Let out 'early' to murder

  • 19 April 2006
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Seventeen-year-old Trevor Hamilton was the most highly supervised sex offender in the North when he murdered 65-year-old Attracta Harron. Having been released early for a brutal rape sentence, he was free to drive around illegally and select his victim. Now he faces 'one of the longest sentences ever' handed down in the North. Susan McKay reports

'The authorities have always treated Trevor Hamilton very gently," says Micheál Harron. "He was a rapist who was let out of jail early. He was free to cruise around looking for a new victim. He abducted my mother. He hatcheted her skull into a thousand pieces. He was free to bury her body and burn her clothes and belongings. Yet he was supposedly the most highly-supervised sex offender in Northern Ireland. It is bizarre. My family cannot understand it."

Last week, Trevor Hamilton, 23, from Concess Road in the Tyrone village of Sion Mills, was convicted of the murder of 65-year-old Attracta Harron in December 2003. Just four months previously, Hamilton had been given 50 per cent remission and released from prison after serving three and a half years for a particularly brutal rape. He was on probation and on the sex offenders register. He was rated as a category-three offender – the highest rating available. His sexual offending had been assessed as "currently likely to lead [him] to seriously harm other people".

The case is likely to lead to a major reassessment of how sex offenders are dealt with in the North, where the authorities had already been seriously embarrassed by the recent handling of the case of serial rapist and killer Robert Howard. Howard was controversially acquitted last year of the 1993 murder of 14-year-old Arlene Arkinson, from Castlederg, a few miles from Sion Mills. He is currently serving a life sentence in England for the murder of another teenage girl in 2001. "This new case will bring down the shutters on fluffy bunny sorts of treatment," says one professional with experience of sex offenders.

Hamilton smashed a chair over a teacher during a fit of rage when he was still at school. As a young teenager, he would hide among bushes along the roadside near his home, in a rural area a mile outside Sion Mills. When a woman driver appeared, he would jump out and expose himself. He once attempted to drag a young woman from her car. In 1999, he was convicted of five offences of indecent behaviour and was put on probation for two years on condition that he attend a therapeutic project run by the charity Barnardo's.

Less than two months later, in February 2000, Hamilton, then aged 17, was driving through Sion Mills. He had not passed his driving test and was not accompanied by a qualified driver, though this is required in the North. It was early in the afternoon. He spotted a young woman at a bus-stop, pulled up and offered her a lift. She knew he was a local and accepted. He told her he had to collect something at his mother's house first, drove to his home, and left her sitting in the car. When he reappeared, it was to launch a violent assault on her. She was trapped. The interior passenger door handle had been removed and she was pinned under Hamilton's considerable weight.

He told her he was going to rape her and dragged her by her hair to a derelict caravan behind his house. There he tore her clothes off and raped her in every imaginable way. He repeatedly threatened to kill her. When he had finished, he made her swear on her young son's life that she would not tell the police. He said he was sorry for the marks he'd left on her neck and that he couldn't believe what he had done. Then he drove her to her home village of Newtownstewart. She ran to her sister's house and rang the police.

Hamilton denied everything until the trial opened in March 2001. He then changed his plea to guilty. Pre-sentence reports noted he was immature and of low intelligence, but that he was sufficiently intelligent to know right from wrong. The reports stated that Hamilton admitted planning his crimes, but claimed he had no memory of committing them. What emerges is the classic profile of a psychopath – Hamilton had no insight into his violence, and minimised his responsibility. The report warned that while Hamilton said he was willing to participate in a sex offenders treatment programme, his persistent state of denial "could greatly undermine [its] impact".

The court also heard the rape victim had been "severely traumatised" and was living in fear. The judge took the view that, because of his youth, Hamilton needed help as well as punishment. He sent him to a young offenders centre for three years and eleven months followed by three years probation (though he had been in breach of probation when he carried out the rape). The North's Attorney General appealed the leniency of the sentence, and in January 2002, the Lord Chief Justice, Mr Justice Carswell, quashed it. He cited the extreme violence Hamilton had used, as well as the threats to strangle his victim. The serious psychiatric damage to her was compounded by the stress of anticipating having to give evidence. The courts were required to "bring the full weight of criminal sanctions down on those who prey on women".

Mr Justice Carswell expressed "a degree of doubt" as to whether Hamilton would benefit from probation. However, "on balance" the court of appeal decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. He was sentenced to seven years in prison followed by a year on probation, subject to the condition that he take part in a sex offender programme. Just over a year and a half later, having served three and a half years of his sentence, Hamilton was freed.

