Northern Ireland

Tassagh Smith brothers case: a night of shocking violence

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Media captionGordon Adair looks at the background to the case

To walk into the shell of the little house at Foley Road, Tassagh, that once was home to Thomas O'Hare and Lisa McClatchey is to enter a world strangely frozen in time.

Scattered across the bed in the relatively unscathed main bedroom are tapes and CDs; a now rather dated games console, partially melted, sits on the floor, the game cassette still in place.

It is the detritus of everyday life and it stands as testimony to what happened there.

To the shocking, sudden violence that came out of the night without warning and that was to end two lives, two lives that, in the instant before, had been concerned with nothing more than the mundane domestic distractions of a young couple on a cold Monday night in November.

Image caption Scattered across the bed are the remains of a rather dated games console

It stands as testimony also to an incident, and a story, so dark that nobody in this rural community wants to allow their minds to dwell on it.

Nobody, it seems, goes there, nobody has gathered up those CDs or that melted games console.

Nobody has stood and gazed upon the face of this story.

In that main bedroom, saplings have taken root.

They push past the quilt, still lying across the bed, and surge towards the light.

Nature, as nature does, is slowly reclaiming that which it seems man is unwilling or unable to hold on to.

Image caption Nature has taken over the shell of the home

Thomas O'Hare was born in this house. It was owned by an uncle, an uncle who would eventually bequeath it to him.

For a while, he lived in it with his wife and children, but his marriage, like much in his life, was to fall apart when a dark secret he had, perhaps, thought buried in the past was, like those saplings, to push its way into the light.

In the late 80s or early 90s, the teenage Thomas O'Hare had abused three young boys.

One of them was his near neighbour, the then eight-year-old Stephen Smith.

The pattern of what happened next is a familiar one. Each of the three young victims tried somehow to bury inside them what had happened.

They felt confused, ashamed, unable to talk to or tell anyone about the thing they believed had happened only to them.

For Stephen Smith, there was the added pain of seeing his brothers playing football for the local GAA team alongside his abuser.

The older Smith brothers knew him well. They played on the same teams and often travelled together to matches.

Image caption The scene has been virtually untouched for years

Years later, the oldest sibling, Niall, would tell the court of his intense feelings of guilt when he eventually found out about the abuse Stephen had suffered.

"I asked myself, did he watch me and think: 'Why's he playing with him? He's supposed to be my brother; supposed to be watching out for me'."

The truth, again following a familiar pattern, would eventually emerge when Thomas O'Hare's victims found each other and found the resolve to speak out.

In 1998, they went to the police. Two years later, Thomas O'Hare was dealt with by way of a probation order when he pleaded guilty to the abuse charges he had initially tried to deny.

It was against this background that, six years later, the Smith brothers met in a remote quarry not far from their family home.

They were no longer children. In the years since all this had emerged, they had forged adult lives.

They were living in different places, but that weekend they had a ready 'alibi' for all being back home together; an aunt had died and they had attended her wake and funeral.

Now, as they stood in the cold, Niall handed out balaclavas he had bought in Dublin two weeks earlier.

They had borrowed a car. In it were three five-gallon drums filled with petrol. Christopher had a sledgehammer.

Justice

A fifth man was present also; a man the Smiths have never named. He was to act as driver, bringing the brothers to Foley Road from the quarry via a couple of miles of unlit, lonely back roads.

A short time later, the brothers' plan having gone horrifically wrong, the same man and a sixth person, again un-named, would rush them over the border towards hospital and away from justice, something they were to evade for another seven years.

But why that night? Why, eight years after Thomas O'Hare's offending first came to light, would the brothers, apparently suddenly, decide to take such drastic action?

Stephen Smith was, by this time, a father himself.

His girlfriend, in a statement read to the court, said that he was obsessively protective of his child.

She told how he had become increasingly agitated by Thomas O'Hare being seen once again in the estate where they had all grown up and where Stephen was now living with his girlfriend and child.

He would, she recalled, watch Thomas O'Hare driving through the estate (where his parents still live) and say: "There he is again."

The brothers say that gradually a plan began to evolve, a plan to get rid of Thomas O'Hare.

So what had happened at Foley Road?

The Smith brothers say they were dropped off alongside a field behind Thomas O'Hare's house.

They walked across the field, Christopher carrying a sledgehammer, the three others a five-gallon drum of petrol each.

As they approached the house, they told the court, Thomas O'Hare appeared at the back door.

There was a discussion among the brothers about what to do next. In the end, they made the fateful decision to press ahead.

Image caption Thomas O'Hare was born in this house

This was where the prosecution and defence cases diverged.

The prosecution insisted that the Smiths had gone to the house with the intention of killing Thomas O'Hare, that they had deliberately doused him, and Lisa McClatchey, with petrol and that, equally deliberately, they had set them on fire.

They pointed to the level of planning that had gone into the attack: the balaclavas bought two weeks earlier, the borrowed car, Stephen Smith's specially purchased boiler suit.

All this, they argued, showed a level of intent that out-stripped any operation not intended to kill.

The Smiths, however, insisted that their plan never included killing anyone. Their intention, they said, had been to burn the house once Thomas O'Hare had been removed.

They had not, they claimed, even known of the possible presence of Lisa McClatchey.

That the plan went wrong in some way is in little doubt, the Smiths having all been caught in the fire as well as Thomas O'Hare and Lisa McClatchey.

The brothers gave evidence as to how "the air suddenly turned to fire".

It was, they said, instantaneous, so much so that it would have been impossible to even hazard a guess as to which direction it had come from.

But, the jurors were asked to decide, did some innocent source - perhaps a washing machine switching cycle - cause the vapour to ignite.

Or did one of the brothers, unaware of the potential of petrol vapour to ignite, cause the explosion by preparing too soon to deliberately light the fuel spread throughout the house?

On Tuesday, the jury believed they were guilty of manslaughter, but not of murder.

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