It is November 2019, 10 weeks since 19-year-old Harry Dunn was killed, and his four parents are distraught. Charlotte, Tim, Bruce and Tracey say that some mornings they can barely get out of bed, never mind begin to mourn. “You wake up and you’re just a complete wreck, and nothing you can do is processed without thinking of Harry,” says his mother, Charlotte Charles.
She and Harry’s father, Tim, split up when he was 10 months old; six months later, Tim was with Tracey, and Charlotte was with Bruce. Both couples were parents to Harry and his twin brother Niall, and the families have always been close. “The last three or four days have been the worst for me,” Tim says. “I’m struggling. Every time I see his face I start crying.”
Harry died on 27 August 2019 after being hit by a car driven by Anne Sacoolas, the wife of a US government employee; her husband had just started working at an intelligence base in Northampton. The Sacoolas family had moved to the UK only a month earlier, and lived three miles away in a village called Hinton-in-the-Hedges. As Sacoolas pulled out of RAF Croughton, a former British base run by the Americans since 1950, she smashed into Harry’s motorbike. He lived long enough to make a statement to the police that Sacoolas had been driving on the wrong side of the road – something she has never denied.
The family expected Sacoolas to talk to them about what had happened – however painful it would have been, it would have provided some comfort. They felt for her: two of her three children had been with her in the car when Harry was flung from his motorbike into her windscreen. Perhaps they could even help each other come to terms with the tragedy.
But that never happened. In September, Sacoolas returned to the US, claiming diplomatic immunity, and Harry’s family became less forgiving. They wanted her to face the appropriate criminal charge in the UK: causing death by dangerous driving.
Two months on, they seem sick and dizzy with all that has happened. In the short time since Harry’s death, they have appeared on TV shows in Britain and the US, calling for Sacoolas to face justice. In October, they were even summoned to the White House to meet Donald Trump. None of the parents have been able to return to their jobs yet. Tim is a maintenance man at a local school; Bruce is a site foreman; both Charlotte and Tracey are administrators in local GP surgeries.
We meet at Tim and Tracey’s house in Banbury, Oxfordshire. All four are warm and welcoming, and it takes a while to sort out who is who. The living room is small, so Tim sits on the stairs. Charlotte, the youngest at 45, does most of the talking. Tracey is the quietest; Tim says she is having a particularly bad day. All four seem to divide life into bad days and very bad days. Above the sofa is a wall filled with black and white family canvases – grandparents, Tim and Tracey, Tracey’s children and, in the centre, Harry and Niall.
The Dunns and Charleses are not really two families, but one big one. They have six children in total: Harry and Niall from Charlotte and Tim’s marriage; two boys from Bruce’s first marriage; a girl and boy from Tracey’s first marriage. From a very young age, Harry and Niall’s time was spent between their two homes. Towards the end of his life, Harry and Niall didn’t simply split the week, they often divided days – breakfast with one lot, tea with the other. Harry was an outgoing, confident 19-year-old. “Everybody loved him,” Tim says. He learned how to code and built his own PC from scratch at the age of 14. At college, he studied IT and gaming.
Tim introduced him to their local football club, Northampton Town, and they were season ticket holders. But most of all Harry loved motorbikes. “He had his first one when he was seven,” Charlotte says. Bloody hell, whose idea was that? “His!” Charlotte points to Bruce. Did the others have no say?” All four laugh. “No, nobody had a say. Harry always made up his own mind,” Tracey says. He saved and saved – Christmas money, birthday money, pocket money – until he could afford a junior motorbike. He went on to travel the country, clocking up 50,000 miles in his short life.
It was Tim who first heard Harry had been involved in a crash. “The local fireman who was at the scene is a friend. I shot straight up there. I had visions of him just being bruised. Even when I saw him with broken bones in the ambulance, it didn’t enter my head that he was going to die.” The accident happened at 8.30pm. Tim was there by 8.50pm. Was Sacoolas there? “I didn’t see her. Maybe she was in a police car.”
Harry lived for 90 minutes after he was hit. “An hour and a half,” Charlotte says quietly. “He made a statement on the side of the road, with his face down in the ditch, that she was on the wrong side of the road.”
Do they think Harry knew he was dying?
“I think probably not,” Charlotte says. “His injuries were horrific. You hope that the shock element may have taken a lot of the pain away. When Tim got there, they were just about to sedate him.”
“They were giving him blood. There were six or seven people working around him on a stretcher,” Tim says, struggling with the memory.
