A 16-year-old boy vanished on his way to Mass on a typical autumn Sunday, leading to an enduring mystery that has finally been solved after almost 40 years.
A body exhumed from a country workhouse graveyard has now been confirmed as that of teenager Gerard Slattery, who disappeared without explanation back in 1973.
DNA tests were recently conducted on the remains at the request of the boy’s family, who never gave up the search for him.
Several months after Gerard’s disappearance, a body was recovered from the River Foyle at Burndennet near Strabane.
The body was unidentifiable at the time — though no foul play was suspected — and it was subsequently buried in a pauper’s grave in the town.
The identity of the body from the river remained a mystery for decades and its location within the graveyard became lost over time.
Gerard’s family have spent the past four decades trying to find out what happened to him.
His mother went to her grave without learning his fate.
Over the years the family concentrated on tracking down unidentified remains found at the time of his disappearance.
By 2006 the search focused on the burial ground in Strabane and a body was exhumed.
The family were left disappointed when DNA tests on the unidentified remains proved it was not Gerard.
In 2009 the Slattery family mounted a poster campaign to try to find someone who might be able to identify the exact grave where the remains found in the river were buried.
A body was exhumed following the appeal, and new tests were conducted over the past month.
Police confirmed yesterday they were now moving towards tying up a case that has remained unresolved for almost four decades.
A PSNI spokesman said: “We have been working with the family of Gerard Slattery to identify remains buried in a Strabane grave.
“Following inquiries over a number of years, the identification process has now come to an end and police are now moving towards a conclusion of their investigation.”
Detective Chief Inspector Derek Scott paid tribute to the Slattery family. He said: “I would like to commend the patience and resilience of the Slattery family during what has been a very emotive time for them.”
The Slattery family were yesterday trying to come to terms with the revelation.
Gerard’s brother Paul said he would not be speaking publicly at this stage as the family were still dealing with the realisation they had found their lost loved one.
Independent Omagh councillor and friend of the family, Patrick McGowan, said the ongoing mystery surrounding Gerard’s fate had wrought decades of pain and suffering for the Slatterys.
Mr McGowan said: “Gerard’s mother waited for many years hoping that some day the door would open and he would return, but it never happened.
“I’m sure, like many other families who have had to endure such sorrow in such a terrible situation, this is something that has never left them in all those years.”
Mr McGowan said Gerard’s death was still a mystery.
“It is still not clear how; though he was living in Omagh, he happened to arrive near Strabane.
“At least now there is closure of sorts in that they can give him a proper burial,” he added.
Gerard Slattery was last seen when he left his home in Omagh to attend Mass in November 1973. A body was found floating in the River Foyle near Strabane in early 1974, but could not be identified by techniques available at the time. The Slattery family began to search for Gerard and eventually narrowed down the inquiries to a former workhouse graveyard in Strabane where unidentified bodies were buried. One body exhumed from the graveyard proved not to be their brother, but another search revealed a grave with unidentified remains which have now proved to be those of the missing teenager.