The 50-year-old plasterer had been on trial for 17 days at the Central Criminal Court, sitting in Castlebar, Co Mayo, for the murder of Sandra Collins, aged 29, Courthouse Street, Killala, at a place and date unknown on or about December 4, 2000.
No trace of Miss Collins’ body has ever been found.
Yesterday, Mr Justice Patrick McCarthy told the 12-person jury there was insufficient evidence to convict and directed them to find the accused not guilty of murder.
“For legal reasons, ladies and gentlemen, I am directing you to acquit the accused”, the judge said, addressing the jury just before 11.30am.
The verdict was greeted with tearful delight by the accused who has an address at Banagher, Carrowmore, Lacken, Ballina.
However, members of the Collins family, who afterwards pledged to continue their efforts to “bring Sandra home,” sobbed in the body of the court chamber.
Following the verdict, Martin Early, accompanied by a red-haired woman in sunglasses and holding him by the arm, walked to a pub in the vicinity of the courthouse for lunch. The plasterer declined to answer when asked repeatedly by a TV reporter if he had anything to say.
Members of the Collins family said they were “devastated” by yesterday’s developments. The family group walked determinedly to the tree-lined Mall where Sandra’s sister, Bridie Conway, reacted to what happened.
“We are devastated”, she said, “after four-and-a-half weeks of travelling up and down every day, hoping that at the end of it all we would get Sandra back and that we would have closure, get our lives back.
“I put my kids on hold, put my job on hold, put everything to the side.
“We were so devoted and so dedicated to her and to finding her and getting her back and we are so thankful and so grateful to everyone who has helped us the last 14 years.
“I couldn’t praise the Garda highly enough for what they have done for us and I am as devastated standing here today for each and every single one of them as I am for us, because we know how hard they have worked and what they have done and what they have tried to do for us.”
There were murmurs of agreement from family members when she insisted: “But we’re not giving up. We’re going to keep strong and we’re going to keep the fight up for Sandra.”
Patrick Collins pledged “The day we give up is the day that we can put her body in the grave beside our mother and her brother.”
During the course of the four-and-a-half week trial, it emerged that Early, a married man with a daughter 11 months old at the time of Sandra Collins’ disappearance, admitted to a special team of Garda investigators in June 2001 that he had been involved in a relationship with her in the weeks before she vanished.