Belfast Telegraph

As Leslie Ross met his maker, relatives of one of his suspected victims were there to witness the cremation

By Claire McNeilly

A grieving family yesterday attended the funeral of the "monster" once suspected of murdering three girlfriends to ensure Leslie Ross was "gone for good".

One of Michelle Bickerstaff's sisters, Yvette Sparks, and three of her nieces sat through the 'Celebration of the Life' of Ross before he was cremated.

The funeral for the 70-year-old pensioner from Co Down was held yesterday morning following a service lasting less than 20 minutes.

Just over 20 people gathered in the small church at Roselawn Crematorium to witness the last journey of a cruel, abusive man who will now never face justice for a catalogue of crimes.

Those whose lives Leslie Ross destroyed, however, believe he will pay for his sins elsewhere.

The stonemason from Dromore succumbed to cancer last week, on the very day he was due in court on a litany of sex abuse charges, including rapes.

He was suspected, although not convicted, of murdering mother-of-four Michelle (47), whose family say she was subjected to unrelenting mental and physical abuse.

He was also suspected of killing two other former partners.

Ms Bickerstaff, his most recent ex-girlfriend, died from head injuries in 2012.

Ross was charged with her murder.

But he walked free when the court heard her injuries could have been caused by a fall.

Seated on the opposite aisle to Ross's family and other acquaintances, Yvette and her nieces maintained a dignified silence throughout.

But, speaking to the Belfast Telegraph afterwards, Ms Bickerstaff's family, who were visibly shaken by the ceremony, said they had taken the difficult decision to attend purely "for closure".

"We wanted to make sure it was definitely him going in there," Yvette said.

"We needed to see this for ourselves. At least that's him gone for good now.

"That's it over.

"But nobody got justice.

"He got off very lightly."

Michelle's niece Zoe Sparks, daughter of her other sister Sharon, said she'd found it difficult to listen to what was said at Roselawn about the man responsible for so much hurt.

Those inside the crematorium heard Rev David Cooper - who told the Belfast Telegraph later that he was totally unaware of Ross's evil past - try to comfort mourners by telling them they'd have "so many memories that you will keep in your hearts always".

After singing five verses of The Lord Is My Shepherd, and making no mention of Ross's heinous crimes, Rev Cooper delivered a short sermon about the Plymouth-born father-of-two, whom he said was an accomplished stonemason.

"You'll remember today the kind of things he liked to do - he loved Westerns, cowboy films," said the retired Methodist minister.

"One of his favourite television programmes was The Chase and he loved those programmes, whether it was Bargain Hunt, or Deal Or No Deal, or The Antiques Roadshow; he was interested in those kind of things.

"He had a great collection of walking sticks and pokers, so those were among the things he was interested in.

"One of his dreams - never realised - was of having a bungalow with a little piece of ground and an old Jaguar car to work at.

"Well, even if our dreams are not realised, we need to have dreams because they help to complete the ordinariness of our life even in that we dream of other things."

And Rev Cooper - who later admitted that he had not been fully briefed about Ross prior to the funeral - continued with his summation of the deceased's time on Earth.

"He had a chainsaw and he sometimes cut down the trees," the minister said.

"Another thing you'll remember about him, like many of us, he loved coffee and you'll have had happy times of sharing that with him.

"He moved to Newtownards in February last year.

"Sadly, 18 months ago he was diagnosed with cancer and had to face radiotherapy treatment.

"But even with all that he had to face, it's wonderful today to think that he was out and about right up to the day before he died, so we're thankful for that."

Prior to the committal, the minister acknowledged that "the tribulations of this world are over" for Ross and that "death has passed".

He also gave a special mention to his cousins Angela, Ross and William, who were among a handful of family members present yesterday.

When contacted by this newspaper last night to ask if he was aware of Ross's past, Rev Cooper said he "knew nothing about him" other than what he had been told by his aforementioned cousins. "There was no disclosure of any facts," he said.

"I was asked to conduct the funeral and I simply did what I was asked.

"I met his cousins, who said nothing other than what I said."

When asked if would have felt differently about conducting the service had he known who he was cremating, the minister replied: "I can only go on the trust of what people have given to me."

He added: "I have no connections with the family.

"I knew nothing about them."

There was no sign of Ross's estranged children - son Alexander and daughter Julie - at yesterday's service, which finished with five verses of the hymn Abide With Me.

A lone magpie that had been sitting on top of the far end of the crematorium flew off as the pallbearers removed the wooden coffin from the black hearse ahead of the short journey from outside to the front of the church.

Before the service began, one of Ross's relatives called out to the media, whom they suggested were "there to make up the numbers".

And one man, thought to be a cousin, shouted: "Come on in out of the cold and get warmed up."

Afterwards, those who had turned out to pay their final respects to a man who had died facing 44 charges including rapes, sex attacks and assaults, headed to the nearby La Mon Hotel for refreshments.

Meanwhile, a distraught Yvette and Zoe said they were learning to live without Michelle.

Mother-of-three Yvette said: "I still feel a sickness in my stomach when I think about what he has done, but I'm just glad we won't ever have to see him again."

Zoe said that "Leslie Ross was a monster".

In January 2016 a jury was directed to acquit Ross of Michelle Bickerstaff's murder when the prosecution offered no further evidence.

Two months later he went on trial for the 2007 murder of another girlfriend, Margaret Weise (50), but within weeks was acquitted again after Mr Justice Burgess directed the jury to find him not guilty.

Those trials had been subject to a number of reporting restrictions, which have since been lifted.

Ross was further charged with the murder of a third ex-girlfriend, 52-year-old Lily McKee, but that case never went to full trial.

Solicitor Conleth Downey said of his client: "He was charged with three murders, effectively besmirching him as a serial killer", but during subsequent "lengthy trials Leslie Ross challenged the manner in which the police carried out their investigations".

"All murder trials collapsed.

"From the outset Leslie Ross steadfastly protested his innocence and he was entirely vindicated."

Throughout each of the proceedings, Ross's defence team made the case that his former lovers had, like himself, problems with alcohol.

They also maintained that any fatal injuries suffered by the women could have been caused by alcohol-related falls - which it was accepted they had been prone to - and not violence.

Ross started seeing Michelle around 2008, the year after his former girlfriend Ms Weise was found dead in suspicious circumstances.

Although initially charming, his violent tendencies soon became apparent to the Bickerstaff family.

They also said he plied Ms Bickerstaff, a champion athlete in her youth, with alcohol.

Ms Bickerstaff's daughter Rachel (26) and 81-year-old mother Dorothy Sparks claimed Ross had also subjected her to regular beatings.

"Leslie Ross tortured my mum, both mentally and physically," Rachel recently told Sunday Life.

"He beat her up, took the battery out of her phone, locked her in the house, hid her glasses - he was a monster in every way."

Dorothy added: "When my daughter came to stay with me I would see fresh bruises all the time.

"It broke my heart, seeing her with that man."

"That man" has now been reduced to ashes.

Michelle Bickerstaff's family don't know when or where the remains of Leslie Ross will be scattered - and they don't care either.

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