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Part two: Murder mystery cover-up?


The Bloody North: Infamous Ulster Murder Cases by Sean McMahon, The Brehon Press, £7.99

The Bloody North: Infamous Ulster Murder Cases by Sean McMahon, The Brehon Press, £7.99

The Bloody North: Infamous Ulster Murder Cases by Sean McMahon, The Brehon Press, £7.99

Patricia Curran was the daughter of Lancelot Curran, one of the most significant names of the Northern Ireland legal establishment.

He served as member for Carrick in the Stormont Parliament from 1945 till 1949 and was the youngest Attorney General in the history of that assembly. He was Senior Crown Prosecutor for County Down, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Finance and Chief Whip, and in 1949 was elevated to the High Court Bench.

He and his family lived in a house known as The Glen in Whiteabbey, County Antrim, on the north shore of Belfast Lough. The Currans had two children, Desmond, a successful barrister, who was heavily involved in the movement known as Moral Rearmament, and 19-year-old Patricia, who was rather more wayward.

On 12 November 1952 she left Smithfield station as usual on the 5pm bus but never returned home.

The police were contacted in the early hours when Judge Curran rang to ask whether any bus accident had taken place in Whiteabbey because Patricia, who had been on her usual bus, had not come home. Constable Rutherford was on duty and immediately offered to come to The Glen to help with the search but Curran told him that it would not be necessary.

Five minutes later Constable Rutherford was surprised to receive a call from Doris Curran, unwittingly contradicting her husband's instructions. He arrived at the house at about 2am when Patricia's body was discovered by her father and brother.

The family solicitor, Malcolm Davison, whom Curran rang before speaking to Constable Rutherford, helped them to load the already stiffening body into his car. They took Patricia to the family doctor, Kenneth Wilson, reaching his surgery at 2.20am.

His initial estimate of the time of death was sometime between 11pm and midnight and because of the number of wounds suffered he ventured the opinion that death had been caused by a shotgun.

The body was positioned just off the driveway and there was little or no blood on the ground, a few drops at most. Her files and textbooks were placed neatly by her side as were a glove, a Juliet cap, two scarves and a handbag. Despite the wet evening they were all dry and, according to witnesses, Patricia had none of these belongings with her on the bus.

To say it was improper for a judge, a solicitor and a serving member of the RUC to have risked the destruction of forensic evidence at the crime scene is a rank understatement - it verged on the criminal.

The girl's body was sufficiently advanced in rigor mortis to make her easy to lift but it was necessary to have her feet pushed out of the open window of Malcolm Davison's car while Desmond cradled her body in the back seat. He insisted that he heard her breathe but it was simply exhalation of air from the lungs. This provided the best excuse for the wanton bad practice at the scene.

The body was covered in blood which gave it the appearance of shotgun trauma. In fact the weapon used was a knife and there were a total of thirty-seven stab wounds located on face, neck, legs and chest. Her heart had been pierced twice and both leg-arteries were severed.

What was certainly clear from the beginning was that Patricia had been killed elsewhere and then placed beside the driveway.

The judge refused to allow his clan to be questioned until four days after the murder, and it would be another three days before police were allowed to examine the house.

Unusually, indeed against all practice, senior detectives from Scotland Yard were imported on the instructions of Sir Richard Pim (Inspector-General of the RUC). Superintendent John Capstick was the leading murder specialist in the Yard. He brought his assistant, Sergeant Dennis Hawkins.

The sphere of enquiries of Capstick and Hawkins was eventually widened to include the RAF station at Edenmore, which was a short distance from the Curran house. When the investigators enquired about alibis for the hours between 5pm and 6pm they found that two airmen were alone that evening, AC2 Ian Hay Gordon and Corporal Henry Connor.

The two reacted instinctively and gave each other alibis, saying that they were together during that time. Gordon was unique among other ranks in that he had been invited to dinner at The Glen by Desmond, Patricia's brother (after meeting him at church services).

Ian Hay Gordon was twenty, a year older than Patricia Curran, and miles apart from her in intelligence and social class. He was shy and awkward socially and physically. Some of his smarter servicemen companions persuaded him that he had to use L-plates on his bicycle as he rode about the camp. He was alleged to be homosexual, though showing very little evidence of sexual drive.

Capstick and Hawkins began an intensive interrogation of the unfortunate young man. He had no counsel; there should at least have been an RAF officer present, though the police claimed that the lack of a "soldier's friend" was at the request of Gordon.

