Sheila Blanco has been investigating the death of her son, Mark, for nearly 17 years. She has given interviews many times since 2006 to keep her son’s name in the spotlight, in the hope that this will apply pressure where it needs to be applied. The one-off documentary, Pete Doherty, Who Killed My Son? – note that crucial comma – forms another part of her investigation.
It is a sad and frustrating story, driven by Sheila’s persistence, despite a sense that people have been pulling down the shutters on her for almost two decades. There are certainly plenty of questions left to ask. On 3 December 2006, her son, Mark, a 30-year-old actor, went to the flat of a man named Paul Roundhill in Whitechapel, east London. He had posters with him for his forthcoming play, a production of Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist, and the suggestion is that he wanted to invite the rock star Doherty, who was at the flat that night, to come and see it.
Back then, Doherty was a beacon for tabloid attention. His first band, The Libertines, had broken up in acrimonious circumstances, there had been a riot at a London gig for his other band, Babyshambles, when Doherty failed to show up, and he was dating the supermodel Kate Moss. Roundhill has called his Whitechapel flat a “literary salon” and he was often referred to as Doherty’s “literary agent”. The pair made paintings together, in blood. But the flat has also been described as a “crack den”, and Roundhill admits, in footage from an earlier interview used here, that he had problems with drugs at the time.
It was a chaotic scene. Naomi Stirk, one of six people at a party at the flat that night, gives an interview here, describing “an environment of excess”. She recalls Mark’s arrival and suggests that the atmosphere quickly became tense. She says she saw Roundhill and Doherty’s bodyguard, Jonathan Jeannevol, known as Johnny Headlock, escort Mark out of the flat.
Whether Pete Doherty, Who Killed My Son? will help is not entirely clear, although it does at least keep Mark’s name in the public eye. There is little in the way of new information, although there is the still-shocking sight of blurry CCTV of Mark falling from a height. This is sent to a US forensic CCTV expert for pioneering analysis, which yields a fairly persuasive interpretation of what the footage shows.
The testimony and tenacity of Mark’s mother is forceful throughout, and an interview with his sister, Emma, is similarly powerful. She speaks of the shock of learning that her brother had been in a flat known as a crack den. Later, she says her mother’s experience of grieving has been “so far removed from ordinary”, given the work she has put into investigating what happened to her son.
The Independent Office for Police Conduct upheld Sheila’s complaints about the initial police investigation, which she says was bungled terribly. She recalls finding a lens from her son’s glasses on the pavement and seeing blood on the stairs; the police had not sealed off the scene for forensics. Detective inspector Mark Dunne told her he was “98% certain” the case was a suicide, as he had seen CCTV footage. But, at the inquest, the coroner ruled out suicide, saying, “I can exclude it unreservedly”.
Jeannevol confessed to murder three weeks after Mark’s death, only to retract his statement, claiming in a Sky News interview, also shown here, that he was on “heavy coke” at the time. The police released him without charge. There is a suggestion throughout that the police were dazzled by Doherty’s celebrity. There is another, more shocking, rumour that further muddies the waters when it comes to who knew what and when.
This film does not provide any solid answers. There is some evidence of Doherty’s callousness – and filming a song called The Lost Art of Murder at Roundhill’s flat, just four months after Mark died, does seem callous indeed. The obligatory statements from Roundhill, Doherty and the Metropolitan police at the end offer condolences and invite assistance from anyone who may be able to provide further information. But for the Blanco family, the wait for answers goes on.
• This article was amended on 26 September 2023 to correct the title of Dario Fo’s play Accidental Death of an Anarchist.
Pete Doherty, Who Killed My Son? is on Channel 4 now.