Monday 27 May 2019

'Why I don't regret turning in my killer brother'

In an emotional interview Margaret, from Ballymoney, admitted that giving her brother up was the hardest thing she's ever had to do
In an emotional interview Margaret, from Ballymoney, admitted that giving her brother up was the hardest thing she's ever had to do

Claire McNeilly

The sister of a mentally ill man who stabbed his neighbour to death has said she has no regrets about turning him in to police.

James Devine (44), who suffered from schizophrenia, confessed to Margaret Lamelas that he "couldn't stop" stabbing James Hughes in Belfast's Divis Tower despite the 62-year-old begging for his life.

She immediately informed the police of her brother's whereabouts, and last week Devine was handed a minimum eight-year jail sentence after admitting manslaughter due to diminished responsibility.

In an emotional interview Margaret, from Ballymoney, admitted that giving her brother up was the hardest thing she's ever had to do.

However, she also stressed that it was undoubtedly the right decision.

She said that she can't stop thinking about the anguish Mr Hughes' relatives went through after his death, but added that some of the responsibility must lie with Northern Ireland's "woeful" mental health services, which were aware of Devine's propensity for violence.

The 42-year-old domestic cleaner, who is separated from her Portuguese husband and lives with her three daughters Roisin (16), Isabella (9) and Emily (7), said she is still haunted by her brother's shocking admission to the attack on Mr Hughes, a former psychiatric nurse who had been trying to help his troubled friend.

Up until Devine arrived at his sister's home on November 6, 2016, Margaret said it had been "just a normal Sunday".

Their mum Mary (63) had been staying with her for the weekend and her daughters were at home.

"My brother called my mum to say that Seamus - that's what he used to called James Hughes - was dead," Margaret said.

"Then he landed down that evening, handed me a wad of cash and said: 'Where I'm going, I'm not going to need it'.

"After dinner we got the girls out of the way and I turned to him and said: 'What have you done?' He said: 'I've stabbed Seamus. I've killed him.' I told him I'd have to ring the police.

"I told them that my brother confessed to killing someone in Belfast. Making that call was the hardest thing I've ever had to do. I've never been in a situation like that before.

"At that point I didn't know for sure that he'd killed anyone, but there was a part of me that believed he had done something because of his history of violence

"The police didn't take long arriving. An officer soon had my brother on the doorstep on his knees, handcuffed.

"It was all so surreal. That arrest has scarred me mentally. I have nightmares over what my brother told me he'd done to James; he said the man was pleading for his life but that he just couldn't stop stabbing him."

She also said she had flashbacks over the arrest, which happened while her daughters were upstairs, and admitted that she can still see her brother's face as he was being taken away by police.

"Sometimes when I close my eyes all I see are my brother's eyes looking in at me through the front window," she recalled.

"My eldest daughter is aware of what happened, but I told the younger ones that sometimes the police have to come and take sick people away for their own safety. They're too young to know the truth."

Margaret said it's unclear how her brother ended up in Divis flats. Before moving to Belfast he had lived in Londonderry, the Republic, and he had also spent six months living with her family in Ballymoney.

He was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic in 2006, but his family knew he was ill long before then.

"My brother and I were both in foster care at a young age because my mum had a mental breakdown," she explained. "I was brought back home within a month but my brother didn't come back until he was a teenager.

"He was into drugs and drink; he was very hard to work with. I can remember him never being happy.

"He wouldn't talk, he was very secretive, and I saw a violent streak in him. One time we were carrying on and he dragged me along the floor by the hair, and once he smacked our father Paul and gave him a bloody nose.

"He nearly killed a boy in Ballymoney; he stabbed him in the chest and did time in Maghaberry Prison for that in 2002, and again for assaulting two men in Divis in 2010."

Margaret, who has previously battled depression, believes her brother was let down by the authorities.

"At one point he admitted to his psychiatrist that he had thoughts about killing my mum," she said.

"He actually confessed to my mum that he had thoughts about doing that. She did live in fear of him.

"He should have been in hospital a long time ago. When he was diagnosed back in 2006 they should have done something. To a certain extent we were shaded from his mental health because me and my mum weren't informed about his condition."

She added: "Mental health services in Northern Ireland are woeful. More money needs to be invested.

"It's one thing to cry for help, but what if you do cry and no one is there to hear you? That's what seems to be happening here."

She revealed that, prior to Mr Hughes' brutal death, she "feared something really bad was going to happen".

"I knew my brother was a violent type but in the last couple of years he had started to get even worse," she said.

"We didn't realise the conditions he was living in the flat in Belfast - there was human faeces on the floor and food rubbish lying halfway up his walls. It was in really bad shape. The toilet was blocked. But he wouldn't let me go and clean it.

"In the last two years, when my brother was spending his time between Ballymoney and Belfast, he started stealing my mum's medication. He was doped up all the time. He was a volcano waiting to erupt."

Margaret said the Hughes family are in her thoughts every day. Last week the victim's brother Michael told the Belfast Telegraph that he forgives Devine for the anguish and grief he brought them.

"When I found out what had happened, I cried for Michael and his family," she added.

"I've thought about how horrendous it was for them to have a loved one taken away like that. I saw James Hughes' photo and he looks like such a lovely man."

She added: "After he'd got to know my brother, James Hughes spoke to my mum on the phone and even sent her presents. She never got to meet him, but he sent her two or three lovely scarves.

"One time he sent her money for her birthday. His kindness was lovely."

The mother-of-three, who lost her 60-year-old father to bowel cancer in 2010, suffered a marriage breakdown in 2014 and also helped her mum through breast cancer, said life had become "an ordeal" even before her brother killed his neighbour.

"I am very angry at my brother for what he did to James Hughes," she said.

"I know he's not well but I still get annoyed. I'd be honoured to meet James' brother Michael, I'd meet him tomorrow.

"The first thing I would do is - and I don't know if it's what he would want - but I'd reach out to hug him. Just to tell him how sorry I am for the loss he's had in his life.

"And there's not a day goes by that I don't think about him and his family for what they're suffering. Nobody should not feel safe in their own home. I love my big brother, but I look at this and see it for the reality it is."

Margaret has been to visit her incarcerated brother three times, twice alone and lastly, in June, with her mum.

"He has told us that he's sorry for what he put us through but I'm not ready to accept that apology yet because I have to deal with my own feelings," she said.

"I've told my mum that her and I are victims in all this too.

"She cries because she thinks she's never going to see her son again, but also because of what her son has done.

"I've told her he's in a place where he's safe and where he's not going to hurt anybody else or himself."

However, she believes that prison is not the best place for her brother, who is currently housed in the Knockbracken facility in Co Down prior to a possible transfer to an English prison that specialises in mentally disturbed inmates.

She added: "If he went into prison like he did the last time he'd come back out, but he's not safe on the streets, for other people's sake and for his own sake."

Responding to criticisms of mental health provision, a Department of Health spokeswoman said:

"The focus is on achieving parity of esteem for mental health services through the provision of early intervention and support in primary care, the development of specialist mental health services including perinatal mental health services and trauma services, partnership-working and co-produced design and delivery of mental health services which fully involves people using these services, and support for carers.

"Funding has continued to increase year on year with spend on mental health services rising to over £267m in 2016/17."

The spokeswoman said work was under way on a new five-year plan and that the Regional Mental Health Care Pathway (2104) redefined how mental health services are shaped, "to create an environment which builds hope, supports recovery and restores a person's sense of control".

She added: "There is now an increased focus on community care and treatment; with early intervention crisis response, home treatment and the increased use of evidence-based psychological therapies keeping people out of acute settings."

Belfast Telegraph

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