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Tag: Ronald McManus (Page 3 of 4)

An Inconclusive Post Mortem

The post mortem results are always one of the most eagerly awaited pieces of evidence in a murder trial.  It’s where you finally get a picture of how the deceased actually died, what the cause of death was, whether all this ties in with the evidence already heard.  In the case of Melissa Mahon, there wasn’t much to go on.  All State Pathologist Marie Cassidy had to go on were a few bags of bones, fragmented, partially destroyed by the elements that had been on work on her body since it had found it’s way onto the shore of Lough Gill in County Sligo.

As Professor Cassidy pointed out, some of the bones were so badly weathered that she needed the help of an anthropologist to work out what they were.  The tell tale signs that would have confirmed whether or not Melissa was strangled as two of the daughters of the accused have claimed, were absent, as the flesh was absent.  It was impossible to tell whether her face had had the characteristic redness, whether there had been the petechial (or pinpoint) haemorrhages around the face and eyes that tend to be an indication of restricted blood flow.  The tiny hyoid bone that sometimes shows up fractured in these cases was absent.  It was impossible to discount or confirm whether Melissa had been strangled.

She could say that the accounts given by Samantha Conroy and her younger sister, that they had seen Melissa with a red face around the time of death and that her body was “half purple, half white” prior to dumping it would have been consistent with the account they had given. Although she did say that the time period during which Melissa’s post mortem lividity would have developed (the purple and white colouration) would normally have taken an hour or more, rather than the half hour that the youngest Conroy girl described.

Their father, Ronnie Dunbar, also known as Ronald McManus, denies murdering Melissa somewhere in Sligo on an unknown date between 14th and 30th September 2006.  He also denies threatening to kill his daughter Samantha.

The girls had previously described dumping Melissa’s body into the River Bonet.  Skeletal remains, along with a Beauty and the Beast nightdress and a sleeping bag tied up with a blue tie, where found scattered on the shores of Lough Gill some eighteen months after Melissa’s disappearance.  Professor Cassidy told the court that the bones had spent much of their time on dry land, suffering the ravages of the wind and rain and the beating of the sun.

The sleeping bag and the nightdress, she said, were ripped and torn, consistent with the damage that would have been inflicted if some sharp toothed animal, foraging along the wooded shoreline had come across the bag and it’s grim contents and torn it’s way through the body within.  The bones would then have been scattered across a wide expanse of shoreline.

The bones she examined were broken and damaged, as they would have been by this hungry creature, perhaps one of the foxes or badgers that live in the area.  The edges of ribs cracked apart from the spine and the sternal and crunched at the end. Fragments of black cloth found in the area could have been all that was left of the black tracksuit bottoms Melissa was described as wearing when she died.

When the feeding had finished the bones were left to be finally picked clean by the elements.  The sun that baked the bone, making it thin and brittle after it’s watery resting place, the damp that had encouraged the growth of grey mould in the bowl of the scalp.

There wasn’t much left of Melissa by the time the search teams found her.  A few bones, some clumps of hair, a few scattered teeth. Her parents weren’t in court to hear what had become of their daughter’s body.  They’ve absented themselves each time she’s been reduced to those pitiful bones.  Who can blame them?  Post mortem evidence is always shocking, any body left out in the elements will attract animals or insects who do what they are designed to do.  I don’t write this to shock, simply to account for what was said.  The body lay undiscovered for many months, almost long enough to disappear entirely, to be worn away and become a part of the land.

So far we have not heard any DNA evidence so a definite identification is still to come.  We have heard that the teeth found scattered on the shore did not contradict the dental records procured from the UK but that’s as far as it goes.  Even the sleeping bag and nightdress bare no obvious sign that they were wrapped around a dead body.  It remains to be seen what, if anything, the DNA evidence will show.

EDIT:

I’ve noticed that some people have come looking for what happened with the witness who denied going out with Melissa that I tweeted about this morning.  With the grim images left by the post mortem Danny Mills quite slipped my mind for all the rare burst of comedy he gave us this morning.  It’s rare that a witness doesn’t allow a barrister to get a word in edgeways – barristers tend to be rather good at avoiding that kind of thing – but Mr Mills gave both sides a run for their money.  He had only known Melissa for three days he said, never really talked to the girl, last time was when she was being bundled into a garda car.  He had never gone out with her…he’d only met her three times, not even on consecutive days.  He had never been with her in that way…there were only three times he saw her and the last one she left in a garda car.  Danny Mills spoke nineteen to the dozen but was adament about what he had to say.  If I haven’t mentioned it before it was that he’d only met Melissa three times and the last time she was taken away in a garda car.  The diminutive absolutely-not-a-casanova was only on the witness stand for a couple of minutes but what a word filled couple of minutes they were.  Mr Mills I am sorry for having forgotten you.  I hope I have now corrected that.