The questioning was more intensive on the second day and lasted from 9am to 7.45pm.

Gordon's disorientation and mental confusion increased. He remembered feeling very drowsy, wondering if his coffee might have been drugged. The strongest lever that Capstick had was Gordon's friendship with Wesley Courtenay, a local homosexual known to the police. It must be remembered that homosexual acts were criminal with a mandatory prison sentence. Gordon was not so much worried about any penalties but he was desperate that his mother should not get to hear about his proclivities.

Eventually he decided that if he co-operated with his interrogators that he would be released. At this stage he would have admitted anything. His confession is a very webby document, filled with gaps, generally incoherent and clearly suggested to him if not actually dictated. This was the main part of the confession: I met Patricia Curran between The Glen and Whiteabbey Post Office. She asked me to escort her to her home up The Glen. I noticed that Patricia was carrying a handbag and something else, I just forget what it was. It appeared to be wrapped up, whatever it was, books or something.

It was quite dark there and I said to Patricia, "Do you mind if I kiss you?" or words to that effect. We stopped walking and stood on the grass verge on the left hand side of the drive. She laid her things on the grass and I think she laid her hat there as well. Before she did this she was not keen on me giving her a kiss, but consented in the end. I kissed her once or twice to begin with and she did not object. She then asked me to continue escorting her up the drive. I did not do so as I found I could not stop kissing her. As I was kissing her, I let my hand slip down her body between her coat and her clothes. Her coat was open and my hand may have touched her breast, but I'm not sure.

She struggled and said, "Don't, don't, you beast," or something like that. I struggled with her and she said to me: "Let me go or I will tell my father." I then lost control of myself and Patricia fell on the grass sobbing. She appeared to have fainted, because she went limp. I am a bit hazy about what happened next but I probably pulled the body of Patricia through the bushes to hide it. I dragged her by her arms or hands, but I cannot remember. Even before this happened I do not think I was capable of knowing what I was doing. I was confused at the time and believe I stabbed her once or twice with my service knife. I had been carrying this in my trouser pocket.

If Gordon had been represented properly the "confession" would not have been admitted as evidence. He withdrew it immediately, explaining to his reluctant defence team that he had been harangued by four policemen for days, ten hours at a stretch.

Nevertheless Lord Chief Justice MacDermott, the presiding judge, permitted the fabricated document to be heard as evidence.

The jury also heard AR Lewis, a leading Harley Street psychiatrist, give as his professional opinion that Gordon was not sane. Lewis's professional opinion, no doubt given with all the authority and confidence of the expert, complemented Gordon's signed confession, convincing the jury that Gordon was the murderer despite the lack of forensic evidence. They found him guilty but insane and he was committed to Holywell Mental Hospital.

In his acquiescent way Gordon made no attempt to leave until a kind of release in August 1960, after almost eight years in confinement. Brian Faulkner, then Minister of Home Affairs, had him virtually smuggled out of the country booking him on to a plane to Glasgow as John Cameron.

A judicial review in 2000 exonerated him from all charges.

We will never know what happened on the night of November 12, 1952 and speculation is pointless.

The Curran case continued to fascinate criminologists, both professional and amateur. Such a one was Sir Ludovic Kennedy. His 1970 television documentary about the Curran case was suppressed by the Stormont government led by James Chichester-Clark. The only surviving member of the family is Desmond, now a Roman Catholic priest with a mission station at Khayelitsha in South Africa, whose work among the dispossessed is exemplary.

When interviewed in January 1995 for a BBC documentary, More Sinned Against Than Sinning, he insisted that the family were not involved in Patricia's murder and that Gordon was guilty. He converted to Catholicism after his sister's death and was, consequently, barred from the family home.

As a final statement on the affair I take the liberty of quoting from the RUC County Inspector Kennedy's report, not mentioned at Gordon's trial. Kennedy had successfully led the investigation until the introduction of the egregious Capstick.

"It was decided to pursue every line of inquiry before allowing our thoughts to concentrate on something which seemed too fantastic to believe, namely that the Currans were covering up the murder and telling a tissue of lies."

Now fifty-four years later the story of the Curran tragedy continues to fascinate.

The Bloody North: Infamous Ulster Murder Cases by Sean McMahon, The Brehon Press, £7.99

Belfast Telegraph