“Hearing his dad’s voice would have calmed him down a lot,” Charlotte says.
“He didn’t really speak back to me. He was struggling with his breathing. I said, ‘Harry, it’s your dad, I’m here for you, please do what they say.’” Tim was with Harry for 10 or 15 minutes before he was put in the ambulance and taken to the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford. “He was panicking. I said, ‘Harry, let them take you, it will make you better.’”
Was he calm himself? “Yes. I had to be for Harry. Everybody was telling me he’d pull through.”
Charlotte and Bruce went to pick up Niall; Tim called for Tracey; and the family followed him to the hospital. “When you go to A&E and you get shown to the family room and you’re kept away from everybody, you start thinking – even though you don’t want to believe it,” Tim says. “Then, within 10 minutes of getting there, the doctor came in and told us they couldn’t save him. Godawful…” Tim splutters to a stop.
Charlotte says she made a pledge that night. “I promised Harry we would make sure the driver of that vehicle was brought to justice. We had no idea how hard that would be – but if you make a promise to your children, you don’t break it.”
At that point, she had no reason to suspect this wouldn’t come easily – or that their son’s death would become an international incident. Their plan was to campaign for better road signage outside the US intelligence base; they hoped Sacoolas might join them. But when she and her family left the country three weeks later, they realised it would be a very different fight.
Northamptonshire police told the family that Sacoolas was no longer in the UK on 26 September, 11 days after she had left. According to a statement made by foreign secretary Dominic Raab to parliament in October, the US embassy had informed the Foreign Office (FCO) of the accident the day after it happened, asserting Sacoolas’s right to immunity as the wife of an RAF Croughton employee. Raab told MPs that the FCO had asked for this immunity to be waived at the time, and again when the US refused and said Sacoolas would be leaving the country imminently. They were informed that she had left, Raab said, on 16 September.
The foreign secretary admitted in parliament that when officials passed on the news to the police investigating Harry’s death, they asked them to delay telling the family – “so that we could agree the next course of action”. Astonishingly, Raab went on to blame the police, “as the primary point of family liaison”, for the fact that Harry’s parents spent another 11 days in the dark.
Unsurprisingly, Harry’s parents were furious. There was a meeting of the extended family – about 35 people – to discuss a plan of action. They were joined by a retired lawyer, Radd Seiger, who lived locally and whose children had gone to school with Harry and Niall. Bruce’s 31-year-old son Ciarán began a GoFundMe page to pay for a formal campaign. Seiger, a tough, bullet-headed American, offered to be the family adviser and spokesperson. Within days, they were on the front pages of the tabloids, sitting on breakfast TV sofas, meeting Raab and preparing to fly to the US. Before long, everyone in the country knew about the death of Harry Dunn.
His parents believe Sacoolas and her family were removed by the US government; it is impossible to know how much say she had in that decision.
“The Americans pulled them out, didn’t they?” Tim says.
“She would have done what she was told to do,” Charlotte says. “But she’s still a human being, and can stand up and say, ‘No, I need to do what’s right by my family.’ She’s got children. How is she explaining all this to her kids – that your mum’s on the run? That’s why we didn’t want her behind bars in the first place.” Anne and Jonathan Sacoolas have three young children, believed to be between the ages of four and 11.
“Her kids have got to be suffering,” Charlotte says. “Harry was a big lad. He made a complete and utter mess of her windscreen, and one of her children was sitting in the front. They have got to be extremely traumatised. So how can you, as a mum, just take your kids back to where they come from and not try to explain to them? That’s what we don’t understand as parents.”
Tim says he wishes Sacoolas’s children had not been in the car.
“I wish they hadn’t as well,” Charlotte says. “When we found out she was a mum, we said we would work with the police to try to get her a suspended sentence. That’s the sad thing about it. If she’d stayed here and faced it all, she’d have probably been back in the States anyway.”
The family feel betrayed – by the police for yielding to the FCO, by the FCO for yielding to the US Department of State, and by the Crown Prosecution Service for failing to charge Sacoolas. Her husband has a degree in electrical engineering and they were told he worked at the base as an electrician – which would make them unlikely candidates for diplomatic immunity.
“She’s never had immunity,” Tim says. “How can she? Her bloke’s just an electrician at the base. I’m not being funny. He’s not a diplomat, she’s not a diplomat.” The UK government has never commented on the nature of Jonathan Sacoolas’ work, simply reiterating that its hands were tied by an existing agreement between the two countries.
