Shock as man who killed Belfast waitress Eliza Ward is freed
A notorious murderer is once again walking the streets of Belfast after being released on licence.
The release of Gerard Stewart (39) - who murdered teenage waitress Eliza Ward in July 1997 - has been criticised by a woman he attacked and injured in the same incident.
Rene Lea (71) said it was "absolutely sickening that he is walking around Belfast".
West Belfast man Stewart, who was working as a kitchen porter in Cafe Society in Donegall Square East, Belfast, stabbed owner Rene (71) in the back and then turned his weapon 18-year-old Eliza when she rushed to Rene's help.
Diagnosed as a "secondary psychopath", Stewart was given a life sentence with a minimum tariff of 17 years behind bars.
His current place of residence is a hostel in the centre of Belfast, although he has been making trips to his mother's house off the Springfield Road in the west of the city. Ms Lea was informed of his release in a letter from Victim Support last month.
For 20 years, Ms Lea has dreaded the day when the man who tried to kill her, and who murdered her employee Eliza, would be discharged back into the community. Speaking to our sister paper, Sunday Life, from her son's home in America, Ms Lea said: "I was shocked when I got the letter.
"I don't know what to say any more, it is so upsetting.
"What he did was horrific, ending the life of a beautiful girl."
Eliza came from a large and well-respected family in the Short Strand district of east Belfast.
They too have been shocked by the news her killer is back on the streets.
Before he murdered Eliza and wounded cafe owner Rene, Stewart had already established a record for extreme criminal violence.
Just four months before the Belfast murder, he was jailed for 14 months in Germany - where he had been living - for dangerous bodily harm and grievous bodily harm. However, instead of serving his sentence, Stewart went on the run, returning to his origins in west Belfast.
In interviews with the police about his savage knife attack at the Cafe Society restaurant, the killer claimed he had "blanked out", saying: "I was shocked when I'd done it.
"I was not trying to kill her.
"I did not want her to die."
Eliza was loved by all who knew her.
In 2001, she was posthumously awarded the George Medal, which honours acts of outstanding bravery.
A memorial stone to the east Belfast woman was erected in the grounds of the City Hall, just yards from where her life was tragically cut short.
Earlier this year, three of Eliza's sisters ran the Belfast Marathon in memory of their much-missed heroic sibling, who would have been celebrating her 38th birthday in April.