The First Forensics

Melissa Mahon’s bones were tossed about by the winter winds over long months before they were found scattered on a lake shore.  It was almost 18 months after her disappearance from HSE care in September 2006 that gardai searching the shores of Lough Gill found the bone fragments and shanks of hair that were all that was left of the Sligo teen.

It was a biting February when the search team arrived at Lough Gill after information received from the daughters of the man now accused of Melissa’s murder.   Ronnie Dunbar, known for the purposes of court as Ronald McManus, denies killing the 14-year-old and also denies threatening to kill his then 15-year-old daughter Samantha when she allegedly helped him to dispose of the body.

Members of the garda search team described the snow that hampered the search.  The crime scene photos that form part of the evidence show a medley of greys and browns with the occasional patch of green along the wooded shoreline of the lough, the wild winter landscape where Melissa’s bones ended up.  If Melissa had been dumped in the River Bonet…where Samantha and her younger sister say they helped their father dump the body, when the girls said the dumping had taken place, her body had been buffeted by the tidal waters for months until it was thrown ashore.

By the time the garda search team arrived all that was left were fragments of bone and hanks of hair, mere scraps of what had once been a human being.  As the trial has progressed we’ve heard witness after witness catalogue the vertebrae and bone fragments that finally made their way to the State Pathologist.

Today we heard from a forensic odontologist, the tooth guy, who told us in painstaking detail how he had identified Melissa from a mandible (that’s a lower jawline to the anatomically confused) and a handful of teeth.  The photographs showed the teeth yellow and stained from the peaty soil they had rested on, just as the Beauty in the Best night gown that had allegedly clothed her thin frame, is peppered with fragments of peat and bark.

The forensic tooth guy, Mr Paul Keogh, told the court that there had been a strong correlation between Melissa’s dental records, made up from childhood visits to her local dentist in the UK, and the bone and teeth he had to examine.   He described the x-rays of her jaw then and now showing two wisdom teeth not yet erupted, a distinctive indicator that the jaw and the x-ray belonged to one and the same girl.  He conceded that his science was not exact, he could not provide the statistical probability that someone would have two wisdom teeth just so  – only 70% of the population grow them, he told the court, but beyond that.  But he said that while his report may have simply said there were no contradictions between the dental notes and the post mortem examination, he was there to tell the court that he had no doubt whatsoever that the jawbone and teeth he had examined were Melissa Mahon’s.

The time in the water and the harsh conditions of at least one winters had worked their destructive force on the body of the slight teenager leaving not much left for forensic examination.  It remains to be seen what story her bones will tell, there’s still a long way to go.

A Positive Pregnancy Test

Two of Melissa Mahon’s young friends told the court today that she had taken a pregnancy test before her disappearance, a test that had proved positive.  The girls described how Melissa had bought the test in Tesco in Sligo town and gone into the bathroom of McDonalds across the road to take it.

Asked how she had reacted one of the girls said she seemed happy “kind of delighted”.  Earlier in the trial we heard from accused man Ronnie Dunbar’s ex girlfriend Angelique Sheridan or Dupois that Dunbar’s youngest daughter had claimed that the baby was her father’s since he and Melissa were having a sexual relationship.

One of the girls who gave evidence today told the court that Melissa had been going out with a boy from the Caltra area of Sligo.

Today marked the end of the video link evidence we’ve been hearing for the past week and a bit, the evidence from those witnesses too young to go through the rigours of a cross examination in open court.  The bulk of the evidence was from two of Dunbar’s daughters, 18-year-old Samantha and her 17-year-old daughter, who can’t be named for legal reasons.

The younger sister was cross examined further this morning, questioned about evidence she had introduced at the end of yesterday’s proceedings when she had told the court she had seen her father with his hands around Melissa Mahon’s throat, pressing down.

Challenged on the fact she had never mentioned this detail before yesterday she told defence counsel Brendan Grehan that she remembered new details every day and only remembered this particular detail when Isobel Kennedy, for the prosecution, asked her when she had seen her father strangling Melissa.  Both she and her sister had previously said that they saw their father lying on the bed with Melissa with his forearm around her throat.

This new piece of evidence adds a startling detail to her account.  Mr Grehan asked her flatly was she making things up as she went along, something the girl stoutly denied.

While his daughters were giving evidence the accused sat in the witness box of the tiny courtroom used to hear video link evidence.  In a packed courtroom it was the only place he had a clear view of the proceedings out of the way of the crush of bodies.  He spent most of his time writing a constant supply of notes, glancing mildly at the screen as his daughters gave their damning evidence.

