The cold-case investigator: ‘You just have to soak up all the family’s anger’
Christy Mangan was on his way back to garda headquarters on Harcourt Street in Dublin, when he was stopped by a woman in the foyer. She introduced herself as Anne Delcassian, brandished a bag of pastries and said she wasn’t leaving.
er sister, Irene White, had been savagely stabbed to death while washing the dishes in the kitchen of her home in Dundalk, Co Louth, after her children had gone to school.
There was a suspect — but no evidence. The investigation seemed to have gone nowhere.
Six years after her sister’s murder, Anne Delcassian turned her razor-sharp focus on Christy Mangan, then senior investigating officer at the Garda Serious Crime Review Team.
The cold-case unit was a couple of years old by then, and was already heaving under the weight of unsolved crimes.
“It was a Friday. I’d been in work, and I’d gone out to do something and was coming back in at 10am,” said Christy Mangan last week.
“Anne was there with a bag of scones, butter and jam. She said, ‘I’m not leaving until you sit down and talk to me.’ We went into the kitchen, sat down, and we had the tea. And she just cut loose on me. She was never going to hold back,” he said.
“I sat and I listened to her. She is the most remarkable person I ever met as regards championing the rights of the victim. She was there to represent her sister — and she wasn’t going to go away until I did something about it.”
And Mangan did do something about it. In 2011, he opened a cold case review of Irene White’s murder. The review generated 300 new lines of inquiry, and fresh appeals for information — which landed a crucial new witness in Australia.
The witness rang a confidential phone line with the name of the man who turned out to have stabbed Irene to death. It took four years to track her down and talk further with her, and her information led to the investigation that solved the crime.
When Anne Delcassian died of cancer in 2019, two of the three men suspected of planning and executing her murder had been jailed for life — Anthony Lambe, a one-time drug dealer turned student, who stabbed Irene to death on the promise of €25,000; and Niall Power, a security firm boss and the middleman who commissioned Lambe.
The investigation into a third man suspected of “masterminding” Irene’s murder, has advanced significantly.
For Christy Mangan, the case was a lesson in the importance of acknowledging the family at the heart of case. “Anne Delcassian was an amazingly strong, resolute woman. She was the sort of person who was never going to give up,” he said.
“When you sit down and listened to her, she was able to explain in great detail how the murder had affected her and her family. She wanted answers and she wasn’t going to go away.”
Christy Mangan retired last week after 40 years in the force. He has notched up more than 100 murder investigations. He has won two Scott Medals for bravery for tackling armed robbers, one of whom he managed to disarm while a handgun was trained on his head. “You just act, you can’t overthink it,” he said.
He finished up on Wednesday as Chief Superintendent in the Louth division, where he presided over successful investigations that eventually quelled the bloodbath spawned by feuding drugs gangs in Drogheda, culminating in the savage dismembering of teenager Keane Mulready-Woods.
Some of the most baffling crimes that crossed his desk were during his five years at the Serious Crime Review Team — the unit set up in 2007 to apply new techniques and investigative methods, and fresh eyes, to historic unsolved crimes.
It was set up under then Garda Commissioner Noel Conroy in 2007. The cold-case technique was still in its infancy and the Commissioner sent Christy Mangan to the UK to learn more about DNA advances, reinterviewing techniques and methodical parsing of investigation files used in cold-case investigations.
No potential lead, however small, could be overlooked.
Mangan became the first detective superintendent to run the new team, popularly known as the cold-case unit, with a team of 10 gardaí.
Their first task was to trawl the force for unsolved serious crimes.
“We literally trawled all the information systems and open-source material. We didn’t have computerised recording at that time,” he said. “The investigation files were all over the country. You have to get onto each division, each district and establish how many cases there were, examine what was in them.”
They went through boxes and boxes of files. Then it was a case of prioritising. “Were the witnesses alive? Were the suspects alive? Were there investigative opportunities, such as DNA? They’re the basics of what you are looking at,” he said.
“You establish what you have. You’re building upon other people’s work. You look at why you feel the case may have failed, what were the blockages, and you try and get around them.
“It’s not just unsolved murders. There’s a huge amount of crime — including sexual assault, rapes and any other serious crimes,” he added.
The trawl netted at least 230 unsolved crimes, and the unit had some spectacular successes. A DNA breakthrough led to retired army sergeant John Crerar being convicted of the murder of 24-year-old Phyllis Murphy in December 1979. And information from a witness who found the courage to come forward resulted in convictions of two people in connection with the killing of Brian McGrath [see panel].
The baffling cases included the murder of Grace Livingstone — the housewife found shot dead in her home in Malahide. Her tax inspector husband, James, sued the force for wrongful arrest in a case that was settled out of court. That case is still unsolved.
So too is the murder of Raonaid Murray — the 17-year-old who was stabbed to death yards from her home in Dun Laoghaire in 1999.
Mangan and his team reviewed this case in 2008 and found a number of oversights in the original investigation.
They proposed a new lines of inquiry. Rather than being murdered by a random killer, Raonaid may have known her killer, that killer was possibly a female, and the motivation may have been a personal grudge.
Mangan also took on Operation Trace for a time — an investigation to find links between the disappearances of six women in the Leinster region during the 1990s. But no links were ever found. Nor were their bodies — which meant there was no crime scenes and no physical evidence to go by.
“The difficulty with Operation Trace was the absence of any remains. We reviewed the evidence in each case. We made sure that there was DNA on file for each of the victims,” he said.
In the last three years, investigations into two of the missing women — Jo Jo Dollard and Deirdre Jacob — have been upgraded to murder. In Deirdre’s case, a file is with the DPP, with the notorious rapist Larry Murphy the prime suspect.
As head of the unit, Mangan often found himself in the firing line as families desperate for justice for a loved one vented their anger and frustration.
