Belfast Telegraph

Police given more time to question Leslie Ross over deaths of three ex-lovers in Dromore

By Chris Kilpatrick and Anna Maguire

Police have been given a further 36 hours to question a pensioner in relation to the suspicious deaths of three of his former partners.

The 66-year-old was arrested over the deaths of the women in the Co Down town of Dromore over the past 11 years.

Leslie Ross, a well-known local businessman, is also being quizzed about other offences relating to other women.

He was detained in Dromore yesterday morning in relation to the unexplained deaths which occurred in the town.

Michelle Bickerstaff (47) died in April last year; Margaret Weise (50) in August 2007, and Elizabeth McKee (52) in December 2002.

Mr Ross had been involved in relationships at various times with all three women.

The families of two of the deceased women said they were desperate for answers.

Ms Bickerstaff's sister, Yvette Sparks, said that there were no words to describe how she felt yesterday.

Ms Sparks said her sister's death was still extremely hard for her family, particularly for her elderly mother Dorothy, who is in her 80s and still lives in Dromore in the house she shared with Michelle.

Jenny Dixon, Elizabeth McKee's daughter, said her family wants answers more than 10 years after her mother's death.

"We want to see justice for my mother and for all the other families," she said.

"I do know the PSNI has been working extremely hard on this."

Speaking about the cause of her mother's death in December 2002, she added: "I always had suspicions. The whole of Dromore did.

"My mother was a lovely, kind woman."

The late Ms McKee's grandson, Ryan Dixon (22), added: "She was an ideal granny. She was good fun. She spoiled me."

Ms Bickerstaff was a mother-of -four.

It is understood she had suffered a blow to the head.

Mr Ross runs a stonemasons in Dromore.

Following the death of Ms Bickerstaff, Mr Ross was arrested and questioned by police.

He was later released unconditionally.

Lagan Valley DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson knew Ms McKee having carried out constituency work for her in the past.

He said local people were stunned by the arrest.

"Dromore is one of the oldest towns in Northern Ireland and in all of its history I don't think there's ever been something as tragic as this," he said.

"I know this close-knit community will rally round and give the families the support they need.

"This news must have been devastating. I know some of the families involved, and indeed I knew Ms McKee very well.

"To think the circumstances of her death are now the subject of a police investigation is just an awful thing to contemplate."

Clint Aiken, editor of the Dromore Leader newspaper, said the news had rocked the area.

"There's never been anything like this in Dromore that I can think of, it's a quiet town," he said.

"There is a real sense of shock."

Mr Ross was questioned by detectives throughout yesterday in the serious crime suite at Antrim police station.

A PSNI spokesman said: "Detectives have arrested a 66-year-old man in Dromore, Co Down, as part of investigations into the deaths of three women in the town over the past 11 years.

"The suspect has also been arrested for a number of other offences in relation to other women.

"The families of the women who died in suspicious circumstances have been informed by police."

The bodies of the three women have not been exhumed.

The PSNI has not publicly described the incidents as murders.

Police last night appealed specifically to the community in Dromore for any information about the deaths.

Detective Chief Inspector Richard Harkness said: "We are keen to speak with anyone who may have any information which could assist us and I would urge members of the community in Dromore to contact us.

"People may have been reluctant to come forward in the past but I can assure you that any information will be treated in the utmost confidence.

"Your information could provide us with the vital link to enable us to bring this investigation to a successful conclusion."

Detectives can be contacted on 028 3831 5339 from 9am to 10pm Monday-Friday, alternatively a message can be left outside of these hours. Or you can contact the independent charity Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

'I always had suspicions about my mum's death'

By Anna Maguire

The family of one of three women whose deaths are at the centre of yesterday's dramatic arrest have said they want answers, a decade after she passed away.

Jenny Dixon was clearly emotional as she spoke of her mother Elizabeth McKee's death and her family's wish for "justice".

Speaking ahead of the 11th anniversary of her mother's December 2002 death, she said her family has waited a long time for answers.

"I want to see justice for my mother and for all the other families," the mother-of-two told the Belfast Telegraph at her Dromore home yesterday afternoon.

She said she spoke to the family of another of the deceased women yesterday, after she was informed of Mr Ross' arrest.

"I have spoken to one of the families and they just want justice," Mrs Dixon told the Belfast Telegraph. "It has taken a long time but we want justice."

Yvette Sparks, whose sister Michelle Bickerstaff died in April last year, broke down as she gave her reaction to yesterday's development.

"It (Michelle's death) is not that long ago," she said, sobbing.

"And my mother is very elderly."

Ms Bickerstaff's mother, Dorothy Sparks – with whom Michelle lived with for some time before her death – is believed to have suffered declining health following the sudden death of her daughter just over a year ago.

Mrs Sparks, in her 80s, still lives in the Dromore home she shared with her late daughter.

Giving her response to yesterday's arrest, Yvette said simply: "There are no words."

Elizabeth McKee died a decade before Michelle Bickerstaff.

