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Wednesday 6 December 2023 Dublin: 8°C
AN GARDA SÍOCHÁNA Nora Sheehan was killed on a date unknown between the 6 and 12 June 1981.

'Cold case' murder trial opens with man (74) accused of 1981 murder of woman in Co Cork

Noel Long has pleaded not guilty to murdering 54-year-old Nora Sheehan between 6 June and 12 June 1981.

A JURY WILL hear evidence that infers a now 74-year-old man had sex with and murdered a vulnerable woman whose “naked and bruised body” was found by forestry workers dumped in dense undergrowth in Cork 42 years ago, a prosecution barrister has told a cold case murder trial.

The 12 jurors were also told by the State today that this provides an explanation for the semen retrieved from the victim, which matches the accused man Noel Long’s DNA.

Senior Counsel Brendan Grehan, prosecuting, also told the jury that other evidence in the case, including that retrieved from Long’s car, along with and other circumstances, should ultimately lead them to the “irresistible conclusion” that the accused man is responsible for Nora Sheehan’s death, which the State’s contend is murder.

Amongst one of the first witnesses called by the prosecution to give evidence in the trial was the deceased’s son James Sheehan, who told the Central Criminal Court jury that his mother “was a bit eccentric” and would freely speak her mind.

Other witnesses described Ms Sheehan as being a “vulnerable person” and “eccentric”.

Noel Long, with an address at Maulbawn, Passage West, Co Cork has pleaded not guilty to murdering 54-year-old Nora Sheehan between 6 June and 12 June 1981 at an unknown place within the State. Her body was found by forestry workers at The Viewing Point, Shippool Woods in Cork six days after she went missing.

Opening the prosecution’s case today, Brendan Grehan SC said that this is a case of “some antiquity” involving a murder over 42 years ago.

Grehan said because it is such an old case it does have consequences and not all witnesses would be available. “That is part of the consequences of time; people die, sometimes they die young and sometimes they die of old age. Because this is so long ago, quite a number of people you might expect to hear from in the case are not available for one reason or another,” he explained.

He added that a lot of the physical exhibits that might have been available 42 years ago are not going to feature in the case as some have become unavailable over time, some have been lost, some destroyed and one does not know what happened to others.

On the plus side, said the lawyer, the evidence that the jury will hear is relatively short and mostly in the nature of technical and forensic evidence. However, Grehan said that many of the witnesses are of quite advanced years; some are in the region of or close to their nineties.

The prosecution barrister went on to tell the court that the case itself is what the jury might have heard describe in a generic sense or in popular culture as “a cold case”. He said that is an unsolved murder that is revisited by investigators years after the event.

Outlining the facts of the case, Grehan said Nora Sheehan lived in Ballyphehane in Cork city with her husband James, who was somewhat older than her and who died in 1985.

The couple had three sons, James Junior, Jeremiah and Hugh; all of whom are still alive and two of whom are present in court today, he said. The barrister said one of the deceased’s sons would give evidence in the case.

Ms Sheehan had previously worked in a hospital, had suffered some sort of fall there and some sort of ill health “whether arising from that or otherwise”. He said the jury would hear from various witnesses that knew or had seen Ms Sheehan around the time of her death.

The barrister said that Ms Sheehan had developed “some eccentricities” and had some obsessions about a nearby hospital. As a result of that, she was often seen out on the roads near her home and on public streets attempting to wave down cars and talking to people about the goings-on at the hospital, which she was concerned about. “She would be described in modern parlance as a vulnerable person,” he added.

Detailing the evidence that will be heard, Grehan said two dogs had got into a fight near Ms Sheehan’s home on Saturday 6 June 1981 and she suffered a dog bite to her left arm in the course of seeking to separate the animals. Ms Sheehan was treated for the bite at the South Infirmary Hospital in Cork.

There will be evidence, Grehan said, from a nurse who treated her in the hospital around 9pm and that Ms Sheehan had left before 10pm that night. Ms Sheehan was seen by a doctor, had a bandage applied to the wound on her arm and was given a tetanus shot.

Ms Sheehan was seen by people before and after she went to the hospital “in particular behaving somewhat oddly and waving down cars”, he said.

Counsel said there will be evidence from witnesses that saw Ms Sheehan between midnight on 6 June until as late as 4am on 7 June but that she was not seen alive after that. She was reported missing to Togher Garda Station by her husband and her son James and was a missing person until 12 June 1981.

