RONNIE Dunbar did not react as he was sentenced to life in prison for the killing of Sligo teenager Melissa Mahon. He shrugged slightly to his legal team as Mr Justice Barry White handed down the most severe sentence allowed.
Wearing a dark blue tracksuit, his numerous tattoos covered up, Dunbar had the stocky body of a former body builder, now partially gone to seed. During the trial, the full range of tattoos could be viewed, the blue cross on his neck; Mum and Dad on his forearm and the screaming skull that he had once told his daughters could catch the demons and ghosts that frightened them in the night.
He was watched by Melissa’s closest sister Leanna, who had slipped quietly into the back of the courtroom as the proceedings began. She was the only member of the Mahon family to see Dunbar sentenced for her sister’s death. She looked shocked as the sentence was passed and left the court without speaking to the assembled press.
Earlier this week, Mr Justice White called the victim impact statement that was prepared by Melissa’s mother, Mary Mahon, “disingenuous in the extreme”.
Mrs Mahon had said that she had suffered profound depression since Melissa had disappeared and had tried to take an overdose of tablets.
She said that two of her daughters had also taken the loss of their sister badly and had begun cutting themselves as well as attempting suicide.
She wrote in her statement: “My life is gone. Our whole life has been torn apart by the loss of our baby Melissa.”
Judge White also asked for evidence to be read at the sentence hearing about Mrs Mahon’s failure to co-operate with gardai searching for her daughter. She had repeatedly told gardai that Melissa was in England but would not give them any further information.
Speaking outside the Four Courts on Monday, Melissa’s parents reacted angrily. Mary Mahon told reporters that she had always said that Melissa was at the Dunbar house. “She never left this country, she’s after dying here.”
Her husband, Freddie, said that they were angry with the judge’s comments. “It was everyone. The police said it all wrong and everything.”
Mr Justice White said as he handed down his sentence that he had not meant his comments to include Melissa’s brothers and sisters.
He said that he accepted and appreciated the affect her death had had on them.
But he continued that if victim impact statements were not made in the utmost good faith, the process would be undermined to the detriment of “the victims of crime, the common good and the achievement of justice”.
Mr and Mrs Mahon were not in court to see Dunbar sentenced for the death of their daughter. Judge White told the court that he considered this case to be one of those “rare and exceptional occasions” where a life sentence was appropriate for a manslaughter conviction.
He said he could find no mitigating factors to reduce the sentence; Dunbar had not offered a manslaughter plea, he had not helped the gardai in their enquiries, nor had he, at any point, shown remorse. He was also a man of proven bad character with 13 previous convictions for crimes including theft, assault, burglary and drug possession, although none were recent offences.
Judge White told Dunbar he had observed him closely throughout the trial. “You came across to me as being disdainful and scornful and borderline contemptuous of your surroundings and the evidence being given.” He said that it was clear that Dunbar’s senior defence counsel Mr Brendan Grehan had found him “a most difficult client”.
Dunbar had, he said, disposed of Melissa’s body in “a manner not befitting an animal”, as a direct result of which the State Pathologist could not perform a meaningful post-mortem.
Judge White said the lack of a cause of death was a factor the jury had to consider when they found Dunbar not guilty of murder.
Dunbar, 44, also known as Ronald McManus, with an address in Rathbraughan Park, Sligo, was convicted in May this year after a six-week trial. During the trial, the jury heard that Melissa had got to know Dunbar after she became friendly with two of his daughters at the Mercy Convent school in Sligo town.
Described by the judge as “a disturbed, fragile and vulnerable child”, she was a frequent runaway from home and had accused both her parents of abusing her.
The Dunbar house was a short walk from her own home and she soon began to spend most of her time there.
The trial heard evidence that she referred to Dunbar as her “dad” and looked up to him. Dunbar helped to persuade Melissa to move into the Lios Na nOg care home in Sligo.
She slept with a photograph of him under her pillow while she was in the home.
The HSE eventually became so concerned about the closeness of her relationship with the Dunbar family, that they got a court order, banning Dunbar from any further contact with the girl.
In his sentencing, Justice White told Dunbar: “You were old enough to be her father. You preyed upon her fragility and vulnerability.” During the trial, there was evidence from several witnesses that Melissa was pregnant and had been having a sexual relationship with Dunbar. However, Judge White said that since these accusations could not be proved, Dunbar was entitled to the benefit of the doubt.
Melissa Mahon disappeared on September 14, 2006. The last uncontested sighting of her was at around midday, when two staff from Lios Na nOg spotted her walking in the direction of Rathbraughan Park. Dunbar’s two younger daughters gave differing evidence during the trial about what happened to Melissa after this. They both agreed that she had been hiding at Rathbraughan Park and that their father was responsible for her death, in his bedroom.
The two girls also agree that they went with their father to dispose of Melissa’s body in an isolated spot on the banks of the River Bonnet.
The body was wrapped in a sleeping bag and tied with one of Dunbar’s ties. The sleeping bag, with the tie still knotted round it, was found with Melissa’s skeletal remains on the shores of Lough Gill almost 18 months after her body was dumped.
Justice White refused the defence leave to appeal but allowed legal aid in the event of such an appeal.