The strange death of Margaret Bracken

Dundalk woman’s family frustrated by Garda action alleges she died following break-in

Susan Bracken holding a photograph of her mother Margaret Bracken, who died in unexplained circumstances in her home in Dundalk in 2019. Photograph: Alan Betson

Susan Bracken holding a photograph of her mother Margaret Bracken, who died in unexplained circumstances in her home in Dundalk in 2019. Photograph: Alan Betson

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At first glance there was little that seemed surprising about Margaret Bracken’s death.

The Dundalk woman smoked 60 Superking cigarettes a day and had a weak heart.

Margaret had recovered from breast cancer a few years earlier, but the illness had taken its toll on the widow. She was also suffering from the early stages of lung disease. Despite being only 68 years old, photographs showed Margaret looking increasingly frail in recent years, her family say.

This was the view of gardaí who found her body in the hallway of her home on the morning of December 16th, 2019. A sergeant and an inspector assigned to investigate the death spent about seven minutes at the scene before passing on their condolences to the woman’s family and departing, Margaret’s daughter Susan says.

I would best describe my mammy as a wee Mrs Brown . . . She worked with children in the community along with rearing her own six

There was no need to establish a crime scene, look for fingerprints or even ask the family if anything was out of place in the house. A tragedy for the Bracken family but nothing more.

On closer inspection the circumstances of Margaret’s death tell a different story. When gardaí forced their way in that morning, they found her body naked in the hall. The woman’s bottom clothes were on the kitchen floor and looked like they had been pulled off in a hurry, her daughters later recalled. Her top was next to her body in the hall.

Bracken’s false teeth, which she always wore around the house, were found upstairs, one part in the hall and another in a bedroom.

And a box, usually kept by the television and used to control the CCTV in front of the house, was missing. Most concerning for her family was that Margaret’s handbag was nowhere to be seen. Susan and her sister Maria believe the handbag likely contained thousands of euro, the result of a lottery win several years previously (Margaret did not like banks).

“That bag never left Mammy’s sight,” Susan says. She shows a series of photos of her mother. In each one, the woman clasps a small handbag.

A postmortem shows Margaret died of a heart attack. Her daughters do not dispute this. They want to know what preceded the heart attack. Given the fact gardaí never examined the scene and the house has since been sold, it is highly unlikely they will ever get answers.

‘Very private’

Margaret Bracken was an old-fashioned woman, “very private and very straight up”, Susan recalls as she sits at her kitchen table 18 months after her mother’s death.

“I would best describe my mammy as a wee Mrs Brown,” she says in reference to the straight-talking matriarch from the sitcom Mrs Brown’s Boys.

“She worked with children in the community along with rearing her own six. She was a family woman who adored her family but an awful worrier. She was a big believer of the angels.”

Margaret did not answer the phone to Maria over the weekend before December 16th. Maria rang Susan who told her not to worry and that “Mammy was probably just having a drink”.

The next morning, they still could not get in contact with their mother. Susan and her husband picked up Maria and drove to the home, a four-bedroom detached house off Avenue Road which had been purchased 30 years previously by their late father Tommy.

There was no answer at the door. Susan’s husband went around the back but could see no sign of life from inside. “We suspected something was wrong then. She would have told us to feck off or whatever,” she says.

The gardaí were called and two young members arrived a short time later. They kicked in the front door. Just inside, in the hallway, was Margaret’s clearly lifeless body.

Maria overheard one of the gardaí say “she’s naked” so she asked him to cover her mother up. “I think he put a towel on her.”

A short time later the sergeant and inspector arrived. “I would say they spent max seven minutes in the house before leaving. That’s probably being generous,” Susan says.

The younger gardaí stayed a while longer, until Margaret’s body was removed, before handing over the keys of the house to Maria and departing.

Once the initial shock of finding their mother’s body subsided, Maria and Susan began to notice things out of place. The house was unusually clean, as if it had just been tidied.

The pile of post and other odds and ends that usually sat on the kitchen table was gone and all the plugs had been unplugged, something their mother never did.

It was Margaret’s state of undress which concerned them the most. She was not the type to walk around the house naked; “She was old school”, Maria says. Susan says her mother was not even in the habit of taking showers, instead preferring to wash herself at the sink before bed every night.

