Robert Howard ‘seen carrying spade near forest’ after missing Arlene vanished

Donna Quinn arrives at Laganside Court complex in Belfast on Wednesday
Donna Quinn arrives at Laganside Court complex in Belfast on Wednesday

Convicted child killer Robert Howard was seen near a forest carrying a spade after schoolgirl Arlene Arkinson disappeared.

During a dramatic day of evidence at the teenager’s inquest in Belfast on Wednesday, it was claimed police had been tipped off by an unnamed informant.

Arlene Arkinson has never been found after she disappeared in 1994

Arlene Arkinson has never been found after she disappeared in 1994

A partially blanked-out intelligence document read to the court claimed Howard and his then partner Patricia Quinn told a taxi driver they were going fishing.

Fifteen-year-old Arlene, from Castlederg, Co Tyrone, vanished after a night out at a disco across the Irish border in Co Donegal in August 1994.

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

He was acquitted of Arlene’s murder in 2005 by a jury which was not told of his conviction for killing a south London teenager several years earlier.

Convicted child killer Robert Howard

Convicted child killer Robert Howard

The intelligence document is among a number of redacted files at the centre of an ongoing disclosure dispute.

Coroner Brian Sherrard, who is presiding over the high profile case, has yet to rule on whether to approve the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s application not to hand over some sensitive information to the inquest.

Grounds for Public Interest Immunity include matters of national security or the protection of police methodologies such as the use of informers.

While the Government has obtained such immunity on sensitive papers relating to legacy terrorist cases in Northern Ireland, doubt surrounds why such issues would be at play during an inquest into the death of a missing schoolgirl.

It was also revealed that more intelligence material suggests Howard and Patricia Quinn were overheard talking about going to Pettigo in Co Donegal at night time.

And, another redacted police report alleges that Patricia Quinn and her daughter Donna Quinn knew Arlene was buried in bogland near Pettigo.

The allegation was strenuously denied by Donna Quinn, who was giving evidence for a second day.

“Who said that?” she said. “I don’t know, I swear on my child’s life, I do not know.”

Ms Quinn, a lifelong friend of Arlene, was among the last people to see her alive.

She wept uncontrollably as she denied sending her as “a sacrificial lamb” with a known violent sexual predator.

When asked if she did not care, Ms Quinn replied: “Of course I did. I didn’t know the half of his (Howard’s) life story until recently.

“Trying to make out that I knew? Jesus Christ.”

At one point proceedings had to be halted to allow a visibly distressed Ms Quinn to regain her composure.

Earlier she had told the court that when Arlene failed to turn up after a week, she “knew in her heart” she was dead.

Knowing that Howard was on bail for an alleged sex attack on another teenage girl, she thought he had sexually abused and then murdered her friend, the court heard.

“I believed that Saturday that Arlene was dead and that Bob Howard had murdered her,” said Ms Quinn.

And, when an agitated Howard asked her to lie, the penny dropped that something dreadful had happened.

Ms Quinn added: “I thought in my heart and soul that she was dead.”

But, she insisted, she did not know where the schoolgirl was buried.

In another tearful outburst, Ms Quinn cried: “I know nothing about Arlene Arkinson. Definitely. I pray every night she’ll be got. She was my friend.”

She later added: “If I knew where she was I wouldn’t have suffered this.

“I do not know. I wish I did. I really don’t know.”

Ms Quinn, her boyfriend Sean Heggarty, Arlene Arkinson and Robert Howard all travelled to and from the disco in Bundoran together on August 13, 1994.

The inquest heard how Ms Quinn had lied to police officers about the route they had taken home and about Arlene being in their company.

She claimed Howard asked her to lie, but could not provide an answer as to why.

She denied covering for him.

“It’s not me that’s covering up for him,” she said.

“I can’t see why he wasn’t arrested and put in jail. Why was he even walking the streets?”

Her poor recollection of events in the wake of Arlene’s disappearance was called into question by a barrister for the Arkinson family.

During cross-examination, Ivor McAteer warned: “Let’s just stop this. Let’s have some straight answers to straight questions. Every time you are asked something difficult your default answer is you ‘cannae mind’.”

Ms Quinn, who was 18 at the time, described herself as a vulnerable young girl.

She said she detested Howard, who had boiled her pet rabbit and smashed the skulls of kittens for fun before showing her the bodies.

“I hated the man,” she told the court.

She also conceded that Howard may have been using her to groom her friends and spoke of her relief at his death.

“I am glad he’s dead,” she said. “He can rot in hell for the damage he has caused.

“I know I lied to police but it should be him sitting there answering the questions. It’s not fair. I can’t say nothing more. I don’t know. I am just glad he is dead.”

The case has been adjourned.