Died 19th May 2012
Lauren O’Neill (18) was shot dead in William Court in Bellaghy in County Londonderry, Northern Ireland on 19th May 2012. Her sister, Brenda (22) was seriously injured.
On 4th October 2013 Phelim McNally (27), from Toomebridge, County Londonderry, pleaded guilty to Ms O’Neill’s murder and attempting to murder her sister, the mother of two children. He was Brenda’s former partner.
He was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder.
A jury had been sworn in at Londonderry Crown Court but McNally pleaded guilty before a packed Belfast Crown Court, where his case had been listed at the last minute.
The judge Mr Justice Treacy said he would deal later “with the question of the appropriate tariff”.
The three principal witnesses in the case would have been Brenda O’Neill and her parents, Laurence and Bernadette.
The O’Neill family’s parish priest, Father Andrew Dolan, said the admission of guilt had taken them by surprise. He said “I think it took them and it took everybody a bit on the hop that it all ended so quickly….Yesterday there was no word of any pleas, and certainly not a plea of this kind. And that he admitted to the killing has helped the family immensely, and helped, I suppose, his family too that they don’t have to go through the whole torture of a trial.”
Brenda O’Neill’s two young children – Eimear, then aged three, and Eunan, who was just 10 months – were present in the house when McNally opened fire in his former partner’s home.
Despite her horrific wounds, Brenda O’Neill managed to make it to a neighbour’s home to raise the alarm, but Lauren O’Neill had already been fatally injured. Fr Andrew Dolan said the teenager died trying to protect her sister. After she died, Fr Dolan told BBC Radio Ulster: “When Brenda was under attack, Lauren dived in to save her and in the process lost her own life. I’d say they were close in life and in death couldn’t be closer.”
The Belfast Telegraph wrote: “The brutal killing of the courageous young woman who made the ultimate sacrifice trying to save her sister’s life caused an outpouring of grief and sympathy across Northern Ireland.”
Brenda O’Neill lost part of her bowel and suffered great pain because of shotgun pellets buried deep in her body. She had to undergo emergency surgery, spent more than three weeks in hospital and missed her beloved sister’s funeral, which was attended by Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, who also visited the family shortly after the attack.
Surrounded by family and friends, Brenda O’Neill left Court 13 at Belfast’s Laganside complex without commenting on proceedings or on McNally’s change of plea.
The sisters were both past pupils of St Mary’s College in Clady, near Portglenone, and had worked in McNally’s Inn and Restaurant on the main Belfast to Derry Road, three miles from Bellaghy.
Speaking from his home yesterday, Lauren O’Neill’s father Laurence led glowing tributes to his daughter, calling her the “life and soul”, an “all-rounder” and “full of spirit”. He said: “Everytime I see a butterfly I will think of her, because they were her favourite.”
Brenda O’Neill said that she was now focused on her two young children and that they were now her main priority.
The O’Neill family said that they were “relieved” that they had been “spared the ordeal of a whole trial”. They described their grief as still “very raw” and said hat their family had suffered “real devastation” over Lauren’s loss.
Note: This short report was drawn from reports in the BBC and the Belfast Telegraph.