Northern Ireland

Arlene Arkinson: Robert Howard 'became nervous when alibi questioned'

Arlene Arkinson disappeared in 1994 after a school disco in county Donegal
Image caption Arlene Arkinson disappeared in 1994 after a school disco in county Donegal

Killer Robert Howard became nervous and defensive when his bogus alibi over Arlene Arkinson's disappearance was challenged, a detective has recalled.

Arlene, a 15-year-old from Castlederg, County Tyrone, vanished after a night at a disco in County Donegal in 1994. Her body has never been found.

Det Con Gareth Jenkins was the first officer tasked to investigate what was then a missing person report.

He told an inquest into Arlene's murder he questioned Howard at his home.

He knew Howard as, around that time, he was regularly signing bail at Castlederg RUC station in relation to an alleged sex attack on a teenager.

Howard had claimed he had not been near Arlene's house in Drumnabey Park on the Saturday night in question. He further claimed he saw the teenager being driven around Castlederg by an unknown man the following day.

However, other witnesses subsequently claimed they had seen Howard in Drumnabey Park on the Saturday night she went missing.

It later emerged that Howard, along with his partner's daughter and her boyfriend, had collected Arlene at her house and driven her across the Irish border for a night out in Bundoran, County Donegal.

On the return journey Howard and Arlene were the last two left in the car. She was never seen again.

Mr Jenkins said in his previous encounters with Howard, both in relation to Arlene's disappearance and when he signed bail at the police station, he was "plausible and courteous".

"This time it was different," he said.

"This time I had it in my head that someone wasn't telling the truth.

"He was denying his car had been in Drumnabey Park as others had claimed.

"He more or less ushered me out the door, he ushered me down the hallway towards the door.

"Whilst he repeatedly denied it (being at her house), his body language was different.

"Probably for the first time I saw him nervous and jittery. I know I wasn't wanted, I knew he wanted me out of the house."

Murder claim statement

Mr Jenkins also recalled a statement he received from a man who said he knew Howard.

He said while he and his cousin were drinking on a Letterkenny, County Donegal, street in 1997, they got talking to someone he described as a "tinker".

The man said the "tinker" claimed Howard had lived on a caravan site in Letterkenny and while he was there he had told him about a girl he had strangled.

"The 'tinker' said that he was present when Howard buried the girl," the statement said.

Files move defended

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has defended the decision not to disclose some files to the inquest.

The Public Interest Immunity (PII) application was made by the Northern Ireland Office amid claims information in files on the schoolgirl's death could potentially damage the public interest.

Coroner Brian Sherrard heard legal submissions on the contentious move in a private hearing on Tuesday.

It was anticipated he would make a ruling on the application on Wednesday.

At the opening of Wednesday's hearing, Mr Sherrard said "some useful work" had been done at the private hearing.

However, he added that he would need further information before making a final decision.

Image caption The teenager was last seen in a car driven by convicted killer Robert Howard

Ms Villiers said it was necessary to prevent publication of information which could hamper future police investigations.

"The reality is there would only be withholding of information which would effectively make it more difficult for the police to bring to justice people responsible for this kind of horrible crime in the future," she said.

"I think it is important also to be aware that the coroner is looking at all the information and it is the coroner who will decide whether any of it gets withheld."

In a public hearing ahead of Tuesday's behind-closed-doors session, it emerged that the classified files name both a man interrogated by paramilitaries and the person whose bogus tip-off prompted police to dig up a bereaved family member's garden.

Lawyers for the Arkinson family had argued that the identities of those individuals should be made public.

Howard was acquitted of Arlene's murder by a jury unaware of his long record of sex crimes, including the murder of a south London schoolgirl, he always remained the police's prime suspect in Arlene's death.

Howard, 71, had been due to give evidence before the inquest.

He died at HMP Frankland in County Durham last October.

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