Belfast Telegraph

English family wants justice for tragic Sharon Sparks (9) - Belfast rapist suspected of her manslaughter

'People to this day still talk about what happened to Sharon... 44 years on, I want justice for her'

The family of a nine-year-old girl killed more than 40 years ago has demanded to know why the Northern Ireland man suspected of her manslaughter was allowed to walk free - to rape and murder a woman from Belfast.

Sharon Sparks' body was found with severe head and facial injuries on a country lane in Milnrow, Greater Manchester, on September 11, 1974.

Richard O'Hara, a Belfast-born security guard, admitted in police interviews to killing Sharon, telling detectives he had picked her up from a bus stop before accidentally running her over.

O'Hara, a former soldier, then 21, was charged with a string of offences, including manslaughter, abduction, and child stealing. But in 1975, a nine-man jury at Sharon's inquest recorded a verdict of accidental death by a majority of eight to one - despite the coroner suggesting a manslaughter conclusion.

All charges against O'Hara were dropped and no-one has ever been brought to justice for Sharon's death.

Seven years later, O'Hara was jailed for life for the rape and murder of 19-year-old secretary Deborah Robinson. The young woman, who was from south Belfast, was strangled during a trip to Dublin.

O'Hara abducted her before taking her to a factory where he raped and killed her. He then drove her body 30 miles to the Kildare countryside and dumped it in a ditch.

In 2004 he married Carole Cathcart, a Presbyterian deaconess, who stepped down from her role after O'Hara's past was revealed by the press.

The family of Sharon Sparks is now demanding to know why O'Hara was allowed to walk free to kill again.

Tanya Taylor was just seven when Sharon, her half-sister, died.

She said: "It's about getting justice for Sharon.

"I want answers. How can O'Hara get away with what he did? If he had not been allowed to walk free after killing Sharon, Deborah Robinson would be alive today.

"That tragedy could have been avoided. Why was that allowed to happen? That's what I can't get my head round.

"He should face justice for what he did."

After a huge investigation involving 60 detectives at the time, forensic evidence led cops to a blue Ford Escort owned by O'Hara.

After several police interviews, he admitted killing Sharon, telling police he had picked the schoolgirl up from a bus stop near her home in Shawforth, Lancashire.

O'Hara said he had driven until Sharon "started screaming", before she got out of the car in a lay-by off Wildhouse Lane in Milnrow, seven miles away, where he had accidentally run her over.

Tanya, a carer who now lives in Rawtenstall, Lancashire, said: "I would go visit her on a weekend because she lived with our grandma.

"We'd play doctors and nurses, I can remember her in a nurse's outfit with a little doctor's bag.

"She was always the nurse and I was the patient and she would shout at me if I moved. She was so bossy but so funny."

Despite being too young to initially understand what had happened to Sharon, Tanya, now a mum-of-four and a grandmother-of-five, said her death had a devastating effect on her.

"Mum and dad told me Sharon had been picked up by a bad man, but in those days it was hush, hush. We didn't really speak about it.

"It didn't really sink in. At that age I didn't really understand what had happened, but I can remember thinking 'Why can't I go to see Sharon any more?'.

"It was only later, when I was about 11 or 12, that I really began to understand," Tanya said.

"It had a massive effect on me and my life. Because of what happened to Sharon my dad was really strict with me. He wouldn't let me out of the house, so I had no teenage life really.

"It meant that whenever I got the chance I rebelled.

"I made some bad decisions and that's had a knock-on effect throughout my life. It also had a massive effect on the village. Everyone talked about it.

"To this day people in Shawforth still talk about what happened to Sharon.

"I have no other sisters and she was older than me so I looked up to her. I still think about her most days."

In a remarkable statement, O'Hara told the 1975 inquest how he saw a "little girl thumbing a lift" at the bus stop. O'Hara, then of Brimrod, in Rochdale, told the hearing: "I stopped and told her she shouldn't thumb lifts, then offered to run her home."

Sharon "seemed happy enough with me" continued O'Hara, so the pair drove around Rochdale.

But when they got to Wildhouse Lane he said Sharon "started screaming, saying she wanted to get out".

O'Hara added: "I was panicking and decided to look for somewhere to stop so I could calm her down.

"I saw the lay-by so I turned in. I was going about 50-60mph and I saw the passenger door open. When I stopped she wasn't there.

"I reversed the car. There was a wobble of the steering wheel as if I had run over something.

"I got out and she was lying under the wheel. I felt for a heartbeat but I couldn't feel anything.

"I panicked and tried to get help by radio but there was too much static.

"I lifted her up and put her over the wall but I thought I heard her moan so I left her on a grass verge. She was dead when I left her.

"I wouldn't have left her if she had been alive.

"One of her shoes was still in the car so I threw it out over Pilsworth, near Heywood.

"The journey was innocent and I intended to take her home. I didn't mean her any harm. I was afraid of the consequences and this is why I didn't come to the police station."

Later that month all charges against O'Hara were dropped when the prosecution offered no evidence during a hearing at Rochdale Magistrates Court.

The prosecuting solicitor told the court he was acting on the advice of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

O'Hara, the court heard, had served with the Royal Green Jackets in Belfast for two years, but in 1972 was discharged for disobeying orders after refusing to go back for a fourth tour of duty.

He returned to Ireland, the court heard, but lived in constant fear of the IRA, who had twice threatened him because of his Army background

He moved back to England in 1973, settling in Rochdale.

At some point in the years following Sharon's death, O'Hara once again returned to Ireland.

In September 1980 he met Deborah Robinson, a secretary from south Belfast, as she waited for a bus home at Parnell Square in Dublin, following a blind date in the city.

O'Hara lured Deborah back to the factory where he worked and then raped and strangled her to death.

The next day he drove 30 miles outside Dublin to dump her body in a ditch near Clane, Co Kildare.

O'Hara confessed to the killing but denied raping Deborah. That was a lie. He claimed he got angry when Deborah told him she "felt nothing" after they had sex.

O'Hara was sentenced to life in jail in 1982 and eventually served 25 years behind bars, becoming one of Ireland's most notorious and longest-serving prisoners.

On his release O'Hara again made the headlines when he married Ms Cathcart, at the time a Presbyterian deaconess. She later stepped down.

Previously he had been jailed for two years in December 1975 when he admitted attempting to rob a young woman he gave a lift to near Newry.

Police investigating the Deborah Robinson murder also discovered that O'Hara had been given a suspended sentence at Winchester, Hampshire, for housebreaking and assaulting a 15-year-old girl.

The National Archives hold a file on the Sharon Sparks case, but it is not due to be made public until 2054.

Tanya believes it could hold the key to explaining why O'Hara walked free.

But both Tanya and the press have had requests for the file to be released turned down on the grounds that it contains "sensitive personal information of a number of identified individuals assumed to be still living, including financial information, unsubstantiated allegations, and details of the personal lives of named individuals", and that the release of the information would be "unfair and risk causing damage and distress".

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