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Dublin: 8 °C Thursday 4 June, 2020
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'Murderers still on our streets': How does a homicide case go cold?

Families of victims say the toughest thing for them to cope with is not knowing what happened to their loved ones.

Getting Away With Murder: Ireland’s Unsolved Homicides will tell the story of this country’s unknown killers and forgotten victims. In this six-part series, TheJournal.ie will revisit a number of cold cases, speak to the detectives tasked with solving these murders and hear from the families left behind with no justice – but lots of questions. Here, we look at how these investigations ran dry in the first instance and what our justice system can do to finally catch these killers. 

FOR EVERY UNSOLVED murder in this country, there is not only a victim, but a killer who got away with it – and who is still potentially on our streets.

The circumstances of each case are unique, but the victims are linked by the unknowns. The push for justice for the deceased is often left to their families after official investigative lines have been exhausted. But for some, there is no one to advocate for them, to demand their file reaches the top of an ever-growing cold case pile, to remind detectives there are still questions to be answered.

But Superintendent Angela Willis of the Garda Serious Crime Review promises that none of Ireland’s victims are ever forgotten.

There are many reasons inquiries can become inactive, she admits, but stresses that her team know the gravity of their job.

“The relief you can bring to a family, just to know what happened. It’s not going to bring their loved one back, but just to give them that little bit of closure they are looking for – just to know,” she told TheJournal.ie.

A struggle

Patrick Collins’s sister Sandra went missing in December 2000.

“I wonder what happened to her,” he says of his current days.

I hope it was quick and that she didn’t suffer and I wonder what she said to the person who did it. What were her last moments were like? Was she afraid or did she fight back?

Although her remains have never been found, the Collins family – and gardaí – believe the 29-year-old woman was murdered.

“My father died last year, my mother died in 2004 – they didn’t know what happened to her.

I don’t want to go to my grave not knowing.

His feelings echo those of other families and friends of murder victims who are searching for answers – and for justice.

“For us to deal with this, we need to know the truth of what happened on that day. It has been, and continues to be, a struggle to deal with not knowing,” said Lorna Fox O’Mahony, whose father Dessie was shot dead in September 1990 in Kildare.

Pamela O’Loughlin, whose sister Emer was murdered in April 2005, says that not knowing why she was killed is “the toughest thing to cope with, especially when there are people out there who do know”.

Covering their tracks

The Serious Crime Review team is tasked with looking at these cases, searching for new leads to chase and tracking killers who have never had to face the consequences of their actions.

Superintendent Willis said there are various reasons leads run dry in an investigation.

“Sometimes you have a major incident, say it’s a murder, and sometimes it’s well planned from the outset by whoever the perpetrator is. That can pose challenges for the investigative team because the perpetrator is covering their tracks as they go along.

They may be wearing gloves or boilers suits so there’s nothing left at the scene to present additional clues.

“You may have a crime with reluctant witnesses – gangland murders for example. You have fear there, whether that’s real or perceived and I suppose we can all relate to that.

“There might also have been technologies that weren’t there at the time it was first investigated.”

If all of these avenues have been pursued and there’s still nothing coming, there’s no intelligence, no witnesses, the opportunities are very limited.

Early suspects

There is also a danger of making assumptions. Retired garda detective inspector Brendan McArdle, who investigated a number of murders during his 36 years of service, says pointing the finger at a suspect too early can sometimes derail an inquiry.

He referenced the still unsolved case of Grace Livingstone, who was killed in her home in December 1992.

Despite the fact that there was nothing to suggest trouble in their marriage, there was no forensic evidence linking him to the crime and that he had an alibi, gardaí focused their attention on her husband James.

He has since sued the State over the investigation and his wrongful arrest in relation to his wife’s death. Though gardaí denied the allegations made against them, the case was settled after five days.

“I can be critical of aspects of that investigation,” McArdle told TheJournal.ie.

The theory was advanced that the husband should be treated as a suspect. This theory was advanced quite strongly, which had the effect of narrowing the view of a lot of people as to any other aspect of the case. That theory was advanced in the very early stages.

“The very early stages of an investigation are critical. Because of policemen and journalists and the media in general, this theory was advanced quite openly within a short time,” he said.

“Then, when you call house to house… people that you’re asking questions to are reading that. It greatly restricts you in what possible information you may get.”

Source: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

Killers still at large

The number of cases on the Serious Crime Review team’s desk is ever-changing because of the variety of probes it takes on, each with its own challenges.

Its counterpart in Northern Ireland, the PSNI’s legacy investigation branch, has an even greater load.

Detective Superintendent Jason Murphy is the deputy head of the unit which reviews and conducts fresh investigations into murders that occurred between 1969 and 2004.

There are some 4,000 cases from that period, with 3,260 connected to the Troubles.

Murphy said one of the key criteria for having a second look at a case is the risk that the killer has been or is still re-offending.

“Do they present a risk to the public? People involved in some of theses cases can often have long and distinguished terrorist careers,” he told TheJournal.ie.

The detective superintendent said officers face “additional complications” compared to those in England, Scotland or Wales, where, most of the time, there is one offender, one victim and one scene – and often the offender is known to the victim.

“In Northern Ireland, that’s often turned on is head. The victim often had no previous association with the killer at all.”

Convincing witnesses to speak to police in the immediate aftermath of a murder was a particularly difficult task during the Troubles and Murphy said this, in tandem with forensic restrictions at the time, saw many of the cases go cold.

When you look at the cases, you find that all of the opportunities that existed at the time were exhausted. There may have been forensic submissions in 1985 but they did not yield any results.

“The investigation reaches a natural end point and that’s an extremely frustrating place for investigators to be, particularly in the north where local communities and often the police have an idea of who committed the murder but they can’t get the evidence with which to convict people.”

Although no two jurisdictions are the same, Ireland can learn from what happens in other countries, while families can seek solace in others going through similar grief.

‘They’re no longer looking for him’

Ryan Backmann’s father was murdered in 2009 while working on a building site in Jacksonville, Florida. He was shot in the back and robbed of his wallet. Speaking to TheJournal.ie for this series, he recalls the day:

He lived long enough to call 911 and give a description of the guy who killed him and then basically lost consciousness on the phone with his dispatcher. His description was not enough when they pulled surveillance tapes from the area and there were no fingerprints and no DNA to make a profile. There were no eyewitnesses.

Since then, Backmann has been campaigning for families of victims in the US whose murders have been unsolved for years and is one of the founders of an organisation called Project Cold Case.

He said his father’s case “quickly went cold within a year and a half”.

“The detectives called me in and sat me down and said they had run out of leads, they didn’t have anywhere else to go, they didn’t have a suspect or even a potential suspect. That was a difficult situation – you always feel like the bad guy is going to get caught.

All of a sudden you’re in a situation where they say not only is he not going to get caught, they’re no longer looking for him.

Source: Project Cold Case

Since 1980 in America, it is estimated 230,000 murders have gone unsolved. Backmann said his job is a difficult one at times as he believes these cases are not given the attention they deserve –  by law enforcement, the media or the general public.

“It’s frustrating for someone like me who has an unsolved case, and who’s given up everything to bring awareness to this issue and help families, to be stonewalled something. For it to be so difficult to accomplish something can be frustrating.”

His approach is not just about highlighting the grief and plight of families left behind, tortured by the unanswered questions - he wants to remind people that leaving these cases unsolved could put the public at risk.

“I try to explain this in a way that shows people there’s danger to them,” Backmann said.

“This is a public safety issue. These are bad people that are on the streets who can do bad things – potential murderers still on our streets.”

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