Again, Charlotte says, this doesn’t add up. “If you were covered by diplomatic immunity, why would you leave the country you are protected in?”
In early October, they visited Raab, and came away with more questions than answers. They claim that he told them he was still asking the Americans for a waiver when he already knew it was too late.
What offended them most was his dismissive manner. “We went to his private office,” Tim says. “There were four of his people there. Raab sat right at the end. And it was just an awful meeting. He wasn’t sincere.”
“His body language was wrong,” Tracey says. “We sat in a line, and he was sat opposite, and his body was turned to the side, away from us.”
“He was very rude,” Charlotte says.
Did they tell him that?
“Yes. I said we were disappointed and felt the government had let us down,” Tim says. “We all had a lot of tears afterwards.”
A few days after meeting Raab, the four parents travelled to the US. “We were going to let everyone know that one of their own had killed our boy, then gone home and not faced any consequences,” Bruce says. On their second day, just after appearing on the Gayle King show on CBS, Seiger received a call from the White House, telling them to get there as soon as possible.
You were told, not asked?
“We weren’t given much choice,” Charlotte says.
“It was a case of, ‘Get your arses down here’,” Tim says.
It was a three-hour train journey from New York to Washington DC.
“You don’t go to see the president if there’s nothing wrong. If they’ve done everything by the book, they wouldn’t even entertain us, would they?” Tim says.
At the time, none of them had a strong opinion about Trump. “We’re not into politics,” Charlotte says. “He was very gracious, very welcoming. But it wasn’t long into the conversation that he dropped the bombshell that Anne Sacoolas was in the next room. He obviously wanted that photo opportunity – to be able to put her and us together, and show the world that he’d smoothed everything over.”
Trump had turned the family’s search for justice into something resembling a reality show. The president appeared to believe that the privilege of meeting him would make up for the loss of a beloved son. But the four parents refused to see Sacoolas.
What did Trump say? “He just kept trying. Three times, he tried. I spoke for about five, six minutes, looked into his eyes. I said, ‘If it was your son, you’d be doing the same. We’ve accepted it was a road traffic collision, she didn’t purposely go out of her way to kill our boy. But the fact is she did, and she’s not in the UK to face justice.’”
Charlotte told Trump that if they were to meet Sacoolas, it would have to be with mediators and therapists present, and that everybody would have to be prepared – including Sacoolas. “To be thrown together, how on earth are you meant to deal with that as a human? We don’t know how we would have reacted to seeing the woman who killed our boy.” Her voice rises and her eyes well up. “You can’t have that just thrown at you.”
There were reports that Trump had attempted to pay them off. Was he really ready to get his chequebook out? “We’re not sure,” Charlotte says. “We don’t know whether that was a slip of the tongue. He turned to Robert O’Brien, head of the National Security Agency. He said to O’Brien, ‘We’ve been speaking to our finance department.’ So, yes, we heard the word finance, but we thought that, because Trump is a bit of a plonker, he meant the Foreign Office. It didn’t register with us at the time that he may have actually meant money.”
The family are appalled at the idea that they could be paid off. “If anyone had any doubts where that was concerned, our ears would have pricked up at that word ‘finance’, and they would have got rid of us by now. But we’re not there for that.”
I ask how they are sleeping.
Tracey: “Not very well.”
Bruce: “If we get a couple of hours, that’s about it.”
“Once a week, you may get a good night because you are so exhausted,” Tim says. “Personally, Harry’s still the last thing I think about at night, and when I wake up, he’s the first thing. I think it’s going to be for a long, long time.”
As I get ready to leave, Charlotte says they know they need professional help. “We hope that we get the opportunity to start some counselling.” She says she has been surprised by the inner strength they have discovered: “But I don’t believe our darkest hours have come – because we haven’t gone there yet.”
Six weeks later, on 20 December, Sacoolas is charged by the CPS with causing death by dangerous driving. Her US lawyer immediately issues a statement saying she will not return to the UK voluntarily. “Anne is devastated by this tragic accident and continues to extend her deepest condolences to the family,” the statement says. “Anne would do whatever she could to bring Harry back. She is a mother herself and cannot imagine the pain of the loss of a child. She has cooperated fully with the investigation and accepted responsibility… This was an accident, and a criminal prosecution with a potential penalty of 14 years’ imprisonment is simply not a proportionate response.” It’s an extraordinary argument: despite accepting responsibility for Harry’s death, she will not return to the country because she believes the jail sentence she could face is disproportionate. But on 10 January, the CPS formally requests her extradition.
