John Unwin over a claim they poisoned tree-felling workers has been dropped.
A police investigation into Sue and John Unwin over a claim they poisoned tree-felling workers has been dropped.

It was the one of the most extraordinary twists in the Sheffield tree-felling saga - an allegation that campaigners had poisoned three council contractors with cups of tea and juice made headlines around the world.

Now after the police confirmed this week that the investigation has been dropped due to a lack of evidence, the retired couple at the heart of the drama are asking for an apology following the company involved telling The New York Times that it could “guarantee” Teagate was genuine - even after the couple had been informed no police action would be taken against them.

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It had been alleged three workers for Sheffield Council contractor Amey had fallen ill after being given tea and orange juice laced with laxatives last year, with police conducting forensic tests as part of the investigation.

But a South Yorkshire Police spokeswoman confirmed this week: “The investigation is no longer live.”

Tree campaigners Dr John and Sue Unwin were accused of handing poisoned drinks to three men involved in tree-felling work close to their home on Chatsworth Road in Dore last October.

The couple are part of the campaign against the controversial tree-felling programme in the city, which is seeing thousands of trees being chopped down and replaced with saplings as part of a £2.2bn highways maintenance contract between the council and Amey.

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Sue Unwin says the couple were surprised to be visited by detectives in late January - around the same time that clashes between campaigners and security staff hired by Amey were unfolding on another street in the city, Meersbrook Park Road. That situation, which saw assault allegations made to police by both sides, eventually led to the city-wide programme being put on hold for several weeks after concerns were raised by local MP Louise Haigh.

“I was out walking my mother’s dog when I got a call from CID as they had come to our house and my husband gave them my mobile number,” she says.

“I couldn’t imagine what they wanted to speak to me about. I was trying to think what it could be, whether I had upset the neighbours. I just couldn’t think of anything I could have done.

“When I got home, the first thing I said to the officers was ‘Do you want a cup of tea?’ They declined and after they left and we had found out why they were here, my husband said it is no wonder they didn’t!”

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She says the officers repeatedly asked them about whether they had given two cups of tea and an orange juice to three Amey workers when they were doing work on the street last October.

Sue adds: “They asked me if it was likely we had made drinks for the crew. I said I could have done as we make drinks for everyone.”

She says John remembered making the drinks for them as he had been surprised at someone wanting a soft drink at that time of year.

“I had heard rumours that people were saying the crew had been poisoned by drinks. I said to the police ‘You are not suggesting we poisoned those drinks?’ They jumped on that and I explained I had heard the rumours.

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“Because they mentioned laxatives, I said we don’t have laxatives, we are vegetarians and don’t have any problems in that department. I said you can look in our cupboards, which they did.

“But they said they had forensic evidence and mentioned samples. But they obviously didn’t find anything in the end.

“I just couldn’t believe anyone could accuse us of doing this. I was really outraged and deeply upset.”

After the probe became public following a tip-off about the investigation to a newspaper which was then confirmed by a South Yorkshire Police press statement, the couple found themselves at the centre of what became an international story.

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“Afterwards, I think everybody we knew was looking at me, thinking ‘Did she do it?’ I went to the dentist and could tell he was dying to say something.

“I was on the Today programme on Radio 4 and John Humphrys thought it was a great big joke but it wasn’t to us.”

The worried couple took legal advice and were advised in mid-February they were ‘no longer of interest’ to the Teagate investigation. Following this news, they agreed to an interview request from The New York Times about the allegations and the wider tree protests.

In the same article, Darren Butt, account director for Amey, said: “Teagate is genuine, I can guarantee it is genuine.” He told the paper he was not accusing any individual, but the three workers had been off for more than a day with stomach problems.

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Sue says she feels her and her husband are now owed an apology for the ‘absurd’ investigation and expresses disappointment both at the fact they found out the investigation was over through the media rather than directly from officers and the brief nature of the police statement.

“The most upsetting bit is it doesn’t say we are innocent, it just leaves it hanging over us. It would have been much better if they had said there is no evidence to suggest this happened.

“I think Darren Butt should apologise.”

Sue says she feels the allegations were publicised to help discredit the campaigners fighting against tree-felling in the city at a time when there was considerable publicity about the events on Meersbrook Park Road. But Amey insists the news was not leaked by the company and stands by the workers who made reported their concerns to the police.

An Amey spokeswoman said today: “We would ask people to remember that although the investigation is no longer live, there remain three people, who work for us and have the right to carry out their lawful jobs, who became suddenly and inexplicably ill while working together on one of our sites. The situation was reported to the police who have investigated.

“We believe they were right to report their honestly-held concerns, as anyone would be, and we continue to support them.”