The murder mile of the mountains: did focus on DJ leave killer at large?
Did gardai miss vital clues to find the strangler who raped and killed a young woman in the Dublin Mountains nearly 30 years ago -- long before a number of women disappeared over the next two decades, asks Jim Cusack
Patricia Furlong was, by all accounts, an innocent, happy-go-lucky young woman who enjoyed disco dancing and roller skating. On July 24, 1982, Patricia was murdered.
The night she died, at the age of 21, she was at the annual Fraughan festival centred around Johnnie Fox's Pub in Glencullen in the mountains above Dublin.
At breakfast time the next day, hours after the last of the revellers had made their way back to the city, a farmer found Patricia's near-naked body in the corner of a field a few hundred yards from the pub. Her boots had been taken off and placed beside the body. She had been strangled. Her blue cotton blouse and white jacket were used as a ligature. A search by gardai found 17 separate items of her belongings including clothing and items from her handbag in two "neat" piles in an adjoining field where she appeared to have been murdered before her body was dragged into the more hidden adjoining field.
The pathologist would testify that all clothing had been removed from the top part of the body; this was then "wound into a sophisticated ligature and tied like a rope around the neck of the deceased and knotted thereon".
The pathologist had had to cut the ligature with a scalpel to remove it. There were no finger or thumb prints or other bruising on Patricia's neck. She had been killed by strangulation with her own clothing.
Examination of her diary showed a male fingerprint, suggesting her killer may have flicked though it before placing it in one of the piles. A witness said he had seen Miss Furlong, who lived with her family in Dundrum in south Dublin, sitting on a water tank at the rear of the pub with a man. It appeared they had been sitting there for some time and an examination of a beer glass left on the tank revealed another fingerprint. The identity of the person or persons who left these prints would never be established.
A security man at the festival who gave a statement to gardai said he saw two young men acting suspiciously at the entrance to Corbett's field, the name given locally to the field where the body was found. He saw a dark coloured Ford Escort car parked at the entrance to the field.
Another witness, a young woman who knew Patricia, named one man she had seen in the company of Patricia that night as a man who was known to Patricia. She also said that at the previous year's festival in Glencullen, this young man had tried to strangle her. She named the man and said she had seen him both with Patricia and another young man who was the owner of a red Ford Escort and who had also been at the festival.
Three other witnesses said they had seen Patricia in the company of a young man, of slim build and around 6ft tall wearing white shoes, jacket and trousers. They all concurred that this man had his hair in a quiff similar to that of the then popular singer, Shakin' Stevens.
Another witness said he saw a young man of the same description running at full tilt along a road away from the general area of Corbett's field.
There were problems with the garda investigation from the outset. Officers in Dublin at the time recall that there was an overwhelming response from witnesses to a public request for assistance and that hundreds travelled out from the city to Stepaside Garda Station where the investigation headquarters was set up. Most travelled out directly after work and a large queue began to form. The queue grew larger and larger as apparently there were only a few local gardai available to take statements. After hours of waiting the mood in the queue grew angry and detectives had to be called out from Dublin to help clear the backlog. Several potential witnesses had left by the time the detectives arrived.
One of those who queued to give a statement was Vinnie Connell, an English DJ who had been working in Dublin. His career in Dublin had not taken off. He was at the festival that night with a girlfriend and had gone, he said, with the intention of meeting an RTE producer who had a friend in South Africa whom Connell believed could help him find work there. He subsequently did and became, for a time, a famous radio DJ.
Connell had given his name and details to gardai in Stepaside but was angry and had refused to sign the document. Subsequently when gardai called to his house in Terenure he again made a statement but again he refused to sign it.
No progress was made in the murder investigation until nearly eight years later when Connell was arrested by four detectives in the Fleet Bar in Dublin city centre. (He had left South Africa after his career faltered and he divorced.) He was charged under Section 30 of the Offences Against the State Act, the law then used to arrest terrorists. Section 30 allowed for a person's detention for questioning for 48 hours.
Connell was driven to Tallaght garda station for interrogation. In subsequent testimony he claimed he had been deprived of sleep for the entire time and was physically and mentally broken through a prolonged period of violence including hair pulling, slaps and punches to his kidneys, and threats including one that he would be shot in the knees and elbows. Gardai denied this. Connell eventually signed an alleged confession. However, his signature, two handwriting experts would later testify, was not his normal "flowing" signature.
A syntax expert also cast doubt on whether or not Connell had actually contributed anything to the statements or whether they had been concocted. He pointed to the repeated use of the word "ye" instead of "you" throughout. Connell was a meticulous speaker and writer and had qualifications in English language. The section of this alleged admission that led to his being charged with murder read: "What ye don't realise gentlemen is I put all that out of my mind after that night, and I did have some drinks on me ... I remember meeting her outside the tents and walking down past the pub and into the field. In the field I put my hand around her waist and she slapped my face. That's when it started. She might have slapped me again. I pushed her to the ground and I pulled her bra and top around her neck. I think she tried to scream. After that I don't know. I just ran in a blind panic. I remember taking her handbag and throwing it away into the bushes near where we were or somewhere I'm not sure. I got back onto the main road over a wall and ran back to the beer tent."
