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UNSOLVED: MURDER FILES: BRIAN McDERMOTT, BELFAST, 1973

UNSOLVED CRIMES

MURDER FILES

BRIAN McDERMOTT, BELFAST, 1973

*UPDATED – FEB 2022*

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In 1973 on the last day of the school holidays, a ten-year old boy left his home and headed to a nearby park and was never seen alive again.   Despite numerous rumours, witnesses, and a park full of people, his killer(s) has never been found.  The Irish ‘troubles’ seemed to eclipse the murder of little Brian McDermott and the case deserves as much attention as any other.  The police have revisited it a number of times, but never seem to get any further than the fateful day he disappeared 46 years ago.

Having stumbled across a later appeal featured on BBC’s Crimewatch in 2003, I have updated this post to reflect the additional information included.


BRIAN DOUGLAS McDERMOTT

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Brian – described as a ‘quiet boy’ – was the youngest of five children (three boys and two girls) born in Rugby, Warwickshire to Edward, who was Irish, and Joan McDermott, who was Scottish.  Edward was serving in the RAF at the time.  When Brian was five, the family moved from Scotland to Northern Ireland, where they lived in Well Street, East Belfast.  Edward was by that point a lorry driver, whilst Brian’s older brother was serving in the army in Northern Ireland.

Brian and his brother Eddie

Joan described her son as ‘cheeky’, ‘loveable’, and despite initial protestations he always did as he was asked, and Eddie described Brian as being very petite for his age and as looking quite frail.

Brian was due to start at a new school – Euston Street Secondary School – on the Tuesday, and was looking forward to going.


BRIAN’S DISAPPEARANCE

On Sunday 2nd September 1973 ten-year old Brian left his home in Wells Street around 1pm and Joan watched as he crossed the road and headed to nearby Ormeau Park to play with friends.  He was due home for his Sunday lunch at 2.30pm. 

Sightings by friends

A number of his friends confirmed sightings of him entering and being inside the park over the next hour and a half. One friend who bumped into Brian whilst walking his dog described him as being his normal, happy self, but an hour later something had changed.

Brian was sat on the swings when a friend asked if he wanted to go and play. Brian seemed unhappy and simply shook his head and walked off through a gap in a wire fence towards into an area of shrubs and trees.

Possible suspicious sightingyouths

Soon after Brian had walked away from his friend, a man walking his dog through the park noticed a gang of youths crowded around a fire, a blue Chopper bicycle was laying on the ground nearby. He described the boys as ‘swearing heavily’ and he felt that something sinister was going on.

A few minutes later the man was passed by a teenage boy riding a blue Chopper, who quickly jumped off and began vomiting into a bin. A woman in the park approached to ask if he needed help but the boy jumped back on his bike and cycled off quickly.

His parents knew of no reason why Brian would leave of his own accord, so when he failed to return home they realised something was wrong and Eddie was asked to go and look for him. Whilst Joan remained at home hoping Brian would walk though the door, the family began searching. Joan kept her front door open all night in case Brian turned up.

When he couldn’t be found they immediately contacted police and whilst his frantic parents were told to remain home in case Brian returned, the RUC spent days scouring the local area, looking in derelict buildings, along a stretch of the River Lagan, as well as searching the Sydenham and Drumbo areas following reports of sightings matching that of Brian, and also Tellymore Forest Park, where Brian liked to play.  Police were also alerted to search a community relations camp at Helen’s Bay, which was used by the Boys’ Brigade, a Christian youth organisation.  Although Brian belonged to 58th Junior BB Company which was attached to the Albertbridge Road Congregationalist Church, he had never been to Helen’s Bay.  It goes without saying that the Boys Brigade has had it’s own issues involving abuse and needs further investigation.

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As days went on, more RUC and military police were drafted in to assist with the search and the search area was widened, with the headquarters at Willowfield Police Station.  Police appealed for anyone with any information to come forward, and promised to follow up any reported sightings.

Brian had seemingly just disappeared.


DESCRIPTION

Brian’s description was given as follows:

  • 4ft 3″ tall;
  • Fair hair;
  • Freckles;
  • Blue eyes;

and he was wearing the following:

  • White T-shirt with Nettlefield Primary School badge on the chest;
  • Cream jeans;
  • Black shoes; and
  • Green parka coat.

‘THE MOST HORRIFIC MURDER ULSTER HAS EVER KNOWN’

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On Saturday 8th September 1973, six days after Brian disappeared, the army on patrol initially made a grim discovery in the River Lagan when the partial remains of Brian’s dismembered and burned body were discovered inside a hessian sack by Annadale Embankment.  The police were immediately called. Strangely, (just as in the case of Vishal Mehrotra in 1981) both Brian’s legs were missing, as was one arm. His torso was so badly burned that the police were forced to use fingerprints of the remaining hand to confirm identification, comparing prints with those they obtained from Brian’s school exercise books.

Eddie recalled the day police confirmed that Brian had been found. From his bedroom he could hear screaming, crying and shouting and saw his mum being comforted by a female police officer and his dad sat in a chair looking mortified. He realised at that moment that his little brother wasn’t ever going to return home. Joan was beside herself with grief – not least because she knew that out of everything, Brian was petrified of the water.  It seemed to reinforce the cruelty of the end to his life and she was haunted by the thoughts of how he must have suffered in his final moments.

Police kept an open mind as to the motive behind Brian’s murder, but there was nothing to suggest a sectarian or terrorist motive.  However, police refused to rule out the possibility of a witchcraft element to the case.  The RUC found this particular case so ‘ghastly and fiendish’ that they appealed to all sides of the community for help.

