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We want justice for our Sharon 43 years after her horror death; FAMILY'S PLEA DECADES AFTER MAN SUSPECTED OF KILLING GIRL, NINE, WAS ALLOWED TO WALK FREE.

Byline: DAMON WILKINSON damon.wilkinson@men-news.co.uk @DamonWilkinson6

IT was a case that appalled Greater Manchester - and more than 40 years on no one has been brought to justice.

On September 11, 1974, the body of nine-year-old Sharon Sparks was found dumped on a grass verge on a remote country lane in Rochdale.

She had suffered severe head and facial injuries in an incident which sent shockwaves through the town.

A huge investigation was launched with 60 detectives working on the case.

Forensic evidence led them to a blue Ford Escort owned by Richard O'Hara - a Belfastborn security guard. After several police interviews the former soldier admitted killing Sharon, telling police he had picked the schoolgirl up from a bus stop near her home in Shawforth, about six miles north of Rochdale.

He said he had driven until she 'started screaming', before jumping out of the car in a lay-by off Wildhouse Lane in Milnrow, where he had accidentally run her over.

Father-of-two O'Hara, then 21, was charged with a string of offences, including manslaughter, abduction and child stealing.

But when, in January 1975, a nine man jury at Sharon's inquest recorded a verdict of accidental death by a majority of eight to one - despite the coroner suggesting a manslaughter conclusion - all charges against O'Hara were dropped.

Seven years later he would be jailed for life for the rape and murder of 19-year-old secretary Deborah Robinson in Dublin - a case which remains one of Ireland's most notorious crimes. We are prevented from showing his face for legal reasons, following an order made in Northern Ireland.

Now, Sharon Sparks' family are demanding to know why O'Hara was allowed to walk free.

"It's about getting justice for Sharon. I want answers", Sharon's half-sister Tanya Taylor told the M.E.N. "If he had not been allowed to walk free, Deborah Robinson would be alive today.

"That tragedy could have been avoided. Why was that allowed to happen? That's what I can't get my head around. He should face justice for what he did."

Tanya was just seven when Sharon died. Despite not living together the pair were close.

"I would go visit her on a weekend because she lived with our grandma," said Tanya, a carer, who now lives in Rawtenstall, Rossendale.

"We'd play doctors and nurses - I can remember her in a nurses's outfit with a little doctor's bag. She was always the nurse and I was the patient and she would shout at me if I moved. She was so bossy but so funny."

Despite being too young to initially understand what had happened to Sharon, her death would have a devastating effect on Tanya, a mum-of-four and a grandma-of-five.

"Mum and dad told me Sharon had been picked up by a bad man, but in those days it was hush, hush. We didn't really speak about it," she said.

"It didn't really sink in. At that age I didn't really understand what had happened, but I can remember thinking 'Why can't I go to see Sharon any more?' It was only later, when I was about 11 or 12, that I really began to understand.

"It had a massive effect on me and my life. Because of what happened to Sharon my dad was really strict with me. He wouldn't let me out of the house, so I had no teenage life really.

"It meant that whenever I got chance I rebelled. I made some bad decisions and that's had a knock-on effect throughout my life.

"It also had a massive effect on the village. Everyone talked about it. To this day people in Shawforth still talk about what happened to Sharon. I have no other sisters and she was older than me so I looked up to her. I still think about her most days."

In a remarkable statement O'Hara told the inquest how he saw a 'little girl thumbing a lift' at the bus stop.

"I stopped and told her she shouldn't thumb lifts then offered to run her home," he said.

Sharon 'seemed happy enough with me' said O'Hara, so the pair drove around Rochdale. But when they got to Wildhouse Lane he said Sharon 'started screaming, saying she wanted to get out.'.

O'Hara, then of Brimrod in Rochdale, added: "I was panicking and decided to look for somewhere to stop so I could calm her down. I saw the lay-by so I turned in. I was going about 50-60mph and I saw the passenger door open. When I stopped she wasn't there.

"I reversed the car. There was a wobble of the steering wheel as if I had run over something.

"I got out and she was lying under the wheel. I felt for a heartbeat but I couldn't feel anything. "I panicked and tried to get help by radio but there was too much static. I lifted her up and put her over the wall but I thought I heard her moan so I left her on a grass verge.

"She was dead when I left her. I wouldn't have left her if she had been alive. One of her shoes was still in the car so I threw it out over Pilsworth near Heywood.

"The journey was innocent and I intended to take her home. I didn't mean her any harm. I was afraid of the consequences and this is why I didn't come to the police station."

Later that month all charges against O'Hara were dropped when the prosecution offered no evidence during a hearing at Rochdale magistrates court.

The prosecuting solicitor told the court he was acting on the advice of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

O'Hara, the court heard, had served with the Royal Green Jackets in Belfast for two years, but in 1972 was discharged for disobeying orders after refusing to go back for a fourth tour of duty.

He returned to Ireland, the court heard, but lived in constant fear of the IRA, by whom he had twice been threatened because of his Army background, so he moved back to England in 1973, settling in Rochdale.

At some point in the years following Sharon's death O'Hara again returned to Ireland.

In September 1980 he met Deborah Robinson, a secretary from south Belfast, as she waited for a bus home at Parnell Square in Dublin, following a blind date in the city. O'Hara lured Deborah back to the factory where he worked and then raped and strangled her.

The next day he drove 30 miles outside Dublin to dump the body in a ditch near Clane in Co Kildare.

O'Hara confessed to the killing but denied raping Deborah. That was a lie.

He claimed he got angry when Deborah told him she 'felt nothing' after they had sex. O'Hara was sentenced to life in jail 1982 and eventually served 25 years behind bars, becoming one of Ireland's most notorious and longest-serving prisoners.

On his release O'Hara again made the headlines when he married a Presbyterian deaconess who runs a hospital ministry.

How can away with Tanya Taylor, of Sharon At the time the Belfast Telegraph reported he had also been jailed for two years in December 1975 when he admitted attempting to rob a young woman he gave a lift to near Newry in Northern Ireland. Police investigating the Robinson murder also discovered that O'Hara had been given a suspended sentence at Winchester in Hampshire for housebreaking and assaulting a 15-year-old girl. Two years ago O'Hara was jailed again after breaching the terms of the licence under which he was released from jail.

A file on the Sharon Sparks case is held by the National Archives, but it is not due to be made public until 2054. The secrecy surrounding the file and O'Hara's links to the IRA and Northern Ireland mean Tanya suspects the file could hold vital information on what happened to her sister and why O'Hara walked free.

O'Hara get what he did? the half-sister Sparks But both Tanya and the M.E.N. have had requests for the file to be released turned down on the grounds that it contains 'sensitive personal information of a number of identified individuals assumed to be still living, including financial information, unsubstantiated allegations, and details of the personal lives of named individuals' and that the release of the information would be 'unfair and risk causing damage and distress.'.

How can O'Hara get away with what he did? Tanya Taylor, the half-sister of Sharon Sparks

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Sharon Sparks

Tanya Taylor, Sharon's half-sister
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Publication:Manchester Evening News (Manchester, United Kingdom)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 22, 2018
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