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Saturday 24 February 2018

Meet the bone expert who has helped to jail some of our most notorious killers

Laureen Buckley
Laureen Buckley
Gary McCrea of Ballybulgin, Laghy, Co. Donegal who was jailed for life after he was found guilty of murdering his wife, Dolores McCrea (39) of Ballintra, Co. Donegal, on a date unknown between January 20 and January 22, 2004.
Ronald McManus, also known as Ronnie Dunbar, of Rathbraughan Park, Sligo.Photo Garrett White / Collins

Ken Foy

Leading forensic anthropologist Laureen Buckley has worked on many major cases, including the high-profile Elaine O'Hara murder investigation, since gardai first enlisted her specialist help over 15 years ago.

The bone specialist, originally from Armagh, has taken part in many fascinating investigations but her work on the murder case of mother-of-four Dolores McCrea in January 2004 was particularly noteworthy.

Dolores' estranged husband, Gary McCrea, was jailed for life in November 2005 for the murder of his wife but if it had not been for the painstaking work of Ms Buckley, he may never have been caught.

After killing his wife, McCrea burnt her body in a huge fire near his home in Ballybolgan, Co Donegal, after he gathered 20 quad tyres and 10 gallons of diesel.

After gardai and State Pathologist Marie Cassidy found some of Dolores' bones in the fire, Ms Buckley was called in.

She told the Herald that she received around 20 individual trays containing material from the fire and pieced together the bones like a jigsaw.

Ronnie Dunbar who was jailed for the killing of Melissa Mahon
Ronnie Dunbar who was jailed for the killing of Melissa Mahon
Melissa Mahon who was killed by Ronnie Dunbar
Killer Ronnie Dunbar
Gary McCrea of Ballybulgin, Laghy, Co. Donegal who was jailed for life after he was found guilty of murdering his wife, Dolores McCrea (39) of Ballintra, Co. Donegal, on a date unknown between January 20 and January 22, 2004.
Dolores McCrea

"They collected everything from the fire area, it was at least six feet by six feet of material and I spent an entire day on this task, going through each tray. He had put diesel on the fire and it was messy," she said.

"I was pulling the bones apart and putting them together in the correct anatomical position.

"At an early stage I could recognise fragments of teeth and this helped the dentist ID the victim in the case.

"I was able to tell the investigation team that the person was a female and that she was roughly the age of the woman that they thought it was.

"It was significant that I found tar on the front area of her pelvis because this proved that he had put her into the fire rather than her falling into the fire accidentally."

Despite the fact that she always tries to remain detached from her extremely difficult job, Ms Buckley feels "privileged" to have worked on this case.

"With this woman I had a feeling that she had been treated very badly. I felt I was restoring her dignity when I put her bones back together and that was important.

"You have to be detached in this job, but at all times I still consider the family. Everyone thinks that this kind of thing will happen to someone else, to someone else's family, but of course that is not always the case," she pointed out.

Ms Buckley revealed that one of the most disturbing cases she has been involved in was the unlawful death of 14-year-old Sligo teenager Melissa Mahon in September 2006, a crime that sex predator Ronald Dunbar - aka Ronald McManus - is serving a life sentence for.

"That was a very sad case. Gardai had been searching for her for a considerable period of time and they kept on bringing me bones, but these were animal bones. I ended up showing gardai the skeleton of a child so that they would have a better idea what to be looking for.

"Not long after this, they recovered the girl's skull and this was brought to me. I examined it and found moss on it. This showed that her body had washed onto land from the lake where it had been dumped.

"After this the gardai focused their searches for remains on the beach area of an island on the lake and that is where they discovered the rest of her.

"It is a case that really stands out for me because I remember seeing photographs of Melissa Mahon in the newspapers and she looked older because she had make-up on.

"However when I was examining her bones, it was so clear that these were the bones of a child. It was very sad.

"I remember thinking it does not matter how old she looks in the pictures, this is a child who was killed here."

As part of her job, Ms Buckley has worked with the garda's cold case team, most notably on the bizarre Brian McGrath case.

Mr McGrath was beaten to death at the family home in Coole, Co Westmeath sometime between March 16, 1987 and April 18, 1987 as part of a family dispute.

In July 2010, his son-in-law Colin Pinder was jailed for his manslaughter and Mr McGrath's wife Vera was later sentenced to 18 months in jail for helping to dispose of his body after being first convicted and then cleared of his murder.

Vera helped bury the body and dispose of his bones after setting them alight and crushing them.

Ms Buckley's involvement in the case was discovering one of Mr McGrath's bones and the examination of the 50pc of the victim's skeleton that was recovered from a cemetery.

Ms Buckley told Vera McGrath's trial that she was able to tell that the bones came from a male by the pronounced brow ridge. She explained that bone is brownish in colour but turns black when heated by fire.

It turns grey and finally white when completely burnt. The bones she examined varied from unburnt to completely cremated.

Ms Buckley also was involved in examining the body parts of homeless man Mark Burke, whose remains were found in a Ballyfermot recycling plant last year in a case which is still being actively investigated.

In 2005, Ms Buckley also examined bones which were found in the so-called Dalkey 'House of Horrors', but her investigations revealed that the bones discovered at the house were animals bones, mostly from rabbits. She has noticed that when a case gets a lot of media attention, it leads to the public becoming more aware of the discovery of remains and contacting authorities.

"When something is in the news, the public become more aware of bones and report finding them much more frequently.

"Since the Elaine O'Hara case, there has been much more calls coming in from people who find bones in their back garden and so on. In virtually all these cases, they turn out to be animal bones.


"However it should be noted that both myself and the gardai are very happy to check out suspicious bones and members of the public should always report anything they have concerns about to gardai," she said.

Ms Buckley recalls that after the right arm of convicted rapist James Nolan was found in Dollymount Strand in February 2011, there was an increase in people reporting finding what they thought were arms on beaches in the following months.

"I worked on that case and I remember that his arm was actually in a very good condition. There was a lot of publicity in that case and it lead to a number of reports of arms showing up on beaches in Wexford and Donegal.

"When we investigated these discoveries it turned out they were seal flippers and not human arms at all," she explained.

One of the strangest cases that Ms Buckley has been involved with was the discovery of two feet, one belonging to an adult male and the other belonging to a child, in the attic of a house in Terenure in December 2008.

"The gardai were in a bit of a panic over that discovery because they thought that they might be dealing with a house of horrors case," she said.

"The feet were brought to me and they instantly reminded me of remains from bog bodies which is an area I have done a lot of work on.


"The feet had a dark brown appearance similar in colour to other bog bodies, such as Oldcroghan Man.

"I suggested that we should get the feet radiocarbon dated in Belfast and they were found to date from AD52 to 230.

"The gardai were mighty relieved with how that one turned out!" she explained.

It later emerged that a now-deceased pathologist had lived in the house when he was a medical student and that is the most likely explanation of where the feet had come from.

Ms Buckley added that she enjoys her job and has no plans to retire.

When asked how does she cope with a career that many people would find gruesome, she explained: "I don't bring my work home and I concentrate on my family.

"That might sound cold but I think you need to have that outlook in my line of work."

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