There have been other developments. It has emerged that Jonathan Sacoolas was an intelligence officer rather than an electrician at RAF Croughton, although the FCO has not confirmed this. In February, the Mail on Sunday reported that Anne Sacoolas, a fluent Russian speaker, was an intelligence officer herself – and a much more senior official than her husband. The following day, former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt tells Sky News that Sacoolas’ links to the CIA “may have a bearing” on the US refusal to extradite her. “It is totally and utterly unacceptable that she is not facing justice in the UK,” he says. A photograph emerges of Sacoolas filling her car at a petrol station in Virginia. I am due to catch up with the family, but Seiger tells me they are struggling and not up to talking.
As Britain goes into lockdown, the Harry Dunn story disappears from the front pages. Meanwhile, the family prepare to apply for a judicial review of the decision to let Sacoolas leave the country. They will argue in court that the American did not have diplomatic immunity, and that allowing her to leave without the knowledge of the investigating police force was unlawful.
In 1995 and 2001, the US and British governments signed pre-waivers agreeing that if staff with diplomatic immunity at RAF Croughton committed a crime, that immunity would automatically be waived. However, the agreement made no mention of spouses – which appears to be an oversight. Now both governments are arguing that, under the Vienna convention, the international agreement regulating treaties between states, Sacoolas has full immunity because the waiver neglected to mention spouses.
Seiger argues that this is a perverse reading of the convention, even if you accept Sacoolas was a spouse rather than a spy. “How can dependants have greater immunity than the personnel? And even if you have immunity, Vienna makes it absolutely clear that diplomats should respect the laws of their host country. It is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. In the 21st century, in the United Kingdom, you don’t get to skip a country when you take somebody’s life. But the governments are asking these parents to just walk on by, and say, ‘Oh well, Harry’s gone, nothing to see here, move on’. I’m sure the Americans want to pay them a lot in compensation. But these parents are not going to be bought off.”
By early May, Harry Dunn is back in the news. Interpol has issued a red notice: a request to law enforcement worldwide to find and arrest Sacoolas, pending extradition. In other words, she can’t leave the US. The Labour party calls for a parliamentary inquiry; shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy says the family’s campaign has “highlighted a string of unforgivable failings by a government they rightly believed should have been there to support them”. Their local MP, Conservative Andrea Leadsom, writes to Raab suggesting three penalties if the US continues to refuse to extradite Sacoolas: sanctions, expelling diplomats and closing RAF Croughton.
When I catch up with Charlotte and Bruce on a WhatsApp video call, it is nine months since Harry died. They are meeting Tim in Seiger’s large garden, where it is easy to adhere to rules on social distancing while having their photographs taken. There is some semblance of normality in their lives: Bruce, Charlotte and Tracey are working part-time (which is why Tracey can’t be here today), and Tim is doing voluntary deliveries while his school is shut.
But they look every bit as broken as they did in November. Charlotte says lockdown hasn’t affected them much. “After losing Harry, we voluntarily self-isolated. We didn’t want to go anywhere or do anything. We didn’t go to the supermarket, we didn’t go to the pub, we didn’t go out for meals, we didn’t go to friends’ houses. Being at home is our safe place. The only difference is that it gets much more difficult to distract yourself from losing the plot.”
The family did start counselling before lockdown, but Charlotte says it may be too early for her. “We’ve only done one deep trauma session so far, but I couldn’t talk to anyone for three or four days afterwards. You unearth so much you’ve buried.” A couple of months after Harry died, she and Bruce got a couple of dachshunds. “They’ve helped. I love them to bits. Harry had been pestering us for years to get a dog. When you lose somebody who was your world, you quickly learn not to put things on hold – that life is too short.”
The biggest difference since we last talked, she says, is that the family have become angrier. A week before, Niall had sent an email to Boris Johnson asking him to make a personal intervention, because the family believes Raab “has lost control of this scandal”. He concluded: “I love and miss Harry. I am sick and tired of seeing my mum and dad suffering. It was bad enough losing Harry. But watching them go through this torture is just awful. It’s just cruel.” At the time of going to press, Niall had not received a response from the prime minister. Bruce tells me that his two sons from his first marriage, Michael and Ciarán, are struggling and have been signed off work.
