Published: 17:00, 09 December 2015
A diver found dead in woodland after a three-week manhunt feared being implicated in the illegal sale of hidden treasures found on a shipwreck.
Father-of-three Alan Nichols helped discover a haul of historic cannon, which were later sold at auction to an American buyer for more than £50,000.
An inquest held at Canterbury Magistrates’ Court was told how the 47-year-old was found hanged in the West Blean Nature Reserve on July 1.
Mr Nichols, who lived in Tradewinds, Whitstable, received a call from commercial diver Vincent Woolsgrove on Thursday, June 11 – the same day he went missing – about a police investigation into their treasure find.
Woolsgrove, who has since been jailed for illegally selling the cannon, phoned Mr Nichols’s mobile while he was having a drink with his family in Whitstable’s Long Reach Beefeater pub.
Mr Nichols’ wife Janet told the inquest: “I could not hear the conversation. Afterwards Alan told me he felt physically sick and wanted to go – we then all went home.
“Alan was very quiet when we got home; he went into the garage with the dog.
“He told me he needed to clear his head and went into the car and left. That was the last time I saw him.”
Police launched a search after Mrs Nichols reported her husband missing and officers found his dog and car parked in the nature reserve on Friday, June 12.
The search ended three weeks later on Wednesday, July 1, when his body was found in deep woodland.
Mr Nichols left a suicide note in his car.
Dartford-born Mr Nichols, who trained as a diver in the Royal Navy after leaving school, was due to fly to Egypt to start a new job the day after he went missing.
He had previously worked for Eurotunnel and the Port of London Authority and is a father of three sons, one of them aged eight.
Mrs Nichols told the court her husband was “quite excited” about the job and although he worried a lot, had never talked about taking his own life.
But four weeks earlier while out drinking with his friend Lee Dixon, Mr Nichols spoke of suicide.
Mr Dixon said: “Alan said he had had enough and was thinking of ending it all.
“I tried to get him to tell me what he meant but it was as if he had told too much to me. I had never seen Alan like that before.
“He was worried because he had obtained the location of the cannons in the wreck and an investigation was ongoing about them..." - Lee Dixon
“He was worried because he would be implicated as well.”
Professional diver Woolsgrove was jailed for two years in September after he falsely claimed to have found three rare 17th-century cannon in international waters so he could sell them to the highest bidder, rather than surrendering them to the nation.
He told the authorities he had found the cannon outside British waters on an unidentified wreck, which allowed him to pocket about £50,000 by selling them to an American buyer.
After two years of painstaking detective work, investigators proved the cannon were actually taken from the warship HMS London, which sank in 1665 off Southend in Essex.
By then the cannon had been exported and were sitting on the front lawn of a collector’s home in Florida.
Woolsgrove, 49, of Ramsgate, Kent, admitted fraud in relation to the cannon and asked for 61 offences of failure to notify the receiver of wreck (RoW) of other finds to be taken into consideration.
There was no evidence that Mr Nichols was to be prosecuted.
Assistant coroner James Dillon said Mr Nichols was found hanged in dense forestry, and recorded a suicide verdict.
He said: “I am satisfied that Mr Nichols took his own life and that he intended to do so.
“A note had been found in the car and he clearly intended to take his own life.”
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