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'I heard her neck break. It was like a snapping noise'

Ronald McManus looked on as his daughter Samantha told the court that he had strangled Sligo teenager Melissa Mahon and took his two younger daughters with him to dump her body in the River Bonet.

Samantha Conroy, 18, giving evidence by video link, described trying to save the 14-year-old's life when she discovered her struggling to breathe on the bed in her father's bedroom.

Sitting in the witness box, McManus (44) listened intently to the evidence and took copious notes. Known as Ronnie Dunbar to most of the witnesses and with an address at Rathbraughan Park, Sligo, he denies murdering Melissa somewhere in Sligo on an unknown date between September 14 and 30, 2006. He also denies threatening to kill Samantha.

Samantha told the packed courtroom that she had arrived home from her Youthreach scheme one Thur-sday in September to find her younger sister (who can't be named for legal reasons) in the living room. "She was sitting there crying and smoking a Superking fag."

Samantha said her sister told her not to go upstairs, so she did. She said she went to her father's bedroom and opened the door. The room was in darkness because the curtains were drawn. In the light from the doorway she could see her father and Melissa lying on the bed.

She said Melissa was facing away from her, lying on her side with her father lying behind her. He had his right arm around Melissa's neck. Samantha said that she assumed "they were getting up to sexual activities" and backed out of the room.

Samantha told the court that Melissa had told her she was having a sexual relationship with Ronnie Dunbar. "She was talking about how she fell in love with my father, how they were having a relationship." Samantha said her father overheard this conversation and admitted having a sexual relationship with Melissa.

She told defence counsel Brendan Grehan that, after this conversation, she had personally seen Melissa and her father go upstairs together several times and on one occasion had seen them in bed together. Asked why she hadn't said anything she replied "What can I say? I was disgusted". She said that when she saw them on the bed together that afternoon in September she thought her father was hugging Melissa.

But after closing the bedroom door, she said she realised something was wrong and "burst" back in. Samantha said her younger sister had come up the stairs and was behind her as she stepped into her father's bedroom and turned on the light.

Samantha told Mr Grehan that as the light went on her father jumped up from the bed and took his arm from around Melissa's neck. As he did so Melissa fell back onto her back. Samantha said her friend's face was black and her lips were blue. Her eyes were closed and she was making a "weird noise".

She told the court her father ran out of the room and she went over to the bed. She said she knelt on Melissa's legs and used both hands to press her chest down as she had learnt at Youthreach. She told Mr Grehan she had pressed down two or three times before stopping. About a minute after she stopped, Melissa stopped making noises and was quiet.

She said she had not seen any marks around Melissa's neck or seen her father commit any act of violence against her.

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She said as she was standing with her sister crying, her father came back into the room with a sleeping bag. He pushed Melissa into the bag head first, then got a tie from the wardrobe and tied it tightly around the top. Samantha said there was a strong smell of urine as her father picked Melissa up "like a rag doll" and carried her downstairs.

She said he backed the car up to the front door and opened the boot but had difficulty getting the sleeping bag to fit. "I heard her neck break. It was like a snapping noise."

Samantha said that she and her sister got into the car when their father told them to and she recognised the route he was taking as the one to a place he had driven them many times before. She told the court they had been there on previous occasions because her father had been interested in buying a barge moored on the River Bonet. She said her father called the area "the secret wood" as it was so isolated and not many people knew about it.

She said they all got out of the car and her father filled his pockets with some stones about the size of golf balls. Then he dragged the body down the path to the river. She said he told her and her sister to grab hold of the sleeping bag and go into the river. Then on the count of three they "chucked" it in.

Samantha said an air bubble at one end kept the sleeping bag afloat for several minutes and her father threw the stones he had collected but they didn't make a difference. She said her father told her that if the sleeping bag didn't sink she would have to jump in after it.

Samantha told the court that on the way back home her father repeatedly told her and her sister they were accessories to Melissa's death and "he would do to us what he did to Melissa" if they told anyone. After they got home a friend of their father's arrived to take him to football practice. She and her sister went with him. She denied talking to her sister about what had happened afterwards. "It was something you wouldn't really bring up in a conversation."

She told Mr Grehan that she had been afraid to speak up about what had happened until almost 18 months after Melissa had died "because my dad drummed into our heads that if we opened our mouths we would go to prison".

On January 31, 2008, she told her older sister Shirley that their father had killed Melissa. She said that she had kept saying "I'm going to jail, I'm going to jail" because she thought that both her and her sister would go to jail along with their father.

Her father, she said, was a very controlling man who had brainwashed his three daughters. This was why her younger sister had told gardai three conflicting versions of how Melissa had died, two of which implicated Samantha. "She was basically in love with my dad. She was obsessed with him so she would have stuck up for him."

She told the court that she knew not coming forward was wrong. "I knew it was wrong, I wish I had opened my mouth sooner but I was scared."

She denied her sister's version of events, read to her from garda statements by Mr Grehan. She said she had not hit Melissa over the head with a bit of wood or a frying pan and had not appeared at the bottom of her sister's bed in the middle of the night and held a knife to her throat.

In one account, her younger sister had said that Melissa had become aggressive and attacked her and her father and her father had strangled her. She said that Samantha had come back from Youthreach and seen Melissa lying across the doorway in the living room. When she was told what had happened she called Melissa a bitch and started to strangle her. Samantha categorically denied this version of events.

Samantha will continue her evidence on Tuesday. The trial is expected to last for several more weeks.

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