The clothes lay on the floor in two separate places and Maria says the bottoms were bunched up, like they had been removed in a hurry.

There were two partially-consumed vodka bottles in the house. Margaret could not drink vodka as a result of medication she was on, Susan says. Her drink of choice was cider.

Strangely, the postmortem would show no evidence of alcohol of any kind in her system. Margaret tended to drink on the weekends.

It was when they noticed the missing handbag and the missing CCTV control box that the two sisters tried to get the gardaí to return to the house.

“We called and called, all day,” says Susan. She shows her phone log from December 16th, 2019. It lists 31 calls to Dundalk Garda station, starting from the early afternoon.

The gardaí eventually returned to the house at about 8.30pm. By this point, Margaret’s body had long since been removed to the mortuary.

CCTV hard drive

Although someone had taken the control unit for the CCTV, the hard drive which contained the footage remained in the house. Margaret’s daughters believe an intruder took the control unit, believing it to be the hard drive while not realising the actual hard drive was stored in the attic.

Gardaí took the hard drive and left the family to their grief. A later examination would not show anyone suspicious entering in the period before Margaret’s body was found. This proves little, Susan says. The camera covered only the front entrance; someone could easily have sneaked around the side.

The Brackens heard nothing else until late December, when Susan went to Dundalk Garda station for answers. A garda met her and told her Margaret’s passing was a “sudden death” and nothing more, she says. “She told us to go home and grieve.”

Susan told the garda she believed the missing handbag contained thousands of euro. Asked why her mother would carry around that amount of money, Susan explained her mother had won €350,000 in the lottery about a decade previously.

This was lodged in an account but Margaret did not like dealing with the bank. She especially did not like the fact that anytime she withdrew €5,000 or more, she had to explain to the bank what it was for.

To get around this, she would make withdrawals of just under €5,000, about four of them every year. This money, combined with her pension and other social welfare payments, would be kept in her bag which she kept on her person at all times, Susan says.

Surely this was a reckless way to store money? “We were always saying that to Mammy. But she wouldn’t listen,” says Maria.

Maria and Susan believe their mother could easily have had thousands in her bag at the time. Margaret rarely, if ever, made big purchases. “Mammy wasn’t really someone who needed things,” Susan says.

Two days into 2020, Susan was back in Dundalk Garda station, still looking for answers. A detective she knew approached her to pass on his condolences for her mother. Susan recalls grabbing his hand and “dragging” him into another room where she told him of her suspicions. “I said, please, please I need your help.”

After this, the investigation seemed to begin in earnest. CCTV footage from other cameras on the street were examined and a team of gardaí arrived in Maria’s house to take statements.

The gardaí also got a court order, with the family’s permission, to examine Margaret’s bank records. They found €98,000 in one account and a withdrawal record showing about €4,900 had been withdrawn two weeks before Margaret’s death.

But in terms of forensics, there was nothing to be done. Any potential crime scenes had long since been cleaned or contaminated, or both.

Complaint to Gsoc

Around this time, Susan also made a complaint to the Garda ombudsman (Gsoc) about the Garda’s failure to preserve the scene of her mother’s death. The complaint would later be dismissed after an examination by a Garda superintendent on behalf of Gsoc.

“After considering the investigating officer’s report into the matter, Gsoc is of the opinion that there has been no breach of the disciplinary regulations by the members of An Garda Síochána whose conduct was under investigation,” according to a letter from Gsoc provided by the Bracken’s solicitor, James McGuill.

On April 9th, 2020, the Brackens had a meeting with Dundalk gardaí about their mother’s death. It was then that the gardaí conceded what Susan and Maria had been saying all along, that their mother’s bag had been stolen.

It was also around then, Susan recalls, that gardaí started using the word “unexplained” to describe Margaret’s death.

A liaison officer was appointed to the family and, in June 2020, almost seven months since Margaret’s death, officers took photographs of the house.

In the absence of any forensics, Susan and Maria hoped the postmortem might shed some light on what happened to their mother. This was not to be.

On June 5th, 2020, a senior garda rang Susan and read out the autopsy results. Consultant pathologist Dr Jane Thorne had determined the primary cause of death to be myocardial infarction; a heart attack in layman’s terms. The secondary cause was listed as chronic lung disease.

