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CSI: Donegal

In January 2005, the peace of the quiet townland of Meenacross, near Dungloe in Co Donegal - a popular destination for holidaymakers from Northern Ireland - was shattered by the brutal murder of Shaun Duffy (36). Now cold-case detectives hope that advances in DNA technology could bring his killers to justice. Kathy Donaghy reports

Dark corner: Kathy Donaghy outside Shaun Duffy’s home in Meenacross, Dungloe
Dark corner: Kathy Donaghy outside Shaun Duffy’s home in Meenacross, Dungloe
Police at the murder scene

The road from Dungloe, in the heart of The Rosses, hugs the Co Donegal coast, rising gradually as you reach the townland of Meenacross. A few houses are dotted along the road facing seawards. The house where Shaun Duffy once lived sits a short distance up a lane that doesn't look like it's used much. The bungalow, with a small front porch, lies vacant, commanding stunning views of Traighenna Strand. In the clear light of day, it's hard to imagine such darkness being visited on this place.

But in the early hours of January 29, 2005, Shaun Duffy was murdered in a brutal attack that sent shockwaves through the locality. The aftershocks on the close-knit community he came from can still be felt to this day.

The 36-year-old was set upon when he returned home after a night out. An inquest into his death in 2010 found that he had been stabbed several times, suffered numerous blows to the head and a crossbow arrow had gone through his right arm. His brother, Kevin, who had been socialising with him the night before, knew something was wrong when he called to Shaun's home the next day.

"The inside door on the porch, which my brother always used, wasn't locked. I knew straight away something was wrong because he always locked it," he told the inquest into his brother's death. "I found Shaun inside, lying face down on the sofa and there was a lot of blood. I noticed a large gash on his head and an arrow in his arm. He was cold and I felt for a pulse, but couldn't get one. I knew straight away he was dead."

The effect of the callous and brutal killing reverberated through the townland and beyond. Dungloe - just four miles from Shaun Duffy's house - is well-known for playing host to Gaeltacht students in the summer and hosting the famous Mary from Dungloe festival. It's also a magnet for tourists from Northern Ireland, who use it as a base to discover the wilds of The Rosses.

Shaun Duffy was well-known in the town. Standing 6ft 4in, he was a big, burly bear of a man. He took care in his appearance and wore tweed caps and jackets with smart shirts and ties. He worked at various jobs: as an undertaker and as a bouncer in the town. He had previously worked as a doorman and as a driver at the Mary from Dungloe festival in the summer. Described as "larger-than-life", he was a jack-of-all-trades and had many interests.

Within hours of finding him dead, house-to-house inquiries began in the Meenacross and Maghery areas and a team of 40 police officers were assembled in the hunt to find his killer.

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Inquiries centred around the area of the ­murder and detectives were also trying to trace people who were in the Strand Bar in Maghery on the night prior to the murder, where Shaun Duffy had socialised before heading home.

The murder investigation resulted in over 1,430 lines of inquiry being followed and almost 700 witnesses being interviewed. One line being followed by detectives at the time was whether Shaun Duffy's associates, through his interests in horses, or his work as a bouncer, bore a grudge against him.

To this day, locals don't like talking about events of that fateful day. His large family - five sisters and two brothers - have rarely spoken of it publicly. The fact that the case has never been solved is something that townspeople regret and many would rather not talk about the gruesome nature of the crime.

One local, who didn't want to be named, said the details of the investigation were horrific. He said that very quickly it became apparent to everyone that no one person could have been responsible for the killing.

"He was a big tank of a man - he was no waif and he did a bit of bouncing. People must have been waiting for him when he came home that night. There had to have been a struggle. It would be remarkable if it was just one person."

His mother, Kathleen, told the inquest into his death that he had many enemies and lived in fear of what might happen to him.

As part of the investigation into his murder, detectives were looking at all aspects of his life - from his bouncing to his dabbling in buying and selling cars - to see if they could uncover what, if any, motives there could be to kill him.

Another man, who knew Shaun Duffy all his life, described him as a good man, who was kind to his neighbours, particularly the elderly in his community. He describes a man who was always looking for progress in his own area and was never out for himself.

He says the anniversary of his death brings back the memories of that awful time and how for the sake of the family, he hopes that there will be answers about what happened. Other reports suggested he had a short fuse. He was due to appear in court to face an assault charge.

To coincide with the anniversary of the murder this year, detectives renewed their appeal for witnesses to come forward. Detective Inspector Pat O'Donnell, who is overseeing the fresh appeal, says anybody who has information about the killing, but who didn't pass it on at the time should come forward. He says it's never too late for a person to confidentially pass on what they know.

Det Insp O'Donnell says, while people sometimes feel that the passage of time is a barrier to them coming forward, this shouldn't be the case.

Investigators are also hoping that advances in DNA technology and testing may hold the key to solving the 14-year mystery of who killed Shaun Duffy.

According to Det Insp O'Donnell, the DNA aspect of the case is currently being reviewed and detectives believe this will dictate the course of the investigation. He says detectives are keeping an open mind as to whether locals were involved, or whether the perpetrators were from outside the community.

According to Dr Dorothy Ramsbottom, DNA development and cold case manager at Forensic Science Ireland (FSI), more sensitive technology means DNA testing on "cold", or historic, cases can yield results.

This is because profiles can be generated from samples that may have been unsuitable in the past. Using the current technology to revisit these samples means there is a possibility of getting a result.

Dr Ramsbottom describes the process of analysing DNA samples from cold cases as "meticulous and laborious", but she says the very reason for doing it is to yield new information.

"We wouldn't be doing cold cases if there wasn't a hope of getting something. We always hope we'll identify something or progress the investigation a bit further."

In Meenacross, the house where Shaun Duffy once lived has just gone "sale agreed". The shockwaves that once reverberated around this rural community have subsided, but the search for answers goes on.

Speaking at Shaun Duffy's funeral, the chief celebrant, Fr John Joe Duffy, a first cousin of the deceased, appealed for those who carried out the brutal murder to give themselves up.

He spoke of the terrible tragedy that has visited the Duffy family and the local community. And he spoke of a cloud which "lies over this beautiful and peaceful area of west Donegal".

Three months ago, Shaun Duffy's father, Liam, passed away having never seen those responsible for his son's death brought to justice.

Many hope that the cloud over what happened may yet lift.

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