The night of Friday, March 30, 2001 was like any other for butcher Stuart Lubbock and his brother Kevin as they partied at Harlow’s Millennium nightclub.
Stuart, 31, had recently separated from the mother of his two children and had something of a reputation as a ladies man.
So when the brothers lost each other in the club, Kevin presumed Stuart had gone home with a girl.
In fact, Stuart had bumped into entertainer Michael Barrymore and his entourage, and accepted an invitation to an after-party at the TV star’s £2million home in Roydon, Essex – a move that would led to his death.
Stuart’s dad Terry Lubbock previously told the Guardian his son would have jumped at the chance to party with Barrymore.
“Stuart was a show-off – that was his weakness. He’d have gone straight up there to the house just so he could tell everyone about it the next day,” he said.
The group was caught on CCTV catching a taxi back to the sprawling property at 2.30am, and Barrymore told a 2002 Epping inquest that despite not knowing Stuart, he “seemed a nice guy.”
He continued: “He was wandering in and out of various rooms [at my house] taking the place in. He seemed really happy.”
Meanwhile, Stuart’s friend Justin Merritt said he relaxed in the jacuzzi with Barrymore’s former boyfriend, Jonathan Kenney, and watched Stuart splashing around, having fun in the pool.
“He was the happiest person there, playing around, dancing and just mucking about,” he told the inquest, which recorded an open verdict.
But soon after at 5:46am the alarm was raised when Stuart’s lifeless body was spotted in the pool. An postmortem later discovered he had sustained severe anal injuries.
Police did not treat the house as a crime scene, at first accepting the explanation that the meat factory supervisor had drowned after drinking heavily and taking cocaine and ecstasy.
But a murder probe was launched after an examination found he had suffered severe internal injuries and cardiac arrest.
Rumours of group sex and “gay orgies” flew, but Stuart’s father Terry Lubbock denied suggestions that his son may have had consensual gay sex, telling the Guardian: “Stuart wasn’t gay. And if Stuart had been gay, I wouldn’t have had a problem. I’d have loved him just the same. He was my son, so that doesn’t even raise its head.”
Mr Merritt also insisted he was with Stuart for all but a tiny fraction of the night.
“When I look back now, he was really happy… He wasn’t in any discomfort like anyone had messed with him or touched him,” he continued.
“There was no time (it could have happened). He was with us in the jacuzzi, then in the pool. Then he went away. That was the only time he wasn’t around.
“That was the only time we never really saw him or knew what he was doing. There wasn’t a time when it could have happened.”
By the time police arrived, Barrymore had left the property – a move he later admitted was the “worst thing I could have done.”
He previously told Radio 5 Live’s Stephen Nolan Show he “freaked out” after seeing Stuart “floating in the pool” and ran back into the house to find a guest with life saving experience.
“The girls were screaming when they saw that he was just laying there he wasn’t moving much – and then James said to me, ‘Come away – there’s nothing more you can do,'” he said.
“I didn’t run away – first thing I did was go and get help.
“I was standing there and instead of going, ‘I should stay here,’ I went with the lads down the bottom of their drive to their flat.
“As I went out I rang my PA – I’ve never had a PR agent – and said a guy’s by the side of the pool – the ambulance has been called if the police need me I’m in James’ place at the bottom of the drive.”
Admitting his actions “absolutely” didn’t look good, he maintained his innocence and insisted the injuries did not happen at the party.
“No way did I do it. And if I did then I’d have put my hands up 10 years ago. I haven’t spoken about this like this probably really at all to be honest,” he said.
“I do find it difficult to talk about. Not because I’m guilty of anything but because I didn’t do anything I did a stupid thing – I walked away from the scene but I’d already gone and got help to bring him out . Nothing happened to the guy there.”
Barrymore was arrested on suspicion of murder and rape in 2007 – allegations he has always strenuously denied and the police investigation into Barrymore was dropped three months later.
Police never charged anyone and an inquest recorded an open verdict.
ITV axed Barrymore’s £1million- a-year contract in 2002 after the inquest into Stuart’s death and he subsequently successfully sued Essex Police for wrongful arrest.
And in 2019 he apologised for the tragedy but said police were to blame for the mystery that surrounds it.
“I could not be more sorry that this event took place,” he told Piers Morgan.
“I gave Stuart nothing. There were no E’s at my house. I had a joint. If there was cocaine he didn’t get it from me.
“Stuart’s family deserve proper answers and the police have not completed their inquiries properly.”
Barrymore was due to compete in Dancing On Ice this year but was forced to step down after breaking his wrist during rehearsals for the show.
He will, however, feature in the opening of the 2020 series which airs Sunday, January 5 on ITV at 7pm.