The court will also hear evidence, the lawyer said, that Garda John B O’Sullivan was stationed at Innishannon Garda Station in Co Cork, about 26 km away from where Ms Sheehan was last seen, when at 3pm on 12 June 1981, he was visited by two forestry workers who are now deceased.

The two men reported to O’Sullivan that they found what looked like a body while working at Shippool Woods, some two miles away from Innishannon and were clearly upset by what they had discovered.

Grehan said O’Sullivan made his way to the scene with the two workers, climbed down a very steep overgrown slope on the road and in the midst of briars and other overgrowth he observed what eventually he was able to decide was a female body, which was naked apart from nylon tights or stockings on one foot. The remaining of the clothing was pulled up and obscured her face and there was a bandage of her left arm.

Counsel said it was very apparent from the condition of the body that it had been there for some time and it was subsequently identified as being Ms Sheehan, who had been missing for the previous six days.

An extensive garda murder investigation began and the jury will hear from witnesses from the garda technical bureau, who collected evidence from the scene. This includes clothing from Ms Sheehan’s body, including a shoe, he said.

Pathologist Dr Robert Dermot Coakley attended at the scene and on his direction, Ms Sheehan’s body was removed to the city morgue in Cork, where he conducted a post mortem.

He noted various injuries to the deceased’s body, including bruising to the anterior or the front of Ms Sheehan’s vagina. Unfortunately, Coakley died on 5 August 1981, seven weeks after conducting the post mortem, said counsel.

Through an Act brought in in 1992, Grehan said the jury will hear a record of the pathologist’s findings of the examination on Ms Sheehan’s body. He said the prosecution cannot say precisely how Ms Sheehan died, but what the State do say is that Ms Sheehan met her death by means of foul play.

“And that much is apparent from the fruits of the examination of Dr Coakley combined with the circumstances of the findings of her naked and bruised body dumped a distance from the roadside in dense undergrowth where it just happened to be found by two forestry workers working in the area, a long way away from where she was last seen alive,” he said.

Grehan said four days later, on 16 June 1981, Detective Inspector Matt Thorn who was stationed in Cork city stopped Noel Long driving an Opel Kadett car on the Curraheen Road in Cork.

At the time, Long was 32 years of age, some 20-plus years younger than Ms Sheehan, and living at Riverbank on the Curraheen Road in Bishopstown in Cork. “That is on the same side, if not particularly close to where Ms Sheehan lived and was last seen alive,” he said.

Counsel said Long’s car was technically examined by members of the garda technical bureau and in particular Detective Colm Dardis, who took samples and various lifts from the carpet fibres inside the car and from the boot.

These samples were transported to the forensic science laboratory in Dublin and the jury will hear certain trace evidence by way of paint and fibres from the car were analysed there including items from the scene where Ms Sheehan was found. He also indicated to the jury that they would hear about trace evidence, where one item will transfer to another item.

The barrister further stated that Coakley had also taken various standard samples from Ms Sheehan’s body, including matter from her vagina, which showed the presence of sperm. He also took a sample of her blood and these samples were given to Dr Tim Creedon from the forensic science laboratory in the Phoenix Park, who confirmed the presence of semen from the swab taken from the deceased’s vagina.

Creedon preserved what was on the vaginal swab by placing it on a piece of glass. This was protected by another piece of glass put on top to create a sandwich effect to stop anything getting out or in it, he said. The piece of glass was labelled, archived and placed in storage at the forensic science laboratory for many years.

In relation to this action by Creedon, Grehan said it turned out to be of great significance because in 2008, a serious crime review team in An Garda Síochána was set up and tasked with reviewing old unsolved cases particularly murders, what might be termed “cold cases”.

He said Ms Sheehan’s murder case came under its purview and as part of the review, the original investigation concerning the glass slide taken from the body of Ms Sheehan was looked at again “with an eye to modern scientific developments” and in particular the science of DNA.

Grehan said it was decided in 2008 that the preserved sample of the glass slide that Creedon had put away many years earlier would be sent to a specialist UK lab, who had the services to use new methodology that was still in infancy at the time.

The court heard that further evidence will be that Dr Whitaker developed a DNA profile from semen recovered from Ms Sheehan’s vagina. Subsequently, counsel said a material was obtained by gardaí from the accused man Long on 13 November 2021, which was analysed in the forensic science lab.

