Inquest into the death of Nicholas & Hilary Smith in Cloneen

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An 82 year old retired sea captain and his 79 year old wife who were found mummified at their remote bungalow at Rossane, Cloneen,  Co Tipperary in June of 2022 had been dead for at least a year their inquest has heard with mystery still surrounding the circumstances of their passing. 

Nicholas Smith, who joined the Merchant Navy and then worked on cruise ships in Australia, died of severe coronary artery disease. Chief State Pathologist Dr Linda Mulligan said that gardai had been unable to ascertain a cause of death for his wife, Hillary,  as her body was so severely decomposed. 

Foul play was not a factor in the deaths of the British nationals who were described by neighbours as a “private couple.” They had been married since 1967. 

Dr Linda Mulligan said that it was a “fair assumption” that the pair died around the same time. However, she was unable to provide an exact time frame for the deaths or to say whether the husband or wife passed away first. 

Det Garda Michelle Cahill told the inquest at Clonmel Garda Station that a milk carton was found in the fridge of the couple’s property when they were found dead on the 20th of June, 2022. 

A receipt indicated that it had been purchased in Supervalu, Callan, Co Kilkenny on the 17th of December 2020 with a best before date of December 27th. There was also a receipt from the same date for a pharmacy for the purchase of Panadol Extra tablets.

She said that the last transaction that wasn’t a direct debit on the couple’s joint bank account tied in with the purchase at Supervalu. 

Det Garda Cahill said that the couple made “significant donations” from their joint bank account to various charities in November and December 2020. The charities included the DogsTrust, PAWS, DSPCA and Bernardo’s and unnamed UK organisations and were to the value of close to 16,000. 

In December of 2020 the couple cancelled a direct debit for their trash collection and they informed their GP they were moving to France. Their Sky TV connection was also cancelled. 

Meanwhile, Det Garda Cahill said that the remains of the couple were found by Sgt Margaret Kelly, Garda Mary Longergan and Garda Fiona Gleeson on the 20th of June 2022 after neighbours had expressed concern for their welfare having not seen them in some time.

Earlier that month local councillor and pub owner Mark Fitzgerald had contacted her after Brian O’Gorman, a neighbour of the couple, had approached him informing him that he hadn’t seen the pair since October 2020. 

Dt Cahill said that Mr O’Gorman was able to tell gardai that another neighbour, Mary Morrissey, had received a letter from the Smiths in 2020 which they told her that they they were moving to France and that friends would be visiting the house. However, a Volvo car was still parked outside the property with a second Volvo found inside the garage. 

Gardai first called to the house on June 6th, 2022 and observed that the blinds were drawn. This was not unusual as neighbours said that there was some suggestion that Mrs Smith had light sensitivity so the blinds were never open. The house was secure and locked up and two cars were parked onsite. 

Dt Garda Cahill said inquiries were made in relation to couple. They ascertained that Nicholas Smith had contacted the Western House Medical Centre on the 14th of December 2020. He said that he and his wife were moving to France and would no longer need the services of the practice. 

She said that a decision was made by gardai to enter the house and a locksmith arrived onsite with officers on June 20th, 2022. The locksmith opened the lock on the back door and gardai gained entry.

“Garda Longergan and Gleeson observed a number of items of broken crockery when they entered the kitchen. Garda Lonergan made her way to the front of the house and discovered a body (of a woman) in a front room sitting upright in an armchair.

Sgt Margaret Kelly checked the rear of the house and discovered a second body in a bed in a back bedroom. It was apparent that both individuals were deceased and had been for some time.”

The scene was secured and designated a crime. The services of the Ballistics and Forensic Investigation section of the Garda Technical Bureau were requested. 

The Technical Bureau indicated that the inside of the locks in both the front and rear door had a resin or glue inserted in to the cylinder recess. A large amount of crockery from a number of shelves and in various drawers of the kitchen had been smashed. 

Det Garda Cahill said that the body of Mrs Smith was found reclined in an armchair in the living room. Two electric blankets were wrapped around the body and an electric heater was on in the room. The television had fallen or was knocked off its stand. 

She said that the body of Mr Smith was located “face up in a bed in a back bedroom covered in a quilt up to the neck.”

The couple were pronounced dead shortly after 9pm on the 20th of June 2022 by Dr Sheik Fareed. The bodies were taken to University Hospital Waterford for a post mortem examination. 

The scene was photographed and videoed. The following day gardai contacted a local dental surgery where the couple were patients. Ante mortem and post mortem dental records were examined for the pair and it was determined that the bodies were those of Mr and Mrs Smith. 

On the 21st of June 2022 a search of the property was carried out by gardai. Documentation, electric equipment and foodstuffs were taken from the house. Genealogy experts began making enquiries in Ireland and the UK.

Det Garda Cahill said that investigations determined that Mrs Smith was born in Hull and worked for a period as a hairdresser. She gave birth to a baby in 1961 but there was no name for the father on the birth certificate.

Nicholas Smith was a native of Norwich and trained at Warash Naval Academy before he joined the Merchant Navy working his way up to Chief Officer. 

