Probation Service missed opportunities over man murdered by Lifer on Licence – Coroner

There were “missed opportunities” to prevent the death of a property developer who was murdered by a convicted killer after he had been released from prison on licence, a coroner has ruled.

John Gogarty, 65, was stabbed 69 times in his home in Wombwell, Barnsley, in July 2015 by Ian Birley and his partner Helen Nichols so they could steal cash to settle a £500 drugs debt, an inquest in Sheffield heard.

Birley was being monitored on licence following his release from prison in December 2013 after serving 18 years of a life sentence for killing another pensioner in what a coroner called “a similarly violent murder”.

Senior coroner Chris Dorries said that the way the Probation Service dealt with Birley’s breaches of his licence conditions in May 2014 “amounted to a missed opportunity to safeguard against a deterioration into the further offending which led to Mr Gogarty’s death”.

Mr Dorries said he had heard a range of opinions about whether Birley should have been recalled to prison in the light of these breaches, which related to two positive tests for methadone, refusals relating to urine testing and failure to attend a drug agency.

The coroner said: “Returning Offender One (Birley) into custody would not have been an absolute guarantee against the harm that eventually befell Mr Gogarty.

“It is possible that the offender would have been paroled again and that, sooner or later, he would have considered an attack upon Mr Gogarty as a source of funding for any drug debt that he accrued.

“But I consider it plain at least that Mr Gogarty would not have died when he did if Offender One had been recalled to prison in May 2014.”

He said: “Whilst a decision on recall was subject to careful discussion by appropriate persons, the events of May 2014 as a whole amounted to a missed opportunity to take action which would, more likely than not, have safeguarded Mr Gogarty from an attack the following year.”

Mr Dorries said Birley had already been issued with one final warning but he was given another in May 2014.

The coroner said that issuing the first final warning was “a moderately serious error” as he said: “If a final warning was given a second time, it would lead the offender into believing that nothing would happen when a further breach was committed.

“In effect, it would possibly give the offender cause to believe that he could ‘game the system’ without significant risk of recall.”

The inquest was told how Birley had previously killed a man called Maurice Hoyle in 1995 and had been given a life sentence with a minimum term of 12 years.

He was released in December 2013 after serving six years longer than his tariff.

Birley was given a whole-life jail sentence at Sheffield Crown Court in 2015 for murdering Mr Gogarty, while Nichols was given a minimum 20-year term.

Mr Dorries stressed that it was “not the function of the inquest” to comment upon the Parole Board’s decision to release Birley.

He said that it was a “major omission” that, at that time, the Probation Service had no provision for drug testing Birley in the community and this had “a more than minimal contribution to the circumstances of Mr Gogarty’s death”.

He also pointed to communication issues between the local mental health trust and the Probation Service about information the trust, which was helping Nichols, had about Birley’s activities.

He said: “At the least, this was a lost opportunity for meaningful communication, which would have led to valuable information being given to the Probation Service. There is a possibility, but not a probability, that this would have altered the outcome.”