THE mysterious death of a Leominster sex offender who suffered a fatal blow to the head while serving a jail sentence is being treated as suspicious.

A long-adjourned inquest into the death of Graham Mark Biddle, of Sandpits, Leominster, opened at Kidderminster Coroner's Court this week.

The 28-year-old was in the care of the Prison Service when he died suddenly from respiratory failure after a blow to the side of his head on October 26 1998.

His death followed concerns about the suitability of a jail term for a person with his learning difficulties and mental health problems.

Worcester Crown Court sentenced Mr Biddle to three years and four months in January 1998 for committing sex offences, possessing an offensive weapon and causing affray. An appeal later reduced this term.

The inquest hearing includes a probe into Prison Service safety measures as the victim alleged he was assaulted by one of the prison officers.

A witness from SHARP (Shropshire Help and Advice for Relatives and Friends of Prisoners), who visited him during his stay in Blakenhurst Prison's segregation unit, said Mr Biddle had demonstrated to her how his hand was pulled back and his throat gripped.

He told her that for the rest of his sentence he wanted to stay in the prison's medical wing where he would feel safer. It is also alleged that a fellow cellmate assaulted him.

In the month of his death, he was moved from the segregation unit to the medical wing, but it was only a matter of hours before he collapsed and was taken to the Princess Alexandra Hospital, Redditch.

Prison records show that at this time he had not drunk or eaten for four days. He was later admitted to the neuro-critical care unit at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, in Birmingham, where he died.

Home Office pathologist, Dr Peter Acland, said the fracture to Mr Biddle's skull was consistent with a heavy fall.

The hearing continues.