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Donegal man recalls moment he helped solve 30-year mystery of long-lost friend

‘When the artist’s impression was shown on (Crimecall) I knew immediately who it was’

Neil FetherstonhaughSunday World

A man who helped solve a 30-year mystery when he identified his long-lost friend recalled how “his face jumped out of the screen at me” when he was featured on RTE’s Crimecall last year.

The unidentified man was Paul McGinty, from Mountcharles in Co Donegal, who was last seen in April 1991.

And when an appeal was shown on TV relating to an unidentified body in November last year, Michael Leonard, who was watching from his home in Co Donegal, nearly fell off his chair.

“When the artist’s impression was shown on the programme I knew immediately who it was,” Michael told Sunday World this week. “It was Paul. I hadn’t seen him in more than 30 years, after he went missing.

“I would have known him down through the years and I met him over in England when he was working with my brother in Coventry.

“And every time I met my brother after Paul went missing his name would come up in conversation. He never, ever left our minds for 30 years. We were always thinking about poor Paul and what may have happened to him.

“How he walked out of his room that night, closed the door afar him and disappeared into thin air. Never to be seen again.

And now, after more than 30 years, as I watched Crimecall I saw his face again, looking back at me.”

Like many Irishmen of his generation Paul McGinty had left Ireland as a young man to seek work abroad.

After leaving Donegal he ended up in London before later moving to Coventry.

But aged just 51 years old, he was out of work and he abruptly disappeared on April 8, 1991. He left all his belongings in the house in Coventry where he lodged.

The artist's impression that led to his identification

Ten days later a man’s body was found at Bracetown, near Dunboyne. Foul play was not suspected in his death, but as he had no identification on him, gardai did not know who he was.

They took photographs of the man’s facial features before the remains were taken to Our Lady's Hospital, Navan where a post-mortem examination was carried out.

From those initial inquiries, gardaí knew the man was between 45 and 55 years old, and was about 1.65m (5'5") in height. He had light brown hair and his dental chart was taken.

The man was wearing a grey Herringbone tweed jacket and he carried a St Christopher’s medal. Detectives also took photos of all the man’s belongings before he was laid to rest in an unmarked grave in St Mary's Cemetery in Navan, Co Meath.

An original inquest that was held in Co Meath in November 1991 heard that all efforts over the previous seven months to identify the man were to no avail.

A small stone marked the unidentified man’s grave in Navan for the next 30 years, until the astonishing turn of events that started when the unidentified body was exhumed in 2021, as part of a cold case review so a DNA sample might be obtained.

However, detectives would later be informed by Forensic Science Ireland that in a rare case, a DNA sample could not be obtained.

But they still had the photographs from when the man’s body was first discovered.

A forensic artist was asked to reconstruct an image of how the man might have looked in life and that’s when Michael Leonard, who was watching television in Co Donegal in November last year, saw his friend for the first time in 30 years.

“The similarity was unreal,” Michael adds. “After watching Crimecall I could not get it out of my mind. I went down to my brother’s family and asked them had they been watching Crimecall the night before. I said ‘did you see that artist’s impression? Who did it look like? And my brother’s wife Marie said, ‘That’s Paul McGinty’.”

The jacket he was wearing when his body was found

All of Michael's family would have known Paul well as they grew up near his family before Paul went to work in England with Michael's brother John.

“Myself and my brother got as many details about Paul that we could to make sure it was him, Michael added.

He then approached Paul’s sister Eileen with a picture of the photofit on his phone.

“I said, ‘Eileen I am to show you something here’. I didn’t say anything else and just handed her the phone. She took one look at it, and said, ‘Jesus, that’s our Paul. I then got her permission to call it in to the gardai in Trim.

That call led to an inquest in Trim this week when Eileen spoke about how her brother Paul had been living in England for decades.

He had returned to Donegal for their brother’s funeral in 1987, and she would keep in touch with him at Easter and Christmas.

But when she rang the house where he lodged in 1991 the landlord told her Paul had vanished.

She heard nothing more for the next 30 years about her younger brother was until this week when was finally given an answer.

Asked about his role in helping to find Paul, Michael became emotional.

“It was so strange. Paul had left everything behind him. He was such a proud person he even left enough money to cover his rent for the week on the mantlepiece for the landlord, closed the door behind him and that was it.

“Never in our wildest dreams did we think he would be found again, in Navan.

“It is amazing that after all these years that there is closure to the case now, for Eileen anyway. But I think it will take a while to sink in.”

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