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Catholic woman (33) may have been victim of savage Shankill Butchers

Rosaleen O'Kane, found dead in a burning flat in September 1976, may have been murdered by the Shankill Butchers

THE Shankill Butchers may have been responsible for the grisly death of a Catholic woman living alone in a loyalist area of north Belfast, it has been claimed.

The body of Rosaleen O'Kane (33) was discovered in a burning flat at Cliftonpark Avenue on September 17 1976.

The Shankill Butchers, who were responsible for at least 19 brutal murders between 1975 and 1982, abducted several of their victims from the area.

But while members were responsible for shooting two women dead at Casey's bottling plant, Ms O'Kane may be the only female victim to suffer a violent death of the type associated with the notorious gang.

The RUC at first said Ms O'Kane died in an accidental fire before suggesting it may have been suicide.

It wasn't until 2002, when the family met with cold case officers, that they discovered a man had been questioned under caution and named four other men known to police as having "a history" as being involved.

No-one has ever been charged in connection with the death and the information was not revealed in an inquest in 1977.

An autopsy showed that the victim had suffered head injuries and there was no soot in her lungs, indicating she was already dead prior to the fire being set.

The fire was set in three locations around the flat, again indicating it was deliberate, and tests on Ms O'Kane's body showed she was naked at the time of her death.

Forensic samples taken from the scene to determine the exact cause of death were destroyed in a small fire at the Department of Industrial and Forensic Science the following day.

Kathleen Graham, Ms O'Kane's sister, told the Irish News she knew from day one she had been murdered.

"Rosaleen had been petrol bombed at her last house and had to move, so she was extra cautious about fire and she didn't smoke. What we were being told didn't make any sense," she said.

"She was really quiet she went to Mass and back again and that was it. Our mother had been unwell and so she always looked after us growing up.

"I still find it hard to talk about, thinking about what terrible things she must gone through before she died."

Patricia Coyle, of Harte Coyle Collins Solicitors, said members of the Shankill Butchers gang may have been involved and she has lodged an application for a fresh inquest.

"There was an entirely inadequate police investigation in 1976 which, for whatever reason, appears to have relied upon suspicion rather than the available evidence," she said.

"The original inquest conducted in October 1977 did not have access to critical information which formed part of the police investigation, including an after caution interview of a suspect.

"In light of the glaring flaws in the original investigative and inquest processes, and in the absence of any update from the police, we have now submitted a request to the Mr Larkin, the Attorney General for Northern Ireland, that he use his discretion to direct a fresh inquest into Miss O Kane's murder."

Mike Ritchie of Relatives for Justice, who has supported the family's campaign, also said the "horrific" death left "many unanswered questions and issues not properly enquired into at the time by the RUC".

"In our view the only way to get to the truth of what happened to Rosaleen is by way of a full inquest where Rosaleen's lawyers can raise all relevant concerns", he said.

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