Cracking Ireland's cold cases


WHEN THE END came for Paul Ryan it barely made the news. It was April 2003 when the 27-year-old Dubliner was shot in the head on a quiet roadside in Co Offaly and his body dumped in a nearby field. He was not a gangster, so his was not a murder that filled many newspaper columns. The media had more exciting crime stories to cover: Ireland’s boom-fuelled cocaine binge was just getting started, as were the gangland feuds it spawned in Dublin and Limerick.

As Ryan’s heartbroken family, from Donaghmede in north Dublin, buried him, the Garda appealed for information that might help solve the killing. And then? Then nothing. But Ryan was not forgotten.

In 2007 Noel Conroy, as Garda commissioner, announced the establishment of a cold-case murder squad. The team would be part of the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the force’s serious-crimes unit. It would pick through the 200-plus unsolved murders since January 1st, 1980, and try to catch killers who had slipped through the net first time around.

It got an early break in the Ryan murder case. It transpired that Paul Ryan had been tricked into travelling in a car from Dublin to Co Offaly with a number of criminal associates. When they pulled into a side road at Coolderry, near Birr, on April 11th, 2003, and the men got out, one of them unexpectedly walked up behind Ryan and shot him in the head in a row about a drug debt. The gunman and the other man who saw the killing went into hiding, but the cold-case team tracked down a witness who no longer feared giving evidence and wanted to say what had happened – and was prepared to name names.

As a result one man was jailed for withholding information during the initial investigation and the Director of Public Prosecutions has approved criminal charges against another man suspected of being more centrally involved in Ryan’s killing. He was arrested in England last month and is due to be extradited to the Republic next year. By that stage almost a decade will have passed since Ryan’s murder, and the cold-case review of his death will be five years old: justice delayed but not denied.

And this week a Garda team in Ballina, Co Mayo, assisted by the squad, made what it believes is a big breakthrough, and arrested two people, in the investigation of the disappearance of 29-year-old Sandra Collins in December 2000.

Det Supt Christy Mangan believes these cases have let bereaved families know their loved ones have not been forgotten – and have let witnesses know it is never too late to help.

Mangan is the head of the 11-strong cold-case squad, which is properly known as the Serious Crime Review Team, and is based on Harcourt Square in central Dublin. He says that although much has been made of recent advances in forensic science, most of the cases that he and his squad manage to crack are solved using “old-fashioned” policing.

AS A STARTING POINT in each case a member of the team reviews the original Garda file and any exhibits – murder weapon, fingerprints, DNA samples. The detective then compiles a report and gives a presentation to the other members of the team, using the original photographs from the case.

Questions will soon arise. Is a sample of blood or semen found at the murder scene still available? And would modern forensics now be capable of building a DNA profile of the killer from it? Can fingerprints taken from the scene be checked against those added to the Garda database in the years since the unsolved murder? Should more weight have been attached to apparently unimportant information given to gardaí at the time, and does this information look more significant with the benefit of hindsight?

The relationships between people of interest to the Garda during the original investigation are examined. Has the chief suspect split from the girlfriend or wife who provided him with his alibi at the time of the murder? If the killer intimidated potential witnesses, does he still exert the same influence?

A new investigation plan is drawn up and, under the supervision of the cold-case team, is followed through by gardaí at the station that originally investigated the crime. “What we’d do, for example, is make a recommendation that Ms X should be re-interviewed, bearing in mind her relationship with the suspect is now non-existent,” says Mangan.

The team applies to old cases what it calls a “weighting matrix”. A case with forensic or DNA evidence that might be analysed more fully now because of scientific advances is classed as priority. The identification of a new witness, or an old witness who may now be in a position to supply information more freely, is also seen as key. A letter or call from a retired garda familiar with an old case, or from a relative of a victim, is also taken seriously. “We always meet with them and listen,” says Mangan.

ONE OF HIS COLLEAGUES, Det Maurice Downey, says that gardaí asked to reinvestigate old crimes are often surprised by but never hostile to the unit’s approach. He believes it is vital for the cold-case team to avoid being seen as intent on giving local gardaí a lesson in how to investigate serious crime. “This was never going to be a glory run,” he says.

Without the co-operation of local members, he adds, the cold-case team would have got bogged down for years on a handful of cases. Now, almost four years since its inception, the Serious Crime Review Team has secured three murder-related convictions. It is also waiting to extradite another suspect for trial, has solved a case in which the killer died just weeks before his planned arrest, and is investigating 14 other cases.

Det Sgt Alan Bailey, a detective who has been in the Garda for 39 years, says that television programmes such as the CBS series Cold Case are not helpful. “It gives you the impression your case can be solved in an hour,” he says. Bailey adds that the squad does not investigate only unsolved murders. It also reviews cases in which people have disappeared and are presumed murdered. These include Annie McCarrick, Deirdre Jacob, Jo Jo Dullard and other women who went missing in the 1990s.“We’ve no crime scenes, no bodies,” says Bailey of those cases. “They’re difficult.”

