Murder victim was partly burned, cold case murder trial hears

A woman detained in 1993 on suspicion of her husband’s murder told a garda she liked that she didn’t know if she could trust the detectives interviewing her but that she was ready to tell her story.

Garda Rita Gilmartin, who was acting as the prisoner’s chaperone in Mullingar Garda Station, was giving evidence in the cold-case murder trial at the Central Criminal Court.

Vera McGrath (aged 61) pleads not guilty to murdering 43-year-old Bernard Brian McGrath at their home in Lower Coole, Westmeath on a date between March 10 and April 18, 1987.

Her former son-in-law, Colin Pinder (aged 47), of Liverpool, England has pleaded not guilty to murder but guilty to manslaughter.

Gda Gilmartin said that the mother-of-four asked to see her on the morning of November 12, 1993, after spending the night in custody.

She said the prisoner spoke about her daughter and a possible reconciliation. The court already heard that it was Mrs McGrath’s daughter, Veronica, who told gardaí she had seen the two defendants kill her father.

The garda said that Mrs McGrath asked if ‘this (was) really, actually happening’. She said she told her that it was, and showed her the story in that day’s newspaper.

“She said it had been hard for her. Maybe life hadn’t turned out the way she wished,” recalled the garda. “I could maybe understand her situation.”

Mrs McGrath told her that she didn’t know if she could trust the gardaí interviewing her but felt she could trust Gda Gilmartin, she recalled.

“She said: ‘I think I’m ready now to tell my story’,” said the garda.

Gda Gilmartin agreed with Conor Devally SC, defending Mr Pinder, that she had put her arm around Mrs McGrath and held her hand that morning.

“At one point when we were in the doctor’s room, she became upset and I held her hand,” she recalled, agreeing that she too became upset. “I was upset listening to what had happened.”

She explained that she wanted to reassure Mrs McGrath that everything would be ok.

“There was something about her there and we had built up a relationship,” she added. “I felt she was troubled and having a difficulty arriving at whatever she was going to do.”

Garda Gilmartin said Mrs McGrath was completely relieved, relaxed and happy at how things had turned out when she left the station that afternoon after giving her statement.

“I found her a nice woman, very approachable,” she concluded.

Detective Garda Michael O’Gara told the court that he had probably shredded the notes of the interview he conducted with Mrs McGrath earlier that morning.

The now-retired garda was being cross-examined by Justin McQuade BL, defending Mrs McGrath.

Mr McQuade asked him when the notes of that interview went missing.

“They probably didn’t go missing at all, until I destroyed them or shredded them,” he replied.

“When you’re retired, you’re supposed to, within five years, destroy any notes,” he explained.

He did not think they had ever been typed up.

He agreed that his statement contained no mention of the interview notes being read back to Mrs McGrath but did not agree that there would be any advantage in not reading them to her.

“If for example you had used coarse language, which was not read back, that would be drawn to the interviewee’s attention,” suggested Mr McQuade.

“I refute the suggestion that there was coarse language used,” replied the witness, denying that she had been called ‘an old hag’.

Consultant anthropologist Laureen Buckley said she found one human bone at the McGrath home in Lower Coole in May 2008, after the Cold Case Review Team decided it should be searched again.

She said the bones found in 1993 were exhumed from a cemetery and she examined all the remains with State Pathologist Dr Marie Cassidy.

“About 50 per cent of the skeleton was recovered,” she said, assuming Mr McGrath was a slightly built man.

She said 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 un-burnt to completely cremated, she said.

Dr Cassidy said she could not determine a cause of death from the bones, which were fragmented.

She could not say when most of the bones had been broken, pointing out that it could have happened during life or even during exhumation.

However she said that one half of the lower jaw was un-burnt and the other half was badly burnt, showing that it had been fractured before the fire.

She said the right eye socket might also have been detached from the rest of the skull prior to burning as one part was fire-damaged and the other was not.

Mr Justice John Edwards discharged one juror, who has booked a holiday starting this weekend.

The jury had been told the trial would last about three weeks when sworn in on June 14. The trial will now continue with 11 jurors.

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