A rugby coach died during a massive drugs binge at a friend’s stag weekend in Stockport after leading a secret ‘weekend’ double life of narcotics and alcohol abuse, an inquest heard.
To wife Alex, Austen Howells, 40, had been the health conscious home-loving father of two known as ‘superdad’ who rarely drank – yet to friends he was ‘Mr All or Nothing’ who snorted cocaine and popped pills when he was out.
Mr Howells hidden life emerged last August after he died following a giant drug taking bender during a weekend away with 40 friends to celebrate a friend’s impending wedding.
Former teammate, Mr Davies, said: ”He would take cocaine most weekends and I believe there were periods when he was depressed.
“Austen was a different person on the weekend than he was in the week. In the week he was really homely and placid but on the weekend he used to let his hair down. Austen was ‘Mr All or Nothing.’ If he was doing something like that he wanted everyone to be in it.
“He rang me the week before the stag to discuss how much cocaine to bring. He said something about ‘super-pills’, I can only assume he meant ecstasy tablets.”
He said the health fanatic had become a regular drug user and was hooked on the painkiller Tramadol following an ankle injury.
Mr Howells had bought 150 tablets which he dubbed ‘super pills’ and stashed them in his glasses case but during an all night drug and alcohol fuelled session Mr Howells was described as ‘sweating’ and speaking of ‘demons’ as he popped the pills.
Two friends later left him lying on a bed in his hotel room in Stockport, Greater Manchester but was was found dead an hour later. Tests found he had cocaine, amphetamines, mephedrone, diazepam, tramadol and a 1960s’ Ecstasy-type drug AMT in his system.
Police also found text and Facebook messages in which Mr Howells spoken of ‘high grade stuff’ and adding: “It’s banging stuff got it from the horse’s mouth.” One Facebook message said: “still haven’t slept since Friday, on a bender got high-graded” and another read, “not going to make money, it’s for the boys and Ben”.
TRAGIC: Mr Howells wife said his friends called him ‘superdad’
The Stockport hearing was told how Mrs Howells, 46, an executive director for NHS Wales knew nothing of her husband’s drug taking. The Welshman from St Bride’s Major near Cardiff, played rugby semi-professionally with Bridgend Ravens and was coaching with Maesteg and was described as a ‘natural father’ by Mrs Howells who he married in 1999.
In a statement she said she loved her husband for his ‘energy, life and fun’ and added: “Everyone loved him he didn’t judge people on status or job. He didn’t like drinking or going out, he was a serious sportsman. He was a natural father.
”His friends called him super dad. We were happy and good family unit. The children had the healthiest lunch boxes. Rugby Sevens, that was his thing. He had never been a big one for going out.”
She said in the run up to his death they were in ‘the happiest time’ of their lives and had ‘enjoyed a great family life’.
Mr Howells’ sister Samantha Freeman said her brother had been a ‘stay at home dad’ and an ‘extremely doting father’ who had never mentioned any drug use.
She told the inquest: “Never. As a family Austen would always drive. A lot of people were shocked because Austen never used to drink alcohol.”
She added that although he had seen a mental health nurse in relation to depression he was never diagnosed.
The hearing was told Mr Howells was due to be master of ceremony for the wedding of bridegroom-to-be Benjamin Davies and rang him days before the stag weekend to say: “How much shall I bring 2/3 ounce” and spoke of ‘super pills’.
On the coach from Wales to Stockport, the former Bridge End rugby player was said to have been sat at the back apparently selling the drugs that he had brought with him.
The party of men had travelled from South Wales to Bredbury Hall Hotel and Country Club and the following day were due to watch a rugby match at St Helens. But after drinking in the hotel bar, Mr Howells was found in his room at 5.30am where he was ‘talking gibberish’.
Mr Davies saw cocaine on the desk and a friend went into his bag and opened a glasses case to see the haul of grey speckled pills.
Mr Davies said: “I assumed they were the pills he mentioned the week before on the phone, the super pills. He took about three in one go. Then I think he took another and gave me another.”
He added that they went to another room where they drank more and Mr Howells pulled more from his pocket despite being ‘right out of it’ and ‘delirious’.
He said he got the impression that he was helping himself to more because ‘it took a long time to kick in’ and went on: ”He took another one. He would go round the boys and offer them it, share them out.”
As the binge went into the following morning three of Mr Howells’ friends opted to stay with him rather than go to the rugby match.
Ejike Uzoigwe said: “He was talking about ‘I have got something with me’, what I would describe as pills, sort of bluish greyish.
“He didn’t make any sense he was sweating, a bit agitated, he was going on about demons in his head. He would say, ‘think of a happy place think of a happy place’.”
He said that he and another stag party reveller James Donavan spent three hours with their friend before briefly leaving him in the room. When Mr Donovan returned he was to find Mr Howells unresponsive.
Recording a narrative verdict coroner Joanne Kearsley said: “It is particularly tragic when someone who in many ways was clearly a talented, dedicated and respected individual who spent time developing and fostering youth talent, died in such a needless and senseless way.
“He appeared to be a man who lived an almost paradoxical life, health-conscious, sporty, family man but someone sadly who had an unhealthy long-standing drug habit.
“He brought the vast majority of drugs to that weekend, he wasn’t the only person to take drugs. It is in my view quite a shameful day when I hear that such drug taking is prevalent in rugby circles.
“He was a young man who had everything to live for. He was clearly respected in the community, it is a waste of talent. I hope others here that message loud and clear.”