Grieving Emsworth father welcomes conviction of manager after son’s death at apple farm

Much-missedL Ashley Clarke
Much-missedL Ashley Clarke
  • Father says actions of manager were ‘beyond belief’ in apple farm tragedy
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A DEVASTATED father who lost his son in a farm tragedy has welcomed the conviction of one of the site’s managers.

Ian Clarke, 58, said ordering someone to enter a dangerous atmosphere to win a fruit competition was ‘beyond belief’.

His comments came after Andrew Stocker, 57, was found guilty of the manslaughter of his son Ashley Clarke, 24, and co-worker Scott Cain, 23, after he asked them to ‘scuba dive’ without breathing apparatus to retrieve prize-winning apples from a storage unit.

Ashley, who grew up in Markway Close, Emsworth, and Mr Cain were found unconscious on top of crates of apples on the afternoon of February 18, 2013.

The jury at Winchester Crown Court took more than 18 hours to reach its verdict.

The tragedy happened at the Blackmoor Estate in Liss. The trial heard Stocker instructed Mr Cain to gather sample fruit while he was away on holiday. The fruit was to be entered in the Marden Fruit Show in Kent.

The court heard Stocker encouraged ‘scuba diving’, which involved staff entering the storage units through a hatch in the roof and holding their breath while they ducked inside in the cramped conditions to retrieve the fruit.

The oxygen levels were just one per cent to help preserve the fruit.

Ashley, an engineering graduate who played for Southsea Nomads Rugby Club, moved from Emsworth to live with his fiancée Rachel Higgins in Liss and had a job at the nearby farm.

Blackmoor Estate Ltd entered guilty pleas at an earlier hearing to three counts of contravening health and safety regulations.

Mr Justice Akenhead adjourned the case for sentence on July 1 and warned Stocker of The Links, Whitehill, Bordon, that he was considering all options including imprisonment.

The judge said he would prepare notes to be forwarded to the fruit packing industry ‘to make sure these very sad events do not occur again if at all possible’.

Mr Clarke, from Emsworth, said: ‘We are pleased with the guilty verdict and, regardless of the sentence imposed, the outcome means somebody is held to account for the deaths of both Ashley and Scott.

‘Mr Stocker’s actions have been proven to be grossly negligent and not simply a result of poor judgement which provides us with a positive end to an emotionally draining trial.

‘We would never have accepted Mr Stocker’s defence that collecting apples from controlled atmosphere units with virtually no oxygen in them by simply holding one’s breath whilst ducking down was a safe and acceptable practice. It is quite upsetting that someone could put someone in that situation just so they could win a fruit competition – it’s beyond belief.

‘I don’t think Mr Stocker is a bad man but his actions have left us without a son.’

He added: ‘We cannot bring Ashley back and, nearly two and half years on, the pain has not diminished.’

He said the family would be serving their own ‘life sentence’ as they try to come to terms with the terrible loss.