Melissa Mahon was a lonely child. She had a volatile homelife, was failing in school and had fallen in with the wrong crowd. The only person she felt truly cared for her was the man she referred to as her father and whose family she wanted to be a part of instead of her own, the man who is now on trial for killing her.
Ronald McManus, constantly referred to in court as Ronnie Dunbar, denies murdering 14-year-old Melissa some time in late September 2006 in somewhere in County Sligo. He also denies threatening to kill or seriously injure his daughter Samantha.
Melissa Mahon was undoubtedly a troubled teen. Listening to her social worker, Catherine Farrelly detail her interaction with the vulnerable youngster it’s hard not to see a tragedy waiting round the corner. Melissa was a frequent runaway, sneaking out of the living room window of her home in the Rathbraughan estate in Sligo Town. She usually didn’t go far, just to the Dunbar’s house a few minutes walk away. By the time the HSE got involved with her case in March 2006 she had already become friendly with two of Dunbar’s daughters.
That summer she was an almost daily visitor to their house. In August Ms Farrelly learnt, on coming back from holiday, that Melissa’s family hadn’t heard from her in a couple of weeks. Melissa’s mother told her that the girl was probably just round in Dunbars and would come home in her own good time, but after more than two weeks the gardai were now involved and presumptions were no longer enough.
Ms Farrelly told the court that she had called to Dunbar’s house after going with Mrs Mahon to the garda station in Sligo. Ronnie Dunbar was there and told her he had no idea where Melissa was. He said he was worried about her and would make inquiries to see if she could be found. Ms Farrelly said that Dunbar’s concern was obvious. “He described her as a very hurt and very frightened human being and he questioned why the authorities hadn’t looked for her earlier.”
A few days later Dunbar rang Ms Farrelly to tell her that he had made phone contact with Melissa and he would try and get her to get in touch. He quickly became the only link the HSE had with the missing Melissa. He arranged a meeting in Slish Wood and once there helped the social worker to persuade Melissa to agree to admittance to the residential care home, Lios Na nOg.
Melissa was vehemently against going into care. There wasn’t much of an option since she was alleging that her father had sexually abused her and her mother beat her. Melissa said wanted to stay with the people she was staying with, she said, or with the Dunbars. Catherine Farrelly told the court today that Dunbar wasn’t keen on the idea of Melissa coming to live with him. He had not been going out with his partner for long enough to move another teenager into the house.
Eventually it was agreed but Melissa was not good at cooperating with the staff at Lios Na nOg. She was scared and disturbed by her situation and leaned heavily on the Dunbar family for support. She repeatedly went back to the Dunbar house. Eventually, one week before her final disappearance, the HSE went to Sligo District Court and obtained a court order prohibiting contact between Melissa and Ronnie Dunbar. She simply wasn’t settling in and her continuing closeness with the other family was preventing her from doing so.
But cut off from her friends, Melissa’s behaviour worsened. She simply wasn’t settling into Lios Na nOg. It was decided that she would be better off in temprary foster care but she ran away in her bare feet after a few hours in the foster family’s home. She was caught sniffing lighter gas and, on the night before she disappeared, she had to be brought back to the care home by gardai. She was found in a house in the Cartron area of Sligo Town with another girl from the house. There were guys present and both girls had been drinking.
Ms Farrelly told the court that Melissa had cut herself that night with a broken piece of glass in protest at being taken away from the house in Cartron.
The following day, once things had calmed down, Ms Farrelly arranged to meet Melissa again. She brought her into town to get fresh clothes in Dunnes Stores and then brought her back to the Markievicz House Health Centre to get changed. It had been agreed that Melissa would make another go of foster care but, while Ms Farrelly called the foster family, Melissa made her get away. She was later seen making her way towards the Rathbraughan Estate. That was the last time anyone from the HSE saw her.
You tell a very sad tale, one that’s usually missed when reading or listening to the coverage of cases like this. The tragedy that’s behind the often sensationalised or gory details. Made me think that those who have suffered a loss most, aren’t always the obvious ones and that the work of a few really dedicated people really is a vocation. Ms Farrelly must have felt terrible to come back from her holiday to face this situation. She rightly deserves to be considered for her efforts in trying to help Melissa and hopefully she will be able to take some comfort by these proceedings to punish those that have wronged Melissa. Thank you for drawing this to my attention.