I wish our Caroline had asked for help

Caroline Crossan.
Caroline Crossan.

As Foyle Women’s Aid officially unveiled a new multi million pound accommodation complex for victims of domestic abuse on Friday, Bridie McGrellis thought of her daughter Caroline, and prayed that other women suffering torment at the hands of violent partners would pick up the phone and call for help.

Caroline Crossan was murdered by her husband John in Derry’s Clonliffe Park 16 years ago. In a frenzied attack on October 4 1997 the Derry man beat his wife so violently that after the trial her family were sent pieces of her fractured skull for burial, which had been scattered across the kitchen floor, and gathered up from a pool of the 29 year-old’s blood.

Bridie McGrellis remembers very clearly how her daughter’s bloody handprints were on the back of the kitchen door of the Culmore home where she spent her final days with her husband and three children.

“He must have had her up against the door, you could see where her hands went from the top to the bottom of the door,” she says.

Carnhill woman Bridie has gone through every detail of those final days time after time, questioning everything and desperately wishing her beautiful daughter had sought help. That, she says, is why she talks to newspapers.

“If any other wee girl out there is living with a man like this, I want to tell them to get out straight away and to ring Women’s Aid the second that man lifts his hand to her. My God, I wish our Caroline had done that. I wish that every minute of every day.”

If consolation is at all possible in such a dire situation, Bridie finds it in the memory of her beloved daughter. Describing her personality and quirks, she could be talking about any other young Derry girl. She’s all the time conscious that any other young Derry girl could meet the same fate, without intervention.

“Our Caroline was some fun. She was full of life,” says Bridie.

“I have memories of her sunbathing on the roof with her friends and them putting vinegar on themselves to try and get a tan. I thought they were mad at the time. And she sang and she danced. She just loved singing. I remember us being at a karaoke one night and she wouldn’t put that microphone down. It was at a wedding and she sang the night away and everyone was clapping her and she was so happy. Of course looking back now, I see the tell tale signs, he (John Crossan) didn’t even come in to see her singing.

“She just loved life. She was so young and full of energy, and beautiful. She was just really plain and beautiful.”

While most mothers have the fondest memories of seeing their daughters on their wedding days, Bridie, looking back, says something didn’t sit quite right with her as she saw her pretty daughter in her white gown.

“You know the way people are on their wedding day. They’re usually glowing. Our Caroline was standing there like a corpse. It just wasn’t right, She didn’t look herself at all that day. For all I know now, maybe something had happened even before they got up the aisle.”

Looking back, Bridie says she believes her daughter’s husband buying a house in Culmore, was an attempt to move her to a location further away from family and friends.

“When they lived in Pennyburn, I could just call in, but I couldn’t do that so easily when they lived in Culmore. And then I’d get calls from Caroline on days when I was supposed to be visiting to say that she wasn’t feeling well. I heard after she died that people had seen her with a black eye. It must have been going on for so long and she kept it all hidden. He’d taken her out of the place altogether.”

Bridie wasn’t at home on that Saturday evening when Caroline suffered the final, brutal ordeal that would end her life.

She got a call from a relative of her son in law to tell her that her daughter had had a “slight accident” and was in Altnagelvin Hospital.

“It was all a bit unclear but I decided to go over to the hospital and see what had happened. I didn’t want to tell my husband Hugh at that stage because he worked on the docks and would have to be up early the next morning and I didn’t think it was anything major. Then I got a call from intensive care to say that I should bring the whole family with me. I didn’t know what was going on then.

“Over we went to that wee room downstairs. They put us in a family room and we still didn’t know much. From there, it all happened so quickly. The police arrived and arrested him (Crossan). It just all happened so quickly.”

Bridie fights back her tears when she recalls seeing her badly injured daughter lying in intensive care.

“When I walked into that room, I just thought ‘Jesus Mary and St Joseph, what has happened my beautiful girl.’ I barely recognised her. They had the lights dimmed down. We were told there was very little that could be done with her, and one by one we had to go in and say our piece to her. Every one of us went in there and spoke to her in that room, Her dear father never ever got over that. He died two years ago a broken hearted man.

“At that stage, a nurse came up to us and asked us about donating Caroline’s organs. I just thought if anything could be done to save anybody else out of it, we should do it, and we gave approval. Then we found out that the doctors had to ring the prison to get permission from him (Crossan). He had a hold over her right up until the minute she died. That makes me sick.”

Bridie says she was horrified that her daughter’s killer was also afforded a visit to her bedside, accompanied by police.

“We couldn’t believe that was allowed to happen at the time. He was ushered in in handcuffs. He didn’t deserve to be anywhere near her,” she says.

The hell of losing their daughter was exacerbated in the months that followed as the McGrellis family spent day after day in a courtroom where every painful detail of Caroline’s final moments were read out, as Crossan contested the murder charge. Police described it as the worst case of domestic violence they had ever seen. Crossan dragged his wife across the floor of the home, continuing to beat her, before pouring roasting oil from the chip pan over her.

Enduring these details, Bridie says, was “a living hell.” It’s a hell she’s lived in ever since, deprived of the chance to see her daughter’s children grow up, as Crossan regained full parental rights.

Caroline’s father, Hugh, passed away two years ago.

“He died crying about our Caroline, a broken hearted man. He never, ever got over it.”

Bridie tries as best she can to live her life, determined that something positive will come from Caroline’s death, she works closely with Women’s Aid and says women often approach her directly when suffering violence in the home.

“I had one woman come up to my door with a child in her arms. The child didn’t even have a coat. She had nowhere else to go. She couldn’t take it anymore. That’s why I need to tell women, young or old to get out and take the children with them. Nobody, deserves to die the way Caroline did, nobody.

“Women’s Aid are there. They do fantastic work. I want people to call them. I wish Caroline had.”

If you wish to contact Women’s Aid in Derry, telephone 02871 280060