Belfast Telegraph

Police apologise for releasing Hegarty days before he murdered Caron Smyth and Finbar McGrillen

By Eamon Sweeney

The family of a man killed by Sean Hegarty just hours after police released him from custody in a "flawed decision" have said they hope the PSNI has learned lessons from the tragic incident.

Hegarty, is serving 18 years for the murders of Caron Smyth and Finbar McGrillen in a flat at Ravenhill Court in east Belfast in December 2013. But, only 72 hours before the double murder, Hegarty had been in police custody for allegedly assaulting Ms Smyth who was his partner.

The PSNI has apologised to the families of the two people murdered by Hegarty.

But while the partner and daughters of Finbar McGrillen yesterday welcomed the admission of critical police failures leading to his death, they say they remain devastated.

Police Ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire concluded that the PSNI's decision-making surrounding the release of Hegarty from their custody was flawed and that if handled differently it may have reduced the likelihood of what was to follow.

The ombudsman's investigation began after the discovery of Ms Smyth's and Mr McGrillen's bodies on December 13, 2013.

The report highlighted a catalogue of police errors, including when they went to a house where, unknown to them, it is thought Hegarty was holding Caron Smyth against her will.

Having knocked the front door and a front window, they left without checking the rear of the property.

A known violent offender with over 70 previous convictions, Hegarty, who wore an electronic tagging device, was at one point released by police to an address which had no electricity supply meaning the device was rendered useless.

Hegarty pleaded guilty to the murders just before his trial. Co-accused Ciaran Nugent denied the charges but was later found guilty of the killings. Both were ordered to serve their sentences without remission.

On Sunday, December 8, 2013 in the lead-up to the murders Ms Smyth informed police that Hegarty had her locked in her home for around 48 hours and had assaulted her with an iron bar, but she had escaped to a relative's home.

Police met the victim and compiled a list of her injuries, noted a threat to kill her from Hegarty and concluded she was at "risk of serious harm".

Police arrested him for the assault on Caron Smyth and breach of his bail conditions. He was released on Monday, December 9 on condition that he did not contact Ms Smyth or enter the area where she lived. But, just three days later, Hegarty and Nugent carried out the murders.

Altogether, eight PSNI officers have been reprimanded for failures identified by the Police Ombudsman. Six have been through disciplinary proceedings, while another had been forced to resign over an unrelated matter and the eighth had all charges against them dismissed.

Responding to the Ombudsman's report into the police handling of Hegarty, Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd yesterday said the PSNI acknowledged the findings of Dr Maguire's report.

"At the outset, we extend our sincere sympathies to the families of Caron Smyth and Finbar McGrillen," he said.

"This report is difficult reading and I acknowledge that on this occasion we failed to effectively manage the risk posed to the public by Sean Hegarty and for that we apologise.

"The Police Ombudsman made five policy recommendations within this report in seeking to help prevent such events happening again and we have accepted these recommendations in full.

"It may be of no comfort for the families of Caron Smyth and Finbar McGrillen, but I would reassure the public that we will learn from this and ensure steps are taken to help prevent a tragedy like this occurring again."

Chair of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, Anne Connolly, described the report as "shocking, disappointing and makes very difficult reading".

"I have sought assurances from the Chief Constable that all recommendations from the Ombudsman's report would be met and requested that he report back to the board on their implementation," she said.

The partner and daughters of Finbar McGrillen yesterday welcomed the admission of critical police failures, but said they remain devastated by his death.

Speaking for the family of Finbar McGrillen, lawyer Nicola Harte of Harte, Coyle, Collins Solicitors, said: "The consequence of this decision was that police ignored the subsequent reported breaches of bail by Sean Hegarty and he was released without any effective monitoring conditions in place.

"He was therefore able, along with Ciaran Nugent, to go to Finbar McGrillen's house and murder him and Caron Smyth.

"The family are pleased that the investigation has led to new policy recommendations being implemented by the PSNI and they hope this will prevent other families suffering the avoidable loss they have experienced."

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