Saturday 25 October 2014

Gardai found missing nanny's body after wild-goose chase

Tom Brady and Louise Hogan

Published 08/11/2012 | 05:00

Garda forensic officers examine the scene at Timahoe Road, outside Portlaoise, where pregnant nanny Aoife Phelan's body was found after a 13-day search

GARDAI were led on a wild goose chase in their search for the body of pregnant nanny Aoife Phelan

The grim find was made shortly before lunchtime when her remains were discovered at least five feet underground.

Hours later a 24-year-old man -- who is known to Aoife -- was re-arrested in connection with the murder.

Gardai detained the suspect in Portlaoise shortly after tea time and is still detained this morning.

He had been released without charge from garda custody before midnight on Tuesday after officers consulted with the DPP Claire Loftus.

Gardai have powers to arrest a suspect for a second time if new information or evidence has emerged, which must be put to him.

The man is being held under Section 4 of the Criminal Justice Act, which allows gardai to detain him without charge for up to 24 hours, excluding rest periods.

Shortly after 7pm, the suspect was taken through the gates of the garda station and escorted to a room for further questioning.

The move followed a day of drama, with the focus of the search for pregnant Aoife's body switching from a stretch of the River Barrow, near Monas-terevin on the Kildare-Laois border, to the Timahoe Road site.

Gardai had concentrated on that site, which also comprises a shed and garage, shortly after the initial arrest of the suspect on Monday evening.

Dozens of officers combed the area, and the search was then extended to land at the rear of the premises, and in particular on recently disturbed earth beside a hedge.

But it was scaled down after new information gathered by gardai indicated that Aoife's killer had beaten her to death after collecting her in Portlaoise on the night of October 25 and then taken her to a bridge off the M7 motorway between the Ballybrittas and Monasterevin junctions, and disposed of the body in the river.

The river search was resumed at first light yesterday, but then senior officers became increasingly wary of that information and more resources were put into the dig at Timahoe Road.

Shortly after 11am there was a flurry of activity at the site where officers had been digging.

The pile of rubble, sand and old tyres grew as the search team used a mini-digger to probe deeper into the ground behind the hedge.

After removing several items from the hole, an officer then climbed up and signalled to his garda colleagues.

Other members of the team then emerged from the front of the premises, carrying a long roll of plastic and began erecting a blue forensics tent beside the hole while others cordoned off the premises and a field behind with crime scene tape.

As it became clear that human remains had been found, senior investigating officers, including Assistant Commissioner Derek Byrne, Det Supt George Kyne of the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation and local officers Chief Supt John Scanlon and Supt Yvonne Lundon arrived to view the site.

Within hours of the breakthrough in the 13-day investigation, State Pathologist Dr Marie Cassidy visited the site for a preliminary look, and the body was then taken away for a post mortem examination at the Midlands Regional Hospital in Tullamore.

The search of the Barrow was called off.

Meanwhile, a garda family liaison officer remained in close contact with Aoife's family throughout the morning to update them on the find.

A few miles away in the small parish of Ballyroan, a steady stream of visitors was calling to the home of distraught Michael and Betty Phelan to offer their sympathies as word quickly spread.

The family declined to comment on the latest developments.

Outside their modest bungalow, some of Aoife's 11 siblings hugged the friends, neighbours and relations calling to their door.

A dozen cars were parked outside the house. While neighbours used a tractor to spread stones in a field entrance for parking, others set up long trestle tables and chairs for the impending wake.

Poignant

Last night, online tributes were paid to the young childminder, with one post poignantly stating that a "life ended way too soon".

More than 2,000 people have accessed the tribute page, where another message simply read: "Rest in peace Aoife and baby xx."

Aoife's cousin last night uploaded a photo of a lit candle to her Facebook page after the family learned of the find, while other photos showed Aoife beaming for the camera with her siblings in happier times.

After visiting the family, Fr Ger Ahern said the community had rallied around.

"The community is stunned," said the Abbeyleix parish priest. "It is a community united in relief and support for a popular family."

Irish Independent

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