Very vulnerable, very fragile

 

Ronnie McManus was yesterday sentenced to life imprisonment for the manslaughter of Melissa Mahon, but the final hours of her life remain a mystery

RONNIE McMANUS was not a man to defer to authority. His defiant court uniform of T-shirt and tracksuit bottoms was not designed to flatter his squat, burly frame. If demeanour matters to the men and women of a jury, it was probably ill-advised. But it sent a signal. The crude tattoos marking his temple, ears and neck and swarming over his powerful arms, the obsessive gym work and pit-bulls mentioned in evidence, all served the image of the hard man who kowtowed to no one.

If not scribbling interminable screeds for his counsel’s immediate attention, he was officiously ticking off passages of evidence or rustling noisily through a plastic bag for his sheaves of notes.

The constant scribbling lent him an air of professional detachment as evidence mounted of a pitiless controller and manipulator, a muscular 44-year-old who claimed to care for a frail 14-year-old child, yet dumped her body like a dog; a father who never flinched as his young daughters gave heinous evidence against him by video link; a man who answered a flat “no” when detectives asked if he loved his daughter, yet had boasted in media interviews of heroic custody battles in the UK.

He had no friends in court, no work-mates, since he wasn’t known to hold a job for any length of time. Of a lengthy parade of soccer mates called to testify about kickabout times and places, only a few exchanged doleful greetings with him during breaks. Relatives on the witness list turned up for a day but when not called upon to give evidence, they left and never returned. Since the defence chose not to go into evidence, no insights were offered into the forces that shaped the twisted, fantastical mind-set of 44-year-old Ronnie McManus.

“There’s a new world coming and he’s the king on the throne and when it all kicks off, there will be a battlefield. They’s why he has his dogs. That’s why he has to keep fit,” said a still-devoted Ruth Nooney, a 25-year-old who became engaged to him in 2007 after he helped to tune her television and now has a baby by him.

“He can be intense, obsessive, belligerent,” says a man who met him, “but he can also do funny, vulnerable, charming, affable”. So when Angelique Sheridan met him in a post-office queue in August 2006, it was “brilliant” to begin with. The romance lasted six weeks, long enough for Sheridan to become acquainted with McManus’s children and their ever-present friend, Melissa Mahon, a tiny, slightly-built 14-year-old, described variously as “very vulnerable” and “very fragile”.

McManus explained her presence by saying that Melissa had told him she was being abused and had asked for his protection. His daughter, Samantha, however, said that Melissa was in love with her father and was three months’ pregnant by him. Sheridan also claimed that McManus said in front of her and his elder daughter Shirley – who denied it – that he would strangle Melissa rather than go to prison for her. By the end of the affair, Sheridan was terrified of her boyfriend and convinced that Melissa was in serious danger.

It was Melissa Mahon’s tragedy to come under Ronnie McManus’s influence in her most vulnerable years. She was “a great dancer” and loved country and western music, said her mother soon after she went missing. But she was also a child from a troubled background, uprooted from her native London at 13 to move to Ireland. Her parents, Mary and Frederick, met in Sligo in 1969 when Mary was in her mid-teens. They moved to London, where they had their 10 children. On a visit to Sligo in July 2005, Mary Mahon got a shared house and, when a second bedroom became available, summoned her family home to stay.

Life for the Mahon family was never smooth. There was contact with English social services while in the UK; two older daughters were on the child-protection register and three were taken into foster care, one overnight. Melissa alleged she had been sexually and physically abused by her father and mother respectively. In court, Mary Mahon said she was aware of the allegations and did not accept them, saying her husband had suffered enough. Asked why she had declined to make a statement to gardaí when her daughter went missing for the final time, she implied that her daughter was no longer part of the family at that stage: “It wasn’t up to me. She wasn’t in my care.”

On their arrival in Ireland, the family were already flagged to the HSE because of prior contact with British social services. Melissa’s poor school attendance began to attract closer scrutiny from the HSE and social worker Catherine Farrelly become involved in mid-2006. That Melissa found common cause with McManus’s daughters living nearby in the Rathbraughan estate was hardly surprising. They too had lived a chaotic, peripatetic life around the UK before moving to Sligo.

In the late 1970s, Ronald McManus left his native Sligo for England, where he met Lisa Conroy, the mother of his three daughters. In a Sunday World interview before her father’s arrest, his elder daughter described a life of abject poverty and violence at his hands and said they were on the “at risk” register as a result. She and her siblings were placed in foster care for a year, she said, after which they were returned to their father’s custody. Their mother, who had had another child, left the family home with the baby.

In 2000, a fight between McManus and a London drug dealer resulted in a gun attack on their home in which he and his then nine-year-old daughter sustained bullet wounds. They agreed to give evidence and were placed on a witness-protection programme (when he changed his name from Dunbar to McManus, his mother’s maiden name), moving between various locations before ending up in Scotland. The return to Ireland in 2005 was because of “racist abuse, no other reason”, he told the Sligo Weekender. When it emerged he had actually been ejected from the witness-protection programme, he said it was because he had campaigned for better conditions for protected witnesses. His daughter said it was because he was “constantly fighting” with the villagers.

BOTH FAMILIES WERE only a year back in Ireland in summer 2006, and at this stage, Melissa was spending virtually all her waking hours with the McManuses. There was evidence of anti-social behaviour, shop-lifting and a house break-in by Melissa and the younger McManus girls.

McManus’s daughter Samantha alleged that Melissa told her she was in love with McManus and they were having a sexual relationship.

On August 4th, Mary Mahon rang the Garda to say Melissa had stayed out overnight but she was not unduly concerned; her daughter was probably hanging around McManus’s house, she said, and she had decided to leave Melissa to come home in her own good time. No action was taken and almost three weeks elapsed before the HSE realised that Melissa was missing.

