A spurned lover, a mysterious death, a deadly arson attack, how a besotted couple almost got away with murder, the last man to hang, and who pulled the trigger which left a policeman’s family dead – some of the sensational killings which made the front page of the Belfast Telegraph over the past 70 years. Laurence White reports.
Pearl Gamble, 19, a pretty young shop girl from Upper Damolly near Newry spent the last night of her life at a dance in Newry Orange Hall.
One of the young men vying for her attention was Robert Andrew McGladdery, a 25-year-old unemployed agricultural labourer.
Contemporaries described him as tall, blond and good looking but also a bit of a thug often involved in fights. His mother described him as violently self-abusive and paranoid.
The following morning January 28, 1961, a man out walking discovered Pearl’s clothes scattered around a field not far from her home. A search party found her lifeless body, naked save for a pair of stockings, in a clump of whin bushes.
Suspicion quickly fell on McGladdery but he denied any involvement in her death. For the next week police shadowed him wherever he went and eventually found some of the clothes he was wearing at the dance hidden in a septic tank. It was the crucial evidence that would lead to his conviction and the imposition of the death sentence - ironically by a judge,
Lord Justice Lancelot Curran, who had featured in an even more sensational murder investigation a decade earlier.
After a failed appeal execution was set for December 20 1961. His mother visited him the night before and as he was being taken to the hangman McGladdery finally confessed to Presbyterian chaplain Rev J Vance that he had killed Pearl. He had intercepted her on the way home, punched and stabbed and strangled her and dragged her body across three fields.
He was the last man to be hanged in Northern Ireland.
Neighbours who watched horrified as fire raged through the home of Arthur McElhill, his partner Lorraine McGovern and their five children in Lammy Crescent in Omagh in the early hours of November 13, 2007, thought they were witnessing an accidental tragedy.
They could hear screams, windows cracked and broke in the fierce heat and two men who tried to rescue the family were beaten back by the flames.
But it quickly unfolded that this was no accident. McElhill, a 36-year-old heavy drinker with a number of convictions for sexual offences, had poured a mixture of petrol and white spirit around the stairway and hallway, cutting off any potential escape route, and then set fire to the property.
All seven members of the family, McElhill, 29-year-old Lorraine who he had met when she was just 16 and their children Caroline (13), Sean (7), Bellina (4) Clodagh (1) and 10-month-old James all died in the blaze.
Coroner Suzanne Anderson told the subsequent inquest in Omagh: "I am satisfied on the balance of probabilities that Arthur McElhill and Lorraine McGovern had been up all night and that she was about to leave, taking with her at least some of her children, when the fire was started by Arthur McElhill."
The inquest was told McElhill's life was in turmoil; he faced the loss of his relationship with Lorraine and imprisonment if his sexual relationship with a 16-year-old schoolgirl was discovered.
He had been one of the first people in Northern Ireland to be put on the Sex Offenders Register after being convicted of offences against two other teenage girls some years earlier.
The house of horrors was later demolished and another family home erected.
It was almost the perfect double murder. When police found the bodies of fellow police officer Trevor Buchanan and 31-year-old Leslie Howell in a car at the back of a row of cottages in Castlerock they thought it was a tragic double suicide. An inquest found the pair had died as a result of carbon monoxide.
That was how the matter rested from 1991 until 2009 when Colin Howell, a dentist, walked into a police station and confessed to killing the couple.
He also implicated his former lover Hazel Stewart.
Stewart had been married to Trevor Buchanan when he was killed and Leslie was Howell’s wife. According to evidence in court Howell had gassed his wife as she slept on the sofa of their home in Knocklayde Park, then drove to Buchanan’s home with the body in the boot and along with
Stewart gassed him as well.
The murders followed an illicit affair between Howell and Stewart who met at a local Baptist church playgroup in Coleraine. They would meet at a local forest but were spotted by a member of the church and later confessed to their pastor and their spouses. Lesley Howell took an overdose when she learned of her husband’s infidelity.
At first Howell and Stewart stayed apart but later resumed their affair.
After their spouses deaths the couple met in Howell’s Ballymoney practice for sex but after five years the affair ended. Howell met and married an American woman and went on to have five children with her.
Stewart later married her second husband, David Stewart, a former police chief superintendent. However within four years she was in the dock accused of the double murders.
Howell pleaded guilty and was jailed for at least 21 years. Stewart denied the murders but was convicted and ordered to serve a minimum of 18 years. Since then she has unsuccessfully mounted a series of attempts to overturn the verdicts.
The case had all the elements of a thriller novel and was later turned into a television drama, The Secret.
