Families of the victims of the Fishmonger’s Hall terror attack attended the start of a nine-week inquest into their deaths today as the jury was sworn in.
Cambridge university graduates Jack Merritt, 25, and Saskia Jones, 23, were stabbed to death by convicted terrorist Usman Khan at a prisoner rehabilitation event at the Guildhall in the City of London in November 2019.
Khan, 28, pretended he had been deradicalised before stabbing five people, three of whom survived the attack.
The killer, armed with two knives and wearing a fake suicide vest, was chased out of the venue and onto London Bridge by attendees brandishing a narwhal tusk and a fire extinguisher.
Police shot him dead on the bridge after he was tackled to the ground by members of the public. His death will be the subject of a separate inquest.
Security services, police and Mr Merritt’s employer Learning Together, which organised the event, will face questions on whether they missed chances to stop the attack.
The victims’ devastated friends and relatives read out tributes at today’s hearing, with Mr Merritt’s tearful mother describing her son as ‘a force for good in the world.’
Families of Jack Merritt, 25, (left) and Saskia Jones, 23, (right) the victims of the 2019 Fishmonger’s Hall terror attack, today attended the start of an inquest into the incident as the jury were sworn in
Pictured: Michelle Jones (middle), the mother of victim Saskia Jones is seen leaving a memorial service for her daughter at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-Upon-Avon on December 20, 2019
Pictured: Fishmonger’s Hall terror attack victim Jack Merritt is seen with his girlfriend Leanne O-Brien
Attendees at the hearing were asked to take lateral flow tests, wore surgical face masks, and sat in socially distanced seats throughout the hearing as part of a strict protocol to maintain Covid-secure conditions.
Opening the inquest, Coroner Judge Mark Lucraft warned jurors there would be some ‘graphic’ details about the tragedy.
Khan, 28, (pictured) pretended he was deradicalised before stabbing five people, including Mr Merritt, a course coordinator for the Institute, and Ms Jones, a volunteer
The judge said: ‘[Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones] both died on 29 November 2019.
‘This hearing concerns their deaths that occurred following an attack by Usman Khan at Fishmonger’s Hall in the City of London that day. the role of the coroner is to investigate violent or unexplained deaths.
‘If we go back to 2019… In that year, there were some 530,857 deaths registered in England and Wales. Of those deaths some 210,900 were reported to a coroner.
‘Many of the inquest hearings that took place would have taken an hour two hours or at most a day to resolve. Very few span days or even weeks.
‘On 29 November 2019, a number of people attended an event at Fishmongers Hall. Jack Merritt were two of those attending that event. The event had been organised by Learning Together.
‘Learning Together is a national organisation founded in 2019 dedicated to the rehabilitation of prisoners.
‘It is associated with the University of Cambridge and runs courses in a number of prisons.
‘The event was attended by a variety of people associated with the organisation including supporters of the organisation, current and former prisoners.
‘Saskia was a former Cambridge criminology student who sometimes attended Learning Together and Jack a former Cambridge undergraduate who was employed by the university as part of the Learning Together programme.
Khan was challenged outside the Fishmonger’s Hall by members of the public, who had a fire extinguisher and a narwhal tusk, before the arrival of police
Describing the terror attack, he said: ‘As you will hear Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones were attacked by one of the other attendees, a former terrorism offender.
‘Both Jack and Saskia received stab wounds that proved to be fatal.
‘Two others attendees, Isobel Rowbotham and Stephanie Szczotko, were attacked and survived the attacks on them. Others were less seriously hurt.
‘A number of those present set upon a decorative pike, narwhal tusks and a fire extinguisher.
‘Khan confronted a maintenance engineer and threatened him, forcing him to use his fob to allow Khan out of the building.
Mr Merritt (left) and Ms Jones (right) were both graduates from Cambridge University and a rehabilitation event held by Learning Together, a scheme run by the Cambridge Institute of Criminology on November 29, 2019. Merritt was a course coordinator for the Institute and Ms Jones was a volunteer at the event
‘Once he was out of Fishmonger’s Hall and on London Bridge Khan was attacked by other attendees of the event, and by members of the public, forcing him to the floor and kicking the knives he was holding from his grip.
‘Armed police officers were soon on the scene and directed members of the public away. Khan was wearing what appeared to be a suicide vest.
‘He was shot and tasered. As his death was a result of action of police officers his death will be subject to be a further, separate inquest. Despite all the efforts that were made sadly both Jack and Saskia died.
‘Some [evidence] will inevitably be quite graphic but care has been taken not to show the most graphic footage.’
‘Jack fit perfectly into my life’: Victim’s girlfriend pays heart-wrenching tribute
Heart-wrenching pen portraits and statements from victims’ grief-stricken loved ones were read to the hearing today.
Mr Merritt’s devastated girlfriend Leanne said they had been ‘inseparable’ as a couple and remembered their first date.
Leanne said: ‘As many of you will know as soon as Jack and I met we were pretty much inseparable.
‘In true Jack style, our first date was Masterchef with three large pizzas because two might just not have been enough.
Pictured: Leanne O’Brien, Jack Merritt’s girlfriend, seen on the day of his funeral
‘Jack fit perfectly into my life, and was my biggest support, a number one fan, he always got me through the really tough times when I really didn’t believe I could myself.
He made me feel it was possible to achieve anything and everything.
‘I’ll miss the skip in your step and your huge famous Jack Merritt smile that somehow produce those creases and dimples all over your face.
‘I’ll miss you asking me every day if you still look hench and the ridiculous conversations we had bout you wanting to be 100kg.’
