Tears at blaze inquest as dad's sordid secrets are revealed

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The Independent Online

Stunned relatives from two families wept in court as the secret life of a man suspected of murdering his family in a house inferno was graphically exposed.

The dark, sordid secrets from Arthur McElhill’s final days revealed a sexual predator who had an alarming obsession with young girls.

The father’s complex and deeply disturbing behaviour emerged as an inquest into the Lammy Crescent fire tragedy reopened in Omagh yesterday morning.

A shocked courtroom heard chilling details of how the convicted sex offender was in a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old girl just weeks before the fatal blaze.

The depressed, heavy drinking father had sex with the minor at least 10 times before the blaze, often when his partner and five young children were downstairs.

All seven perished in the inferno at their end-of-terrace home in November 2007. They were 13-year-old Caroline, seven-year-old Sean, Bellina (4), Clodagh (19 months) and James, nine months.

Yesterday, as the inquest resumed at Omagh courthouse, a senior police officer confirmed for the first time that McElhill was the only suspect. During several hours of evidence a dark picture emerged of McElhill’s complex personality.

The court heard how minutes before the fire took hold a neighbour, Lee Anne Duffy, recalled hearing a man — who she is “98% sure” to be McElhill — screaming: “You can’t run, you fat bitch.”

It was also revealed how the 36-year-old depressive, who had a history of suicide attempts, brazenly drove around Omagh pestering young girls for sex.

The most graphic details came from a teenager known only as ‘Witness A’, a babysitter who had befriended McElhill’s daughter Caroline.

The girl, who was 16 at the time, described how she had been having sexual intercourse with McElhill for four months.

The witness, who was shielded behind a screen throughout her 45-minute testimony, recalled how he had called and texted her on the night of the fire.

Earlier she described how McElhill lured her to an upstairs bedroom to have a look at his computer in July 2007. On that occasion he kissed her, but a month later he used the same ruse to have sex with her.

Relatives from the wider McElhill and McGovern families wept openly as she gave evidence.

Earlier it was recalled that her friend, ‘Witness B’, had told police how McElhill had bombarded her with hundreds of texts and calls prior to the blaze. These included graphic messages pleading with her to have sexual intercourse with him.

During 90 minutes of evidence DCI Derek Scott also revealed how McElhill had pretended to be his seven-year-old son Sean on a social networking site.

Later DCI Scott, who led the long-running investigation into the blaze, confirmed that McElhill was their only suspect. He said it was the police view that the fire had not been accidental, and had been deliberately started by someone inside the house.

No evidence from the McGovern family was heard in court, but a short written statement from McElhill’s father Charles was read out.

In it he described meeting the couple at the auction on the night before the fire and said both seemed in “very good spirits”.

The families had arrived separately and sat on opposite sides of the courtroom. Their eyes rarely made contact during hours of evidence.

Charles McElhill, dressed in a navy pinstripe suit, clutched a white tissue and showed little emotion. When details of his son’s relationship with Witness A were first revealed Mrs McElhill simply shook her head and sighed.

On the opposite benches, Theresa McGovern broke down as DCI Scott recounted the horrific scene as the seven badly burnt bodies were found.

Several witnesses also provided details of McElhill’s erratic behaviour, including a failed suicide attempt three years before the blaze. He was found hanging in his garden shed by Caroline, who would then have been aged just 10.

Another, Gary Taggart, recalled an incident weeks before the blaze when a woman approached the McElhill house and banged on the door.

“She screamed at the top of her voice that Arthur had raped her daughter,” he told the court.

* Source: The Belfast Telegraph