This morning he had given his counsel a list of further questions to ask his youngest daughter, mainly surrounding a series of text messages she had sent him after she had been taken into care and he had been charged with Melissa’s murder.  Text after text was read out in court and the girl agreed that she had sent them.  She agreed she had sent her father texts saying she was sure of his innocence and that she would rather take the blame than him.  But the girl insisted that she had been scared and brainwashed as her father had threatened her with suicide.

Tomorrow the trial will continue back in the bigger courtroom we began in, now that advanced techincal capabilities are no longer required.  The old courts that open off the Round Hall are architecturally impressive but lack certain facilities.  It’s expected the trial will continue for another couple of weeks.  It’ll be interesting to see where it goes from here.

Conflicting Accounts & Confusion

In a packed courtroom it can be difficult to hear the subtleties of a witness’s account of proceedings but even with the constant rustling and coughing in Court 16 today the  story being told by Ronnie Dunbar’s youngest daughter were clear in all it’s confusing details.

On her second day giving evidence by video link the 17-year-old was adamant that both she and her older sister Samantha had seen their father kill Sligo teenager Melissa Mahon by strangling her.  Meticulously, her father’s defence counsel, Brendan Grehan SC, put before her all the conflicting details of her, and Samantha’s accounts of those events, pointing out to her that they didn’t just differ on minor details, there were large discrepancies as well.

The girl was defiant as Mr Grehan pointed out to her that she and Samantha couldn’t both be right when they gave different accounts of events that both said both were present for.  Again and again she would reply “that’s her statement not mine” and point out that “people perceive things differently”.  Then why, Mr Grehan asked, had Samantha said in her evidence that she did not hold one end of a tie that was around Melissa’s neck while her sister held the other end?  Samantha had also denied watching her father smother Melissa with a cushion.  Maybe she was out of the room, the girl insisted.  It happened.

We had been familiar with the fact that the girl had given gardai several conflicting accounts of the events of that day before giving a statement that was a good match for the account Samantha gave in July last year, after their father had been arrested and charged.  During her evidence, Samantha had dismissed the earlier accounts and reacted with blank incomprehension at some of the elements of the matching accounts where her and her sisters accounts differed.

Under cross examination today the girl was faced with each of these accounts which she dismissed in turn.  She had already said that she had lied, she explained.  She looked grave as she told Mr Grehan that she was “disgusted” with herself for lying but she had been afraid of her father and brainwashed by him, an accusation also made by her older sister in her evidence last week.  The girl said that her father had been in contact with her by phone after her sister had gone to the gardai and had threatened suicide if she had backed up her sister’s story.  She said he had told her he would hang himself and that her aunt, his sister, had told her he was threatening to kill himself “with a syringe and caustic soda”.

She said that Ronnie Dunbar had convinced himself of his innocence and had tried to convince her.  Many of the details she gave in her earlier false statements, she said, were fed to her by her father.  She said he would tell her a version of events as if it was true and in her confused and frightened state she had chosen to believe him even if she had known what he said to be wrong.

She agreed that she had told this false version of events to various people and had even spoken to a local radio presenter at Ocean FM, telling him that Samantha had killed Melissa in a row over drugs.  She told Mr Grehan that all this had been lies and that she had only told the truth in two statements once her father was safely in jail on remand.  One in July last year, the other virtually on the steps of the court, days after the trial had begun.

She agreed that she had read newspaper reports in the News of the World that gave Samantha’s account of Melissa’s death but said that this had not influenced her.  Reiterating her anti newspaer stance from the day before she said that since papers “mixed things up” and changed things she hadn’t given the account much thought.

We heard a section of the radio interview just after lunch.  The girl sounded young but spoke quickly and definitely in the few seconds we heard.  It was surprising to hear that she had been approached for an interview.  She couldn’t have been more than 14 or so at the time, rather young to become a target of the press even if she had given the interview willingly.  She insisted that she had not approached the radio station and there was much discussion as we headed off for lunch about the ethics of interviewing one so young about an ongoing criminal investigation.

As this week goes on the press aren’t coming out particularly well.

Old Beyond Her Years…

Ronnie Dunbar’s youngest daughter sat with her head tilted to one side as her older sister had done for most of the morning.  She answered the defence counsel’s questions shortly but politely in the soft english accent she shared with her two older sisters.  She was firm in her version of events and quick with her answers but the questioning was beginning to heat up.

Last week we heard the first suggestion that the youngest Dunbar daughter had previously previously given several conflicting accounts of the events of the September evening when she and her older sister Samantha say they saw Sligo teenager Melissa Mahon die at the hands of their father.  The same evening, both girls claim they helped him to dispose of the body at an isolated spot on the banks of the River Bonet in Sligo.

