Savage assault | 

Family fears the worst for Tom Niland as new evidence found in hunt for attackers

Senior sources say that if Mr Niland does not survive, the investigation will be upgraded to one of murder

Tom Niland

Eavan Murray

Investigators hunting the attackers of retired farmer Tom Niland recovered potentially crucial evidence during a major 20km search across the Ox Mountains yesterday .

Mr Niland (73) remains on life support at Sligo University Hospital after being savagely attacked in his home in Skreen, Co Sligo, on January 18 by three masked raiders.

He suffered horrific head and upper body injuries during the aggravated burglary. He was initially able to give gardaí a description of his attackers but slipped into a coma shortly afterwards and remains unresponsive.

Mr Niland’s first cousin Michael Walsh said he now fears the worst for him.

“As time goes on, you lose heart he is going to make it,” said Mr Walsh.

“I don’t know what is going to happen. They are still treating him, but I don’t know if there will come a time and a decision to withdraw care will have to be made.

“He has shown no sign of improvement whatsoever for a long time.”

Senior sources say that if Mr Niland does not survive, the investigation will be upgraded to one of murder.

Gardaí have confirmed that a “number of items of interest were recovered” during the search across the Ox Mountain range from Cloonacool to Dromore West, which was carried out yesterday.

It is understood items that could provide vital DNA evidence are among the exhibits seized.

Days following the attack, a wallet belonging to Mr Niland was discovered by two men close to the shoreline of Lough Easkey.

It is believed the perpetrators threw the wallet from the getaway car as they escaped along the Dromore West to Cloonacool road.

A major search for evidence was carried out in Sligo yesterday. Gardaí are particularly keen to locate Tom Niland's Samsung Galaxy phone. Photo: James Connolly

A central focus for investigators is locating Mr Niland’s Samsung Galaxy smartphone, which to date is unaccounted for.

Gardaí believe his attackers were familiar with the area as they traversed a mountainous single-lane road connecting Cloonacool near Tubbercurry and Dromore West.

The focus of the search was to recover items used in the crime that may have been discarded along the route.

The Garda sub-aqua unit has spent three days combing the waters of Lough Easkey.

Several items of interest were seized further along the route, approximately 1km from the Cloonacool and Lough Talt crossroads. As the search was ongoing yesterday , Superintendent Mandy Gaynor spoke to the assembled media at Skreen garda station.

She said “significant evidence” had been recovered concerning the aggravated burglary and assault on Mr Niland.

She said gardaí were carrying out a number of searches along the N59 and between Dromore West and Lough Easkey as “significant evidence connected with this crime has already been recovered along this route”.

“The search is being co-ordinated from the incident room in Sligo. I am utilising every resource at my disposal in this investigation,” she said.

“Today’s searches involve the Sligo Divisional Search team, the Garda Mounted Unit, Garda Dog Unit, Garda Water Unit, Garda Air Support, local civil defence and community volunteers.

“I am overwhelmed with the significant level of community support and information being received by the investigation team at Sligo garda station. I am satisfied that progress continues to be made with the investigation to date.

“We are following specific lines of inquiry, have taken numerous statements, secured hours of CCTV footage and continue to liaise with Forensic Science Ireland (FSI).”

Supt Gaynor said she is “determined” that the men who carried out this crime will be brought to justice.

“My investigation team are working tirelessly to ensure this happens.

“I am confident there are still people out there who know who was involved in this aggravated burglary and serious assault on an elderly man in his home.”

She urged people who may have information on this “callous and cowardly” crime to come forward.

“I am asking you to do the right thing and come forward. Any information that you may have, no matter how small or insignificant you think it may be, could be significant to the investigation team. Any information received will be treated with the strictest confidence,” she said.

“I am very aware that this horrendous crime on an elderly man has ignited huge debate, generated conversations and caused fear in the local community here in Skreen and indeed across the country.

“If you believe you have information that is of assistance to the investigation team, please provide that information directly to the investigation team in Sligo at 071-9157000.”

Mr Walsh has thanked the gardaí for their efforts in tracking down his cousin’s attackers.

“The guards really have excelled themselves. The effort they have put in is phenomenal,” he said.

“The searches today, the scale of it was just incredible. The whole community of Sligo, west Sligo and north Mayo saw the effort being put in by them.

“They threw the whole works at it, and we are so grateful to them. We have complete faith in them.

“The support we have received from the guards and the overwhelming response from the public does lift your heart.

“We were in a place where we were feeling there was so much bad in the world, but the kindness we have experienced shows it’s not all bad.

“There is tremendous goodness out there too.”

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