"It was a totally ordinary morning, and a beautiful day", says Michael Harron, speaking of the last time he saw his wife, Attracta Harron, at their home in Strabane. It was Thursday 11 December 2003. He was leaving their daughter to work, while Attracta was going to mass at Murlog, near Lifford. The church was seven miles away, across the border in Donegal. "She thought nothing of a walk like that. She'd been up Errigal, Croagh Patrick and Slieve Donard. She was very fit and she loved to walk. Murlog was where we got married 39 years before." Attracta Harron was devout, and went to mass most days. "She was doing a 30-day prayer. She was always praying for something for somebody," says Michael. "She loved life. She loved Donegal. She was very spontaneous. We went to visit our son in England once and ended up in Paris for St Valentine's Day." Friends and colleagues describe a vibrant and kind person. She set off at around nine, a striking figure in her red coat and blonde hair. After mass, she was seen by various witnesses walking back towards Strabane.

Hamilton was meant to be at work that morning. He was a labourer and had been sorting potatoes for a local farmer, but the machine had broken. His father was at work and his mother had gone shopping. He put an axe in the back of his car. Cruising near Strabane he spotted Attracta, a total stranger to him. He stopped the car.

By six that evening, Michael was worried. He reported his wife missing to the police and a missing-person inquiry was launched. At a briefing the following morning, an officer mentioned a coincidence which was making him uneasy. At lunchtime the previous day, the fire service and police had been called out to a fire in a red car at the back of Hamilton's home. Hamilton blamed an intruder, which the policeman found strange as guard dogs had given a ferocious reception to emergency service personnel.

Arrangements were made to take the car away for examination. Nothing was found, but all local sex offenders had by this stage been asked to account for their movements on the day Attracta Harron disappeared, and Hamilton was emerging as a suspect. However, Michael Harron accepted that he too must be questioned. "After all, I know 80 per cent of women who are killed are killed by their husband," he says.

The family was meanwhile dealing with numerous reported sightings of Attracta alive. Several people insisted they had encountered her in Dublin, and some of her five children spent the days before Christmas in a heartbreaking search of the thronging city centre. But there were troubling developments. A local farmer who saw Attracta's photograph in a newspaper came forward to say he had seen a man driving a red car at speed on a country road near Sion Mills, with a woman who looked like her in the passenger seat. Her face was covered in blood. Officers from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) searched Hamilton's home and found the ashes of a bonfire. In it they found pieces of red fabric, part of a set of rosary beads, fragments from a holy book and an ATM receipt. All were badly charred, but analysis showed them to be Attracta's belongings.

A massive search for her body was carried out, involving gardaí as well as the PSNI. The RAF was given permission to overfly Donegal. The rivers Finn, Mourne and Foyle were searched. In February 2004, police decided to allow a special sniffer dog into Hamilton's burnt-out car and found what turned out to be blood. DNA tests showed that there was only a one-in-a-billion chance that it could belong to anyone other than Attracta. Hamilton was arrested and charged with the murder. He denied it. His mother was also arrested for questioning but was released without charge. A week later a search of the area around Hamilton's home revealed a shallow grave beside a stream containing Attracta's remains, shrouded in an animal feed sack. "Her funeral was on Easter Sunday," says Michael. "She would have liked that – the holiest day of the year."

The trial lasted five weeks. Evidence was given that Hamilton had smashed his victim's skull with an axe. He had probably killed her within two hours of abducting her. It was impossible to determine if she had been raped. Hamilton denied everything. For the first time in a Northern Irish court, the jury was given evidence of his past crimes. After it returned the unanimous guilty verdict, Mr Justice McLaughlin told Hamilton to expect "one of the longest and possibly the longest sentence that has ever been passed on anyone in these courts". He spoke of the "appalling cruelty" he had demonstrated, and said he was "a grave danger to any woman in this community and to any woman who might cross your path in the future". Sentencing is expected in the coming weeks.

All of the main political parties in the North have united in support of calls from the Harron family for an inquiry into the case. This was a vicious young man who was clearly becoming progressively more violent towards women, who had resisted treatment and was undeterred by serving time in prison. The woman he raped says she believed he was going to kill her, and lived in terror of him coming after her. She only learned of his release from prison when she saw him on the street.

The Probation Service has declined to give details of his supervision arrangements before sentencing. Despite his history, he was driving around, illegally. It may emerge that the treatment programme he was meant to be on was not suitable for psychopathic type offenders. William McAuley, head of the Sex Offender Strategic Management Committee, said Hamilton had more supervision than any other offender. However, he admitted: "Nothing short of incarceration would have prevented [him] from killing someone."

The Harron family has been left devastated. In Sion Mills, people are profoundly shocked. One woman spoke the simple truth: "It could have been any one of us."p