The family have met Raab four times now. “He admitted in the last meeting he’d been too guarded in the previous meetings,” Charlotte says. The family hoped this was a sign of progress, but are now convinced that Raab’s energies are focused on encouraging the family to withdraw their legal challenge. “We thought we’d started building bridges but, in hindsight, they were just trying to soften us,” Charlotte says.
Meanwhile, Raab and the FCO insist they are doing their best to have Sacoolas extradited. An FCO spokesperson told the Guardian: “We have deep sympathy for Harry’s family. We have done and will continue to do everything we properly can to ensure that justice is done. As the foreign secretary set out in parliament, Anne Sacoolas had diplomatic immunity while in the country under the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations. We consistently called for Anne Sacoolas’ immunity to be waived before she left the UK. Both the prime minister and the foreign secretary have been clear with the US that the refusal to extradite her amounts to a denial of justice, and that she should return to the UK.”
The family believe these are empty words. “I don’t believe the Foreign Office asked for immunity to be waived before she left,” Tim says when I call him. “If they did, they certainly never showed us any evidence of it. I think they are lying.”
“What exactly are they doing to see justice is done? If they are doing anything, they’re not telling us about it,” Charlotte says. She feels the FCO is bullying the family. “Every time, they come up with something to frighten us, to get us to go away and drop it.”
How are they trying to frighten you? “By putting up more and more hurdles, by blinding us with information they hope we won’t understand. They don’t want us to go through with the judicial review. I don’t think they’ve got the slightest idea of how much extra pain they are putting us through.”
Charlotte is convinced a judicial review will find that Sacoolas should not have been allowed to leave the country. Does she think Sacoolas was an intelligence officer at the time of Harry’s death? “Probably. People within Washington have said that she was working for the CIA while she was here. We know she’s been working with the state department for something like 17, 18 years. Trump actually mentioned in one of his speeches that she works for the government.”
Footage emerges on ITV News At 10 of Raab meeting US ambassador Woody Johnson at an embassy reception on 12 September, three days before Sacoolas left the country. Sources at the FCO have told ITV that Raab did not know about Harry’s death at this point, which contradicts the foreign secretary’s October statement to parliament. Then, Raab told MPs that “the US embassy notified us” of the incident on 28 August, and that the FCO had asked the US to waive immunity on 5 September. Last month the family discovered a foreign office briefing note, also seen by the Guardian, copied to Raab’s private secretary and dated three days after Harry’s death, that outlined the accident and expressed concern over the potential for negative headlines.
Since we last spoke, the family’s lawyers have uncovered a phone text from senior diplomat Neil Holland, then the FCO’s director of protocol, to his US embassy counterpart, stating: “I think that now the decision has been taken not to waive [immunity], there’s not much mileage in us asking you to keep the family here. It’s obviously not us approving of their departure but I think you should feel able to put them on the next flight out…” The note was dated 14 September, a day before Sacoolas and her family left the UK.
The family believe they have been misled about who knew what, and when, and this week decide to launch a private prosecution against the foreign secretary. Charlotte says she wants him to step down: “How could Dominic Raab have told parliament that he and the foreign office objected in ‘clear and strong’ terms, when the FCO told the embassy it was fine and dandy to put them on the next plane? He must resign or be sacked by Boris Johnson. He is lying over what he knew about the death of our boy to cover his back, and that is too upsetting to put into words.
“We have worked so hard to avoid any dispute and gave him every chance to do the right thing. Dominic Raab must face the consequences himself through the criminal courts. We didn’t want any of this – it’s our last resort. But unlawful actions followed by a cover-up must have consequences.”
Meanwhile, she says, the Foreign Office is reminding them at every opportunity that if the family lose the judicial review, they will have to pay the government’s costs. The GoFundMe has raised more than £130,000, but little of that remains. “All the trips to the States and everything we’ve done in the campaign – there is not much left now,” Bruce says.
Do they really think the government will make them pay costs? Charlotte says Raab has told them this is standard practice. “But what is standard about anything here? I don’t know what sort of palace he thinks we live in. We work for the NHS. These guys do their respectable jobs. We work all the hours we can, we pay our bills. If he wants our cars, which are more than 10 years old, he can have them. He could take absolutely everything we own because there is no price on Harry’s life.” As she talks, she gets angrier. “There never will be a price on Harry’s life. We wouldn’t care if we were in debt up to our eyeballs for the rest of our life. This is Harry we’re talking about.”