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My dad's serving life for killing my mum; EXCLUSIVE Nicola Folan thought her mother had deserted her as a baby. It wasn't until 20 years later, when Michelle Folan's corpse was found entombed in concrete, that Nicola's doting father was accused of murder.

Byline: EMMA HIBBS

Nicola Folan stood in the wood-panelled courtroom at the Old Bailey and stared at the man accused of killing her mother.

Hardly daring to breathe, she waited for the jury to announce its verdict.

When it was returned as guilty, a triumphant cheer rose from the crowded public gallery where Nicola's aunts had sat every day of the four-week trial.

But Nicola, 21, felt only a well of anger bubbling up as she watched her mum's murderer leave the dock.

For it was her father, Patrick Folan, 46, who had been given a life sentence for murdering his wife, Michelle, and burying her in concrete nearly 20 years before.

It was a moment that would tear the family apart because, despite her aunts' elation at the verdict, Nicola was convinced her father was innocent "My aunts tried to hug me but I pushed them away," Nicola says. "At that moment I realised the person who had been the main rock in my life, the only parent I had ever known, was being taken away to begin a life sentence behind bars." Nicola was just 16 months old and her brother, Martin, three when their 24-year-old mother disappeared in October 1981. "I can't remember my mum as I was only a baby when she went missing," says Nicola, who lives in Archway, North London. "My first memories are of my dad with his big builders' hands and laughing face. "It seemed as if it had always been just the three of us. Martin and I were really close and I think that growing up without a mother made us even more reliant on one another." Michelle disappeared after a night out drinking in the local pubs with her husband Patrick. At the time, Patrick told detectivesthat he had gone to the toilet and when he returned his wife was no longer in the bar. He explained that he had spent the night searching for her and when she didn't turn up in the morning, he reported her missing. Patrick later told his in-laws that he believed his pretty young wife had left him to run off with another man. Nearly two decades passed before the truth finally came to light when, in 1999, Michelle's remains were found in a shallow grave a couple of miles from the family home. Nicola's parents, both from North London'sIrish community, had met as teenagers in the local nightclub. They married in their early 20s and set up home together a few doors away from her mum's mother and sisters. "After she went missing my dad completely devoted his life to my brother and me," she says. "Dad did everything around the house from cleaning and cooking to ironing my school uniform. "He was affectionate and fun and would take us on outings to the park to feed the squirrels.My dad was very much part of my mum's family. We would spend Christmas Day at my nan's house and Dad was treated just the same as the rest of the family." But despite their united front, Nicola's family always suspected that Patrick was behind Michelle's disappearance. He was the prime suspect in the murder investigation and, at the family's insistence, the case was reopened several times over the years. At one point the police even dug up Patrick's patio to look for evidence. But the search revealed nothing and without a body they couldn't make an arrest. As nothing could be proved the family felt they had no choice but tokeep their doubts to themselves for the sake of the children. And so successful was this facade that Nicola was completely unaware of the fact that her family suspected her father of murder. "Although he had always been a suspect in her disappearance, I was too young to remember him being questioned by police," Nicola recalls. The absence of a mother had a huge impact on Nicola's childhood. "I was about four and had just started primary school when I first realised I was different from the other kids because I hadn't got a mum. "Dad told me that Mummy had left and he didn't know why, but he would never say a bad word about her. "It became obvious when everyone was making Mother's Day cards or when it was the mums' race at our school sports day. "I was a very emotional child and would often get into fights in the playground if someone made a joke about my mum. "I used to make up stories that my mum was away looking after relatives in Ireland. Telling those lies seemed to help because, for all I knew, she could have been there." But as Nicolagrew into an inquisitive little girl, she started to learn more details about Michelle's mysterious disappearance. "As a child I gleaned snippets of information by listening in on conversations that my aunts and nan had. "But I didn't find out the full story until I was about seven. I was rooting around in a drawer and found a newspaper article my nan had kept which listed Mum as a missing person. "It described how she had been out drinking in a pub with my dad before she disappeared. "There was a lot of talk that she may have suffered from post-natal depression. One theory was that she had gone off and felt too guilty to come back. "Piece by piece, I gradually found out what people thought had happened to my mum. "One day I was going on a school trip and Dad asked me to get something out of a biscuit tin that contained passports, birth certificates and other important documents. "With