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'It's too late for my Caroline and for Connie, but there's still time for all the other women out there living in fear'

 

The murder of Concepta Leonard (51) in Maguiresbridge by her ex-partner Peadar Phair horrified people across NI and brought back dreadful memories for Londonderry great-grandmother Bridie McGrellis, whose own daughter Caroline was brutally killed by her husband. Bridie tells Karen Ireland of her prayers for the Leonard family - and her plea for all women in danger to seek help now.

A single candle burns day and night in a home in Londonderry. Beside it 75-year-old mum-of-six Bridie McGrellis says prayers for a family she does not know.

She lit this flame for the relatives and friends of murder victim Concepta Leonard and for the dead woman's son Conor, who has Down's Syndrome.

The ordeal they endured has seldom left Bridie's thoughts since news started to break about the horror that unfolded in a quiet hamlet in Co Fermanagh, and as Bridie watched the ensuing media coverage of the funeral she says her heart broke for the family.

"That wee boy waving goodbye to his mother's coffin would break your heart. I have cried all week for that poor family," says Bridie.

There is, of course, a reason why these events have impacted so profoundly on Bridie. For she is not just another appalled onlooker. Instead, the events have been a stark reminder for Bridie of another gruesome case of domestic violence almost 20 years ago - one that claimed the life of her much-loved daughter Caroline.

At the time it was reported as one of the province's most horrific cases of domestic violence.

In a frenzied attack on October 4, 1997, John Crossan, from Derry, stabbed his young wife Caroline, a 29-year-old mother-of-three, with a poker-like instrument before setting her on fire with cooking oil to cover up what he had done, while their three children slept upstairs. He had beaten his wife so violently that after the trial her family were sent pieces of her fractured skull for burial, which had been scattered across the kitchen floor, and gathered up from a pool of her blood. Crossan was jailed for life in 1999.

Two decades have not assuaged Bridie's grief. "Caroline is in my thoughts every minute of every day," her mother says. "But the past week has brought the whole ordeal into my mind again and I have been vividly reliving it.

"I just feel so sorry for that poor woman's family and that wee boy. I wouldn't wish this on anyone" she says, her voice faltering with emotion.

Bridie's nightmare began in the early hours of that October morning, when she and her husband Hugh, who has since passed away, were called to Altnagelvin Hospital.

"A nurse rang us and told us to get to the hospital immediately. When we got there the police were there and John was arrested before we got to see Caroline. By the time we got to the ward she had gone.

"I'll never forget the nurse dimming the lights so we couldn't see how horrendous Caroline's injuries actually were."

The following days were a blur for Bridie, Hugh and their remaining six children - John, Louise, Declan, Cahal, Cathy and Darren - as they prepared to say goodbye to the young woman they all called 'Sweet Caroline'.

"I don't remember much about those days," Bridie admits. "I just couldn't get my head around how something like this could come to our door.

"We all felt guilty ... we felt like we had let Caroline down. How had we not seen the signs or had a clue about what was going on?

"Looking back, we knew the signs were there, but we just didn't see them. There were so many times Caroline would call to cancel coming out or to a family event - she was obviously at home hiding her cuts and bruises behind closed doors.

"I remember things now, like fitting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. There was one time he took her to Paris and when she came back I thought she would be buzzing about the trip, but she barely spoke about it. She wasn't even in any of the photographs. Something had obviously happened there and she wasn't able to have her picture taken.

"He also moved her to an area that was remote from all the family, and I worried about her being on her own. She said she would be fine, but looking back I know he was trying to isolate her from her family."

As we speak, Bridie sits by the candle that burns for the family of Concepta Leonard. Her house is full of vases of white daisies, which were Caroline's favourite flower.

"I like to feel her around me and I even have them in the bedroom," explains Bridie. "I have a picture of Caroline on the wall and I light the light above it every night and look up at her. She is all around me and I talk to her every day."

The heartbroken mum, who has 22 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren, says that Caroline's death ripped her family apart.

It led to her late husband Hugh's ill health and the rest of her siblings still find Caroline's death too raw to talk about.

"Poor Hugh was never the same after Caroline died," says Bridie. "He took to bed and would only come down for his dinner. He wasted away and I think he eventually died of a broken heart. This is something you never get over."

Bridie adds that her pain was compounded by the fact that she never saw Caroline's three children in the years following their mother's funeral.

"The court awarded custody to John and when he was sent to prison his parents got full custody and I never saw them.

"This was devastating, as it was like losing the last piece of Caroline all over again," she recalls.

A phone call last year from Johnny, the middle of the three children, was an answered prayer for Bridie.

"He phoned completely out of the blue and I screamed down the phone. I had written to the children over the years and prayed they would eventually find their way back to me. He said he was just up the road and could he come and see me?

"It was like I had won the lotto. I just stood and hugged and hugged him and we both cried. I had waited all these years to see him and here he was in front of me. I haven't seen him since, but that was a fantastic day."

Bridie has one final wish. She wants to see her granddaughter Caoimhe, who she last saw as a 10-year-old girl at her mother's funeral.

"I know she is doing really well and is a dentist in Scotland. I am so proud of her and I would give anything to see her again and tell her how much I love her and how special her mum was.

"I am on a pension now, but if I could ever save the money my dream would be to go over and find her and be reunited. I would also love to see Peter again, the youngest of the children. I used to look after him for Caroline and we were very close.

"I miss them all terribly."

While they never discuss their sister or the circumstances of her death, Bridie knows only too well the impact it has had on the whole family.

"My youngest daughter Cathy was perhaps the closest to Caroline and she used to follow her around and go with her to work and everything.

"After her death, Cathy couldn't cope and she attempted to take her own life. I got a call from the school and had to rush to see her in the hospital. I begged her not to do anything like that again. I said I had lost Caroline and that was bad enough, that I couldn't cope with another loss.

"Thankfully Cathy recovered and is doing fantastic now. She went out on a blind date with a guy and that was it. They hit it off and eventually married and moved to Australia. She has a fantastic life out there and I went over to see her last summer."

One senses these are fleeting periods of happiness for Bridie and her family, who have had years of pain and heartache.

"Even when we were in the hospital with Caroline after she passed, all her siblings and Hugh and I decided to donate her organs. Imagine how we felt when as her next-of-kin, the man who murdered her, had to be contacted to give final permission for her organs to be used. We were devastated and couldn't believe that."

Further pain came several months after the murder when the authorities knocked on Bridie's door with a small white coffin containing pieces of her daughter's skull.

"I couldn't take this in at the time and we had to have another burial - it was truly horrendous and made my spine tingle. I relived her death all over again," she explains.

But if something positive was to come out of something so devastating, it was the amount of women Bridie has helped over the years since Caroline's death.

"I had women from all over ring me and knock on my door asking for help. They knew what had happened to Caroline and they came to me for help. I remember one sneaked out through a bathroom window when her husband left for work.

"She didn't even have a coat on and had a young baby in her arms. I put her in touch with Women's Aid and they were able to re-house and protect her.

"I travelled and spoke at a lot of events with Women's Aid in Derry, including travelling over to London to meet Cherie Blair at a conference and give a speech on my story and domestic violence.

"I don't want Caroline to have died in vain and I will always speak out against domestic violence and do what I can to help anyone.

"It's too late now for Caroline and now it's too late for Concepta, but if anyone is reading this and is frightened and a victim of domestic violence then they must get out and get help."

Bridie says that she feels justice was never truly done for her daughter's murder, given that John Crossan has since been released from prison.

"He is out now, which is painful. He still has a life, but my daughter's life was cut short because of what he did. In my mind, life should mean life."

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