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Monday 22 January 2018

Tragic tale of the country girl who had a gentle soul

Killing of nursing student, and her family's heartbreak, has resonated across the world

Karen Buckley
Karen Buckley
Karen Buckley's family
Ralph Riegel

Ralph Riegel

By 5am last Sunday, they knew something was wrong. Glasgow's busy night club strip was winding down. Clubbers had dispersed. Three young women who had spent the night at the Sanctuary club were safely home. But their friend Karen Buckley was not.

The 24 year old was a nursing student, raised on a farm in rural north Cork and studying in Glasgow. She shared a rented flat on Hill Street in Garnethill, a residential leafy suburb of the Scottish city which is generally regarded as safe.

If she had wandered off, it was out of character for Karen not to let her friends know where she was. Even more ominously, they could not raise her through social media, which she used voraciously.

And so as dawn broke, and with heavy hearts, they rang the police to report their friend missing. But worried as they were, even they could not have imagined the horror about to be unleashed that would change all of their lives forever.

The killing of the beautiful young woman with the open face and smiling eyes has compelled and transfixed the communities in which she moved, from Ireland, to Scotland and across the United Kingdom.

It wasn't just the police hunt that resonated, or the CCTV footage of her last movements or the hour-by-hour bulletins that pushed the British general election back down the news agenda.

There was something about Karen that shone through every image of her tweeted, Facebooked, broadcast and published last week. Her shining eyes, her impish smile, her tumbling black hair, a rural country girl who had set off on life's adventure, stepping out into the world, her family at her back, her friends by her side.

Karen grew up on a farm at Glynn, Mourneabbey, in north Cork. She was John and Marion Buckley's only girl. She had three older brothers - Brendan (32), Kieran (28) and Damien (27) - all of whom indulged their baby sister. She had played football with Clyda Rovers GAA Club. She went to the local national school and to secondary school at St Mary's in Mallow.

During her teens, she worked as a waitress at the Hibernian Hotel, where staff nicknamed her the 'Cailin Gaelach' because she was always smiling and always happy to help others. But her vocation was nursing. She studied at the University of Limerick and after she graduated, she worked at the Princess Alexandria Hospital in Essex.

She had ambitions and in January she moved to Glasgow Caledonian University to study for a Masters' degree in occupational therapy. She had wanted to spend some time in Sydney after her studies with her two brothers, Kieran and Damien, who lived there.

She was streetwise and knew how to take care of herself, her friends later said. She had travelled across Europe and to the Far East. She loved her family, her friends, travel and socialising so enjoying a night out dancing was not unusual for her.

That Saturday night, Karen and four friends had a few drinks in their flat. Karen had posted photos of herself in her outfit of a black jumpsuit and leather jacket and red high-heeled shoes.

At 11.45pm, they left for Sanctuary night club on Dumbarton Road. They were all enjoying themselves. Nothing unusual happened, and there were no strange approaches, Karen's friends later told police.

At 1am, Karen excused herself and told her friends she was going to the toilet. She left her black leather jacket behind her. Her friends don't remember her being either sick or distressed. She wasn't intoxicated either. She had only had a few drinks.

Karen never returned. Hours passed. Her friends eventually left the nightclub after 3am thinking Karen might have bumped into other friends or classmates. They had tried repeatedly to ring her on her mobile phone but there was no answer. They checked her social media pages - Karen was constantly updating them - but there were no clues.

That was when they became alarmed. Inspector Gavin Smith later said: "Her friends say she would always contact them by text or phone to let them know where she was and she doesn't appear to have contacted anyone."

Police started searching straight away. In a university city, it is commonplace for students to briefly disappear. Most usually turn up safe if a little sheepish the following day. But Glasgow police suspected very quickly that something was badly amiss in Karen's disappearance.

The police got CCTV footage from the club. The grainy images showed Karen walking away from the club with her handbag but not her jacket. On Monday, Glasgow police issued radio, newspaper and social media appeals for information on Karen's whereabouts, while in Ireland word quickly filtered out that there were serious fears for Karen's safety.

Her parents, John (62) and Marion (61) dashed to the airport and flew to Glasgow to assist the police search for their only daughter. Her two Australia-based brothers, Kieran and Damien, immediately launched their own social media appeals for information.

In Glasgow, the police accelerated one of the biggest search operations ever seen in Scotland and even drafted in reinforcements from other police divisions.

On Tuesday afternoon, John and Marion Buckley looked visibly shocked as they issued a public appeal for information at a special Glasgow press conference. "We just want Karen home safely - we are desperate. She is our only daughter," Marion said.

Police searched through the night with hundreds of officers combing several locations of interest in Glasgow city. By Wednesday, no one doubted that Karen was in grave peril.

In her native Mourneabbey, Fr Joe O'Keeffe and the parish council organised a special 'Mass of Hope' at 8pm. Three hundred parishioners crammed inside and 200 were left standing outside as the community prayed for a miracle while bracing themselves for the worst.

Minutes before the Mass was to begin, locals were alarmed to discover that police had sealed off a farm north of Glasgow, located at High Craigton.

Live footage on the BBC, Sky and RTE revealed a small army of police around the farm supported by multiple fire brigade units.

In Mourneabbey rumours began to circulate minutes before the Mass that a body had been found. Karen's older brother, Brendan quietly avoided the media outside the church and joined his neighbours, friends and fellow parish members to pray for Karen's safety and for a miracle.

Shortly after 2am on Thursday, four days after she went missing, Glasgow police revealed they had found a body. At 5pm they confirmed the remains were Karen's.

The news was truly heartbreaking. The outpouring of sympathy for Karen's devastated family was instant and unwavering, from total strangers to the communities of people whom Karen had lived or worked or socialised with.

There were vigils and prayer services across Ireland and Scotland, and endless tributes on social media. Karen's former classmates at the University of Limerick set up an appeal to raise €5,000 to help defray the Buckley family's expenses in Scotland. Within 36 hours the fund had reached €70,000 - virtually all of it donated anonymously.

Her former teachers and classmates at the college fought back tears as they recalled Karen. "She was a beautiful young woman," UL course director Ann Fahy said.

A neighbour of the Buckleys, Cliona Forde, said: "It is every parent's worst nightmare. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family at this awful time. It is so, so sad."

On Friday afternoon a man appeared in court accused of Karen's murder. Alexander Pacteau (21), did not enter a plea to the charge during a private hearing at Glasgow Sheriff Court. He was remanded in custody.

That same afternoon, Marian and John Buckley, supported by their son Kieran, emerged into the sunlight and the wave of love and support emanating from 800 people, some of them Karen's college friends, others total strangers, at a moving vigil in the centre of Glasgow. A bagpiper played the doleful air of Danny Boy. Songs were sung.

Detective Superintendent Jim Kerr read a brief statement on behalf of John Buckley: "We are absolutely heartbroken. Karen was our only daughter, cherished by our family and loved by her friends. She was an outgoing girl who travelled the world where she met lots of people and thoroughly enjoyed her life. We will miss her terribly."

Karen's remains are not expected to be brought back home until later this week. The community of Mourneabbey is preparing to close around the Buckley family, to do what it can to ease its pain.

Fr Joe O'Keeffe said: "It is going to be very difficult for all of us over the coming days but we will do everything we can to help the family through it."

Sunday Independent

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