Former detective Alan Bailey recalls his years on the trail of murderous sex offender Robert Howard who, a coroner recently ruled, did kill 15-year-old Arlene Arkinson
‘I first met the child killer Robert Howard in Dublin’s Church Street on a wet night in November in the early 1990s. At the time I knew him as a wife beater. A call had come into Bridewell garda station in Dublin city centre, where I was stationed at the time. A woman was in distress. She had been attacked by her partner and was locked out of her home. A colleague and I drove to flats off Church Street where she lived. She was standing outside in the rain in her nightclothes.
We could see her face and hands were bruised. She told us her husband, Bob, had thrown her out of the house. She didn’t want to make a complaint. She just wanted us to help her get back inside so we knocked. A man threw open the door. I remember he was rugged-looking, handsome, not more than 5ft 10in. Usually, the perpetrators of domestic violence will put on a show of remorse for gardaí. Not him.
“Good night, gardaí, come in,” he said, a knowing smirk on his face. We stepped inside. The place was filthy, as I recall. Broken delph was over the floor and clothes everywhere. We asked him outright: Did you hit this woman?
His answer was: “Ask her.”
It was the first of many call-outs over the following months to Robert Howard’s home. His then wife would regularly present at garda stations after being beaten up by him. Unfortunately she declined to give evidence against him in court.
At the time I thought he was a smarmy, unpleasant individual. A few months later I learned he was also depraved when a 15-year-old girl with intellectual difficulties was reported missing. The girl had told her friends a man called Bob from Church Street was taking her to Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland to stay in a caravan.
We immediately launched an investigation but the girl’s family got to Howard before we did. They tracked him down to a caravan park at Lough Neagh. They found the girl in a caravan where she had been tied up and held captive. Howard fled.
The attack was shocking. But back in Dublin the girl and her family declined to make a statement to us about the crime — she just wanted the matter dropped. Howard never showed his face in Church Street again.
In 1998 I joined Operation T.R.A.C.E. The specialist garda task force was set up to investigate the unsolved disappearances of six women in an area of the east coast of Ireland dubbed ‘The Vanishing Triangle’. The women were ‘Jo Jo’ Dullard, Deirdre Jacob, Ciara Breen, Fiona Pender, Fiona Sinnott and Annie McCarrick.
Robert Howard very quickly became a “person of interest”.
He was fast becoming Ireland’s most prolific sex offender. Between 1960 and his final incarceration in 2003 he preyed on females — his victims ranging in age from six to 60.
He surfaced in Castlederg in 1993. That year he abducted and raped a 15-year-old girl over several days, keeping her captive in his flat in the town.
In August 1994 he was on bail for that offence when Arlene Arkinson vanished. She was also 15. Howard had given Arlene, and two other teenagers, a lift from Castlederg to a disco at the Palace Hotel in Bundoran. She was last seen in Howard’s car after the disco when he claimed he was dropping her home. Her body was never found.
At Operation T.R.A.C.E. we delved into Howard’s background, researched his crimes and interviewed those who knew him.
Robert Lesarian Howard was born in 1944 in the rural townland of Wolfhill, near Swan, Co Laois. He was one of six children and, by all accounts, the black sheep of his family.
We heard how as a child, he spent a lot of time alone in the woods. When he was 12 he burgled a neighbour’s house and was sent to an industrial school.
When he got out, he drifted between Ireland and the UK where he committed his first known sexual offence in 1963 — he broke into a house and sexually assaulted a six-year-old child.
Five years later, also in the UK, he broke into a woman’s house and attempted to rape her. She escaped. In 1973, he moved to Youghal, Co Cork, where he raped a 58-year-old woman. He was arrested for the crime a short time later in Dublin as he was getting off a train from Cork. He got a 10-year prison sentence.
By the time he turned up in Church Street in Dublin he was already a practised sex offender.
We contacted the girl, now a young woman, who escaped from Howard in Lough Neagh. She again declined to make a statement but she was of enormous help to the investigation. She provided important intelligence on Howard’s modus operandi. Later we travelled with her to Northern Ireland where she spoke to the PSNI team investigating Arlene Arkinson’s suspected murder and showed them the place where Howard held her captive.
In this jurisdiction, we tried to establish Howard’s movements on the dates each of the six missing women had vanished. We could rule him out for the disappearances of Ciara Breen and Deirdre Jacob — he had a cast-iron alibi in Edinburgh — but not for the other four cases. Howard was a transient. He drifted from one community to the next, picking up work as a tradesman and he didn’t draw the dole.
He didn’t feature on a sex offenders’ register because the crimes he was convicted of pre-dated the legislation that was introduced in 2001.
Howard struck again in 2001, this time in London. He was living with a woman and through her he met Hannah Williams, a vulnerable 14-year-old. Hannah disappeared in 2001 while out window shopping. Her naked and bound remains were found a year later during excavation work for the Channel Tunnel in Kent.
Two other girls had also disappeared in the same part of the city. Howard was again the prime suspect.
Police in London set up a task force dedicated to Robert Howard, including members of An Garda Síochána and the PSNI. I attended a number of meetings in London on behalf of Operation T.R.A.C.E.
In 2002, Howard was charged with Arlene Arkinson’s murder in Northern Ireland. In 2003, he went on trial in London for the murder of Hannah Williams. The evidence presented at his trial was chilling. A teenager testified she had narrowly escaped from him while bound and gagged in the same area where Hannah’s body was found. Arlene’s family gave evidence, as did the then 15-year-old who escaped from his flat in Castlederg in 1993.
Howard was convicted of Hannah’s murder and sentenced to life. But none of these details could be reported at the time. The trial for Hannah’s murder was subject to a media blackout so as not to prejudice Howard’s pending trial for Arlene’s murder.
That took place in Belfast in 2005. The jury in Arlene’s trial never heard the evidence that was presented at Hannah’s trial. They never knew he had been convicted of Hannah’s murder when they acquitted him of killing Arlene.
Two weeks ago, after a protracted inquest, the Northern Ireland Coroner, Brian Sherrard, ruled on the balance of probabilities Howard was responsible for Arlene’s death, hopefully providing some closure to her family.
Arlene’s family have regularly contended Howard was operating as an agent for the security forces and, at some level, his behaviour was being tolerated or, at the very least, ignored. No evidence has emerged to prove this contention but there are some worrying features about his reign of terror.
At a time when most of his countrymen regularly experienced difficulties travelling in and out of England, Howard appeared free to come and go as he pleased. He moved freely from Castlederg, once considered a terrorist hotspot, to Scotland, to London, but not to this jurisdiction.
When he abducted Arlene and murdered her Howard was on bail for the alleged abduction and defilement of another 15-year-old. How this transient figure ever secured bail for such serious charges is hard to fathom. Even harder to stomach is the suspended sentence handed down to him when he pleaded guilty to unlawful carnal knowledge of his young victim.
When he died in Frankland Prison in Co Durham, north-east England, in 2015 at 71 Howard took his secrets with him. He called himself the Wolfman of Wolfhill but was careful not to brag about his crimes. He never disclosed where Arlene’s body was buried, denying her family of the chance to lay her to rest.
As national coordinator of Operation T.R.A.C.E. I testified at Howard’s trial for Arlene’s murder in 2005. He had aged but I recognised him instantly.
The puss on him in the Belfast courtroom that day was the same one that leered back at me in Church Street all those years before. It was the smirk that said “prove it”.
In conversation with Maeve Sheehan