Their father, Ronnie Dunbar, also known as Ronald McManus, denies murdering 14-year-old Melissa or having anything to do with her death and the disposal of her body.  He also denies threatening to kill Samantha.

The girl agreed that she had given her most recent statement to gardai only a couple of weeks ago after the trial had started.  It was this account that she gave in her primary evidence, telling how she had come upstairs to find her father lying on top of Melissa.  She asked what he was doing, he replied “keeping her sweet”, to which Melissa, lying beneath him, giggled.

The girl told prosecuting counsel Isobel Kennedy that when her older sister Samantha came back from her Youthreach scheme about ten minutes later, she brought her upstairs to show her what was going on.  She said that her father and Melissa had changed position and were now lying side by side, her father lying behind Melissa with his forearm across her throat.  The girl said that her father told her and her sister to get out of the room.  He said he had had to kill Melissa because she had threatened to report him to gardai and had tried to kill him on a previous occasion.

She said he then got a tie out of the bedside cabinet and put it around Melissa’s neck then told her and her sister to hold an end each while he went to the bathroom.  When he came back, she said, he pressed a pillow over Melissa’s face before stuffing her head first into a sleeping bag he had sent Samantha downstairs to fetch.

The girl said that when they arrived at the River Bonet to dump the body her father opened up the sleeping bag to remove the tie.  She said Melissa was purple all down one side.  Her father zipped back up the sleeping bag and tied the tie around the top, where Melissa’s feet where.  They then threw the sleeping bag and it’s contents into the River.

Months later, she told Ms Kennedy, she and her father made a late night visit to the River Bonet.  Her father had brought a blow up dingy and took her up and down the river for around an hour while he used a flashlight to search the banks, looking to see if the body had “risen”.  The girl estimated this nocturnal trip had taken place at around 3 am.

She agreed with defence counsel Brendan Grehan that she had given various different accounts but she stuck by the account she gave today.  She said that any differences between her account and Samantha’s were simply because they had perceived things differently even though Mr Grehan told her that they couldn’t both be right.

She agreed that she had phoned her aunt, the accused’s sister, while her sister was giving evidence but said that she had not said Samantha was telling a pack of lies.  She denied discussing the events with her sister but said she had been following the trial in the media.  That didn’t count though.  She suddenly sounded far older than her years when she told Mr Grehan  “As you know, newspapers add things in, take things out, mess them up.”

There was laughter in the courtroom as everyone looked towards the press.  It wasn’t the first time a broadside had been aimed in our direction and it certainly won’t be the last but all accounts of events as detailed as a court case must be edited in some way.  There’s frequently a large dose of cynicism aimed at press reports but it’s unusual to find it in one so young.

I wonder will she be reading accounts of her performance tomorrow morning before she takes the stand again tomorrow.  What’ll she think of our accounts of her own performance in the stand?

The Rattling of Sabres.

Samantha Conroy will have a stressful bank holiday weekend.  The 18-year-old daughter of Ronald McManus, the man accused of murdering Sligo teenager Melissa Mahon has been giving evidence for the past two days.  She will have to resume her cross examination on Tuesday.

It’s hardly surprising she’s being interrogated for so long.  The story she tells is very damning.  She says that she saw the aftermath of Melissa’s death and helped her father dispose of the body.  She is the name in the second charge, that her father threatened to kill her.  In these circumstances her evidence is crucial.

For the later part of this week the entire court has shifted to a different court room.  The Four Courts is a historic building and sometimes rather behind the times where technology is concerned.  One of my colleagues asked me during the week if we had access to wifi anywhere in the courts complex…I couldn’t help laughing.  Wifi is a precious commodoty in a complex where, if evidence must be heard via video link, the entire court must decamp and shift to the one courtroom set up for this eventuality.

Since video link evidence is a possible requirement in any trial with young witnesses this shifting of courts happens quite regularly.  Unfortunately, the courtroom that can take the video links is quite a bit smaller than the main courtrooms that open off the Round Hall.  Murder trials tend to require a lot of personnel and the witness list will frequently be long and involved.  When you factor in the fact that murder trials are the ones that tend to get the most media attention and therefore the largest press pack, you begin to get a very crowded courtroom.

Matters got so cramped on Thursday that the accused had to move into the witness box so that he could see his daughter’s evidence and there he has sat, on a level with the jury box on the opposite side of the room, taking reams of notes and watching her face intently on the two large screens hanging over the judges bench.