He and his colleagues look to other jurisdictions for help in honing their techniques. Each of the 40 UK police forces has a cold-case team, and lessons have been learned from high-profile cases that went wrong, including the murders in London of 18-year- old Stephen Lawrence, in 1993, and 10-year-old Damilola Taylor, in 2000. US forces have advised on analysing old crime scenes from photographs.

Mangan says people who have committed murders or covered up for killers are often racked by remorse and guilt by the time the cold-case team catches up with them. “They’re often anxious to relieve the emotional or mental pressure on themselves and let the police know what took place,” he says.

Even hardened criminals who have carried out gangland murders or covered up for other gang members can prove co-operative in time. “The birth of a child, the death of one of their close loved ones, a mother or father: it can change their attitudes,” Mangan says.

He points out that the cold-case concept began in the US, where it has solved many gang- and drug-related killings. In time, he believes, the same will happen here. “Their allegiances break down,” he says of gang members who kill. “They are loyal to somebody today, their master, because he controls the kilo of heroin. But whoever controls the kilo tomorrow or the next time around is the king of Dublin.

“They may have been a threat in their early 30s, in the 1980s or 1990s, and were well able to swagger around and do what they wanted. But today many of them are nobodies. They shouldn’t be confident that the past won’t catch up with them. I wouldn’t be confident.”

Emer O’Loughlin

The burned body of the 23-year-old art student was found on April 8th, 2005, in the remains of a burnt-out caravan in a field at Ballybornagh, Tubber, Co Clare. The exact cause of death was not established at the time.

A local man was identified as a suspect, and a number of arrests were made shortly after O’Loughlin died. Those arrested were released without charge.

In the weeks after her death the suspect in the case was seen going to Inis Mór, where his clothes were later found on a cliff top, probably as part of a plan to fake his suicide.

In May of last year O’Loughlin’s remains were exhumed after a recommendation by the cold-case team. Dr Lorraine Buckley, a forensic anthropologist who specialises in examining skeletal or badly decomposed remains, found marks on O’Loughlin’s bones that suggested she died violently before the caravan was set alight. The case was immediately categorised as murder.

Interpol issue a wanted notice last July for 43-year-old John Griffin, the suspect identified at the time of O’Loughlin’s killing. The notice said Griffin, also known as Fozzy Griffin and John McDermott, travelled from London to Germany in 2005, but his location thereafter was unknown. The notice stated that Griffin, described as 5ft 11in with blue eyes and brown hair, was wanted on suspicion of her murder.

A photograph of Griffin was also issued by Interpol. He is believed to be in the UK, Germany, Spain or the Netherlands.

Dessie Fox

Dessie Fox was driving from his home in Dungannon, Co Tyrone, to the Curragh racecourse, in Co Kildare, to work as an on-course bookie when he was attacked on September 30th, 1990. His white Mercedes was forced to a halt by two other vehicles at Healy’s Bridge, Prosperous, Co Kildare, just after 1pm. Gardaí believe that up to seven men were involved in the attack.

The 47-year-old was shot in the leg, and the £20,000 he was carrying was stolen. The raiders left him on the side of the road, where he bled to death.

Seventeen arrests were made after the attack, but nobody was ever charged.

All of the evidence and statements gathered in 1990 are being reviewed and witnesses are being reinterviewed by the cold-case squad. Last September, on the 20th anniversary of his killing, the team arranged for the dead man’s daughter, Lorna Fox O’Mahony, to address a press conference and appeal for information about her father’s murder.

She spoke warmly of a loving father who had been taken from a happy family by killers who had never been brought to justice. The high-profile event was designed to prick the conscience of anybody close to the gang members, and to encourage them to come forward and give information.

Gardaí believe some of the wives or girlfriends of the gang members must have become aware at some point of their partners’ involvement in the robbery and murder of Dessie Fox. The cold-case team is hopeful that some of the women may have separated from their partners by now and may no longer feel they have to cover for them.

Raonaid Murray

The unsolved murder of the 17-year-old, in 1999, is one of the highest-profile cases that the cold-case squad has examined. Even after an extensive review, however, no major new leads have been found.

Murray’s body was discovered by her elder sister, Sarah, on a road close to her home at Silchester Crescent, Glenageary, south Co Dublin, in the early hours of Saturday, September 4th, 1999. She had been stabbed repeatedly nearby, and she bled to death in a laneway, known as the Cut, between Silchester Road and Silchester Crescent.

Murray had been socialising with friends at Scott’s Pub in Dún Laoghaire, having finished work as a shop assistant at 9pm on Friday, September 3rd. She was walking home through the Cut at about midnight when she was attacked.

A number of people have been questioned about the murder, but nobody has ever been charged.

The Garda cold-case team has organised a number of high-profile media briefings in recent years to highlight the case and appeal directly to the killer, who was most likely from the locality, to come forward. Gardaí have said that the killer would “be treated with dignity and humanity”.

