Northern Ireland

'Chilling act' - Rankin family on mother's killing

Maire Rankin wasn't frightened of Karen Walsh, but she was wary of her in the months before her killing.

The 81-year-old thought the Dublin-based pharmacist, who owned the house next door in Newry, and who visited it some weekends, was a person who had an inappropriate interest in other people's business and who could be persistent in her questioning.

She also had a habit of calling on her elderly neighbour late at night, and on more than one occasion had brought alcohol, something neither Mrs Rankin, nor her family were happy with.

Brenda Rankin, Maire's youngest daughter, said: "It wasn't that mummy didn't like her, it's just that she thought she was intrusive, she wasn't the sort of person mummy would have been comfortable with.

"On one occasion she called very late at night, buzzed the intercom and persuaded mummy to let her in saying that she'd brought her a present, and it wasn't a time of year when you'd be bringing a present, it wasn't Christmas or Easter.

"And the present she'd brought was a bottle of whiskey and mummy came downstairs from the bedroom and was very surprised that this neighbour who barely knew her had brought her a bottle of whiskey. And she was very uncomfortable with that."

Litre bottle of vodka

It was a pattern that was to be repeated several times, and again on the night she was killed.

Walsh had been drinking when she turned up at Maire Rankin's door that Christmas Eve night in 2008. She had a litre bottle of vodka with her.

When it was examined as part of the crime scene the next day, there were just five millilitres of alcohol left in it. Maire Rankin had no alcohol in her system. Walsh had drunk the whole bottle.

The prosecution claimed the 45-year-old pharmacist killed the 81-year-old in a drunken rage because the pensioner had chastised her about her drinking and urged her to go home to her two-year-old son.

Whatever the trigger, Brenda Rankin, who had made arrangements to pick her mother up for Christmas dinner the next day, was confronted with a terrible scene when she arrived at the house that morning.

"It was a scene of disarray and mayhem. I saw mummy's body and it was clear to me that it was not natural causes. Her face was all bruised and marked. She was partially covered, she was lying naked on the floor and there were clumps of hair lying all over the room," said Brenda.

The trial heard Maire Rankin had been subjected to a sustained attack with a family crucifix.

A head injury and 15 broken ribs had killed her. She had been sexually assaulted after death in an attempt to make it look like a man had been responsible.

Walsh initially co-operated with police, giving them an account of her visit to Maire Rankin's home that Christmas Eve night.

But her conflicting accounts of what time she had arrived and left made detectives suspicious.

Once charged with murder, Walsh refused to answer any further questions during 19 interviews over four days.

Emily Rankin, another of Maire's eight children, said that while the arrest happened quickly, the legal process quickly became bogged down, as Walsh dispensed with legal team after legal team - each change leading to lengthy delays.

Image caption Emily Rankin said she had to pretend Karen Walsh was not there as they sat beside her in court

In more than 30 court appearances, the family had to control themselves as they sat beside the woman accused of their mother's murder.

"I have a got a phobia about cats," said Emily.

"The only way I can deal with cats is to completely wipe them out, almost pretend they're not there. I had to treat Karen Walsh in the same way, she just didn't enter my consciousness otherwise I couldn't possibly have sat through court with her sitting beside us."

'Mummy's humanity'

The delays and postponed trial dates - four in all - have heaped extra pressures on the Rankins. But once it started in Court 13 of Belfast's Laganside complex, the family began to feel that their mother was no longer just a pathology report, or a photograph in a crime scene exhibit.

"The legal process was all about Karen Walsh's rights, but suddenly during the trial mummy's humanity started to come across," said Brenda.

"Our family had the opportunity to communicate to the jury the person, the warmth of her personality, and she suddenly started to become alive and become a person again."

The Rankin family believe that Karen Walsh is a "very dangerous person". They point out that she didn't just lash out at their mother, that she climbed onto her bed and took down the family crucifix to assault her with.

It was a "chilling act" that upsets the family of a private and religious woman.

"It upsets me that the last voice that mummy heard was Karen Walsh's and that last face she looked at was Karen Walsh. And when we compare that to daddy's death where mummy held his hand and stroked his face and all eight of us were in the room with him," said Brenda Rankin.

"You get to 81 years and you earn the right to a dignified crossing from this life to the next. She robbed mummy of a peaceful death.

"The horrible things that happened to mummy, the shame of that is Karen Walsh's shame. For having done that to an elderly lady in the privacy of her bedroom, in the early hours of Christmas morning and leaving her naked and battered knowing that her family was going to find her.

"That I find hard to take, and cruel, very cruel."

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