During the hearing today, statements and pen portraits were read aloud on behalf of the victims’ loved ones.
Speaking in the Old Library at the Guildhall, Mr Merritt’s mother Anne Merritt wept as she read out moving tributes to her son.
She told jurors: ‘Jack Merritt was a good person. Jack was a force for good in the world, someone who made other people’s lives better for knowing him.
‘We are hugely proud of who Jack was and what he stood for. His death was a tragedy but his life was a triumph.’
Mr Merritt’s brother Joe revealed that he never admitted to his sibling how much he had admired his sense of style.
Joe said: ‘Jack was never afraid to express himself to do something different from those around him. Our parents raised us around music and art dragging us to numerous festivals, galleries and exhibitions which rubbed off on me and Jack in our own ways.
‘It encouraged us to express ourselves as individuals and never be afraid to be different form a young age. This was very apparent and manifested itself through Jack’s many phases, his grunge rock phase, his indie phase or my favourite, the Eminem phase, paired with this distinctive bleached hair.
‘I always looked up to Jack because of this. He was a very cool brother to have and I loved everything he owned.
Jurors heard that Mr Merritt had worked at The Punter Pub in Cambridge for a short time where his boss believed he was ‘destined to do great things’ and remembered him for his ‘swagger.’
Sarah, the landlady of The Punter, said: ‘Jack dressed like his favourite pint of Guinness – pristine white t-shirt, pressed black jeans and black doc martens.
‘For sure Jack Merritt was destined to do great things. But his swagger was so far from superficial – this young man was bloody clever, had full ownership of a sound moral compass and the intellectual might to challenge the norm.’
One of Jack’s primary school teachers, named Joanna, said: ‘You think as a teacher you will love all the children you teach, but you don’t.
‘You think you will remember them all and you don’t. But I love jack and I remembered.
‘When I heard news of his death the first thing I did was send a message to my colleagues saying please, please tell me that’s not our lovely Jack.’
Mr Merritt’s friend Harley also wrote, describing him as a ‘completely brilliant boy’ who ‘could have done anything’.
Friends from Manchester University, where Mr Merritt studied at undergraduate level and achieved a First, said: ‘It was clear that Jack was intelligent, but when we started to study miscarriages of justice in further detail, it became clear how strongly Jack felt about criminal justice.’
Mr Merritt’s friends at Cambridge remembered him as ‘devilishly handsome’ and ‘selfless,’ committed to helping those most in need.
Laura Lewis from Cambridge University said: ‘Jack was proud. Jack was absorbingly intelligent and fiercely loyal.
‘Oh, and if you hadn’t realised by now, he was also devilishly handsome.
Leanne O’Brien (pictured second from left) said in her statement: ‘Jack fit perfectly into my life, and was my biggest support, a number one fan, he always got me through the really tough times when I really didn’t believe I could myself’
‘But Jack was also angry, frustrated, selfless and stubborn. He was angry because he saw our society failing those most in need.
‘He was frustrated because all of the political elites have forgotten what it is to be fair. He was selfless in his dedication to make things right in every second of his life.’
Learning Together students and mentors said: ‘The world has lost one of its true visionaries and he’ll be greatly missed.
‘We are certainly the richer for having him in our lives.’
A statement attributed to the Longford Trust, another scheme working with ex-prisoners, said: ‘Jack spoke the truth capturing the essence of why we all owe to those who are in prison to find a way back into society, to provide hope.
‘Over drinks with Jack on a hut summer evening in Brixton prison we enjoyed his company, pint in hand, wearing shorts and kicking back with international academics and former prisoners alike.
Mr Merritt’s mother Anne (pictured, on December 20, 2019) today said of her son: ‘We are hugely proud of who Jack was and what he stood for. ‘His death was a tragedy but his life was a triumph’
‘Jack lived his beliefs. He walked the walk.’
Henry Pitchers QC said Ms Jones’ family had decided against doing a full portrait for her as it ‘would fly in the face’ of her private nature.
He said Ms Jones would wish for the inquest to focus on the facts and evidence, with ’emphasis to be on a thorough investigation as to how she came to lose her life’.
He said: ‘It would be her hope that no other family is devastated and heartbroken again in similar circumstances.’
He said it was important to the family that her legacy was not solely based on her work with Learning Together.
Mr Pitchers said: ‘She should be defined as someone who battled to improve the lives of others in several spheres and was driven to make real changes in the world.’
Pictured: Forensic investigators search for fingerprints in a cordoned off section of London Bridge following the Fishmonger’s Hall terror attack in 2019
He described her research in the field of sexual violence with rape crisis.
He said: ‘Her passion in this area enabled her to finally find her career path with the hope of becoming a detective in victim support within the police force.
‘The positive impact Saskia had on so many people in challenging situations provided a valley of light for them to seek hope and a way forward.’
‘The grief and loss that the family and friends of Saskia continue to endure is personal to them, and it’s their wish that it remain so,’ Pitchers said.
Lawyers representing the victims’ families have previously said a key issue will be whether the atrocity could have been avoided.
Pictured: Floral tributes which were left on December 2, 2019, at the site of the terror attack in which Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones were killed
Security services, police and Mr Merritt’s employers are to face questions on whether they missed chances to stop the 28-year-old.
Khan, who was out on licence and wearing an electronic tag at the time of attack, had previously been convicted of plotting a terror strike on London’s Stock Exchange.
He was released early from his sentence in December 2018.
The families of both victims had previously separately sought legal action against the Government for alleged failings over Khan’s early release.
The inquest continues.