Killer probed in Operation Trace
Howard's movements checked by gardai investigating missing women cases
CHILD killer and serial sex offender Robert Howard was investigated by gardai as a possible suspect for the murders of six missing girls whose cases formed the basis of Operation Trace.
Howard's name was on a list of sex offenders whose movements and histories were checked out by Trace detectives trying to establish what had happened to the women, who disappeared between March 1993 and July 1998, all aged between 17 and 26 years.
He was regarded initially as a high priority suspect because of his past and the violence he had used on his victims.
A series of meetings were held between Garda officers, members of the PSNI and officers from British police forces.
But Gardai quickly established that his modus operandi did not suggest he was involved in any of the six cases.
Howard had a habit of befriending an older relative of his intended victim before carrying out his savage crimes.
In three of the Trace cases, involving the disappearances of Fiona Sinnott, Fiona Pender and Ciara Breen, gardai believe the killer was somebody who was well known to the victims.
In the cases of Annie McCarrick, Jo Jo Dullard and Deirdre Jacob, the girls may have been selected at random by their killers.
"Howard was subject to a lot of inquiries here, particularly because of the crimes we knew he had been implicated in.
"But eventually the decision was taken by the officers leading the Trace investigation that there was no evidence to link him to any of the cases and he was officially ruled out," a senior officer said. During separate inquiries into the disappearance of 15-year-old Arlene Arkinson near the Donegal-Tyrone border in August 1994, two senior garda officers met the PSNI to compare case notes.
At the time of Arlene's disappearance Howard was out on bail on a charge of raping a 16-year-old girl while he was living in Castlederg, Co Tyrone.
The absence of a sex offenders register meant details of his previous crimes and convictions, including a 10-year jail sentence for the rape of a 16-year-old girl, were not as widely available to garda officers as they would be today.
As a result, he was able to keep one step ahead of the police in several jurisdictions as he sought out his next victim and when he was caught, was fortunate with the outcome of some his trial where the juries were not aware of his evil past.
The Co Laois man's luck held out again yesterday when he was cleared of the remaining sex charges against him after being cleared last June at Belfast Crown Court of the murder of Arlene.
However, the 61-year-old fiend could not walk to freedom. Instead, he was returned to prison to continue serving a life sentence for the murder of schoolgirl Hannah Williams in Kent.