Major failings by the Probation Service that led to the murder of a Yorkshire pensioner are being documented in a new podcast. Chris Burn reports.
Any reporter who regularly covers court cases will know it tends to be murder trials that are the most affecting and live longest in the memory, particularly as you witness the family of the victim having to cope with days, weeks and sometimes months of graphic and distressing evidence about the killing of their loved one.
One such case for me during my time working for The Star in Sheffield was that involving the death of John Gogarty, a property developer in his 60s. He was originally from Ireland but had settled in Yorkshire and was living in Wombwell, Barnsley, in 2015 at the time of his murder in his own home.
Mr Gogarty answered the door in his slippers as he settled down to a night in front of the television.
He was robbed of his bank card before being stabbed 69 times. Some of the blows were of such ferocity they cut through his ribs. His killers ransacked his house and even stole champagne from his kitchen. His body was found several days later by his son.
His two attackers – boyfriend and girlfriend Ian Birley and Helen Nichols – were quickly identified by police, along with their motive of stealing money to pay back a drug debt. The champagne they had stolen was found opened and drunk in their flat.
But at the very beginning of the trial, an extraordinary fact emerged.
Birley had been convicted of murder before and had only been released on licence under the supervision of the Probation Service 19 months before he killed Mr Gogarty.
The judge in the case decided the jury should not be told of the previous killing in 1995 of another pensioner named Maurice Hoyle, as it would potentially mean Birley could not receive a fair trial.
A side-effect of this meant that although both Birley and Nichols were convicted of murder, there was no detail in the trial about the circumstances of Birley’s release from prison and whether the authorities should have been watching him more carefully.
Mr Gogarty’s family, led by his daughter Nicola, began a long campaign for an inquest to be held into his death – a rare occurrence when a Crown Court trial has already occurred. The coroner in the case said it was only the second time in his 27-year career it had happened.
That inquest finally took place earlier this year and revealed that Birley had repeatedly breached the terms of his licence by drinking and taking drugs but was never recalled to prison.
He was also not regularly drug tested and frequently missed his weekly appointments with probation officers. The coroner ruled there had been “missed opportunities” by the Probation Service that could have prevented Mr Gogarty’s death.
Now the family’s long fight for justice – and for others to avoid having to go through a similar tragedy – is the subject of a new 30-minute podcast produced by the legal firm Slater and Gordon, which represented the family at the inquest.
Mother-of-three Nicola explains her motivation to expose the truth in the podcast, which I have also contributed to.
“I got a phone call from the family- liaison officer in the middle of the night to say they had charged Birley and his girlfriend, Helen Nichols, with my father’s murder,” Nicola says.
“Obviously I was glad they had caught whoever did it but then she said to me, ‘I have something else to tell you’, she says. ‘The man that murdered your father was not long out of prison and had murdered another man in 1995.’
“I didn’t understand how he was out walking the streets if he had done something so similar to someone else, another pensioner. I needed answers – I just knew in my gut that things weren’t right.”
Freed to Kill Again is the first instalment of The Case Files podcast, out now.