‘It breaks my heart that Dennis Hutchings died before he could clear his name’: The Northern Ireland veteran’s partner of 26 years reveals her raw agony over his sudden and lonely death
The body of the cruelly persecuted Army veteran Dennis Hutchings was returned to home soil yesterday and transported to the picture postcard village on the Cornish coast where he’d made his home.
Five days ago, this proud but frail 80-year-old, who fought so heroically to clear his name in a Belfast courtroom over a shooting in the heat of battle 47 years ago, died alone in a Covid ward in the Northern Ireland capital.
His partner of 26 years Kim Devonshire, whom he loved dearly, is numb with grief. ‘He really believed he was going to clear his name,’ she says. ‘It breaks my heart that he never could.’
It is the shocking nature of his death — under such strain, alone and far from family — that is impossible for her to come to terms with.
Former soldier Dennis Hutchings died before his trial for attempted murder concluded, leaving him unable to clear his name as he had vowed to do. His wife of 26 years, Kim Devonshire, has revealed she is numb with grief
Mr Hutchings pleaded not guilty to the attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham who was shot in County Tyrone 47 years ago
Mr Hutchings waves as he arrives to the Belfast Crown court in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on October 4, for his trial for attempted murder. He died before the trial concluded
Kim, 65, had seen Dennis 36 hours before his death and still cannot comprehend how the partner she could always rely on, the man who would always look after her, is dead.
The sad truth is that Dennis might be here today if the Ministry of Defence, charged with providing support to this man forced to stand in the dock in a trial likened to a witch-hunt, had done its duty. Instead, as Kim reveals, this terminally ill man — who had numerous ailments, including kidney failure and heart disease, but was still determined to clear his name — was all but deserted in his final hours.
Kim was alone at their Cornwall home on Monday evening when she was contacted by a civil servant and told that Dennis had been taken to hospital. She was given its number and told to ‘leave it an hour before phoning’.
What followed was a tragic and almost farcical back-and-forth, which began when Kim did as she was told but couldn’t get a reply from the ward. After trying several times over the next hour, she phoned the civil servant back in a panic, telling him she was unable to get through. ‘He said, “Well you’ve got to persevere.” I did and, that time, someone answered.
Dennis Hutchings (R) with his beloved partner of 26 years Kim Devonshire (L) who admits she is numb with grief he never got the chance to clear his name
‘They put me through to the doctor who said, “Oh, I’m glad you phoned. I’ve been trying to find your number. I wanted to ask you some questions about Dennis because I know nothing about him. Why is he in Belfast? I know nothing about this man. Can you give me a brief history and a rundown on his health?”
‘I told him what I knew, then he said, “When Dennis came in, he had a very low oxygen level. We did get it up but then it dropped again. He just wouldn’t keep his oxygen mask on. I’m very sorry to have to tell you that Dennis died.”
‘I just thought… well, I was speechless. I said, “I’ll have to phone you back” and I called Stewart [the civil servant].
‘I said, “Stewart, you’ve got to phone the hospital. They told me Dennis has died and that just can’t be true. That wouldn’t happen to Dennis. He wouldn’t die within two hours just like that. He’s fought off so much over so long. It can’t be Dennis. They’ve mixed him up with someone else.”
‘Stewart phoned back ten or 15 minutes later. He said, “Kim, I’m really, really sorry but it is Dennis.” I’ve been trying to remember things that we said to each other in our last week together [at a Belfast hotel] but I can’t remember. I’m really cross because it’s gone,’ she says.
‘People have said, “It will come back but you mustn’t try too hard to bring up old memories. It will just come back.” But it just seems a blur. I want to remember because I did use to make Dennis laugh, but I can’t think of those things… I can’t.’
Kim is being supported in her hour of need by Plymouth MP and former Defence Minister Johnny Mercer, who sits with her as we talk.
Johnny helped Dennis throughout his final battle, lodging a witness statement in support of the ex-soldier, and was horrified that the veteran was being betrayed by the Government who, he felt, had broken its promises to our servicemen not to pursue ‘vexatious’ historical investigations.
Kim is the sort of dignified woman who prefers to share her grief privately with the family she loves, but Dennis has the biggest part of her heart and he cannot speak now.
‘He really believed he was going to clear his name, come out [of the court in Belfast], punch the air and say, “That’s it. We’ve done it!” ‘It breaks my heart that he never could.’
Johnny reassures her: ‘It won’t be over until his name has been cleared.’ ‘But it isn’t just that,’ says Kim. ‘He’d say, “I’m not doing it for me. I’m doing it because there are 270 others who are going to get the knock on the door.” ’
Mr Hutchings had been cleared twice over the shooting of John Pat Cunningham, a 27-year-old with learning difficulties, as he fled from an Army patrol in Tyrone in 1974.
He was told he would not be prosecuted in the months after Mr Cunningham’s death following an initial investigation, and again in 2011 when the case was reviewed. However, it was reopened by the Legacy Investigation Branch of the Police Service of Northern Ireland in 2015.
Dennis was taken from his home in Cornwall to Northern Ireland for questioning.
Kim remembers the day all too well. It was here, in their beautiful home with its glass balconies and views of the sea, where 14 police officers came to arrest Dennis on a Tuesday morning in April 2015. Kim’s parents, her sister, Kim’s son Christopher, now 42, and his daughter Amelie, now 12, were in the house at the time.