Samantha gave her principal evidence on Thursday so the following day it was the turn of defence counsel Brendan Greahan to cross examine.  On Thursday Samantha had answered every question politly, speaking in a soft English accent.  She had taken great care to include a wealth of detail, taking time to answer each question.

Once the cross examination started and the questions became less gentle and more probing her demeanour changed.  Her head cocked on one side, she answered many questions cheekily but Mr Greahan plowed on needling away at each detail of her account.  Thier swords first crossed as he started his cross examination detailing each statement she had given to the gardai.

“You have had all your statements?  Did you read them?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s very stressful to read over evidence.  Do you not think I’ve suffered enough?”

Mr Greahan led her through each detail of her account, stopping to test each piece.  Why did she claim to have switched rooms in the middle of the night the night before she said Melissa was killed.  Because she preferred the smaller bedroom, she answered, Melissa hadn’t come to bed in her room so she moved.  It had been dark when she moved she said so she hadn’t noticed anyone sleeping in the room’s second bed.

Mr Greahan pushed further.  She had said that her father took her and her sister to watch him play football as usual after they had disposed of the body.  What time was this?  Half 8.  Was she sure?  Absolutely.  But another witness would say football took place from 7 till 8.  It was half 8.

And again, what way was Melissa lying when Samantha saw her on the bed, allegedly after her father had strangled her.  She was lying on one arm with the other along her side.  And what way was her father lying, where was his arm.

Samantha stuck to her story, her face often furrowed with concentration.  She answered every question put to her and the exchanges came thick and fast.  Why had she and her sister done what her father told them in disposing of the body.  Why hadn’t they told anyone for almost 18 months?

Samantha replied again and again with the same words, a descriptive phrase learnt perhaps in counselling.  Her father was “a very controlling man”. Eventually Mr Greahan showed exasperation hearing the same phrase again and again.  You keep saying that.  And I’ll keep saying saying it.  It’s the truth.

“You don’t know my father.  I do.  I had been living with my father for fifteen years of my life.  You have just been reading his statements.”

She agreed that she had stolen regularly in the past, robbing makeup and sweets from Tesco and chemist shops around town.  She insisted though that she had never taken anything more than makeup from the chemists although she did admit to taking cocaine once.

But it was when Mr Greahan began to read large chunks of her younger sister’s statements giving several completely different accounts of Melissa’s death that Samantha looked her most incredulous.  She screwed up her face, her head tilting even further to one side as it was suggested to her that she had hit Melissa over the head with a frying pan, or threatened her little sister with a ktichen knife after admitting to hitting Melissa with a piece of wood.

I hope Samantha gets some rest over the weekend.  It can’t be easy going through a cross examination and hers is due to continue on Tuesday.  The battle lines will be redrawn as the defence and the prosecution try to get to the bottom of what happened to Melissa Mahon for the jury.

A Daughter Condemns…

Samantha Conroy’s voice shook slightly as she described trying to resuscitate her best friend.  Giving evidence via video link, the 18-year-old told how she had come home one day in mid September 2006 to find her younger sister crying in the downstairs living room, smoking a cigarette.

Samantha told the court that her sister had told her not to go upstairs, so she did.  She said she ran upstairs and into her father’s room where she saw him lying on the bed with Melissa Mahon.

Samantha’s father, Ronald McManus, otherwise known as Ronnie Dunbar, denies murdering 14-year-old Melissa Mahon on an unknown date in September 2006 somewhere in Sligo town.  He also denies threatening to kill Samantha.

Court 16, the only place in the Four Courts where video link evidence can be heard, was packed with witnesses and gardai.  As his daughter began to give her evidence McManus craned forward to try to see past the crowds standing at the back of the court to the two large screens suspended above the judges bench.  Eventually he moved to the witness box where he sat listening intently and taking occasional notes.

Samantha told the court that Melissa was lying, on her side facing away from the door with her father lying behind her, facing into Melissa.  He had his arm around her neck.  Samantha told the court “I thought they were getting up to sexual activities”. The room was in darkness with the curtains closed so she turned on the bedroom light.

As she did so, Samantha says, her father jumped up from the bed and ran out of the room.  As he moved Melissa fell onto her back.  Samantha told the court that Melissa’s face was purple, her lips blue and her eyes closed.  She said she ran over to try to resuscitate her friend, sitting on her legs and pressing on her chest.  Melissa was trying to breath.  Samantha told the court that she could hear a high pitched noise coming from Melissa’s mouth but her attempts at resuscitation were unsuccessful.  “Melissa wasn’t breathing any more.”

Samantha told the court her sister had come into the room and was standing there crying.  She herself was screaming Melissa’s name.  Then their father came back in.  Samantha told the court that she and her sister watched while her father put Melissa head first  into the sleeping bag he had brought back into the room and tied a tie around the end where her feet were.

