Wednesday 17 July 2019

Nightmare of not knowing

The breakthrough in the Phyllis Murphy case after almost 20 years gives the inquiries into other murdered women a boost, says Geraldine Niland

The breakthrough in the Phyllis Murphy case after almost 20 years gives the inquiries into other murdered women a boost, says Geraldine Niland

IN THE cold winter air, 23-year-old Phyllis Murphy stood at the bus-stop across from the Keadeen Hotel on the outskirts of Newbridge. She was on her way to the family home in Kildare, laden down with Christmas presents.

It was 6.30pm on Saturday, December 22, 1979. Later that evening she planned to return to the town to meet with her friend, Barbara Luker. But within minutes, she had vanished.

Throughout Christmas and beyond, search teams combed the town, fanning out into the countryside along the flat Curragh plains. Her disappearance captured the attention of the nation, the image of her new Afro hairstyle and kindly face immediately recognisable.

Then in the freezing cold of January 18, 1980, her body was found at Ballinagee Bridge near Turloch Hill power station along the Wicklow Gap. It was 28 miles from Colgan's Cut where her gloves and other clothing was found on St Stephen's Day. Phyllis Murphy had been strangled.

In a full scale investigation into her killing, 2,105 interviews were carried out by gardaí. The suspect list featured 600 names. John Crerar, the 51-year-old man now charged with her murder, was first questioned 10 days into the inquiry. Blood samples were taken from a number of suspects to see if they could be matched with samples found on the young woman's body. As in the Marilyn Rynn murder, Phyllis's partially exposed body had been preserved by the freezing temperatures. Crerar was eliminated from the inquiry on a simple blood test.

A new inquiry was launched a year later but there was no advance in finding her killer. For almost 20 years, the murder of Phyllis Murphy remained in the annals of unsolved murders. But new advances in DNA fingerprinting and its use in reassessing outstanding murder cases, particularly in Canada and the United States, prompted Dr Maureen Smyth and Dr Louise McKenna at the Garda forensic laboratory to re-examine the samples from the case.

A DNA fingerprint is found after separating fragments of DNA by a biochemical technique called gel electrophoresis. These fragments form lines of varying thickness which are identified by what is called a DVA probe.

DNA fingerprinting is based on the theory that everyone has a unique genetic make-up and an individual's cells contain a copy of an individual's genetic blueprint in the form of DNA or deoxyribonucleic acid. Nowadays, a DNA profile can be drawn from a hair sample and so this technique has revolutionised crime scene analysis.

The initial analysis was carried out by the two forensic scientists in Dublin and then sent to a laboratory in Britain for further advanced testing. The results were sufficient to lead to gardaí questioning John Crerar again.

In the early hours of Tuesday morning last, investigators from Operation Trace arrested John Crerar at his home in Kildare. The following day he appeared before Naas District court charged with murder. He denies the charge.

Phyllis Murphy was the third youngest in a family of 10 children. Her father was an army man and she grew up in Kildare town, near John Crerar's home. When she was seven, her mother died. Phyllis then formed a close bond with the Martins, a family who lived next door. They moved to Newbridge in 1969. In 1978, she moved to stay with the Martins' grandmother in Rathdangan.

Phyllis was known as a shy, reserved young woman who loved dancing. Her working life was spent in local knitwear factories between Naas and Newbridge as a cutter. One of the persistent views from people who knew Phyllis was that she would not take a lift from a stranger.

John Crerar is a native of Tipperary and moved to Kildare when he joined the army at the Curragh. During his 13 years of service, he attained the rank of sergeant and worked in the transport division. He retired with an honourable discharge.

During that time, he had one tour of duty in Cyprus in 1970. He has five children, the youngest now aged 20. Before his arrest, he worked as security man with a local firm in Kildare.

Operation Trace, the cold cases unit set up in October 1998 after the disappearance of 19-year-old Deirdre Jacob on July 28 last year, has been involved in this case over the past several months. They arrested another man along with Crerar who had provided an alibi for John Crerar's movements at the time of the young woman's disappearance.

After a 12-hour detention period at Naas garda station, gardaí were able to finally charge John Crerar with the murder of Phyllis Murphy.

The cases of the six missing women Deirdre Jacob, Fiona Pender, Jo Jo Dullard, Annie McCarrick, Ciara Breen and Fiona Sinnott being re-investigated by Operation Trace do not provide any physical evidence which could link their disappearance with any particular suspect.

In these cases, there is no crime scene, no body. The physical evidence is the crucial link in the Phyllis Murphy case. Other unsolved murder cases where there is sufficient samples to test will now be reviewed in the wake of this development. Other cases being investigated by Operation Trace include that of Eva Brennan, Imelda Keenan, and the unsolved murders of Marie Kilmartin, Patricia Doherty and Antoinette Smith.

Deirdre Jacob was an independent 19-year-old student teacher who, say friends, would not take a lift from a stranger. She was last seen walking some 400 yards from her home in Newbridge at 3.20pm on Tuesday, July 28, 1998. From that point onwards, there has been no positive sighting of Deirdre.

Imelda Keenan, the 21-year-old originally from Monastrevin, Co Offaly, was last seen at around 1pm on January 4, 1994, on a little bridge linking William Street, where she lived, with Lombard Street in Waterford. She also didn't take lifts from strangers. Imelda is still on the missing persons list.

Marie Kilmartin, a 36-year-old woman from Portlaoise, was last seen alive at her home in Portlaoise on December 16, 1993. The only development in this case has been reports that she received a phone call from a public telephone box situated outside Portlaoise prison at 4.20pm that day. Her body was found six months later at Pims Road, Portarlington in a ditch. The cause of death was manual strangulation.

As well as unsolved murder of Marie Kilmartin, there is also the case of Antoinette Smith, whose body was found buried in bogland along a pathway in the Glendoo Woods just off the Military Road in the Dublin mountains in April 1988. She, too, had been strangled.

Patricia Doherty, a newly recruited prison officer, disappeared on December 23, 1991. Her body was found in a ditch on the other side of the Military Road at Glassamucky Breakers six months later. She also had been strangled.

Crerar's arrest highlights a well-documented investigative finding which is that in a great number of murder inquiries, the prime suspect is within the scope of the inquiry some three weeks into an investigation. In the Phyllis Murphy murder case, Crerar was in the inquiry net within 10 days. Physical evidence finally brought him to be charged.

For the family of Phyllis Murphy, it has been a long and painful wait. The families of other missing women must hope that new advances in investigation will finally end their nightmares.

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