Inquest into homeless man’s death finally under way after eight-year delay

The inquest of a man who died in a Walthamstow nature reserve eight years ago finally began today.

Lukasz Costazza, 30, was killed by a falling willow tree while sleeping in a small woodland at Low Hall Nature Reserve on the evening of June 9, 2015.

Mr Costazza, a homeless man from Poland, had been drinking heavily and was asleep or unconscious at the time the five-metre-long tree fell.

On the first day of a week-long jury inquest this morning, senior coroner Graeme Irvine said the tree “failed and fell on top” of the 30-year-old.

He added: “It would appear that Mr Costazza was sleeping at the time that tree fell on top of him.

“At the time of the incident, Lukasz was homeless and it is believed that he had been sleeping rough.”

Shortly after 9pm, one of three other men who were in the reserve with Lukasz called the emergency services.

A fast-responding paramedic arrived by motorbike, followed by a helicopter medical team, but Mr Costazza, who had severe head injuries, died at the scene.

Although the men in the reserve left the scene before the police arrived, one of the men, Kasper Zbieg, went to Leyton police station later that night to provide a statement.

His statement, summarised by the coroner, said people regularly met in the reserve to drink alcohol because it is hidden away and they “don’t get their drink taken away from them”.

Kasper arrived at about 8pm, and saw three other males sitting a few metres from an “old rotting dead tree that had the top cut from it”.

He said Lukasz was asleep in a bush, lying in a foetal position, “three to four metres” from the tree.

After 20-30 minutes Kasper, who had only drunk “half a beer” heard a noise and saw that the dead tree had fallen on Lucasz’s head and neck.

The three shocked men, one of whom was crying, called the emergency services but later left the scene after paramedics said they could telephone to find out what had happened.

A post-mortem examination found that Lucasz died of severe head injuries and had a “very high” alcohol level in his blood – four and a half times the legal limit for driving.

Detective inspector Martin Head from the Metropolitan Police’s specialist crime command told the court that although the death was unusual it was deemed “non-suspicious”.

The police then carried out a joint investigation with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) into whether the nature reserve’s owner Waltham Forest Council or its tree maintenance contractor Gristwood and Toms should face corporate manslaughter charges.

In the days following the death, an HSE inspector had told the council that it needed to carry out “remedial work” to make the trees in the woodland safe.

They found that some trees, including the one that fell, had been damaged by fires in the past.

Both the police and HSE eventually concluded there was insufficient evidence to charge either the council or the tree contractor with a criminal offence.

At the opening of the inquest today (May 22), senior coroner for East London Graeme Irvine did not explain why it had taken eight years to begin a full inquest but remarked that the case had a “long and convoluted” history.

A statement by Lukasz’s family, read by the coroner, said he was “hard-working, family-oriented and very helpful”.

They added: “When he was 16, he won a battle with cancer despite having very little chance of survival. He really appreciated the second chance in life.

“He was never looking for any kind of conflict with anyone. He was resourceful so we never worried about him. He lived his own life.”

The inquest continues.

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Josh Mellor

Local Democracy Reporter