Phelim McNally admits blasting teenage girl, 18, to death in shotgun horror
A man is facing a life sentence after he dramatically changed his plea just before his trial began and admitted murdering his former partner's teenage sister.
In a barely audible whisper, Phelim McNally also pleaded guilty to the attempted murder of the mother of his two children in the tragic double-shooting on May 19 last year.
Lauren O'Neill (18) was shot dead by the Toomebridge man as she tried to save her older sister Brenda from her 27-year-old ex-partner.
Brenda and McNally's two young children – Eimear, then aged three, and Eunan, who was just 10 months – were present in the house when he opened fire in his former partner's home at William Court, Bellaghy.
Despite her horrific wounds, Brenda bravely managed to make it to a neighbour's home to raise the alarm, but Lauren had already been fatally injured.
The brutal killing of the courageous young woman who made the ultimate sacrifice trying to save her sister's life caused an outpouring of grief and sympathy across Northern Ireland.
Brenda, who had to undergo emergency surgery, was to spend more than three weeks in hospital and missed her beloved sister's funeral, which was attended by Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and other senior politicians from the Mid Ulster area.
The 22-year-old woman lost part of her bowel and suffered immense pain because of shotgun pellets buried deep in her body.
Brenda, surrounded by family and friends, left Court 13 at Belfast's Laganside complex yesterday without commenting on proceedings or on McNally's change of plea.
The devoted sisters were both past pupils of St Mary's College in Clady, near Portglenone, and had worked in McNally's Inn and Restaurant on the main Belfast to Derry Road, three miles from Bellaghy.
Speaking from his home yesterday, Lauren's father Laurence led glowing tributes to his daughter, calling her the "life and soul", an "all-rounder" and "full of spirit".
The heartbroken father was visibly emotional as he said: "Everytime I see a butterfly I will think of her, because they were her favourite."
Brenda, who survived the attack, said that she was now focused on her two young children and that they were now her main priority.
The O'Neill family said that they were "relieved" that they had been "spared the ordeal of a whole trial".
They described their grief as still "very raw" and that their family had suffered "real devastation" over Lauren's loss.
On Wednesday a jury had been sworn in at Londonderry Crown Court to hear the murder case.
McNally had initially pleaded not guilty to the charges in front of the jury of six men and six women.
His trial was to have started in Coleraine on Monday, and was expected to last two weeks.
Jurors were also told that the three principal witnesses in the case would be Brenda and her parents, Laurence and Bernadette.
With his guilty plea, McNally has at least saved them the ordeal of giving evidence, as well as members of his own family, paramedics, police and forensic officers, and other witnesses.
In a dramatic turn of events before a packed Belfast Crown Court yesterday, McNally changed his plea and admitted murdering Lauren and attempting to murder Brenda.
Following his pleas, Mr Justice Treacy told McNally the only sentence the court could pass was one of life imprisonment.
He said he would decide on a date to "deal with the question of the appropriate tariff" – setting out McNally's minimum sentence – later this month.