Castlederg family appeal for info on other car in daughter's tragic crash
The heartbroken parents of a young student killed instantly in a horror smash say they will keep on fighting for justice after an inquest concluded another car was involved.
Kieran and Siobhan McHale from Castlederg say they feel vindicated after the decision, having had to fight to have an inquest in the first place.
Police investigators had concluded that nobody else was involved in the May 2012 accident that killed their “stunningly beautiful” daughter Gemma.
The 20-year-old died from multiple injuries after she lost control of her Peugeot 306 and crashed into a bridge on the Letter Road between Belleek and Pettigo in Fermanagh around midnight on Thursday, May 18.
Kieran McHale told the Sunday World the police failed to investigate the crash properly and made out that it happened because of a driving error of their daughter.
“I went to the scene just a couple of hours after it happened and I knew immediately from looking at it that something wasn’t right,” says Kieran.
“I could see the tracks of the car in the long grass and just knew something must have made her go off the road.
“It was a straight bit of road which was really wide and Gemma was a very careful driver but the police tried to make out it was her fault and nobody else was involved.
“There were tracks on the directly opposite side of the road on the grass verge to where Gemma’s car left it. The police took pictures of these but didn’t follow up on them.
“After what the coroner said we firmly believe the police completely messed up the investigation and then tried to cover their tracks.”
Gemma had been returning from visiting her only sibling, Joanne, who lived in Foxford, Co. Mayo.
Her doting father explained the horror of seeing his daughter in the twisted wreckage will stay with him forever.
“I still wake up at 3am and hear the knock on the door when the police called to tell us Gemma had been killed,” says Kieran.
“When I saw the two bright yellow jackets through the front door it was like a TV ad – I just knew something terrible had happened.
“They tried to stop me going down to the car but I just ran past them. I got to the car and was able to reach in and touch her eyebrow. It was cold but there was no blood. If ever I was in hell I was in hell that night.”
The family became even more convinced when Gemma’s sister was approached by a man at the scene of the accident a couple of months later.
The man, Jim Marshall, told Joanne, who had stopped to say a prayer at the bridge, that his son Ross was “one of the first on the scene” and described how he came into the kitchen at home “shaking and as white as a ghost”.
Ross Marshall gave evidence at the inquest and denied he ever had such a conversation with his father and said he was not aware of the accident until the following morning.
In his conclusion the coroner said he was satisfied that Ross was not at the scene of the crash.
The McHale family lawyer Pat Fahy had a number of heated exchanges with the coroner during the inquest and claimed he was not allowed to put important questions to Ross.
Mr Fahy told the Sunday World he had concerns about the conduct of the coroner and said they were considering whether to take further action about that aspect.
He says he also felt that Ross’s father should have been called to give evidence to explain the conflicting versions of events.
Siobhan McHale said her daughter was “bright, bubbly and the life and soul of the party”.
“She was stunningly beautiful – and not just skin-deep but deep inside too,” said Siobhan, still full of raw emotion four years on.
“She was so good-natured and was always trying to help others. She was doing media studies in Coleraine University and we always thought she would end up on TV although she had started talking about becoming a teacher.
“The story that sums Gemma up is one that her friends told me after she had died. All the friends she shares a house with in Coleraine had gone out one night but Gemma had stayed in.
“It was pouring with rain all night so Gemma made a pot of hot soup and waited until 2.30am for her friends coming home and was ready with a hairdryer to dry them off.”
Investigations proved that Gemma had been driving well below the 60mph limit and crucially had dipped her headlights just a few of seconds before she went off the road.
When the family were told there wasn’t going to be an inquest they were furious and demanded one took place.
They even hired their own team of forensic engineers to investigate and they were left in no doubt that another vehicle had been involved.
Police told the family they believed the accident was either caused by her own error, an animal running in front of the car or even suggested she may have been using her mobile phone.
All these scenarios were discounted by the coroner during the inquest who concluded that Gemma met another vehicle that night.
Coroner Joe McCrisken made an impassioned appeal to “anyone who was out on that road at that time to firstly search their memories and to one particular person to search their conscience and come forward to the police”.
Now the family have echoed those sentiments and made a heartfelt plea for fresh information.
Siobhan said: “All we ever wanted was answers from the police but they didn’t have them.
“If anyone knows anything at all we would really appreciate it if they would come forward. We are so heartbroken by the loss of Gemma and not knowing the truth just compounds the grief.
“All she wanted to do that night was get home to her bed. She was doing all the right things and now we are left with a life sentence.
“Every day is a complete struggle.
“Some days I don’t even get dressed. I write to her every day and I get signs from her whenever I’m in a pickle.
“She always described us as a tight wee family and if it was the other way round she would be fighting for the truth as well.”
The couple have found some solace in raising tens of thousands of pounds for charity in Gemma’s name.
“I have to keep busy,” says Kieran. “If I stop the anger builds up.”