The case against policeman John Torney turned on who the jury believed pulled the trigger which killed three members of the Cookstown-based officer’s family.
Torney (40) claimed it was his 13-year-old son John who had killed his mother Linda and 11-year-old sister Emma before turning the gun on himself.
That was the story he told his brother, Sandy, on the night of the killings, September 20, 1994. When Sandy spoke to him by telephone Torney replied: “Sandy, young John’s gone berserk”.
At his trial he claimed that the boy had been abusing his sister and she was about to inform his parents. This had driven him over the edge.
It was alleged that Emma had told two school friends about the abuse and a former headmaster of the children said a police office had told him there was evidence of sexual activity between the children on the night they died but that would not be raised at the trial. That police officer was never identified.
But neither the police nor jury - by a 10-2 majority verdict - believed Torney and he was given three life sentences with a recommendation that he serve at least 20 years in jail. That was in March 1996 and in July 2005
Torney died of natural causes in his prison cell.
His sister in law Hilary has campaigned to clear his name and revealed to this newspaper that John and Linda’s marriage was in trouble and that he had told her in the summer of 1994 that he was going to file for divorce.
When UDR Greenfinch Susan Christie stumbled out of Drumkeeragh Forest Park in Co Down on March 27, 1991 she set in motion a sensational murder enquiry.
She claimed she had gone for a walk with Penny McAllister, the civilian wife of Captain Duncan McAllister of the Royal Corp of Signals when a wild bearded man jumped out of the undergrowth and attacked them with a large knife.
He lunged at Penny who was found dead in the forest but Christie managed to escape. She repeated her story when she was taken to hospital for treatment to minor injuries but it began to unravel four days later when Capt McAllister asked to speak to one of the detectives investigating his wife’s death.
The soldier admitted he had been having an affair with Christie when both were members of a sub-aqua club. He maintained that he had told her the affair would have to be kept secret and that the attraction was purely physical and likely not to last long. He also said he had no intention of leaving his wife.
But Christie’s infatuation had turned to possessive love with deadly consequences. On the walk through the forest she used a butcher’s knife to cut Penny’s throat.
Confronted by police who said they knew of her affair Christie changed her story and said her mind was a complete blank about the killing but insisted she would never have done it.
At her trial she admitted manslaughter and after she gave evidence the judge told the jury that if they believed the prosecution’s psychiatrist’s evidence then murder would be the proper verdict. He had said she was pretending she didn’t remember details of the killing.
However the judge also told the jury if they believed the defence’s psychiatrists’ evidence then they should find her guilty of manslaughter.
The jury chose the later option on a majority verdict and the judge imposed a five year sentence.
This caused an uproar and the Court of Appeal reviewed the sentence, raising it to nine years. Christie was released in December 1995 having served nearly five years with full remission. She was dishonourably discharged from the army.
The murder of Patricia Curran remains as much a mystery today as it did on the cold winter night of November 1952 when he body was found lying in the grounds of her family’s stately home in Whiteabbey, Co Antrim.
She had been stabbed 37 times and although medical experts later determined she had been dead for four hours her family put her body in a car and drove to a local doctor.
This was no ordinary family. Patricia’s family Lancelot Curran was a Unionist MPM, a judge and the youngest ever Attorney General at Stormont. They were part of Ulster’s ruling elite.
It was days later when the family were questioned about Patricia’s death,a deference not shown to the man convicted of her killing and who had to wait almost half a century for this gross miscarriage of justice to be put right.
Iain Hay Gordon was a rather naive 20-year-old RAF technician who had struck up a friendship with Patricia’s brother Desmond at the local Presbyterian Church.
Two months after the killing he was arrested and charged. He was questioned relentlessly for two days until he broke and without any legal presence or advice signed a confession.
After his trial at which he was found guilty of the killing but insane and he was committed to Holywell mental hospital for seven and a half years and then released and told to go back to Scotland.
There doubts about his conviction surfaced but it took until 2000 for his name to be cleared.
So who did kill Patricia?
One campaigner suggested it was her mother Doris who disapproved of her unconventional lifestyle, particularly her relationships with older men.
Others suggested her brother Desmond had some involvement.
He made a dramatic conversion to Catholicism five years after his sister’s death and his father, a staunch Orangeman, broke ranks with the Order to attend his ordination in Rome in 1994.
Desmond, who spent many years in South Africa, wrote to a Belfast friend after Hay’s conviction was quashed: “Now the time has come for me to state categorically that no member of the Curran family was in any way involved in the murder no in any kind of cover-up operation.”
Desmond died in South Africa in August 2015.Visit our anniversary hub where we celebrate 150 years of the Belfast Telegraph