Trevor Laffan: Did divine intervention help a Cork family finally get closure?

Trevor Laffan recalls the discovery of a human skull in a Buttevant field back in 2006 and how it led to the discovering of a missing father, four years after he disappeared
Trevor Laffan: Did divine intervention help a Cork family finally get closure?

HELPED SOLVE MYSTERY: Aidan O’Connell, former member of the Cork City Garda Divisional Search Team

AN ex-colleague of mine, Aidan O’Connell, is a retired garda sergeant and a former member of the Cork City Garda Divisional Search Team.

That’s a team made up of specially trained gardaí who were brought together whenever a search was required. He told me this story.

In 2006, Robert Sheehy, a farmer from Tully, Buttevant, found what appeared to be a human skull in his field. He alerted the gardaí who launched an investigation and Aidan was instructed to assemble the search team.

Aidan gathered his 16 members, including Sgt Mick Lyons from Kinsale, and they headed for Buttevant. They were taken to the middle of the field where the skull had been discovered.

The initial theory was that a fox had possibly dug up the skull and dragged it across the field. But there was also another possibility.

There was an unsolved missing person case going back to 2002 when William O’ Brien from Buttevant had gone missing and had never been located. With that in mind, they spent all day on that Friday and Saturday searching the field and surrounding area but found nothing.

As they were finishing up for the day, late on Saturday evening, Aidan walked from an adjoining field back to where the skull had been located. He used the same pathway through the ditch that he had been using for the couple of days.

As he went through the gap, he spotted something on the ground. He picked it up and it appeared to be a human thigh bone, about 2ft long. He called Mick Lyons and as they were examining the find, another member went into the ditch and found the matching thigh bone.

He instructed the other members to carry out a quick search of the immediate area but nothing else was found. His attention was drawn to a very large tree nearby and that got a cursory search, but it was thick with branches and leaves so they couldn’t see much.

Aidan wasn’t satisfied though and wanted the tree searched properly. Mick agreed that if he felt that strongly about it, they should do it. So, they sent for Inspector Pat McCarthy, the officer in charge of the search, because they wanted him to organise a hoist. Pat arrived, had one look up and the next thing he was climbing the tree.

After about five minutes, he came back down and sat on a branch. He pulled out his phone, and made a call: “Superintendent, I found him.”

In an article on July 5, 2006, journalist Niall O’ Connor reported on the inquest at Cork Coroners Court and told how the partially mummified remains of a missing man were discovered 30ft above the ground in the branches of a tree, four years after he went missing.

William ‘Wills’ O’ Brien, 46, died some time in April, 2002. The Coroner recorded a verdict of death ‘from a mode unknown’.

John Moloney, from Buttevant in Cork, told the Court he last saw Mr O’Brien on April 22, 2002, as he walked across a field.

Inspector Pat McCarthy gave evidence of finding the body. He climbed the tree and noticed clothes and human remains and it appeared that William O’Brien had hanged himself.

Pathologist Margaret Bolster told the court that she had received the remains of the man, which included the lower leg bones still inside a pair of boots. Dental records were used to identify him.

About two years later, Aidan came across a book in a Cork bookshop, Searching: The Stories of Irelands Missing People, by Valerie Cox. The first name in the index was that of Wills O’Brien. It was only then that he became aware of the background of Wills O’Brien and the family left behind. The following is an extract:

“While most seven-year-old girls are thinking about Barbie Dolls and endless other toys when discussing their lists or Santa Claus, the 2002 Christmas wish of Natalie O’ Brien in Charleville, Co Cork, was for just one thing; ‘I want my daddy to come home’.

“Wills O’Brien’s wife Patricia, and little Natalie were distraught, not knowing what happened to their husband and father. A huge search in Buttevant and a story on RTÉs Crimeline had produced no results

“Natalie was to make her first Holy Communion and neither she nor Patricia knew whether the event would be witnessed by her proud father.”

The strange thing about this story is that the day the remains were discovered, Aidan had passed through that same gap in the field several times and saw nothing.

Upwards of ten gardaí had also been there and had looked up the same tree and hadn’t seen anything either.

He’s convinced the bone was not lying on that piece of pathway previously because he would have seen it, so his only conclusion is that it must have fallen from the tree while they were searching.

He still doesn’t understand why he was drawn to that tree or why he was so determined to have it searched.

“I’m not particularly religious but I think there was an element of Divine Intervention in the finding of Wills O’Brien that day. I’m happy to have played a small part in solving the mystery of his disappearance for his wife Patricia and his daughter Natalie.”

I have been in communication with Trish and Natalie while putting this piece together and I’ll leave the last word to Natalie: “Please tell Aidan I said thanks to him and his colleagues for finding my dad and giving us some closure.”

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