Appeals have focused on trying to locate a man and woman seen walking separately in the area close to where the murder occurred at around the time of the killing. The man is described as having been in his 20s at the time, with short dark hair cropped at the sides. He was between 5ft 10in and 6ft in height, of slight build, fit looking and wearing dark trousers, “not jeans”.

The woman now being sought was in the vicinity of Silchester Park between 12.20am and 12.30am, walking towards Adelaide Road. She was between 16 and 23 years old, about 5ft 6in tall, with shoulder-length dark hair, dark trousers and a dark top.

Bernard Brian McGrath

In March 1987 Vera McGrath put it to her soon-to-be son-in-law, Colin Pinder, that she wished her husband, Bernard, dead. She goaded Pinder that he would not be “man enough” to kill her 43-year-old husband, with whom she had four children.

Pinder beat Bernard McGrath to death using an array of tools, including a lump hammer and a slash hook. Vera McGrath joined in the attack in her family home in Lower Coole, Co Westmeath.

The remains were then burned, mashed into fragments and buried. McGrath told people her husband had deserted her.

By 1993 Vera’s daughter Veronica, who witnessed her father’s murder, had split from Pinder.

Following coercion from people in whom she confided about her father’s murder, she went to gardaí and told them what had happened. Fragments of bone recovered at the time could not be confirmed as those of the dead man, so there was no prosecution.

When the cold-case team was established, in 2007, a retired detective suggested revisiting the McGrath case.

This time DNA testing of the bone fragments, some of which remained in Garda storage, confirmed they were Bernard McGrath’s.

The suspects were reinterviewed. Pinder returned voluntarily to Ireland from the UK to help the investigation, having apparently become a recluse and an alcoholic, in the 20 years since he had killed his father-in-law.

Last year Vera McGrath was jailed for life for her husband’s murder. Pinder was jailed for nine years for manslaughter after claiming that he lashed out only after Bernard McGrath commented on Pinder’s racially mixed origins.

Veronica McGrath gave evidence against both her mother and her ex-husband.

Marie Kilmartin

Marie Kilmartin, originally from Ballinasloe, went missing in Co Laois just before Christmas in 1993. The 35-year-old was last seen alive on the morning of Friday, December 17th, at Laois Shopping Centre in Portlaoise, where she lived.

Six months later, in June 1994, her body was found by an off-duty prison officer cutting turf on a bog at Pims Road, about 750m from the Mountmellick-Portarlington road. She had been strangled, and a concrete slab had been placed on her chest after her body had been dumped in a flooded drain.

Detectives believed from the start that a man with local knowledge of the Midlands was responsible for her murder. It later emerged that Kilmartin, who was regarded as vulnerable and mentally fragile, had a baby daughter and that the child had been adopted. The girl, Áine, was to find out years later who her mother was, and in 2006 she started her own campaign to bring her mother’s killers to justice.

The following year the cold-case team began reviewing the case, with the investigation remaining focused on the belief a local man had killed Kilmartin. Just before she was killed Kilmartin received a telephone call at her home and was said to be agitated afterwards. She left at 4.30pm that day and was never seen alive again. The call was later traced to a local phone box.

In September 2008 a man from the Midlands was arrested and questioned about the murder. Two other people – a woman in her 60s and a man in his 40s – were detained at the same time and questioned on suspicion of withholding information. All three were released without charge.

Gardaí believe that the killer had help in disposing of the body and are hopeful that, in time, the person who helped might come forward. The Crimestoppers service has offered €10,000 to anybody who supplies information to the Garda that leads to a conviction.

Rita Ponsford

In January 1985, when gardaí broke down the door of the Ponsford family home, on middle-class Elm Park Avenue in Kilmurry, Castletroy, Co Limerick, they found 45-year-old Rita Ponsford strangled in her bed. She had been dead for up to two months.

Neighbours told gardaí that when weeks went by without seeing the dead woman or her English-born husband, Martin, they assumed they had gone on one of their many extended trips abroad. The Garda asked UK police to trace Martin Ponsford in England, but he was never found.

When the Garda Serious Crime Review Team was established, the Ponsford case was the first it took up. Photographs of the 1985 crime scene were analysed, and the team concluded she had most likely been killed by somebody she knew. Besides her husband, Rita had no other family.

The team traced Martin Ponsford’s movements from Ireland in late 1984 to the US, Mexico, Spain, Portugal and, finally, the UK again. In England the squad interviewed two friends of Ponsford to whom he had admitted killing his wife.

NHS records revealed Ponsford was, on a specific date in early 2008, due to collect prescription glasses at an optician’s near his home, outside Manchester. They requested that Manchester police arrest him at the optician’s, where the prescription he was carrying would confirm his identity.

Weeks before the planned arrest, Ponsford died of natural causes, unaware he was about to be questioned about the murder.