She had been in an on-off relationship with Dromore stone- mason Leslie Ross – whom Michelle Bickerstaff was later involved with – for just over 10 years, her daughter Jenny Dixon said yesterday.

"They were together over 10 years, on and off."

Elizabeth McKee, who was known as Lily, was divorced from her husband, with whom she had remained friends.

Mrs Dixon described her mother as a kind, loving woman, who she said had experienced personal hardship in the years running up to her death.

Ms McKee's granddaughter, Kelly (18) – who was seven when her granny died – broke down yesterday as her mother paid tribute to her late mother.

"My mum was a lovely woman who was vulnerable at times," Mrs Dixon said. "She was a lovely, kind, decent woman."

Elizabeth McKee's death in 2002 at the age of 52 sparked suspicions within her family, her daughter said yesterday.

Speaking about her mother's December 2002 death, Mrs Dixon added: "I always had suspicions. The whole of Dromore did.

Ms McKee's grandson Ryan Dixon meanwhile described her as full of life and fun. He was 11 when she died.

"She was the ideal granny – good fun. She was full of life. She spoiled me," he said.

Elizabeth McKee lived in a flat in Dromore's Barban Heights area.

She also lived intermittently with Mr Ross, either at his Meganlis Park home or in her flat in the town. She did charity work and supported the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Profiles: The three women who died in suspicious circumstances and the man in police custody being questioned about them

Elizabeth McKee

Elizabeth McKee died in December 2002 at the age of 52. Her daughter, Jenny Dixon, said she was "a lovely woman who was vulnerable at times".

Ms McKee died when her grandchildren were aged 11 and 7. She was divorced from her husband but the pair had remained friends, her daughter said.

Elizabeth, or 'Lily' as she was known, was said to have personal problems and often approached local politician Jeffrey Donaldson for assistance.

She had been in a relationship with Leslie Ross for around 10 years. Her daughter described the relationship as "on-off".

She lived in a flat in the Barban Heights area of Dromore, but she and Leslie also lived with each other on and off over the decade they were together.

Neighbours said they were aware that Ms McKee's family "wanted answers" following her death.

Michelle Bickerstaff

Michelle Bickerstaff died in April of last year. She was 47.

Ms Bickerstaff was brought up in the Dromara Road area of the town with her two sisters and was described as vulnerable by those who knew her.

She was the mother of Lisa, Laura, Scott and Rachel, daughter of Dorothy and sister of Yvette and Sharon, an obituary said.

It added she died suddenly. It is understood she died at her home.

She is believed to have sustained a head injury.

Neighbours said she had been living with her mother prior to moving close to where Leslie Ross lived. She had been living in a bungalow in Meganlis Park at the time of her death.

"She was one of the best," a neighbour said, recalling chatting to Michelle often outside her mother's house in Dromore. "She was a good, kind-hearted girl. She was a very funny, happy-go-lucky girl."

He said her death in April last year shocked him and neighbours.

Neighbours said she had been in declining health for some time.

She was a regular at the Drop Inn shop on the town square where she came to sift through rails of clothes or for a chat with staff.

She would have also visited a charity cafe run by volunteers in the centre of the town.

"She was a nice woman; she would have been in here regularly," one shop assistant said.

Margaret Weise

Margaret Weise died in August 2007 at the age of 50.

Many in the town knew her by her married name of Margaret Heron.

Residents in the town said she had previously been married to a police officer and has two sons.

Little has so far emerged about her background. Those who knew her said she was an extremely popular woman, but she was also troubled.

Leslie Ross

Leslie Ross, a 66-year-old father-of-two, was arrested yesterday morning by police investigating the deaths of three local women.

He was previously arrested in relation to the death of Michelle Bickerstaff in April of last year and was released unconditionally by police.

He runs a stonemasonry business in his name in Dromore. Locals described him as being "extremely talented and skilled" at his work. Sources in the town said that he was commissioned to carry out prominent work in the town.

Mr Ross' marriage broke down in the 1980s, according to sources in the town. He has two grown-up children who live in England.

His ex-wife currently lives in Wales.

Mr Ross had relationships, at different times, with all three women whose deaths are being investigated.

Neighbours said Michelle Bickerstaff had been living with her mother prior to moving close to where Mr Ross lived in Dromore.

His relationship with Elizabeth McKee was said to have lasted approximately a decade, the pair living together for a time.

Mr Ross was said to frequent a number of bars in Dromore, including the Market Bar. One local at the bar said he was a well-known face. "I also knew all three of the women," he said. "They had their problems in life."

It is understood Mr Ross's family owned a bar in Castlewellan, which was blown up during the Troubles. Mr Ross later moved to Dromore where it is understood he lives alone in a white-painted terraced house.

Yesterday at the property there were signs of graffiti having being painted over.

Neighbours said he once owned a bar in the area, since demolished, and also had interests in other properties further afield.

"He is quiet and keeps himself to himself. He lives alone," said Barbara Boyd (54).

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