This alleged admission was "supported" by evidence given by the woman with whom Connell had gone to the festival. She said he was absent from the company they were keeping for around 45 minutes between around 11.40am and 12.30am. (Something with which Connell and others in their company disagreed.)
However, the evidence was sufficient for a jury to believe gardai and to convict Connell in October 1991. During the trial, the jury did not hear evidence from the syntax expert who stated he believed the admission was entirely concocted. More importantly, the jury was also prevented from hearing testimony from the witnesses who had seen Patricia in the company of the Shakin' Stevens lookalike and about the incident at the previous year's festival in which a young woman said a man known to Patricia had tried to strangle her. Other key evidence did not come before the jury including striking testimony from people who knew Patricia and had seen her after the disco had ended at 2.30am. Connell and his then girlfriend agreed on one thing, that they had left together at 12.30am and driven to her house in south Dublin.
Despite the shortcomings of the trial, the media was well primed about the 'Jekyll and Hyde' personality of a man who was also accused to assaulting and making threats to previous girlfriends and also of attempting arson at one of their homes. He was said to have a "superior attitude". This was played up in the media. Connell was effectively demonised.
In the period prior to the appeal, Connell paid to have his blood taken for DNA analysis so it could be cross-checked against any DNA found on Patricia's body or belongings.
The media demonisation of Connell continued up to the appeal with stories about his alleged brutality towards other women. After his appeal succeeded in April 1995, after spending four years in prison, there were even continued attempts to pressure journalists into suggesting he was guilty but had been cleared on "technical" grounds. A memo to one journalist at the time of the appeal case read: "He [editor] suggests that you examine the case from the angle of experienced gardai recognising Connell as a bad one years ago -- capable of killing women." Connell was released from prison with his sentence quashed.
Connell continued to campaign to have his innocence established but he died -- still obsessed with what had befallen him -- in the south-east of England in 2000.
One of the most alarming aspects of the case is that gardai appeared to put all their eggs in one basket -- Vinnie Connell -- and did not follow up other evidence which, at this distance, now seems striking. A 14-year-old boy who was there and who knew Patricia, said in his statement: "Then I looked around and saw Trish and the man getting off with each other, they were stuck into each other. He was taller than me. Trish was smaller than him by a fair bit. He wore a white sweatshirt, white trousers, light material, very clean, white shoes. The white jumper had the shape of Adidas, Eagle or something like that on the left breast. He had longish brown to fair hair parted in the middle and brushed back (with quiff). It was to me flattish at the top. He was 18 to 20 years of age."
Another young man recalled seeing a man running away from the direction of the field as he and others drove from the festival at 2.20am. He said: "About three quarters of a mile from the marquee we saw a figure of a man running very fast down the hill towards Kilternan village. As we drove up behind him, he did not look back but kept running very fast. The three of us remarked how fast this man was running downhill in a beige jacket.
"I would describe him as 18/19 years old, 5ft 11ins tall, fair, medium-length hair and had a slit in the centre, brushed back. I would consider this man to be sprinting."
Then there were the statements of two young women, one of whom knew Patricia. They had both known and had sexual relations with the man in their teens. One told of how he enjoyed bringing her to the point of asphyxiation. He had attacked her once in a wooded area, causing her to be very frightened. The other said she suffered similar ordeals at a location on the south Co Dublin coast after accepting a lift from the same man, who matched the descriptions of the man last seen with Patricia Furlong.
After the humiliating defeat in the Appeal Court, the case was left in abeyance, a decision apparently made not to pursue it -- unlike several of the "cold case" re-investigations of other crimes that have taken place. The attempt by the defence to use Connell's voluntarily donated DNA also, apparently, came to nothing with the defence claiming that samples taken from the body and the surroundings were "haphazardly" and "clumsily" stored.
In the years after Patricia's murder, other murders occurred in the mountains. Antoinette Smith, 27, was abducted and murdered, strangled with her own bra at Kilakee in June 1988; Patricia O'Doherty, a 31-year-old mother of two, was abducted in the Tallaght area and her body found in June 1992, again strangled; Annie McCarrick, a 26-year-old student, disappeared on a visit to Johnnie Fox's pub in March 1993. Other missing women include Jo Jo Dullard and Deirdre Jacob, whose cases were re-examined in the aftermath of the arrest of Larry Murphy. Perhaps, one former detective said, more credence should have been given to the other witnesses in the Patricia Furlong case and more attention paid to the Shakin' Stevens lookalike who may or may not have been the man who enjoyed asphyxiating women.