Wednesday 18 October 2017

'My brother glanced to back of church at his wedding, it was heartbreaking' - Children of missing man 'need closure'

A Garda cold case search hopes to find the remains of Charles Brooke Pickard, writes Wayne O'Connor

Penny and Crohan Pickard at the site where gardai and Army teams are looking for the body of Charles Brooke Pickard. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Penny and Crohan Pickard at the site where gardai and Army teams are looking for the body of Charles Brooke Pickard. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Wayne O'Connor

Wayne O'Connor

Tourists hop gleefully off buses along the Ring of Kerry, taking in the sights of the Wild Atlantic Way, unaware of a sinister development nearby.

As the coaches snake their way through Cahersiveen and on towards Waterville, Sneem and Kenmare, it is suspected that the body of a man who has been presumed murdered for 25 years is lying somewhere in the mountains they photograph on their mobile phones.

An international investigation into the disappearance of Charles Brooke Pickard in 1991 gathered pace last week when new information led gardai to cordon-off a piece of remote forestry land in the MacGillycuddy's Reeks.

The Army has been called in to help comb through an area that was recently felled. It is relatively close to where Brooke's burnt-out Ford Transit van was found almost one month after he went missing.

His wife, Penny, visited the scene on Friday for the very first time.

"It is something no one would choose to do.

Penny and Brooke at the home they were building in Castlecove
Penny and Brooke at the home they were building in Castlecove

"We need closure."

We met her at a point close to where the van was found before she walked further into the potential crime scene with her son, Crohan.

They came to thank the gardai and Army staff who have been working tirelessly to find out what happened to the father of her four children.

It has haunted them for most of their lives and now they hope to get an answer after a quarter of a century without him.

What happened to Charles Brooke Pickard?

Crohan said his siblings have struggled to move on since their father vanished. The family seem lost without the closure of knowing if he is dead or missing.

Brooke with Crohan
Brooke with Crohan

"At (my brother) James's wedding, he said 'if my dad is actually alive and was ever going to turn up, he would show up now'.

"I remember seeing James glance to the back of the church and that was heartbreaking."

Charles Brooke Pickard was due to meet a friend on the morning he went missing in April 1991 when he was flagged down by a passer-by near the family home in Castlecove on the Ring of Kerry.

The man was having car trouble and pleaded with Brooke for help.

Both men drove to O'Leary's shop nearby and bought £3 of petrol for the stricken orange Toyota Corolla.

The pair drove to the car at White Strand, a blink-and-you-miss-it cove on the Ring of Kerry, and pulled off the road into a car park.

Everything seemed normal as Brooke waved hello to a young girl from the area who was out riding her pony.

What came next shocked her. He had driven into an ambush.

After he stepped out of the van he was set upon by five masked men.

At least one of them brandished a firearm as they smuggled him into the back of his van. He was hit over the head with the butt of a gun and driven away from the scene with the orange car in pursuit.

The girl told friends about what she had seen but they reassured her it must have been a group of friends having fun. It was some time later before she spoke to gardai.

Brooke's disappearance came in an era before mobile phones and rapid communication.

When he had not returned from the bog as expected that evening, Penny was concerned but thought he must have been delayed. It was not until the following morning that the concern grew when she woke up and realised he had not returned overnight.

The neighbour Brooke was supposed to cut turf with was contacted, but told the family he had never shown up the day before. It was unlike Brooke to miss an arrangement.

The gardai were contacted, made enquires locally and a missing persons investigation was launched.

Once gardai heard of the assault in the car park, there were genuine fears for his safety.

Local beaches were combed for clues and a helicopter deployed, but it was three weeks before his van was found more than 20km inland near the Ballaghisheen Pass through the mountains on Kerry's Iveragh Peninsula.

It had been driven about 300 metres off the road on a forest track to a point where a fallen tree meant it could not go any further.

Bullets were found inside but ballistic tests proved they had not been fired. Instead they had exploded in the inferno that destroyed the van.

The orange car was found dumped at Limerick Regional Hospital. It had previously been stolen from an address in Kilkenny.

It was spotless apart from a few fibres from a plastic car wash brush. This told gardai that someone was keen to clear any incriminating evidence that may have been there previously.

More than 100 people in the south Kerry area were interviewed as the community rallied around Penny.

A further 12 were arrested but charges were never brought.

"The community here really supported us and we owe them that," said Penny.

"Everyone went through it afterwards with us. They lived through that fear in the community when it happened and were alongside us for it."

