Una Butler didn’t break down when she read out a heartfelt statement about her loss at yesterday’s inquest into their deaths, but anybody listening could sense the excruciating pain she was hiding.
The events on the morning of November 16, 2010, will be forever etched on her mind, and on those of all of the people living in the close-knit harbour village of Ballycotton, Co Cork.
Although her 43-year-old husband, John, suffered from depression, Ms Butler said could never have imagined he would snap, killing their daughters Zoe, 6, and Ella, 2, shortly after she had left for work in Cork that morning.
Some time between 7.30am and 9.30am, he strangled Zoe and suffocated Ella, either by putting his hand over her nose and mouth, or using a cushion to prevent her breathing.
The bodies of the two children were found shortly after 10am by relatives, who had to break into the previously tranquil family home overlooking the cliffs at Ballybraher, Ballycotton.
The heating was on, the TV was showing cartoons and the children were in the sitting room.
But both were dead, still dressed in their pyjamas.
Zoe’s body was on a couch, Ella’s on the floor.
Pat Walsh, who was the first garda on the scene at 10.33am, told the inquest that “both still felt warm, but were lifeless”.
The alarm was raised when their father’s car crashed and exploded in a fireball less than one kilometre from their home around an hour earlier.
Ms Butler’s sister, Brid O’Shea, and sisters-in-law Theresa O’Riordan and Brenda O’Riordan, knew Mr Butler was supposed to have taken Zoe to the local national school, and feared she and her younger sister were in the car.
On inquiring at the school, they were told Zoe had not been dropped off and, sensing something was wrong, went to get a spare key to the house from another local woman.
However, the key wouldn’t work and they had to smash a rear window to gain access.
Ann O’Riordan, who often babysat the children, entered the house and said she found them in the sitting room.
“I started screaming. It was terrible,” she said.
Detective Inspector Brian Goulding said the reason the spare key wouldn’t work was because Mr Butler had snapped another key off in the lock “to either delay or prevent access” to the house.
The senior detective, who Ms Butler praised alongside other gardaí for their work on the case, said he has no doubt that Mr Butler had killed his daughters and then taken his own life.
He said that, after the killings, the unemployed builder had gone to a garage in Shanagarry, where he had put €20 of petrol into a five-gallon container.
Garage owner Edmund Broderick said when Mr Butler paid for the petrol “he looked a bit rattled and his hands were shaking”.
Garda forensic experts said Mr Butler probably doused petrol over the interior of the car, setting it alight moments before he drove the car into a ditch at high speed.
The combination of the petrol blast and the impact of the crash threw his body into the back seat of the car.
Richard Guerin said he saw Mr Butler’s wine-coloured Toyota Yaris driving down the centre of the Bog Road — which leads from Shanagarry to Ballycotton — and that he was travelling at high speed towards the ditch.
He said Mr Butler did not make any attempt to stop and there appeared to be smoke coming from inside the car before it crashed and exploded in flames.
Mr Guerin said he tried to save Mr Butler, but was unable to get near the car because of the fire, and instead immediately contacted gardaí. Mr Guerin said it was unlikely that anybody could have saved the driver.
State pathologist Professor Marie Cassidy said Mr Butler died from smoke inhalation and extensive burns. She said Ella died from either from suffocation or smothering.
Assistant state pathologist Dr Margaret Bolster, who performed the postmortem examination on Zoe, said she died as a result of “manual strangulation”.
The jury returned verdicts that Mr Butler’s death was self-inflicted and that his daughters had died at the hands of “a known person”.
Coroner Dr Frank O’Connell extended his condolences to Ms Butler and said he was glad she at least had the opportunity to express how precious her family were to her.
MY girls, Zoe and Ella, meant the world to me. They were my life and I am very proud of them. They brought so much joy to our family.
Zoe was 6. She loved school, baking brown bread and eating it raw, she was very sporty, loved doing cartwheels and judo, music, dancing and loved reading books. She loved Ella and was never jealous of her, even from the start.
Ella was 2. She was very mischievous, loved dancing, jewellery, pulling Zoe’s hair, Peppa Pig and having books read to her. She looked up to Zoe so much and was always trying to copy her.
My life is changed forever. I miss them so much.
I hope that nobody will ever have to go through what I am now going through.
On November 16, I left my home for work as I normally did. I left Zoe and Ella in the care of their father, John. For reasons that I will never understand John took the lives of our precious daughters Zoe and Ella.
At this time of unspeakable anguish in my life, it is very difficult for me to make sense of the events that occurred. There will always be pieces of the jigsaw missing.
John, who suffered from depression on and off over a number of years, was under the care of Mental Health Services from November 2009 until he was discharged from their care in August 2010, some three months before this tragedy happened.
It never would have occurred to me that John was capable of acting out in the manner in which he did. Living with someone with mental illness is extremely difficult. Whereas issues such as patient confidentiality are important, I feel spouses/partners should be involved with their treatment and that the first concern should be the welfare of children.
I never imagined, nor was I ever alerted, that such a horrendous event could have happened. My two beautiful daughters have had their lives cut short as a direct result of John’s mental illness.
I have been supported and helped greatly by my family, friends, work colleagues and the gardaí.
It was a shocking event for everyone and I thank them for their support which has enabled me to continue.
It is so sad that my beautiful girls have been taken from me. John was a good person and he loved Zoe and Ella but I am now only left with the memories of our beautiful daughters Zoe and Ella who loved life and brought so much joy. They are with me forever and are keeping me strong.