The parents of a talented young chef who died in a car crash paid tribute to their son, after two of his colleagues were acquitted of causing his death by dangerous driving.
Zachary Whittall, 21, suffered fatal injuries in the front passenger seat of his best friend, Luke Mercieca’s Vauxhall Corsa, which lost control and hit a tree.
Daniel Smith, who was in a Vauxhall Astra, claimed the incident happened after the Corsa overtook him – and said he played no part in the accident.
All three were chefs at the award-winning Olive Branch pub restaurant, in Clipsham, Rutland, and were on their way home at 11pm after an evening shift when the tragedy happened.
Both vehicles were on the Clipsham Road, heading towards Stretton, where Zachary and Mr Mercieca shared a house.
A jury at Leicester Crown Court took 56 minutes today to find both defendants not guilty of causing Zachary’s death by dangerous - or careless - driving, on August 19, 2014.
Zachary’s heartbroken mother, Catherine Whittall, of Great Oxenden, Northamptonshire, emotionally embraced Mr Mercieca and his sobbing mother after the not guilty verdicts; demonstrating there were no recriminations, just shared sadness.
Mrs Whittall and her husband, Peter, accompanied by their youngest son, Angus, 19, said Zachary was an “inspirational, happy and positive young man who loved life.”
Mrs Whittall, 50, said: “Our lives feel like they’re over but it doesn’t mean other peoples have to be.
“Luke was Zach’s best friend and he described Zach in court as being like a brother because they were so close.
“The trial helped us to understand what happened.”
Mr Whittall, 51, said: “The only positive thing we can take away from this is that Zach’s best friend, Luke, who has endured enough, is not going to suffer more than he already has.
“We visited him in hospital at the time and fully accept he’s telling the truth when he says he has no memory of what happened.”
Zachary’s brother Angus said he and their other brother, Connor, 21, “looked up to and greatly miss Zach,” who was passionate about food and being a chef.
During the trial, the prosecution alleged that Mr Smith, 26, of Lawrence Road, Wittering, and Mr Mercieca, who now lives in Malta, were “driving competitively” on their way home.
Both defendants denied the allegations.
Mr Mercieca, 23, whose injuries included a brain haemorrhage, said he remembered following Mr Smith out of the car park after work and the next recollection was being in hospital.
The court heard that Mr Smith, who called the emergency services after witnessing the crash, was tape recorded saying “f*** me, it’s all my fault.”
He told the jury it was not an admission of guilt, but because he was “in shock” and “felt guilty” at not being able to do more to help his injured co-workers.
He said he had “no idea” why he then told a special constable at the scene: “He was overtaking me.
“I couldn’t let him past, as I’d just got my new car.”
Mr Smith told the jury the Corsa successfully overtook him, then clipped the verge before going out of control.