Arlene Arkinson inquest: Howard ‘tightened rope around rape victim’s neck’

Convicted child killer Robert Howard
Convicted child killer Robert Howard

A coroner’s court has heard harrowing and graphic details about an alleged sex attack carried out by the man suspected of killing teenager Arlene Arkinson.

One of Robert Howard’s victims described how she was left feeling “sick and dirty” after being repeatedly raped while a rope was tightened around her neck.

“I was terrified,” said the victim in a statement read out during the fourth day of the long-awaited inquest at Belfast’s Laganside court complex.

Howard, a convicted child killer, had a lengthy criminal record which included a string of sex offences carried out across the UK and Ireland over a number of decades.

Arlene, from Castlederg, Co Tyrone, vanished after a night out at a disco across the Irish border in Co Donegal in 1994. Her body has never been found.

She was last seen with Howard, who died in prison last year, aged 71.

Despite being acquitted of the murder by a jury unaware of his long record of sex crimes, including the murder of a south London schoolgirl, Howard always remained the police’s prime suspect in the Arlene Arkinson case.

The inquest also heard how social services had flagged up a possible relationship between 15-year-old Arlene and Howard, then aged 50, to police officers investigating her disappearance in August 1994.

The information was recorded in a handwritten note by Detective Constable Gareth Jenkins, then a young constable in the RUC.

He said an Omagh-based social worker had confirmed that a “relationship existed”.

But Mr Jenkins said: “What sort of relationship that was, without having anything written down, it would be unfair to comment further.”

Details about Arlene’s troubled background were also recorded.

According to social services, she had a poor school attendance, was a smoker and drank alcohol. She did not like to go anywhere without money or make-up and “looked about 19” years old, it was claimed.

There was also a brief mention of a “relationship” with a second older man.

At the time of her disappearance, Arlene had been living with her brother Martin Arkinson in Castlederg but had almost been admitted to State care twice.

She had previously gone missing on a number of occasions, staying with her alcoholic father or another relative elsewhere in Co Tyrone, but had always made contact within 48 hours.

After two days, family members reported to social services that Arlene was missing, but it took another two days before police were informed, the court was told.

The initial missing person investigation followed two main lines of inquiry – that Arlene had travelled to Birmingham to obtain an abortion or that Robert Howard was involved.

Mr Jenkins said: “It was not a criminal investigation at this stage where I had taken my initial answers.

“It was not solely focused on Robert Howard. It also focused on the possible travel to England.”

Although he was aware Howard had been on bail for serious sexual offences, Mr Jenkins said he was unsure whether he was still signing bail at the time the schoolgirl vanished.

Mr Jenkins said he had done everything he could but was a junior officer and did not decide the direction of an investigation.

“As a uniformed officer, when I reported that to CID that was almost upping the ante; upping the level,” he said.

“I had raised my concerns about irregularities in the accounts that the three or four people had given.”

Mr Jenkins later added: “I did everything I thought I could as a uniformed officer at that time. I raised concerns with the criminal investigations department.”

Meanwhile, Coroner Brian Sherrard has requested further clarification on the contentious public interest immunity application permitting the PSNI to withhold a number of confidential documents.

Another behind-closed-doors hearing may take place on Friday to discuss the matter but has not been confirmed.

Judge Sherrard said: “I would be quite keen for this matter to be dealt with before we start substantive witnesses of fact.

“It would be useful to try and get some clarity.”

The inquest has been adjourned until next week.