them I found some newspaper clippings about Mum's disappearance which I read in secret. I would read those articles again and again over the years. "I later found out from my aunt that my mum was accused of having had a couple of affairs - one with a taxi driver. "One of the articles I found said that this man disappeared at around the same time and it was thought that she could have run away with him. "I'd always felt a mixture of anger and love for my mum but now I felt really cross with her and sorry for my dad because he had suffered the stigma of being dumped by his wife." But Nicola could never stay angry with her mother for long. "All I wanted was for her to walk through the door. But I never quite knew whether, if she'd actually turned up, I would have given her a hug or run in the opposite direction. As I got older I stopped asking my dadand nan about my mum because I could tell it was upsetting them. "He would just say that he didn't know why she had gone away. Another reason I stopped asking about her was because the very mention of my mum's name would send me into floods of tears. "I couldn't handle people talkingabout her because I knew that they had been able to have a relationship with her - something that I had missed out on. "Relatives would comment on how much I looked like her, but as soon as they started talking about her I would run into the toilet and lock the door. "When I was about 11, I got to apoint in my life when I just couldn't cry anymore. "Instead of constantly waiting for her to get in touch, I tried not to think about it and convinced myself that she was dead. But I couldn't openly admit what I thought as it would have hurt my mum's family." Nicola excelled at school and won a scholarship to train in the head office of a restaurant chain. But at 17 she had to give up on further education when she fell pregnant with her son, Tommy, now three, by her partner Stuart, now 27, a friend of her brother. "Dad was furious because he had such high hopes for me. All I could say was, 'Sorry, it was an accident'. "But after a few weeks of tip-toeing around him he relented and was very supportive." Patrick was a doting grandad and would regularly babysit for Tommy. "He absolutely adores Tommy and would offer to look after him any time we wanted," recalls Nicola. But giving birth to a child of herown triggered a sense of loss in Nicola that she had always felt for not having had a mum. "When I had Tommy I realised more than ever that there was something missing, something that I couldn't define. As I hadn't had a mother, I didn't know how to behave as one." It wasn't until 1999 that the mystery of her mother's disappearance began to unravel. When the Royal Northern Hospital in Holloway, North London, was demolished, Michelle's remains were discovered in a shallow grave under the foundations. Her skeleton was fully clothed, a plastic bag had been put over her head and a rope tied around her throat. A stick had been used as a lever to tighten the rope and strangle her. Nicola says: "My dad called Martin and me to the pub where he worked in the evenings to tell us that Mum's body had been found. He thought it would be easier if we were told in a public place which was less emotional. "When I heard the news it came asa relief. There would be no more waiting, no more hoping. "The funeral took place a couple of months later at the local Catholic church. It was packed with relatives from England and Ireland. Like everyone else, Dad was quiet and sombre during the service.Ididn't know at the time but it was the last big family gathering we would have before Dad was charged with murder and the family split into two camps." Many months passed while the police dug out the original files and, once again, started the murder hunt. After years of false leads and dead ends, the breakthrough finally came when they uncovered vital evidence linking Patrick to the crime scene. Detectives traced the builders that had worked at the site at the time of Michelle's disappearance. A photograph of Patrick was shown to Beresford Dorsett, one of thelabourers. "I immediately recognised the face," said Dorsett. "I knew I'd seen him before." He remembered Patrick as the reserved Irish bricklayer who had helped to concrete the foundations of the hospital. The police then searched Patrick's home and discovered a letter that provided him with a motive. It revealed that Michelle had secretly filed for divorce. The divorce papers, which were due to arrive at the family home on the day she disappeared, have never been found. "My mum's family phoned my brother and me at home and said we had better come round," Nicola recalls. "That's when they told me that Dad had been arrested." Nicola later found out that the police had marched into her dad's local pub and arrested him in front of everyone.But while the rest of the family saw this as a confirmation of theirworst fears, Nicola staunchly refused to believe her father was a murderer. "It sounds strange, but I wasn't very upset when they said that he had been charged with murder. "The very idea seemed ridiculous and I assumed that the case would be quickly dropped. My dad was a caring man and a generous friend who would help people he didn't know. I just couldn't believe it was in his nature to kill. "Dad phoned me from prison to tell me he was all right and not to worry and I helped to assemble all the papers that were needed for him to get bail, which was granted three days later.When