“I cried all day,” read the note made by Susan that day in the copybook she used to keep track of the investigation.

Around this time, a senior investigating officer (SIO) was appointed to the case. On the face of it, this was an unusual move, especially as it was done months after Margaret’s death.

The position of SIO is a relatively new invention within An Garda Síochána. They are responsible for managing a team of investigators as well as co-ordinating and synthesising the various strands of the inquiry. They are typically appointed only for serious offences such as murder. SIOs are not usually appointed to handbag thefts.

Two months ago Susan met another senior garda who had agreed to sit down with her and her solicitor to answer questions about the investigation.

Susan demanded to know why the Garda had not preserved the scene on the day her mother was found and why it took two weeks for officers to look at the CCTV footage from the house.

“We knew from day one that this bag was robbed, that my Mam was a victim of crime. My Mam was stripped off naked in her hallway,” Susan told the Garda.

The Garda explained that on the day of Margaret’s death there was no indication her bag was missing. Susan responded that they reported the missing bag that evening.

The Garda told Susan that officers had to be guided by the information available to them at the time. “We can’t turn back time,” Susan was told.

“It’s very difficult for family members to understand that sometimes people do pass away in the most unusual circumstances,” the Garda told to an increasingly frustrated Susan.

Margaret’s death was not the first time the Bracken family had come in contact with the Garda.

In February this year, Susan’s husband Gary McAreavey was jailed for three years in the Special Criminal Court for assisting in the burning of a getaway car used during the botched hit on James ‘Mago’ Gately. The sentencing judge said there was nothing to suggest McAreavey knew an attempted murder had been committed when he helped but that he must have known a serious crime had taken place. Does Susan feel these events made the Garda less likely to believe her family?

“The guards didn’t give us a fair hearing,” she says, adding that a lot of this is down to her father, who had died 20 years previously. “He was regarded locally as a bit of a blackguard when he had drink on him,” she says.

“We’re good people. I don’t wish harm on anyone, even the person who did this to Mammy.”

Susan and Maria do not believe their mother was murdered. But they do believe her heart attack was precipitated by the robbery of her handbag.

Theory

Over the months they have formed a solid theory, detailed below, of what happened. But for now it remains just that, a theory. They believe the intruder was a man well known to Margaret who had been in the house only recently. On the night of her death he went around the side and climbed up the roof before entering in a skylight which he had left open on a previous visit. Susan says in the days after her mother’s death, they realised the skylight was off its latch. Her mother, a short woman, had been unable to reach it without assistance.

While attempting to steal the bag, the man got into a struggle with Margaret. During the row Margaret tried to reach the alarm button by the hall door, at which point her heart gave out. Susan points to photos showing palm marks on one wall. “Mammy always kept her walls spotless.”

“She took a heart attack fighting for the bag,” she says. Susan has told gardaí there was evidence of bruising to one of her mother’s hands, although this was not detailed in the autopsy report.

Asked how she believes her mother came to be naked, Susan pauses. “I don’t want to think that he touched her or anything like that.” She says she believes he stripped Margaret to hide how long the body was there. The radiator did not work in the hall and Susan suspects the intruder thought that by stripping her and leaving her in the cold hallway, he could disguise the time of death.

“The problem is we don’t know, and we are never going to know because the guards didn’t do their jobs.”

Last September Susan called one of the investigators and shared another piece of information she had heard on the local grapevine. The chief suspect had paid off a €12,000 drug debt he owed to a major Louth criminal just days after her mother’s death. This was interesting but of little use without evidence to back it up, she was told.

The Garda declined to make someone available to The Irish Times for interview.

A spokesman said “all the circumstances of the discovery of the body of a female in Dundalk in unexplained circumstances” are being examined as part of an ongoing investigation.

He also pointed to the completed Gsoc investigation which found no wrongdoing on the part of gardaí.

There have been some developments. Two months ago, Susan and Maria received word a man had been arrested and questioned by gardaí for the theft of Margaret’s handbag.

A file has gone to the Director of Public Prosecutions. Susan has been told by gardaí that it is highly unlikely the DPP will recommend any kind of homicide charge. Privately, she has been told the most she can expect is a theft charge.

“To be honest, I don’t think he will be charged with anything,” she says. “I don’t know who I’m more angry at, the guards or the person who broke in.”