He made families his first port of call, and made a point of meeting them himself, rather than delegate the task to others. He took a pounding for it, but meeting those who knew the victim better than anyone gave him an insight into the case and a sense of what had happened.
Often, he was viewed as the “person who failed them, the person who didn’t come back to them, and didn’t get justice for their daughter or son, or their mam or their dad,” he said.
“They were often very difficult meetings. People felt aggrieved with the garda organisation, feeling that they had been forgotten… It was important to listen, to let them talk.
“But that first 20 seconds of a meeting determines a lot. You simply have to soak up their anger,” he said.
Mangan’s approach — taking his time, allowing witnesses and families of victims the space to talk, and crucially, listening — comes from years of experience.
Two years before setting up the Serious Crime Review Team, he led the investigation into the notorious Scissor Sister murders.
In March 2005, Linda and Charlotte Mulhall killed Farah Swaleh Noor — their mother Kathleen’s boyfriend. They dismembered his body, dumping some parts in the Royal Canal, and travelling by bus to Tallaght to dump his decapitated head.
When a dismembered leg turned up in the canal, gardai followed the trail to Kathleen Mulhall and her daughters. They were arrested but “didn’t open their mouths” and were released without charge.
A couple of weeks later, Mangan got word that Linda was willing to speak to him. Over a number of weeks, he and his colleague met her several times in her Tallaght home, often with her four children present.
“She was always extremely respectful. She’d say, ‘Will you have a cup of tea, and a Club Milk?’ and you’d sit down across the table from her,” he said.
It took weeks before she was finally ready to make a statement.
“I just kept going back, I just kept at it. I’d ring her. I kept in touch.”
One morning, he and his colleague called to see her. “It was a Friday. And as always, she was polite. I had tea. She wasn’t entertaining any thoughts of talking to us that day about the murder. But after we left, she rang me on my mobile phone.” She asked him to come back and he returned with a pen and paper.
“She made a 20-page statement on what happened,” he said.
He arrested her one morning in October 2005, when her four children were at school, so as not to traumatise them. He advised her to bring a bag as she was unlikely to get bail on a murder charge.
She told him: “I’ve had a bag packed since the first day I met you.”
“I always had a huge amount of sympathy for Linda, because she was a victim of terrible, terrible circumstances,” he says.
In policing, as in life, relationships matter.
“For witnesses, you have to take the fear out of it for them. You have to put people in a position where they are going to able to talk to you, and to sit down and trust you, and ultimately tell you exactly what happened,” he said.
“A lot of it is pure relationships, building up relationships, not just the DNA. It’s about getting the truth, whatever the truth may be.”
The first unsolved crimes taken on by the Cold-Case team
Ireland’s first cold case
in January 1985, Rita Ponsford was found strangled by a necktie, face down on a bed in her upmarket home in Castletroy, Limerick.
She had been dead for two months when her body was discovered.
Her husband, Martin Ponsford, an English salesman, had left the country and an Interpol appeal failed to find him.
It was the first case file taken on by Christy Mangan and the Serious Crime Review Team. Detectives went back over old leads, followed up on witnesses — and within two months they had tracked Ponsford down to sheltered housing for the elderly in Lancashire.
Detectives made arrangements with local police to travel to the UK to speak to Ponsford about his wife’s murder. But he died —of natural causes — just days before they planned to interview him.
Ireland’s first cold-case conviction
In 1987, Brian McGrath (43) went missing from his home in Coole, Co Westmeath. His wife, Vera, said he’d deserted her.
Six years after he vanished, the couple’s daughter, Veronica, contacted police to say her father had been murdered. She gave a gruesome account of the killing.
Veronica, who lived in the UK, came home to Westmeath to marry her fiancée, Colin Pinder, who was from Liverpool. They stayed in a caravan near her parents’ home.
One evening Vera came to the caravan, complaining about her husband — and goaded Colin into killing him. All three went back to the house, where Veronica witnessed her mother and Pinder beating her father to death with hammers and slash hooks. She said they later burned his remains, then ground his bones down to powder and buried them.
Veronica and Pinder married soon after — but the marriage didn’t last.
Veronica eventually went to the police in 1993. Gardaí recovered partial remains — but could not prove that they were Brian McGrath’s.
The cold-case team took on the alleged murder as one of its first cases, exhumed the remains, and tracked down Pinder. They could now prove the remains were McGrath’s, and Pinder, with the passage of time, confessed his part in the killing.
He was convicted of manslaughter. Vera was convicted of murder but the conviction was later overturned, and she pleaded guilty to helping to dispose of her husband’s body.
The cold case that got away
in 1981, Lorcan O’Byrne had announced his engagement and was celebrating in his family’s pub — The Anglers’ Rest in Chapelizod, Dublin.
After the pub closed, the group of family and friends moved to an upstairs sitting room — when a man in a balaclava burst in with a gun, and shot Lorcan at point-blank range in front of his fiancée Olive.
The gunman and his masked accomplice escaped. Only one man was tried for manslaughter — but the gunman remained at large.
In 2007, when the cold-case unit was set up, the family met Christy Mangan and asked him to take on the case. They reinterviewed witnesses, and had advanced the case significantly to the point where they were preparing to move on the suspected gunman — a well-known armed robber who operated on the fringes of the IRA.
But, as with Ponsford, the suspect died after a fall — before gardaí could secure a conviction.
“Lorcan was engaged, he was just 21, in the prime of life. He had his entire future ahead of him,” said Mangan. “That’s one case when you wonder whether, had the organisation been quicker, we could have resolved the case sooner.”
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/the-cold-case-investigator-you-just-have-to-soak-up-all-the-familys-anger-41515188.html The cold-case investigator: ‘You just have to soak up all the family’s anger’