Det Garda Cahill said the couple married in July of 1967.

“It is reported in a local newspaper article at the time that after the ceremony the couple flew back to Mr Smith’s ship for a seaborne honeymoon sailing to the Far East. They resided in Hong Kong for a long time before leaving China in 1997. Nicholas Smith had at this point risen to the rank of Captain within the Merchant Navy.”

The inquest heard that the pair lived in Leeming in Western Australia for a period. They then moved to the UK living in York before purchasing a house in Cashel in 2006 and buying the home where they were found dead in Rossane in 2009. 

Gardai were contacted by British national Andrew Smith, who is a younger brother of Nicholas Smith. In September of 2022 he travelled to Ireland and gave a voluntary sample of his DNA which indicated that he was a biological sibling of Nicholas Smith.

Dt Garda Cahill said that Andrew Smith said that he hadn’t seen his brother since 1987 and that they lost contact after their parents died. His older brother had been in the Merchant Navy and he aware that he had married Hillary Smith. 

Gardaí were also contacted by a man called Michael Knowles who believed that he was the biological son of Hillary Smith. He was able to confirm his identity with documentation. He had no relationship with his mother and there was never any contact. He was raised by his grandmother. A voluntary sample of his DNA was provided and it was determined that Mrs Smith was his biological parent.  

Dr Mulligan carried out a postmortem examinations on the couple. She determined that trauma didn’t play a role in either death. There was no traumatic fractures or foreign bodies. Cause of death for Mr Smith was given as severe coronary artery disease. 

She noted that there was “no obvious marks or injuries” on the body of Mrs Smith taking in to consideration the degree of decomposition. Musculoskeletal examination required no internal bruising or trauma and the neck structures were intact. 

“Trauma did not play a part in this woman’s death. It is my opinion that the cause of death could not be determined at post mortem examination. There is no apparent evidence of another party being involved.”

Toxicology was completely negative in the case. Mrs Smith didn’t have any evidence of traumatic fractures or injuries of any kind. There was no suggestion of the deaths being from Covid 19. 

Meanwhile, Garda Mary Longeran told the inquest that the house was in the name of Mr Smith at the time of his death. She told Coroner Joe Kelly that a local woman Mary Morrissey had received a letter from the couple in 2020 in which they indicated they planned to move abroad. 

She said that although the couple said they were moving to France they didn’t provide a forwarding address to the local Post Office. 

Garda Longeran said that when neighbour Brian O’Gorman expressed his concern for the welfare of the couple they employed a “restrained approach” making inquiries about the couple before deciding to enter the house.

Landscape gardener Billy Brett tended to the lawn of the couple. He said that Nicholas Smith was a “gentleman” who always came out to say a word to him and paid up on time. He rarely met Mrs Smith but said that she was a “nice woman” 

He told gardai that he received a text from Mr Smith on November 17th, 2020 in which he said he wanted to pay him as soon as possible. He gave him an envelope for 700 euro five days later. When he texted him to say thank you and that he was paying him twice his rate for work he didn’t receive a reply. He thought that this was “unusual” but continued to cut the grass for a long period in spite of never seeing the couple again. 

Mr Brett had heard that the couple had moved to France. He described Mr Smith as a “good customer” in the years that he dealt with him.

Mary Morrissey, who is another neighbour of the couple, said that she knew that Mrs Smith had arthritis and health issues. At one point the couple asked her to tea. The house was well maintained.  Mrs Morrissey said the couple seemed “so well suited” and whilst they were very nice people they were quite private.

She rarely saw them during the pandemic and said Mrs Smith was ‘terrified’ of Covid. At some period 2020 she received a typed letter from the couple in which they said they were moving to France. 

Neighbour Brian O’Gorman said that he spoke to the couple about three times in all the years they lived in the house as the Smith’s were so private. He became increasingly concerned for their welfare and told the inquest that he contacted a local councillor with concerns. 

Andrew Smith, the brother of Nicholas, had travelled from the UK for the hearing. He thanked gardai for their thorough investigation of the death of his late brother and sister in law. 

Joe Kelly, Coroner, said that no time frame could be established in relation to the deaths which had shocked the tight knit community in Cloneen and surrounding areas. 

“We cannot pinpoint a date. We cannot pinpoint a time.”

He recorded an open verdict in relation to both deaths. He commended gardai for a carrying out such a comprehensive investigation during a period when many people were isolating because of Covid.

“Some people continued to isolate and live in fear of the pandemic. There is no evidence that they self isolated for that reasons. But it is apparent they they intended to withdraw from society.”

Mr Kelly said that the deaths of the couple had “deeply upset the local community.”

“Certain matters will never be known those best placed to explain are no longer with us.”

He was joined by Inspector Declan Boland in offering his condolences to the relatives of the deceased. Mr Knowles was unable to attend the inquest because of ill health but was represented by solicitor Emer Lyons. 

Ms Lyons offered her condolences to Andrew Smith on behalf of her client and thanked gardai for their extensive efforts during the investigation. 

With thanks to Olivia Kelleher