She said that her father picked the sleeping bag up roughly and took it down stairs.  Then he backed his car up to the front door and opened the boot.  But he had difficulties getting the body into the boot and Samantha said she heard a snapping sound as Melissa’s neck broke.

Samantha told the court her father told her and her sister to get into the car.  They didn’t argue and got in.  Their father drove them to a place they had gone many times, a wooded area beside the River Bonet.  Samantha said that her father had been considering buying a barge that had been moored there with the intention of living on it.  She told the court he called the spot his “secret wood” because it was in the middle of nowhere.

She said her father dragged the sleeping bag into the woods, holding it by Melissa’s legs, and dragged it down the bumpy path to the river’s edge.  She and her sister followed behind.  Her dad, she said was “very controlling” and she and her sister were afraid of him.

When they reached the river, Samantha told the court, her father told them to grab the sleeping bag and help him to get it into the water.  She said she waded into the water with him and on the count of three they swung the sleeping bag and threw it into the river.  An air bubble was trapped in one end and the bag stayed near the surface before eventually sinking to the bottom of the river.

Samantha said that on the way back to the car her father had said over and over again that they were now accessories and that he would see they met the same end if they went to the gardai.  He kept telling them this all the way home.  Once home, a friend of his arrived to take him to football practice in Collooney and the three left the house again.

Samantha said she and her sister had never spoken about what happened that evening again and that the first time she spoke about Melissa’s death was when she told her older sister Shirley in January 2008.

She said when she first met Melissa at school she didn’t like her because she was the girl who was always getting her little sister in trouble but when Samantha started “dossing with them” she got to like her.  She agreed that her younger sister had been pushed out when her friendship with Melissa had deepened.

She told the court that Melissa had told her that her father was sexually abusing her and had put her head through a door.  Melissa also told her that she had fallen in love with Samantha’s father and was having a sexual relationship with him.  Samantha said that her father had overheard this conversation and had admitted to having a sexual relationship with Melissa.

She said he had cut Melissa’s fringe straight across so that it looked like Cleopatra.  The trial previously heard from McManus’s ex girlfriend Angelique Sheridan, also known as Dupois, who told the court that Melissa had told her she believed she was the reincarnation of Cleopatra and that Ronnie was her king.

Samantha will continue her evidence tomorrow…

A Sister Takes the Stand

Shirley Conroy didn’t look at her father as she stepped up to take the stand but he watched her intently.  She was about to start giving evidence against him in his trial for the murder of Sligo teenager Melissa Mahon.

Ronald McManus, or Dunbar as most of the witnesses know him, denies the murder of the 14-year-old in September 2006.  He also denies threatening another of his daughters, Samantha.

Shirley spoke quickly as she described her life with her father, speaking in a soft English accent.  She told the court how her father had looked after her and her two younger sisters after their mother had left them when Shirley was five.  They had been living in Essex then.  When she was twelve they moved to Kent.  Things changed after her father had had a run in with a local drug dealer.  Someone had called to the house and shot her and her father.  After McManus gave evidence against the shooter in court, he and his daughters were taken into a witness protection programme.  They changed their name to McManus and moved to Scotland.

In July 2005, the family moved back to their father’s home town of Sligo.  After staying initially with an aunt they moved into a house in the Rathbraughan Estate.  All three girls had been attending the Mercy Convent school in Sligo town and it was here they met Melissa Mahon.  Shirley explained that it had been her two younger sisters who had hung around with Melissa, whose family had also moved over from the UK in 2005.  She agreed that Melissa and her sisters had got into trouble together at school and had ended up being either suspended or expelled.

She told the court that she had moved out of the family home in January 2006 and had soon after met her boyfriend, Danny Lynnot, also known as Danny Burren.  She had become pregnant a couple of months later.  Shirly said she was a daily visitor to her father’s house and had often arrived to find Melissa there, sometimes in the company of her older sister Leanna.  In August 2006, when Melissa had gone missing from home, Shirley said the teenager had been hiding in her fathers house.  She said she hadn’t approved and had told her father he would get into trouble if the authorities found out he was hiding Melissa.

She said that she remembered a conversation with her father’s then girlfriend, Angelique Sheridan, where the subject of her father possibly going to jail if the matter came out came up.  But she told defence counsel Brendan Greahan that she had no memory of any conversation about her father having a plan to kill Melissa and she didn’t think it was something she was likely to forget.

Shirley told the court that her father and sisters  had moved into the house beside the the original family home in Rathbraughan Park in September 2006.  She said that her father had kept the key to the back door of the old house and when Melissa was hiding with the Dunbar family when she had run away, he would take her over the back wall to the next door house and let her in by the back door if anyone came round.  She said she couldn’t remember the last time she saw Melissa but thought it was in early September 2006.

