A mystery that may never be solved


Two communities are reeling after the violent deaths of one man, two women and four children

FOR A while on Tuesday, even locals in Ballycotton and Newcastle West assumed that the media was confusing the facts.

On a day already leaden with national, economic foreboding, it was simply not credible that four small children and three adults had died violently in two incidents.

In Ballycotton, John Butler, an unemployed construction worker, asphyxiated his two little daughters - Zoe, six, and Ella, aged two - before buying a five- gallon drum of petrol, then crashing his car into a tree, where he died from burns and smoke inhalation.

In Newcastle West, the bodies of Sarah Hines (25), her son, Reece, three, and five-month-old daughter Amy, and Sarah's friend, Alicia Brough (20), were found in a house in the Hazelgrove estate. All four had been stabbed to death.

As news of both tragedies broke in the surrounding area, schools and homes went into lockdown mode, terrified that a killer was on an indiscriminate rampage.

A 31-year-old man was arrested two hours later in connection with the Newcastle West killings.

Meanwhile, the media poured into the market town in west Limerick to find that hardly anyone knew Sarah Hines or her children, since they had only moved into the area a few weeks ago. The family had previously lived in Dromcollogher, Co Limerick, in a dilapidated cottage.

The media also crowded into Ballycotton, a remote and beautiful fishing village in east Cork. People in both communities expressed shock and anger that children should have been killed so violently.

Many wondered aloud whether the recession and unemployment played a role, but there the similarities ended.

The shutters came down on Ballycotton in the following days, as relations soured between locals and journalists intent on eliciting comments from dazed family members, staking out the Butler home, even knocking on the door while Una Butler waked her little daughters inside.

A local politician fielded up to 40 media calls in the first 48 hours, as clues were sifted and quick answers sought for a mystery that may never be resolved.

Within hours of John Butler's death, the merciless rain and wind blowing in from the sea had muddied the scorch marks around the wooded ditch where he aimed his Toyota Yaris, containing the drums of petrol he had bought a few minutes earlier, about a mile and a half away in Shanagarry.

A local man ponders the missing 10 or 20 minutes between the purchase of the petrol and the reported time of the crash.

"He might have taken the road to the beach and sat there for a few minutes. And that's a thing I don't understand. He could have done it down there. Why didn't he? Why this way? Why the petrol? Why here?"

If his own death in itself was violent in the extreme, the location John Butler chose seemed equally pointed, said another local man. There is one main route into Ballycotton from the Cork side, a narrow, winding road that requires caution at the best of times.

A local man who was making a delivery there told gardaí he saw Mr Butler driving at speed just moments before his red Toyota Yaris crashed into the ditch and burst into flames. The petrol drum was found on the passenger seat of the burnt-out shell.

The spot he selected is on a left-angled bend about half a mile from Ballycotton. He must have negotiated that bend thousands of times, before driving to the edge of the village and taking a right turn for his bungalow on the hill.

Or he could have taken a right at that bend on to an even smaller road and a more circuitous route to his home. Whatever assailed John Butler's mind on Tuesday morning, it was at that precise location that he slammed his car into a tree, a point where the maximum number of people must pass and remember every day.

Amid the chilly, driving rain and air of desolation, it is evident that this is a village where the term "tight-knit" is no cliche.

"You're either accepted or rejected in Ballycotton," a local says, "but I'd say that 99 per cent of people integrate. And Una's brothers and sisters definitely did their utmost to involve John in everything."

John, a strong, well-built six footer from Cobh, where he belonged to a large, close family, worked as a general operative in Irish Steel, before that closed down in 2002. In those years he was a tough, hard-hitting footballer and a "handy" road bowler, a sport that entails throwing a 28oz steel ball as far as possible.

In Ballycotton, he was kept busy during the boom, working with various builders on one-off houses and extensions, while Una made the 60-mile round trip to work with the Revenue Commissioners in Cork city.

They settled into their bungalow - built by direct labour on a site acquired before prices soared - and lived a family- centred life. They were not a couple who went out a lot and this case bears none of the marks of apparently similar tragedies.

There is no suggestion for example, of serious financial concerns or issues of jealousy or addiction. John wasn't ambitious - "he was quite happy to work away and make a bit of money" - and was not involved in private developments.

"Una would be a brilliant provider and manager in any event . . . she'd be a strong, independent woman", a friend says. He drank only socially, when playing cards for instance.

The most common words used to describe him - by people who knew him as a youth and in latter years - include "quiet", "very deep", "moody", "hard to get to know". About a year ago, he was laid off from his construction job.

At about that time, his wife reported him missing to gardaí after he left home without his wallet and car keys. He returned home several hours later.

Although a link has been drawn between his unemployment and last Tuesday's tragedy, it is believed that his depression dates back some years before that.

Yesterday, the funeral cortege of his small daughters passed the spot where he died, now marked with a few bunches of flowers.

At 4.30pm on Thursday in Newcastle West, in a parish where few people knew Sarah Hines, her children or Alicia Brough, well over 600 people as well as members of the Hines family turned out for a moving memorial service in the Church of the Immaculate Conception. It was a generous community gesture in a dark week.