Tom Niland assault: gardaí following ‘specific lines of inquiry’

Volunteers join gardaí in search of roadside near the retired farmer’s home in Co Sligo

Gardaí say they are following “specific lines of inquiry” in their investigation of an aggravated burglary and “vicious assault” on a 73-year-old retired farmer from west Sligo.

The officer leading the investigation Superintendent Mandy Gaynor was speaking on Sunday as dozens of local people joined gardaí and members of the Civil Defence in a search of the route the gang is believed to have taken, after forcing their way into Tom Niland's home on the N59, the main Ballina to Sligo road, on January 18th.

Mr Niland suffered horrific head and upper body injuries in the incident and is on life support in Sligo University Hospital.

It is understood his condition remains unchanged since last week when his family said they were “praying for a miracle” in his recovery.

Throughout Sunday two separate teams combed the roadsides from Mr Niland's home in Skreen to an area in the Ox mountains beside Lough Easkey, where the 73-year-old's discarded wallet was found.

A number of the volunteers, some carrying metal detectors and other tools, said they were there to express solidarity with their elderly neighbour.

The Garda mounted unit, along with members of the Garda dog unit and their air support unit also took part in the search.

Sean Rowlette from Dromore West was one of the locals who liaised with gardaí to organise the search and said the 30 or so volunteers were responding to an attack "on of our senior citizens".

He added: “It could have been any of our mothers or fathers. The only way people’s minds will be put at ease is when the gang who robbed and attacked Tom are caught”.

Supt Gaynor appealed for anyone with information about the attack “to do the right thing” and come forward. She said it was important to reassure people, who might be living alone and who were afraid, that such attacks were rare.

Garda management is understood to be concerned at fear the assault has generated in rural areas, particularly among the elderly.

The force has been eager to point out that residential burglaries have dropped by 66 per cent since 2015.

Supt Gaynor said assaults accompanied by the viciousness and the violence used in the attack on Mr Niland were “very, very rare”.

Thanking the large number of volunteers who turned out to assist the investigation, Supt Gaynor said she had been “overwhelmed” by the amount of information and support officers had received from the community.

Previous searches in this area had uncovered significant evidence, she said, and the purpose of Sunday’s search was to identify and recover any further evidence.

While refusing to divulge any details of that progress, she said specific lines of inquiry were being followed as gardaí trawl through “hundreds of hours” of CCTV footage and after taking numerous statements in connection with the crime.

It is understood gardaí have obtained DNA samples from the scene which they hope will lead to the attackers.

“There is a process of elimination that has to take place when dealing with DNA in a crime scene, particularly if the DNA of several people is present,” said a Garda source.

Paddy Sheridan, commander of the civil defence in Sligo, said his team were trained in search techniques and were there to help gardaí and ensure everyone stayed safe.

Mr Sheridan who is from the locality said people “never felt as vulnerable”.

Marese McDonagh

Marese McDonagh

Marese McDonagh, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports from the northwest of Ireland

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime Correspondent of The Irish Times