Shirley said that 18 months after Melissa’s disappearance her sister Samantha had told her some alarming news.  Samantha had been staying in the house Shirley was living in with her boyfriend and their baby after she had been kicked out by her father.  On January 31st, their mother Lisa rang.  She and Samantha had a massive row and, when Shirley took the phone to try and defend her little sister, Samantha started shouting “I’ll tell you why I’m this way.”

Shirley said she hung up the phone and sat down on the sofa with her sister.  She told Mr Greahan that she had felt it might be something to do with Melissa’s disappearance.   It was then that Samantha told her their father had strangled Melissa and that he had taken his two younger daughters with him when he went to dump the body in the River Bonet.  She agreed that her sister had been terrified that she would go to jail herself and had begged for Shirley not to tell anyone about her claims.

Shirley agreed that her younger sister had initially told a different story, which changed repeatedly.  The girl, who can’t be named for legal reasons, had claimed that Samantha had killed Melissa on a camping trip when she was high on drugs or in another scenario, that Melissa had attacked both sisters on the camping trip and Samantha had hit her on the head with a piece of wood.

Shirley said that she did not remember her father ever taking the younger girls on a camping trip although it had been frequently discussed and he had asked her to look after her younger sister if they went.  She said that she had been aware of rumours that her boyfriend had been having an affair with Melissa but dismissed the news as merely rumour.  She told Mr Greahan that her father had told her about the rumours while she was pregnant but she had never taken them seriously.

Earlier today Detective Garda Pauline McDonagh gave evidence about how she had been called by Shirley’s boyfriend and arrived at the house on January 31st.  She said that both Shirley and Samantha had seemed very upset.  Shirley was holding some rosary beads and Samantha was sitting in an armchair by the fireplace in what seemed to be a chance.  Det McDonagh said that she had not known what was wrong with Samantha and had immediately gone over to her and knelt down beside her to talk to her.

She told Mr Greahan that she had “absolutely, categorically and definitely” not told McManus that the case should never have come to court.

Tomorrow we are expected to hear from McManus’s other two daughters via videolink.  An intersting day’s evidence I’m sure.

Fragments of Bone

Mary Mahon dabbed her eyes with a tissue, the tears welling up in the first show of emotion since the trial of the man accused of murdering her daughter Melissa began.  Her husband Frederick hung his head, looking away from the photographs visible on the barristers desk in front of him.  On the sixth day of the trial of Ronald McManus, the prosecution had turned their attention to the discovery of Melissa’s remains, 18 months after she had disappeared from care.

The Mahon family might have been dysfunctional, Melissa was not the first of their children to be taken into care, but the site of the pitiful fragments of bone that were all that was left of their youngest child by the time the tidal lake at Lough Gill had done it’s work, was too much for her parents.  After a few whispered words the Mahon’s got up and quietly left the court, leaving behind the litany of fragments all documented in photograph after photograph that now form part of the prosecution case.

Gardai had been led to the shores of Lough Gill by one of the accused man’s three daughters.  At the start of the trial the jury heard that Samantha Conway, Ronald McManus’s middle daughter, will tell the court that her father brought her and her younger sister with him when he dumped Melissa’s body in a river that feeds into Lough Gill.

Ronald McManus denies the murder of Melissa Mahon in September 2006, somewhere in Sligo.  He also denies threatening to kill his daughter Samantha.  Samantha has not yet taken the stand.  Today’s evidence was a record of the discovery of Melissa’s remains, found scattered along the shores of Lough Gill some distance from the spot Samantha is expected to claim the body was dumped at.

Today the jury watched video footage of the drive from McManus’s house in Rathbraughan Park to the banks of the River Bonnet.  The footage showed the rain soaked streets around Sligo on the dismal February day in 2008 Samantha showed detectives the route she said she had travelled with her father and her sister with Melissa’s body eighteen months before.  At the end of the road trip was a clearing, all brown bushes and winter mud.  The route to the river was only accessible on foot and the footage showed wellingtoned gardai pointing out elements of interest in the short walk, their comments muted for court.

Further footage showed a boat trip tracking the supposed trajectory of the body dragged by the current to it’s final resting place.

Book after book of photographs showed the grim discovery made by gardai at the site.  A sodden sleeping bag tied around the feet with a man’s tie, a faded nightdress with the Beauty and the Beast design still just visible, a pink bra found snagged on a tree.  All these finds would have been palatable, removed from the immediacy of death, but they weren’t the only things found.