The UDA, which were normally resistant to cooperate with security forces during investigations, not only offered a £500 reward to anyone that could provide information that led to a conviction, but assured police of their cooperation and assistance with any element of the investigation.

Parents in the local community requested an increased police presence, fearing a psychopathic killer was on the loose, and children were told to head straight home after school.

Police drained the river above it’s tidal weir in the hope of finding the missing limbs, and despite the biggest ever manhunt ever undertaken in Northern Ireland, Brian’s killer was never caught.


FUNERAL

Funeral of murdered Belfast schoolboy Brian McDermott September 1973
Funeral of missing Belfast, N Ireland, schoolboy, Brian McDermott, whose body was found a week after he went missing between school and home on 2nd September 1973. His coffin is flanked by Boys Brigade members attached to his local church. 197309120582a  Copyright: Victor Patterson

On Thursday 13th September 1973, with thousands of people lining the streets of East Belfast in respect, Brian was laid to rest.


THE KINCORA INQUIRY

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In 1982, Sir George Terry, the Chief Constable of Sussex Police was tasked with overseeing the RUC’s investigation into the systematic abuse and trafficking of children at Kincora.  Detectives announced that they were reopening the case of Brian McDermott, although there was no direct link.

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However, in 2013, newly released files show that a possible link between Brian’s murder and the Kincora scandal was discussed between Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Jim Prior, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham (Quintin Hogg), and Attorney General, Sir Michael Havers.

The Irish News reported the following:

The mounting crisis was discussed at a high-level meeting involving Mr Prior, the lord chancellor Lord hail-sham, and the British attorney-general Sir Michael Havers at the Lord Chancellor’s office in London on February 16 1982. Havers revealed that he had spoken to the NI Director of Public Prosecutions who revealed that the RUC were actively investigating three aspects of the Kincora affair.

According to the minutes: “The first concerned a man called Campbell whom the attorney-general understood to have been secretary of the DUP and who, in 1972, had been falsely acquitted on the basis of perjured evidence.”

The file on his case had been destroyed by a bomb while the RUC were investigating allegations that a DHSS file on Kincora had been “mutilated” in 1977.

Finally, the attorney-general told his colleagues, “the RUC were looking again at the murder of Brian McDermott in the mid-1970s [whose] death was thought at the time to have been sectarian but it was now believed possible that there were homosexual aspects and that Campbell and others might have information to offer.”

Sir Michael Havers

For those that either follow this blog, have read Anthony Daly’s book or have researched into child abuse in Westminster (and followed the Westminster strand of the IICSA), you will instantly recognise Havers name and alarm bells will be ringing.

Havers was not only described as ‘indiscreet’ but also as a ‘sexual deviant’, having been accused of having sex whilst wearing his father’s wig, plus his name came up a number of times during evidence given to IICSA and how he was alleged to have interfered in investigations into prominent people in order to prevent prosecutions and save their embarrassment and social standings.

In December 2018, Village Magazine also published the horrific memoirs of Alan Kerr in ‘The Boy on the Meat Rack‘, who was unfortunate enough to be dragged through the ‘care’ system in Northern Ireland, alongside his siblings including Richard, where they ended up at notorious Kincora.  Alan was also a member of the Belfast Boys’ Brigade.


1993 – CRIMEWATCH NEW APPEAL

On 22 October 1993, to mark the 30th anniversary of Brian’s murder, DCI George Hamilton appeared on Crimewatch alongside a reconstruction which gave the information about the youths seen inside the park. DCI Hamilton was in charge of a review of the case along with some of the original investigation team. He wanted to ‘bring the people responsible to justice’ and give closure to the family and that he was ‘confident’ people had information.

DCI Hamilton felt that the sighting of the youths was extremely significant, particularly as none of them had ever come forward to the police. Offering a new, small piece of evidence, a witness claimed to have heard one of the youths say ‘wee Jock’. DCI Hamilton confirmed Brian had a slight Scottish accent having lived there until he was five.

A large number of people were in the park at the time and would have at least witnessed the youth vomiting into a bin next to the tennis courts that were being used at the time. None had ever come forward yet could hold vital information to help solve the case, and even those who contacted the original investigation team were asked to contact the review team again.


1993 – AN ANONYMOUS LETTER

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In September 1993, the offices of the Irish newspaper Sunday Life received an anonymous letter and drawing of a suspect in connection with Brian’s murder, which was passed to police.  The letter claimed that the man had lived close to Ormeau Park where Brian was heading on the day he went missing and also provided a current address for the man.

Joan and Brian, who had relocated to Dundee, Scotland, issued another plea for information to catch their son’s killer.


2003 – SINISTER MOTIVES?

Three decades after Brian’s murder, The Scotsman newspaper reported that the police had refused to rule out either witchcraft or paedophilia in relation to the case.


2013 – A BROTHER’S DENIAL

In 2013, on the 40th anniversary of Brian’s disappearance, his brother, William, firmly denied he had played any part in the murder of his little brother.  William was 16 when his brother disappeared and police questioned him twice – first in 1976 and again in 2004 – during reinvestigations of the case.  His ex-wife, Sarah McLeod, claimed he had confessed to having killed his young brother.

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William, who had subsequently changed his name by deed poll to escape the pointing fingers, told the BBC that due to the police’s coercive behaviour, his mother not only went to her grave with the belief he may have been involved somehow, but he no longer had communication with any of his family because they all suspected he was responsible.

The eldest brother, Eddie, described the affect Brian’s murder had on the whole family, stating that both his parents turned to drink and the family as a whole lived on the verge of nervous breakdowns.


FURTHER READING:

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