A man out of prison after a life sentence burgled and killed my dad. Then a coroner ruled my dad would still be alive today if probation services had done their job, says Nicola Gogarty.
I was walking to my gate at Dublin airport, waiting to fly to Spain with close friends, when I found out my dad, John, had died.
My brother’s number came up on my phone screen but it was his mum, Alison, whose voice I heard. In a rush to catch our flight, she asked me if I was sitting down.
“Nicola, your dad’s dead,” she said.
She said it again two or three more times before I dropped my phone, hysterical, my legs coming out from under me. I’d seen my dad only a few days before and though he’d been sick recently, he seemed fine.
My dad moved to the UK when I was young, after the recession hit Ireland in the early ’80s. My mum and I moved over but as my mum didn’t like living in London, we came home, my dad stayed to work. Their long-distance relationship fizzled out because of the back and forth, but my father and I remained very close. I still saw him a lot, and he came home to Ireland often too. He met Alison, moved north, and after being a quite spoiled only child my brother and sister came along. With the other kids and me in school I wasn’t able to go over as much but as I got older I got even closer to him – he was always a huge part of my life.
“At 2am in a nearby hotel, a family liaison officer called to tell me it was presumed somebody had murdered my father”
Numb and in shock, I spoke to my brother. I could tell immediately he was in immense shock too. “How do you know he’s dead?” I asked, I suppose in denial. He was completely dead, he said, with blood everywhere and his home had been trashed, like something “sinister” had happened.
My husband and I arrived at his home in Wombwell, Yorkshire, later that night. As my husband drove to my dad’s house, we explained who we were but were stopped by a police cordon. Obviously it was a crime scene and they wouldn’t let me go up, but that was hard to understand for me at that time – as silly as it might sound, at that point I didn’t know exactly what had happened to him but I just didn’t want him to be on his own.
At 2am in a nearby hotel, a family liaison officer called to tell me it was presumed somebody had murdered my father. Suddenly, I was in a bad nightmare I didn’t wake up from. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. It got even more surreal the next day when the police came to interview us – not in a critical way but to gather info: did he have any enemies? Did he have anyone who disliked him? To this day, those questions are too surreal to contemplate, like I was in a movie. We stayed in the UK for nine more days. More shock, numbness, great physical pain in our hearts and in our stomachs. Every time you slept – if you even could – you’d open your eyes, and feel a horrendous pain I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
After those nine days they still hadn’t caught anyone yet, and I had three children I needed to go back to. We were only home in Ireland a day when the officer rang again in the middle of the night to say they had charged two people with my dad’s murder. She told me their names: Ian Birley and Helen Nichols.
“I have something else to tell you,” she added. Birley had been on life license after a previous murder conviction, and only left prison a short while beforehand.
I woke my husband up, went downstairs, and just cried my eyes out for hours. I was happy they’ve got somebody, to hear ‘oh by the way, this person’s not been out of prison long’ added insult to so much injury. Why was he on the street, if he’s capable of doing this?
It became that, to me, the Probation Service turned a blind eye to a lot of things Birley had done. Reports showed he didn’t behave himself in prison – his original release was delayed by six years – and there tests and protocols that the service let slide: he tested positive for methadone two times, completely breaking license protocol, refused to provide urine samples, and he was given two final warnings in six months of probation. It felt like he was told ‘you’re free to live your life, do what you want, and we’ll only keep a little bit of an eye on you’.
“Anger drove me to fight for three years to get more justice for my father, to get the inquest into his death reopened”
After my family found out about Birley’s behaviour and had a meeting with the Probation Service, I remember walking out angry, saying ‘you haven’t heard the last of me’. I meant it. That anger drove me to fight for three years to get more justice for my father, to get the inquest into his death reopened. Birley killed my father but as he was out of prison, it was like ‘oh no, we’re finished with that’. I knew there was more to the story. I knew I couldn’t rest until I knew for myself how this actually happened.
What I found was that the system needs to change. It’s not over when the victim who dies, there’s whole families left behind who have to have this for the rest of their lives but I don’t think the probation services really see us, see the trauma, see how affected we are. They say they are overworked, don’t have enough hours, enough staff – well, there’s a lot of companies like that, but when you’re dealing with people of such violent nature, you need to take a little bit more care. You’re dealing with really violent people who have committed huge crimes already. The stakes can’t really be any higher.
Those years had a huge effect on my mental health. It throws you into another world is the only way I can describe it. I entered therapy, and I had to go on antidepressants because I just cried all the time, every day. I didn’t want to get out of bed, I just wanted my father back. The initial months and months after I struggled to be the person that I was, to be the mother that I was. My husband took on a lot of the burden; I couldn’t work, so my husband was working, minding our kids, and minding me too.
When we finally had the inquest last April, the coroner’s narrative throughout was there were huge missed opportunities in my dad’s case. He said he believed that if the Probation Services had done things correctly, my father would still be alive today.
When I came out of the courtroom, my head was spinning, and I was hysterical. Everything went our way, we got a ‘good’ result. But we also got confirmation that someone didn’t do their job properly, and that contributed to my dad’s death. What I had been thinking for four years had finally been confirmed, and that was a very hard pill to swallow.
My dad was my hero, the man I went to for everything, and it’s going to take a few more years for us to simply not be sad any more. While we’ll never ‘get over’ losing my dad, I suppose we will just get more used to it. We talk about him most days, and with our kids. They’re only six and eight so of course they don’t know what really happened, but I know, one horrendous day years down the line, I’m going to have to sit down and tell them. I don’t know when I’m going to do that – I would love to never have to – but these days all they have to do is search his name and it’ll come up. It’s just one more way our family has been ripped apart.
Families like mine are the ones given the real life sentences, not perpetrators. We’re the ones who have to live with my dad’s death, every day.
Nicola Gogarty appears on episode one – “Freed to Kill Again” – of Slater and Gordon’s The Case Files podcast. Find more information here.
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