Photograph after photograph followed for each small piece of bone that were all that was left of Melissa; matted hanks of black hair found snagged on bushes, a jawbone, individual teeth, a femur, fibula, shoulder bone.  Individual vertebrae each photographed in situe and again, neatly categorized back in the garda station.  Pitted, broken fragments of skull found washed up on the lake shore.

In the days to come we will hear from State Pathologist Marie Cassidy and an anthropologist to make sense of the jigsaw found in the tangled undergrowth in such a peaceful location.

Ronald McManus turned through the photographic book of bones as each photograph was formally introduced as evidence, showing the paltry remains of the girl who had called him father.  He sat as he has sat throughout the trial to date, watching intently, glancing occasionally at the jury or Melissa’s parents.  Every now and then he will call to his solicitor and whisper instructions for his defence team.  Today as the photographs were introduced he was quiet, staring at each photograph in turn.

Tomorrow the trial will move into a different area of evidence, a respite from the gruesome remains.  It is expected to continue for several more weeks before the prosecution finish their case and the defence can have their say.

Fragments and photographs

Melissa Mahon was, by all accounts, besotted with the man accused of her murder.  In the first five days of the trial of Ronald McManus (known as Ronnie Dunbar by most of the witnesses) witness after witness has testified to her eagerness to be by his side.

Last week her sister Leanne told the court that she had found a photograph of McManus in a keepsake box Melissa kept in her bedroom, while she was looking there after her little sister’s disappearance. Staff at the care home where Melissa was admitted in the final weeks of her short life said time and time again that Melissa had been anxious to keep in contact with McManus and his daughter Samantha even after she was in the care of the HSE.

The 14-year-old had undoubtedly been unhappy at home.  She told social workers that her father had sexually abused her and her mother beat her.  She was a frequent runaway and would disappear for days at a time, usually to be found at the house McManus shared with his three daughters.  Melissa even referred to him as her father and told a previous witness, McManus’s ex girlfriend Angelique Sheridan, that she believed she was the reincarnation of Cleopatra and Ronnie was her reincarnated King.

She even slept with his photograph under her pillow.  Today staff at the Lios Na nOg care centre told the court that a photograph of McManus was found in Melissa’s bedroom.  Fiona Keogh, a care worker at the centre, told how she had found the photograph while she was making Melissa’s bed.  The teenager had been a resident at the centre for around a week when the discovery was made although she was frequently absent without permission.

Ms Keogh told the court that the photograph, showing McManus holding a bottle, had been cut into a roughly circular shape.  On the back was written either “best wishes” or “good wishes” together with the name McManus.  Ms Keogh said that she put the photograph back on Melissa’s night stand but raised the subject with her colleagues as soon as she had a chance.  She said that she had not made a formal note of the find because she had wanted to broach the subject with Melissa first.

Melissa went missing on September 14th.  She was last seen walking in the direction of the Rathbraughan Estate, where both her parents and McManus lived.  Today the court heard that Melissa was, perhaps, seen on one more occasion, one week after her disappearance.

Maria Lloyd, another care worker at Lios Na nOg, had been travelling into work on the bus when she saw a small figure running ahead of the bus, heading towards Rathbraughan.  She had known Melissa during her short stay in the centre and as the bus followed the running figure Maria became convinced that it was in fact Melissa.  The black hair, tied back in a pony tail and worn with a fringe, were the first suggestion but the real clincher was the fact that the pink tracksuit jacket the figure wore was stained black all down the back and sides.

Ms Lloyd explained that Maria had died her hair black while she was staying in Lios Na nOg and that, some time later when she was doing a batch of laundry, she noticed that Melissa’s pink jacket was stained from the dye.  When the bus stopped she tried to follow the running figure but her way was blocked by elderly passengers climbing off too slowly and by the time she had got to the alleyway the figure had run down, it was empty.

On cross examination Ms Lloyd agreed that she wasn’t 100% sure that it was Melissa she had seen that day, she had only had one brief glance at the figure’s face as it turned to run into the alleyway. She said she was fairly sure of the date though, as she had mentioned it to her co workers and a not had been taken.  The date of the note in the log book was September 21st.

So Melissa briefly appeared as a ghost in today’s proceedings.  A small running figure in a stained tracksuit top.  A brief vision that cannot be confirmed or fully denied. She has appeared in this fashion throughout the trial so far, in snapshots that stand out from the linear progression of the State’s case.  Sitting on top of a shed roof when her mother and sister walked by, running across a green in a housing estate one afternoon, the lonely figure running alongside the bus.  Images of the lost, lonely little girl all attention is now on, snapshots of the short life about to come to an abrupt end.  Now all that’s left of her are these snapshots and a few bones.

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