Gardai quickly pieced together a narrative around Brooke's disappearance.

Locals had noticed the orange car in the area the day before his kidnapping. It was at a time when the Ring of Kerry was not often travelled, and to have an unknown car around for a couple of days was strange.

One savvy neighbour had scrawled down its number plate on that week's Kerryman newspaper and handed it to the gardai.

Rumours spread nearby that the abduction was linked to drug money.

Coastal parts of Kerry were known as preferred gateways for criminal gangs to ship narcotics into Ireland but there is no proof or evidence that Brooke was involved with gangs or drug shipments. The family also deny this and said he did not owe money to people.

It is suspected that ex-paramilitaries with INLA links were responsible for his disappearance despite the fact Brooke was not political and had no involvement in such organisations.

"To this day we still don't know why it happened," said Penny.

"We thought we'd get a phone call looking for a ransom or something, but then days turned into weeks and weeks into months. There was nothing.

"It was totally and utterly traumatic and it is beyond your worst nightmares."

A garda cold case team is still liaising with officials in the PSNI, and a widespread operation has seen the force work with their counterparts in the UK and other parts of Europe to uncover what happened to Brooke.

The main suspects are believed to be from Northern Ireland.

Garda Superintendent Flor Murphy, who is heading up the investigation, said he hopes more people will come forward.

"Sometimes the passage of time can limit an investigation but that might help us here," he said.

"Relationships and the way people interact can change a lot over 25 years and there may be people more willing to come forward with information now."

For 25 years, progress in the investigation was slow until last week's search began at a location close to where Brooke's van was found.

"If a body is found from this," said Crohan, "that will bring closure because we will know he is dead.

"We have known the guards have been working behind the scenes but this is a tangible development we can see. Visible progress is being made."

Penny thinks the family need more.

"The real closure will come when someone is brought to justice, but this is a step in the right direction.

"It has been so hard, and to have this happen to my children and to see them grow up without a father while these people are free, that's not justice, is it?"

Locals in south Kerry always felt it was more likely Brooke would have been killed and his body dumped in an area near the van. His killers would have feared his body washing up on the shore if he was dumped in the sea.

Detectives think he may have been marched from the van before being shot. On first glance, the area being searched is beautiful and picturesque. The hills roll into mountains with ESB poles the only visible scar on the landscape.

"It is so conflicting because the reasons for being here are very emotionally distressing," said Crohan.

"You are surrounded by beauty."

It is extremely isolated. Houses are dotted along the mountain roads but can be several miles apart.

The car radio crackles and eventually dies on the way to where the gardai are carrying out their search. They have to leave the scene and drive towards Waterville to get phone reception or issue updates to the investigation base at Killarney garda station.

Detectives have explored the possibility that Brooke was marched from his van and further into the forest before being shot.

Even now it seems like an almost perfect place for a paramilitary-style killing.

It is also a technically and physically challenging area for the search team to work in, said Superintendent Murphy.

"A lot of our work this week has been preparing for more detailed searching.

"We have been working closely with the Army because clearing the scene enables the technical equipment to work better.

"It is a challenging site that has to be cleared but we have to be very careful not to destroy evidence. There are a lot of bushes, gorse and thick grass to cut away but there have been huge advances in technology in the past 25 years scientifically and in terms of DNA analysis.

"The work will all be worthwhile if we can bring some comfort to the family."

The past 25 years have been difficult for the Pickards.

The couple's daughter, Lisa, died in 1994 after a car accident when the family were returning from a Christmas trip to England to visit family. She was 17 years old and making plans to go to college.

In 1996, the family farm was destroyed by a fire. Crohan said neither would have happened if Brooke had not disappeared.

"If he was still around, we would have spent Christmas at home and we would never have had that car accident.

"Likewise, with the fire. It might never have happened if he was there to make sure the house was in a better state of repair.

"He also would have been there to react because there was no one at home when it happened. He would have been working at home and known how to react."

Tourists file past Crohan and Penny on the seafront in Waterville as they tell their story, but we are too engrossed to notice.

They have been through an ordeal and are keen to put it behind them, but they need Brooke's body to be found so they can bury him and move on.

"As a family, we are so sorry our story has put Castlecove on the map for the wrong reasons because it is actually a beautiful place," said Crohan.

"This dig could be the start of the final chapter. If a body is found, we will have to grieve, it will be painful but it might bring new leads, justice and some closure."

Sunday Independent

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