On August 22nd, Catherine Farrelly, who had been pushing for a resolution of Melissa’s school problems, became suspicious and asked Mary Mahon what was going on. Unhappy with her answers, Farrelly took her to a Garda station and then went with a garda to visit Ronnie McManus. He told them he had no idea where Melissa was but said he was worried about her and demanded to know why the authorities hadn’t looked for her earlier – a constant theme of his exchanges with social services and the Garda. He also invited them to search the house. They chose not to. If they had, according to his daughter, they would have found Melissa hiding behind the sofa.

Soon after, McManus contacted the HSE to say he had managed to make phone contact with Melissa, manoeuvring himself into a position whereby he became the HSE’s sole conduit to the missing child. He could lay down the ground rules; thus the bizarre arrangement by which Catherine Farrelly was obliged to travel in his car with him and his daughter to a remote meeting place to see Melissa. There was evidence that to avert suspicion he ordered his daughter to greet Melissa as though she hadn’t seen her for a long time.

As a 14-year-old runaway alleging abuse by her parents – about which she never made a statement – and refusing to go home, Melissa was finally placed into residential care by the HSE. But in her 16 days in the centre, she was absent as many nights as she was present. A social-care worker testified to continuing high levels of contact between Melissa and Ronnie McManus and of finding a picture of McManus under Melissa’s pillow. The HSE obtained a court order prohibiting contact between Melissa and Ronnie McManus.

Garda analysis of a phone owned by McManus would confirm grounds for concern. Between July and October 2006, more than 30 per cent of that phone’s traffic comprised contacts to or from the 14-year-old child. By contrast, just 12 per cent comprised contacts with his then girlfriend, Angelique Sheridan.

Melissa’s behaviour deteriorated. She and another resident were suspected of drinking and sniffing gas. Gardaí found both of them in bed with three older youths in a house in Cultragh, and when they tried to return them to the centre, the girls cut their arms with glass and threatened to slit their wrists.

After this, it was decided to try temporary foster care and on the evening of September 13th Melissa was taken to the Co Leitrim home of Jane McCall, who described her as a charming, polite and pretty girl.

But at 11.30pm that night, the child took a phone call that caused her to run out of the house in her bare feet and to knock on a stranger’s door, asking him to ring Ronald McManus, her “father”.

McManus – who was tiring of her neediness, according to Angelique Sheridan – contacted the Garda and social services, and Melissa spent the night in Manorhamilton Garda station with Catherine Farrelly, her social worker. The next day, back in Sligo, Farrelly persuaded her to try another foster family. The social worker also bought new clothes for her in Dunnes Stores and took her to the HSE offices to get changed and washed.

But sometime in the 15 minutes while Farrelly was out making arrangements, Melissa Mahon disappeared. She was seen heading towards the Rathbraughan estate by two women from the residential centre who were driving past. They called out to her but didn’t follow her.

It was September 14th and the HSE’s last sighting of Melissa Mahon.

MELISSA SURVIVED another six days, according to Ronnie McManus’s younger daughter. She said Melissa was in their home on the evening of September 20th when gardaí called looking for her, but Melissa ran out the back door and jumped over a wall.

Only three people can say what happened in the next 24 hours. McManus chose not to take the stand. In their evidence, Samantha and her younger sister agreed on certain key points – that they saw their father in his bed that night, lying behind Melissa with his arm around her neck.

Samantha testified that Melissa’s face was purple, her lips blue and that she was making a high-pitched noise as she struggled to breathe. They both agreed that McManus put her into a sleeping bag tied with a blue tie, and told of how they helped their father dispose of the body on the banks of the River Bonet, an area close to where the remains were found 15 months later, after a Garda search triggered by information from Samantha. Her sister, who claimed to have seen the body in the sleeping bag before it was dumped, said that it had become half purple and half white.

However, the defence argued that the jury should focus on the divergences in the sisters’ accounts, which, said Brendan Grehan SC, were “radically inconsistent and inherently incredible”. Earlier in the trial, while cross-examining Prof Marie Cassidy, the State pathologist, he drew attention to the sisters’ evidence that they had seen their father lying in bed behind Melissa in a “spoon” position, with his arm across her throat. Counsel wondered about that position “as a mechanism for causing death”.

Prof Cassidy replied that an arm on the neck or armlock can cause sudden collapse or death due to pressure on the sides of the neck.

“Could it happen in a potentially friendly situation?” asked counsel.

“It could happen without a person intending to cause harm,” she agreed.

Fifteen months later, the 14-year-old’s skeletal remains would be found, chewed by animals and blown around the shores of Lough Gill, with only a few teeth in a jawbone to identify her. McManus’s two younger daughters had finally reported her killing and led investigators to her dumping ground.

His younger daughter’s confused feelings were evident in her early willingness to blame herself and her sister for Melissa’s death.

Samantha told the court her younger sister was in love with their father and had been “brainwashed” and terrified by him. They helped him dispose of the body because, “my dad was a very controlling man and we were scared of him . . . We were only young girls at the time”.

In the meantime, in October 2007, Ronnie McManus had been arrested and questioned by the Garda about an alleged sexual offence and is expected to face further charges.

Both his younger daughters were taken into care.

As for Melissa Mahon, we know little more about the lost, vulnerable child who believed she had found her saviour in Ronnie McManus. A few weeks after her daughter went missing for the final time, Mary Mahon told the Sligo Weekender she was at a loss to explain it.

Maybe Melissa had found it difficult to adjust to Sligo after London, she suggested: “I don’t know why she went away really. Young girls are sometimes hard to understand.”