Dean McIlwaine: We watched the bands and then had a barbecue at his house... he was fine. The next day, he just left
Brother of young barber found dead on Cave Hill a year ago tells how family is still struggling to make sense of the loss. By Victoria Leonard
The brother of a young barber whose body was tragically discovered on Belfast's Cave Hill last summer has told how his heartbroken family are still questioning why he died.
On July 13 last year, Dean McIlwaine, from Carnmoney, Newtownabbey, walked out of the home he had recently moved into with girlfriend Demi-Jo McMahon and disappeared.
Poignant pictures newly released by his relatives show the 22-year-old at the Twelfth celebrations with friends and family the day before he went missing.
In one photo, Dean is smiling while playfully tossing a toy band baton into the air.
Wearing sunglasses and standing in front of the crowds on a sunny day, he appears carefree.
In another image, he is standing beside his brother Glenn while holding up a Union flag.
But the next day he left his new home and never returned.
Nine days later, after a major search operation involving hundreds of volunteers, his body was found on the Cave Hill.
Glenn (27), who got married just two weeks before Dean's disappearance, told the Belfast Telegraph of the pain the family has endured since the loss of his brother.
"The past year has been really hard, it doesn't feel real," said Glenn, who has been unable to visit Cave Hill since the tragedy. "He was my best friend, and now he's just gone.
"He was my brother, he was the other half of me.
"Mum and dad are okay some days, some days are just terrible. There's always that question, 'Why?'
"On the anniversary of Dean's disappearance last Friday we gathered at his grave in Carnmoney Cemetery and let balloons off, and Demi-Jo's dad gave a nice speech. The rest of the day was spent quietly. Dean would have been 23 this year."
Recalling the last time he saw his brother alive, Glenn said he struggles to make sense of how someone so "full of life" could die so young.
"The last time I saw him was July 12 2017 - we went to the Twelfth in Cloughfern, watched the bands, then went to Dean's for a barbecue," he said.
"It was a great wee day. He was fine, everything was good, and then we got the news that granda was very ill and he died on the Twelfth.
"Dean and my dad went up to see him.
"The next morning, Dean just left.
"Hope kept us going during the searches.
"I still remember the phone call from my mate when they found him nine days later.
"He just kept saying my name and saying, 'I'm sorry mate'.
"It's just a blur, you just go into survival mode, it's so surreal.
"I had no inkling in my mind that he would be found dead - I couldn't even take it in.
"He loved life, he had loads of friends.He was the best man at my wedding that June, and the night before it he was buzzing, talking about opening his first barber's shop and then getting another one open.
"I got married on June 27 and we buried Dean exactly a month later."
Dean was so popular that the start of his funeral service in Carnmoney Presbyterian Church had to be delayed due to the number of people queuing to say their goodbyes. Devastated Glenn does not believe his brother intended to take his own life.
On Saturday, members of the family visited Cave Hill, and Glenn said they expressed safety concerns over the state of the paths there.
"I don't believe Dean did jump, I honestly believe he slipped," he continued.
"It's the not knowing why or how it happened.
"In my heart I know he didn't take his own life.
"When my aunts and cousins were up at Cave Hill at the weekend they said the path from the Hightown entrance was brutal - all mucky and narrow, one slip off and you could fall.
"I would like to see the council improve the paths. They need to invest to make people safe."
Glenn said he would also like to see a multi-agency approach between the council and the PSNI to implement more suicide prevention patrols on Cave Hill.
"There needs to be something done up there to make sure people are okay," he said. "There are so many wee plaques on the trees where people have taken their own lives.
"I intend to go up to Cave Hill at some point, but it will be hard.
"You need more people patrolling up there - the PSNI, park wardens, counsellors.
"It needs to be a multi-agency approach. Anything to stop people taking their own lives."
Seven weeks after Dean's death, his Newtownabbey salon - named Dean Samuel The Gentlemen's Barber - opened.
On the walls are Dean's smart tweed waistcoat and cap, as well as a smiling photo of the young man.
Among the staff is his 21-year-old cousin Jordan Malone, who has developed a range of hair products bearing his late relative's name.
"Dean would have loved the salon," Glenn said.
"It's doing very well and Jordan is in there at the minute working and also making hair gels and hair sprays, which bear the 'DS' symbol for 'Dean Samuel' on them. Dean would have been very proud."
And Glenn had a heartfelt message for young people who are in distress and considering taking their own lives.
"I would say to other young people who have suicidal feelings, to talk to somebody, to open up," he said. "Think of your friends and family who are left behind to pick up the pieces."
PSNI Inspector Laura Kelly said: "Police in north Belfast are aware of various issues at Cave Hill and local Neighbourhood Policing Team officers patrol regularly to deter anti-social behaviour and to be aware of any vulnerable people in the area.
"All police officers are trained in dealing with vulnerable people.
"However, specially trained officers can also be tasked should a particular situation warrant their use.
"I am always willing to speak with anyone with ideas that can help us to improve our service to the local community and to keep people safe."
A Belfast City Council spokesperson said it is "part of the Protect Life implementation group and works closely with health trusts, the Public Health Agency and others in suicide prevention in the city".
She said: "We have trained our park wardens and safer neighbourhood officers in internationally recognised 'SafeTalk' training to enable them to support anyone they encounter feeling particularly anxious or distressed.
"We are also working to incorporate the Lifeline number into some of our public signage to ensure people in crisis know support is available.
"While the Public Health Agency takes a lead in implementing the government's Protect Life strategy, Belfast City Council is very much aware that every person lost to suicide is a tragedy that affects families, friends and the wider community.
"Safety in our parks and open spaces is a priority for Belfast City Council and during their patrols our park wardens report anything that might pose a danger to users.
"However, given the open environment of Cave Hill Country Park, visitors should always pay attention to their surroundings and report any concerns to our staff."