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Monday 24 July 2017

Family keep vigil as search for Arlene continues 17 years on

David Young

Kathleen Arkinson walked slowly across the stone bridge to the narrow country road where her sister Arlene was last seen and suddenly froze.

While other family members made their way down the uneven cement lane something appeared to be holding her back.

She hesitated, the hand holding her half smoked cigarette shaking, then crumpled with emotion.

As her brothers Adrian and Martin rushed to hug their weeping sister, the pain of Arlene's loss crashed over them all once again. August 1994 is almost two decades ago; for the Arkinson family time has not moved on.

"We need to find her," mouthed Adrian, who had travelled from his home in Scotland to keep vigil during the new searches for his 15-year-old sister's remains.

"If we have to search through night and day we'll do it ourselves."

Police hope Arlene's body may be lying in the rock strewn fields adjoining that winding laneway off the remote Scraghy Road.

Five miles outside her home town of Castlederg, Co Tyrone, this is where she was last seen alive.

After steeling herself for the latest chapter in the family's long quest to bring home their sister, Kathleen took her place with her brothers and sister Paula to watch the new search operation begin.

As Leo, the Police Service of Northern Ireland's top body recovery dog, strained at the leash as his handler walked him to the field, family members reached out to stroke his head. Their hopes now rest with the nine-year-old working spaniel.

"Everyone just say prayers for Arlene," said Kathleen, her voice cracked.

"We just hope this is going to be closure for us, to give her a decent burial."

A river babbled past unseen behind thick woodland while rugged hills rose up on all sides toward the rare blue skies over this isolated corner of Tyrone. The idyllic setting seemed to jar with the gruesome task taking place in its midst.

Every once and a while the tranquillity was interrupted by a vehicle trundling by. A school bus, a pensioners' outing, lorries carrying logs to a nearby sawmill - all their occupants glanced sideways, curious as to what was unfolding in the oddly shaped field.

As Leo rushed frantically through a dried out drainage ditch, the Arkinsons lent over the fence tracking him intently.

The search took place on what would have been their late father Willie's 70th birthday.

"We need to bring Arlene home to her late mother and father and my sister Mary," said Kathleen, who outlined the enduring pain that still haunts her.

"You try to put a smile on for everyone but when you go into the house and close the door the smile leaves you, then you start thinking about it again."

With five handlers trying their best to keep pace with the dog, he ferreted in and out of the far hedgerow and beyond into a woody gap at the foot of the Scraghy hills.

Eventually, the handlers stopped, consulted with each other, turned and headed on to the next site.

Leo, it appeared, had not found anything in this field.

Quietly the Arkinsons picked up their belongings and followed them further down the lane - their painful journey still not at an end.

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