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Sunday November 21 2010
Gardai to appeal for witnesses to last 20 minutes of killer dad’s life
ELLA Butler was two years old, a good child with a dose of mischief in her.
She locked herself into a wardrobe, just recently, and the thing had to be dismantled in order to get her out. She loved dancing: at a recent Halloween party, not even her older sister, Zoe, 6, could haul her off the floor. Zoe was caring and outgoing: she walked into her national school each morning with a spring in her step. She loved judo and had been teaching Irish to her little sister. Zoe also loved shoes, declaring one pair to be the “most beautiful she had ever seen”.
Fr Aidan Crowley usually saw the girls at the Star of the Sea church for 9.30am mass on Sunday with their parents. On Friday, he watched their heartbroken mother, Una, walk behind her daughters’ tiny white coffins as they were borne to the altar by their aunts and uncles. The girls were murdered in their Ballycotton bungalow by their father, John Butler, who then took his own life. At their funeral mass, Fr Crowley suggested that asking why might be best left for another day. For nothing could explain what had gone wrong last week, he said. Political leaders talked of last week as the blackest in Irish history since the Civil War. They were referring to the economy but the multiple tragedies of last week have thrown the country’s financial crisis into sharp relief. Last Tuesday will almost certainly be the blackest day Una Butler will ever know.
In Ballycotton, the day broke under a grey sky. John Butler, 43, had been feeling low all week. He had been out of full-time work for more than a year and suffered from depression. He had been attending a doctor and was believed to be on medication, but last Tuesday he appeared to feel particularly hopeless.
Una, who works in the Revenue Commissioners, left for Cork city shortly before 8am. She was worried about his mood, and after leaving for work, she rang him to just to check in but he didn’t answer her calls. She called his sister, and asked her to phone him in the hope of cheering him up. But he still didn’t pick up.
The children were up by now although still in their pyjamas, Zoe expecting to join her friends at the Star of the Sea National School for 9am. He fed the children but didn’t appear to have anything himself. A slice of uneaten toast was in the toaster. The children were in the sitting room watching television when he killed them. He strangled one of the girls and suffocated the other, and left their bodies where there lay, Zoe on the sofa and Ella on the floor.
He left the television on in the sitting room and walked out the front door. He left his mobile phone behind but took the house key. He left nothing behind to explain himself to his wife, Una, and his family, no note, text messages or calls.
He drove the mile or so into the village of Ballycotton in his red Toyota Yaris. A couple of people saw him driving around the country roads. He pulled into the Top petrol station on the road to Shanagarry, a couple of miles away, at
9.20am. He filled a jerry can with €20.01 of petrol.
Gardai were later told that he seemed highly strung and distressed as he paid for the fuel. A passer-by reported that he saw Butler shaking the can around the inside of his car.
He drove around for 20 minutes — gardai don’t know where — before driving back towards Ballycotton, along a straight road that ended in a sharp bend to the left. He didn’t take the bend, but ploughed straight on into a ditch. He had probably already set the car alight, before it even hit the ditch, where it burst into a blazing fireball.
When gardai arrived on the scene minutes later, suspicions of a suicide quickly formed. They knew the dead man was John Butler, a local man. He would have known the road into Ballycotton like the back of his hand. Gardai knew he had children and their priority was to find out whether they were in the car with him. Word had already got out that Zoe was not at school that morning. While the fire brigade doused down the car to search it, Una’s two sisters, who knew of the accident, went to the bungalow. They broke a window to get inside, where they found the bodies of Zoe and Ella.
Perhaps it was a mother’s instinct but Una had no sooner arrived at the office in Cork than she decided to come home again. She was concerned that John wasn’t answering his phone but had no idea that her husband was already dead and her children had been found murdered in their home. Gardai intercepted her car outside Midleton, where her sisters and brother broke the news of the tragedy as gently as they could.
Gardai suspect John Butler hadn’t exactly planned to kill his children that morning. He hadn’t bought the petrol, for one thing, and drove around for a while apparently searching for a place where he could set up a car crash he would not survive.
As to why, the focus comes back to depression.
John Butler had always been considered quiet and introverted, although his prowess at Gaelic football made him something of a local hero. A native of Cobh, John — whose family are steeped in the GAA — was a particularly gifted footballer, playing at senior level for Immokilly and Cobh, and captaining the intermediate team in 1993.
Off the pitch, he was quiet but popular. He mightn’t be the guy cracking the jokes in the dressing room but he always joined in and laughed along. During his sporting peak in his 20s, when he still lived in Cobh, he took the game seriously. Pat Looney, the PRO for Cobh GAA, said: “He played hurling and football to a very high level. He stood out as a Gaelic footballer. From our point of view he would have been a superb athlete. He lived a completely healthy lifestyle,” he said. “He was very well-liked.”
He stopped playing when he turned 30. After he married Una, he moved to Ballycotton, where she was raised, one of a large family well-known in the area. He still turned up at the GAA club for the big events, such as a Christmas reception on St Stephen’s Day last year with his little girls. He visited his own family regularly. He went road bowling — another of his sporting talents — in Cobh with his father and brother, and he also liked to play a hand of cards.
After he lost his job in the local steel plant, he bought some construction equipment and machinery. He worked as a contractor for a number of local projects. During the boom he landed a full-time j
ob, which he lost last year. He was a gifted builder and handyman. He laid the decking around the house and built the neat pillars against which neighbours propped bunches of flowers with messages of love for Zoe and Ella.
John’s depression worsened last year. In November last year, he vanished for 24 hours, left his wallet behind and refused to answer his phone, prompting a desperate call from Una to the gardai.
He returned home of his own accord, but the incident raised concerns about his outlook. He had been seeing a doctor and was on some kind of medication.
The impact of the multiple murders on a fishing village like Ballycotton has been crushing. The town has had its share of loss but they are usually men, young and old, who went to sea never to return.
Last week, most people refused to talk at all about the tragedy, closing ranks protectively around the family. Of those who did, there was a clear sense of people struggling to interpret the tragedy, how to regard this quiet man who killed his children, then himself, and condemned his wife, Una, to a lifetime of unimaginable grief and loss.
Fr Crowley reminded the congregation on Friday that John Butler deeply loved his children and was protective of them, for instance, rushing to coat them in sun block when they were on the beach.
Una believed this too. She demonstrated this by bringing John home to lay in repose with his two little girls in the family home in Ballycotton, the night before the girls were buried. It was an act of magnanimity and fortitude that touched those present.
Una was flanked by John’s family and her own, as she buried Ella and Zoe in Cloyne Cemetery on Friday. Her husband was cremated following a funeral service yesterday.