he got home, he sat us down in the lounge and told us calmly that he would plead not guilty and that everything would be all right. "He said that he and my mum had had their fights and spats, but he would never have killed her." With Nicola and Martin standing alone in defence of their father and the rest of her family baying for his blood, she realised their once-close-knit unit would never be the same again. "It was a difficult time because my mum's side of the family now hated Dad. And it was only then that I was told - by my mother's older sister, Olga - that the family had always harboured suspicions about my dad. She saidthat they thought it was strange that he always blanked questions about my mum. "But despite the family's suspicions, they always gave me and Martin their full support." While Patrick was out on bail, tensions within the family reached boiling point. "On one occasion an aunt came into the pub where Dad and I were sitting and started screaming and shouting at him for killing her sister. "I got upset because my son was there and her shouting was starting to upset him. In the end I had to physically drag her out of the pub to calm her down. "But my dad said that whatever they thought about him it was important for me to maintain a relationship with the rest of the family." When the court case finally began, Nicola, desperate to tell the jury what a wonderful father Patrick had been, was scheduled to appear as acharacter witness for the defence. But two weeks into the trial Patrick's barrister decided not to use her because of a letter the police had found when they searched Patrick's home. Written by Nicola when she was a teenager, it painted a picture of him as an ogre. She said that she hated him and that he had treated her badly. Nicola now describes the letter as "teenage ramblings", and says she only wrote it because her father wouldn't let her go out to celebrate St Patrick's Day with her friends. "I was angry that I couldn't help him in court because, at the end of the day, I was the one who had lived with him for 18 years. I knew him better than anyone and I wanted to put across what sort of person he really was." During the trial Patrick admitted that he would become jealous if his wife talked to other men and he also said that he had hit her. But nothing could sway Nicola's support. "No matter what he did, I'm certain Dad isn't capable of taking someone else's life," she says. When the day of sentencing arrived, Nicola was relieved when her grandmother said she would go to the courtroom for the first time. "My nan, who was like a mother to me when I was growing up, now despised my dad and didn't want to go to court. But on the day of sentencing she offered to come along. I'll alwaysbe grateful to her for understanding that, although I love all of my mum's family, for me Dad has to come first." Throughout the trial Patrick was convinced that he would be set free. But despite his confidence, the jury took just an hour and a half to make up their minds. "He stood up, proud to receive the jury's verdict. But when they said 'guilty' I could see the colour drain from his face and he hung his head," Nicola remembers. Judge Brian Barker summed up by saying: "The disposal of the body required thought and insight in relation to the fact that it would end up being covered in concrete. This was a deliberate and efficient killing." Nicola stumbled out of the courtroom in a daze and phoned her brother. "Martin was living with Dad during the trial so he heard all the details and didn't need to go into court every day. He hadn't wanted to go to the sentencing. Martin is a bit of a tough guy so I was shocked when, as I told him about Dad, he began to sob." Patrick's appeal against the verdict is now under way and Nicola remains convinced that her mother was killed by someone else she had known well and who had lived locally. She's also determined not to let her turbulent past ruin the rest of her life. "I do feel like I've had more than my share of misfortune, but if you let things destroy you they will," she says. "It's better to just let things wash over you and get on with life." Tommy is due to start nursery school and Nicola is planning to set up her own internet business. She says she will continue to make the trek every two weeks to Belmarsh Prison in South- East London to visit her father. "He's bearing up well and keeping his head high, but I know he's putting on a front for Martin and me," she says. And every now and then she will call into a church to light a candle for her mother. "I haven't visited her grave since the trial," says Nicola. "But that doesn't mean I don't feel any love for her. "I'm not very religious but I don't think I could have got through everything if I didn't have someone watching over me. "I feel like my mother has always been with me, giving me strength."

CAPTION(S):

Picture by BOB POWELL; Nicola with her son, Tommy; An artist's impression of Folan in the dock and, right, the reaction in the public gallery as the guilty verdict is announced; Patrick Folan; Above: Nicola, aged one, on dad's knee with her brother, Martin; Left: Nicola at nursery school aged three; Mum Michelle was murdered when Nicola was just 16 months old
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Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:M on Tuesday
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jan 22, 2002
Words:2956
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