‘Dennis went to answer the door and saw them. He said, “All right lads, what are you here for? Do you want a cup of tea?” That was just Dennis.
‘I don’t know if he had an inkling what was going to happen,’ she says. Her eyes swim with tears.
‘There had been some correspondence going back and forth for a while and he became a bit agitated by it but it was never something we thought was going to erupt into what it did.’
Kim had shared her life with Dennis since May 14, 1995 — she remembers the exact date — when he took her ‘for Champagne and canapes with the Queen and Prince Philip at the Royal Windsor Horse Show after they’d met through mutual friends.
‘When he phoned out of the blue to ask me, I couldn’t really turn that down, could I?’ she smiles. A whirlwind of Ascot, the Derby and Henley followed. She says he made her feel ‘safe and comfortable. Everyone was either “son” or “darling” to him, mostly because he never remembered anyone’s name.’ Briefly her eyes sparkle. ‘That was just Dennis.’
After the Army — Dennis had been in the Life Guards — he had established a hugely successful security business, which he sold for more than £1 million when he retired in 2005 to enjoy his remaining years in Cornwall with Kim.
But his career with the Life Guards was always the biggest part of him. During his 26-year service he received a gallantry award for his heroism in arresting six IRA members who were hiding upstairs in a building.
Johnny recounts the tale he heard from Dennis, adding: ‘He also arrested a priest and people said, “You can’t do that”. ‘There is a brief glimmer of humour in Kim’s eyes as she listens.
‘Dennis had so many stories,’ she says. ‘He was mentioned in dispatches the night before the incident he was on trial for. It’s just so wrong to treat old soldiers in such an abysmal way, isn’t it?’
Dennis’s heath began to deteriorate following a problem with his prostate. ‘If only he’d got himself checked earlier,’ says Kim. ‘Do you get yourself checked?’ she asks Johnny in her warm-hearted way. ‘You must.’
Dennis started having dialysis twice a week four years before his trial. Such was the drawn-out legal process, his treatment had been upped to four times a week before his trial finally began in Belfast this month.
‘One thing he found really amusing was that the hotel room was booked in my name. We’d never got married because we’d both been married before so I didn’t feel the need and I didn’t like his name either.’
She laughs. ‘Then, for security reasons, he was being called Mr Devonshire at the hotel. He phoned me every single day wherever he was,’ she says. She last spoke to him on Monday morning.
Dennis had tested positive for Covid during his kidney dialysis treatment on the Saturday so had told her she’d ‘best go home as he’d have to be in isolation in the hotel room’.
‘He just seemed to have a cold, so wanted to get better and carry on with the trial,’ Kim says. ‘I’ve never seen Dennis crumble over anything — apart from when his dog died. Nothing daunted him. Dennis just carried on and carried you along.’
She falls into silent thought. Kim has barely slept and must be exhausted but, like the man she loved, she’s vowed to battle on.
‘He was determined to fight this. He knew he wasn’t guilty and he wasn’t going to let anyone say he was. When they said about having an amnesty, that infuriated him. ‘He said, “They give you an amnesty if you’re guilty, but I wasn’t.” He wanted to be in court. He wanted to fight the battle out there. He felt if he hadn’t [but appeared down the line in Plymouth as he was offered] it would have been pushed aside.
‘He wanted the coverage to highlight what was going on.’ And so Kim had to watch this frail old man in court, as so many of us did, ‘in a big glass box with a police officer. Some of the officers sat next to him but most sat 5 ft away.
‘Dennis was extremely tired and would drop off. It did concern me that he’d do that in court. I teased him about it. The police officer would go and nudge him awake.
‘I could see that Sunday I came home he was worse than he was when he left here to go to court, but I had no idea when I left him he was as poorly as he must have been.
‘I wouldn’t have gone home if I had. They said he had Covid but he’d had his vaccinations and we thought he had my cold.’
She twists a diamond ring on her finger, one of many gifts from Dennis and looks at Johnny. ‘I should have been there.’
Again Johnny assures her, ‘You wouldn’t have been able to be in the hospital with Covid.’ Kim nods, but you know just to look at her that she would have gone through hell and high water to be by his bed.
‘Dennis had his up days and his down days. He’d always bounce back. For six years we’d been told he only had a matter of months to live but he never gave up.
‘The doctor once said to him, “I don’t know what you’re doing, Dennis, but keep doing it.”
‘When I rang him on the Monday morning we had a normal conversation. He said, “I’m fine, I’m fine. I’ve just got a cold.”
‘We talked about getting a newspaper and some paracetamol. I said I’d phone back later.’
She never spoke to him again. Kim still doesn’t have a date for the funeral. It was only yesterday she knew his body was safely home.
Dennis was desperate to be back in the village he loved, telling Johnny Mercer on Monday afternoon: ‘I want you to get me out of this hell-hole and get me home.’ That was their last conversation.
Kim has asked Johnny to read the eulogy at the funeral, which will be held in a church in Plymouth. It is an honour he is proud to fulfil.
‘Not many people are brave enough to do what he did in his state,’ says Johnny.
‘He could have sat here and done it down the line but he was determined to stand up to the people he called “those bullies”. He was a very special man.’
And a remarkable old soldier who deserved better.