Marie Conlon: There was nothing that would have raised our suspicions - neighbours tell of shock and disbelief after horrific discovery
Close to tears, a distraught mother who lives near the west Belfast apartment that hid a grim secret for over two-and-a-half years spoke yesterday of feeling physically sick over what happened to tragic Marie Conlon without any of her neighbours knowing that anything was wrong.
The woman, who didn't want to be identified, said the revulsion over the death of 68-year-old Ms Conlon in Larkspur Rise, off Suffolk Road, had been compounded by the police revelation that her body may have lain undiscovered in her home since January 2015.
As the full picture of the horror emerged yesterday, organisations representing the elderly said the tragedy highlighted the need for people to keep in touch with their relatives and neighbours.
But a number of residents in the tiny Larkspur Rise housing development said they'd been upset by posts on social media criticising them for not showing enough concern for Ms Conlon.
"Those attacks on the people here have been totally unwarranted," the mother said. "The apartments where the body was found have very transitory populations. Residents are always coming and going."
The neighbour said that she had noticed the woman she thought was Ms Conlon several years ago, but when she didn't see her again she assumed she had moved away to live somewhere else.
"It's heartbreaking to think that poor woman had been lying dead there for so long," she said.
"But there was nothing untoward which would have raised our suspicions."
Another resident, Shauna Lawson, said Ms Conlon's death had left her feeling deeply unsettled and fearful in her own home, which is just a few doors away from the scene.
"I just hope whoever did it is brought to justice. It's very frightening," she added.
One neighbour, who works as a nurse and lives with her family in the property facing Ms Conlon's flat, was in tears yesterday when she learned the truth.
"To think that someone could be there for so long on their own without being discovered is just awful," she said.
"I'm dumbfounded, I can't believe that a body has been lying there for two years.
"I can speak for all of my neighbours, I'm completely shocked."
She added: "I'd seen her a few times coming and going, but I didn't know her."
Another woman said she didn't know how she was going to explain the presence of the police and the Press to her children especially as they played regularly in the communal space in front of the apartment block where Ms Conlon was discovered dead in bed last Friday.
The PSNI said it responded to concerns about Ms Conlon's welfare, but it is not clear who raised the alarm.
Police were stunned by the discovery in the second floor flat.
"It was extremely distressing for the officers who broke into the apartment," said a PSNI source. It was immediately obvious to the police that Ms Conlon had been dead for a considerable period of time and they established the last sighting of her was well over two-and-a-half years ago.
Chief Inspector Alan Dickson said medical evidence had shown that her death may have occurred as far back as January 2015. Neighbours who were left stunned at the discovery of the body were even more appalled by the police announcement that they'd launched a murder inquiry after receiving the results of a post-mortem.
Yesterday a single PSNI Land Rover sat outside one of the three-storey apartment blocks at the entrance to Larkspur Rise.
A 23-year-old man was arrested on Wednesday on suspicion of murder and what police described as "other offences".
There were unconfirmed reports that he may have lived in the same apartment block as Ms Conlon, who it's understood was not married and did not have children.
It's believed she had a Facebook account but hadn't been active on it since 2014.
Yesterday, as well as examining Ms Conlon's flat, forensic experts also carried out a number of searches in the area.
Teams of PSNI officers were engaged in door-to-door enquiries, but given the passage of time, they weren't optimistic about uncovering any significant information to help with their investigation.
Ms Conlon's apartment backs onto the car park of the busy Suffolk Inn pub but there were no indications from there that anything was amiss.
Sinn Fein councillor Seanna Walsh, who was at Larkspur Rise yesterday, said he didn't know Ms Conlon but he was acquainted with members of her family.
He relayed a message from them saying that they wanted privacy "at this difficult time".
Mr Walsh added relatives were reeling from the news, which had overwhelmed the entire family circle.
He added: "It was bad enough for them to have to deal with the death but then to be told that Marie had been murdered made it harder for them to come to terms with the tragedy."
Mr Walsh said there was a degree of estrangement between Ms Conlon and her family but he added that relatives had visited the apartment on a number of occasions, however they thought she simply didn't want to answer the door.
He described the circumstances of Ms Conlon's death and the discovery of her body as a reflection on the level of disconnect in modern day society.
"If she'd lived in a house further into the estate it might have been different," Mr Walsh added.
Age NI said in a tweet that the tragic news about Ms Conlon highlighted "how much we need to keep in touch with one another".
A number of questions were being asked yesterday about how Ms Conlon's death went undetected for so long.
One former social services worker said: "You would wonder why Ms Conlon's plight never came to the attention of the authorities or to service providers who would have been sending her communications on a regular basis but weren't receiving any replies.
"There's also the question of her pension and why it would have gone uncollected."