“Results from their analysis were sent to Dr Whitaker and he will say it matched the semen recovered from Ms Sheehan’s vagina. Using the calculation tools, the possibility that it originated from someone other than Mr Long is one in 20,000 provided they are unrelated to him,” said the barrister, adding that the jury have to look at all the evidence and not just the DNA.

Ms Sheehan’s son, James Sheehan, who is now 65-years-old, told Grehan that he was 23 years of age when his mother went missing and had only been married since the previous December.

James Sheehan said he was contacted at work on 9 June 1981 by a man who owned the corner shop near his home and told that he needed to get home as his father wanted him. The witness said his father was a bit distressed when he got home as his mother was not there.

He brought his father to Togher Garda Station and they both reported Ms Sheehan missing. He said his father died in 1985.

James Sheehan said his mother worked in a psychiatric hospital and had suffered a fall there but couldn’t remember what part of her was injured. Asked by Grehan how his mother was in her last few years, the witness replied: “Like you described this morning”. When asked to elaborate on this, he said his mother was “a bit eccentric”.

The barrister asked the witness how this would show itself and James Sheehan said his mother “had a chip on her shoulder, the way her patient’s being treated in hospital. She would freely speak her mind”.

Asked about his mother waving at traffic and cars, James Shehan said she had grown up in the country and “everyone used to pick everyone up”.

He said he could not remember her going out late at night but said she would walk the dog late at night. He last saw his mother a few weeks before she died.

Retired nurse Agnes Rice told Grehan that she remembered treating Ms Sheehan for a dog bite to her upper arm at the casualty department of the South Infirmary Hospital at about 9.45pm on 6 June 1981. She could see four teeth marks and described it as a “quite significant dog bite”.

Ms Sheehan was given a tetanus injection and the nurse applied an antibiotic spray and dressed the wound.

Rice said after being treated, Ms Sheehan was “very thankful to us” and wanted to leave money in the donation box. When Ms Sheehan left, she was not with anyone else, the witness said.

Rice recalled that Ms Sheehan was wearing a blue coat and a dress. When gardaí showed her a set of clothing some days later, she recognised them as Ms Sheehan’s clothes.

Rice also remembered that Ms Sheehan wore a hat with a ribbon which, “in an agitated way she kept putting the hat on and off”. She struck Rice as being a “vulnerable person”.

Michael O’Sullivan told Grehan that he is now aged 86 and is a retired member of An Garda Síochána.

In June 1981 he was involved in the investigation into the murder of Ms Sheehan and went to the South Infirmary, where he showed Agnes Rice her an overcoat and dress. Rice identified the blue dress as being the one worn by Ms Sheehan on the day she was treated for the dog bite.

Patricia Sullivan testified that she passed a woman holding a handbag and dressed in a coat to her knees around 9.45pm on Saturday, 6 June 1981.

Sullivan, who was in a car heading into town, said the woman who she did not know was on her own and waving at cars including theirs. “She had a big smile and was friendly,” she said.

The witness said she saw a picture of the woman in The Irish Examiner newspaper a short time later and said to her father “I saw that woman”. Asked by the prosecution about her impression of the woman, Sullivan said she thought it was odd that she was waving and smiling for no reason “as we didn’t know each other” and did not get the impression that the woman was trying to flag them down.

John Murray told Grehan that he was 24 on 6 June 1981 and was driving home after work at about 1.30am when he saw Ms Sheehan standing on a green area in front of a shop at the junction of Vicars Road and the Togher Road in Cork City.

Murray knew Ms Sheehan having grown up in the area but had never spoken to her. She was “waving at the cars as they passed”, he said, which was a “thing she did”. He described her behaviour as “eccentric”.

Brian Coleman, who was 21 years of age in 1981, said he left his then girlfriend’s house at 4am in Togher in the early hours of 7 June and as he approached Vicars Road around 4.05am he saw a woman waving across the road.

He thought she was looking for a taxi but said that none of the cars stopped so she began walking up the road. “I thought it was unusual; what I thought was an elderly woman walking the streets on her own in a long overcoat,” he said.

The trial continues tomorrow before Mr Justice Paul McDermott and a jury of eight men and four women. It is expected to last four weeks.

Alison O'Riordan