An inquest into the death of an Omagh woman who was a domestic-violence victim heard evidence of major failings in Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) handling of events, and of how the police have subsequently changed their procedures in dealing with persons who reported being assaulted. Thirty-six-year old Mairéad McCallion died in hospital on February 24, 2014, the day after she told police that her partner Noel Knox grabbed her by the hair and knocked her head against a wall before throwing her out of the house.
Knox then called the police because McCallion and another man were outside. It was a very cold day, and she was wearing neither shoes nor coat – and wanted Knox to give them to her.
When police arrived, Mairéad McCallion reported the assault. Police saw clumps of hair had been torn from her head. They arrested Knox, and brought McCallion to the custody suite at Omagh Police Station for examination.
A senior police officer told the inquest that procedures had now changed. Chief Superintendent Karen Baxter said that all victims should now be taken to an accident and emergency unit. “The custody suite is not a place of safety – it is a place of detention”, she said.
Constable Catherine Kilkie, to whom McCallion had reported the assault, said she did not tell the Forensic Medical Officer (a police doctor) who examined Mairéad about the blow to the head, or that Mairéad said “her head was a bit sore”. Kilkie told the inquest she did not pass this on as “the doctor usually takes an account from the victims themselves”.
There was conflicting evidence as to whether Dr Paul Alleyway, who examined her in the police station, asked her if she had sustained a head injury.
Alleyway said that “on direct questioning, she denied having a head injury”. Civilian Custody Officer Linda Carson, who was present during the examination, said “I just can’t recall” this question being asked. In his notes, Alleyway recorded having asked the question. These notes were completed on the following day.
After the examination, the Custody Sergeant thought it necessary to bring in a Domestic Violence Officer to deal with McCallion. However, it was a Sunday, no-one was on duty, and he was denied authorisation to bring one in on overtime.
There was conflicting evidence from two police officers about McCallion’s condition on the afternoon of the alleged assault. Constable Gareth McCrystal said McCallion’s face was “sloped like she had a stroke” when he first saw her outside the house. When he later returned after taking Knox to Omagh police station, he was “concerned she had changed so much from what I’d seen three hours or so previously” but not enough to call an ambulance. She was slumped in the reception area.
Kilkie told the inquest she believed McCallion had deteriorated because she hadn’t taken her medication, and her difficulties in walking were due to wearing heels.
In mid-afternoon McCrystal and Kilkie drove her away from the police station in a police car. They were taking her to a friend’s house. She only had the clothes she stood in, and none of the medication she needed. Kilkie gave evidence of only ringing the friend when they were on the way. The friend could not keep Mairéad.
During the journey, McCrystal said McCallion was “not speaking but making noises in the back of the car”. When they reached the friend’s house, Kilkie went inside. McCallion began making retching noises. McCrystal asked her “if she could, could she please be sick outside the car”. By this stage, she was not speaking. He rang Kilkie, who contacted paramedics.
Paramedics treated her on the scene, then took her to the South West Acute Hospital in Enniskillen, where she died of a catastrophic brain injury. It would have been impossible to survive this injury.
Mairéad McCallion did not fit the stereotype of a domestic-violence victim, or of an alcoholic. She had been a straight-A student at her grammar school, then went to university in Scotland.
There she suffered mental-health difficulties and had to leave. Returning to Omagh she began training as an accountant. Then, in August 1998 she arranged to meet her friend Julia Hughes in the town centre one Saturday afternoon. The Omagh Bomb exploded that afternoon: Julia was killed. This was another blow to Mairéad’s health.
However, she continued to work. She moved to Coleraine and bought her own place. Unfortunately, her depression and drinking worsened. Her mother died, and shortly after she moved back to Omagh.
McCallion was unemployed. She drifted into a circle of alcoholics who gravitated around drinking houses in a couple of housing estates. She tried to fight her demons, and enjoyed periods of sobriety. She also formed a relationship with Knox, an unemployed alcoholic about a dozen years older than her. It was a controlling relationship. They lived together in Knox’s brother’s house, but she did not have a key.
Knox has never been convicted of assaulting McCallion. He was charged with her murder, though the charges were subsequently withdrawn.
Evidence was given that the screensaver on his phone was a picture of her with a broken nose and two black eyes; and that, when he rang her, this picture came up. Police logged five complaints from McCallion that Knox had assaulted her, though all were withdrawn. On one occasion she obtained a barring order against him. Under cross-examination during the inquest, Knox accepted physically putting her out of the house the day before she died. He admitted she fell in the front garden and may have hit her head on the grass, or on a metal manhole cover.
That day, in the police station, she spoke to Linda Carson about being a domestic-violence victim. McCallion said “she was going to do something about it this time”.
Her sister Josie and half-brother Marcus both told the inquest of seeing bruises on her. Josie said that one time: “it was obvious she had been beaten up, there were bruises on her”. Marcus saw her with a black eye. According to Alleyway, her injuries were consistent with repeated domestic assault.
The last seven years of her life had been difficult for McCallion, as she struggled with mental illness, alcoholism, and a troubled relationship. Even at the end, she showed positive qualities. Jonathan Cunningham was one of the police who spoke to her the day before she died. He remembered: “She was a very nice wee lady”. Linda Carson chatted to her also. “She was a very easy person to speak to”, Carson said. “She seemed to be an intelligent and articulate lady”.