It was called a motiveless murder. A young Cork girl stabbed to death and her friend barely surviving after a 19-year old broke into the family home. Now the victim's family have spoken to RTE's Prime Time about their shock hearing that just six years into his life sentence, their daughter's killer is already being let out on escorted day release.
They were alone in the large house in Rochestown Co Cork. Two girls in an upstairs bedroom getting ready for a night out. Sinead O 'Leary was curling her hair on the bed oblivious to the fact that a man had slipped into the house through an open back door. Peter Whelan silently made his way through the house and up the stairs, turning off lights as he went.
"He used such force that the knife broke in her arm".
Nichola Sweeney's parents were away in the UK. Her brother had just left the family house himself with friends. The girls were alone when the 19-year-old suddenly appeared in the bedroom. Sinead, just 16 at the time of the attack, jumped up in fright as Whelan pushed her down and started stamping on her. Hearing her friend's screams, Nichola ran from the en-suite bathroom to see Whelan stabbing Sinead repeatedly with a knife.
It is like the scene from a bad horror movie. But the horrors of the attack in 2002 continues to haunt them. Sinead received horrific stab wounds, 20 of them, mainly to her arms as she fought off Whelan who had picked this house at random to carry out his attack. In fact, he used such force that the knife broke in her arm.
"He kept looking at her, like he was enjoying seeing her distressed".
Earlier Whelan been thrown out of a pub nearby for trying to smash an ashtray into a barman's head.
Last night, Sinead, now 37-years-old, bravely appeared on RTE's Prime Time to talk for the first time about the attack in which her friend lost her life.
"Nichola saved me because when she started screaming at him, he looked at her while stabbing me. I threw my arms into the knives to protect my vital organs during the attack. Nichola was screaming at him to stop and he kept looking at her, like he was enjoying seeing her distressed. We didn’t even know him.”
"He'd stabbed her 11 times, once fatally in the heart".
Sinead dragged herself downstairs and hid in a different bathroom. The house was pitch back. She said she heard his footsteps pass the door as her heart hammered in her chest. She managed to make it back up the stairs, slipping in her own blood, and saw her friend lying face down on the floor. Nichola's robe had snagged in the door of the ensuite bathroom as she tried to block Whelan out. He'd stabbed her 11 times, once fatally in the heart.
Sinead sat with her friend in her final moments as she waited for the Gardai. “It’s a privilege in a way that I got to be there with her,” she said. “I’m glad that she wasn’t alone.”
Her description of the attacker lead to Whelan being caught quickly. Nichola's parents were called and told the horrific news. Her mum and dad, interviewed on Prime Time last night, described their daughter as a kind and beautiful girl taken away from them for no reason.
Whelan was sentenced to 15 years in prison for the attempted murder of Sinead O'Leary. He got life in prison for Nichola Sweeney's murder. In an unusual move, the judge ordered the sentences to run consecutively.
But the nightmare wasn't over yet.
"I think that our needs should take precedence here. Not his."
In 2018, the families were shocked to hear that Whelan had been temporarily released from prison under escort four times in the past three years and been back to Cork. Now, they have been informed that the man who killed their daughter has been approved for escorted day release from prison every three months.
Sinead described to reporter Barry Cummins how she now lives in fear she will see him again. "I feel like I have the right to have a safe life from him. This is where I live. This is where I’m from. This is where my family is. This is where Nichola’s family is. Do you know, I think that our needs should take precedence here. Not his, you know, he took a life and tried very hard to take a second life."
"By releasing him, the minister for justice is endangering society."
Meanwhile, Nichola's hearbroken parents cannot believe that just seven years into his sentence for her murder, he is being allowed such privileges. "The authorities are conditioning him for early release. They are setting him up for his parole hearing next year. He will have served just seven years for killing our wonderful daughter by then. That is no deterrent".
Sinead says that up until a few years ago, she couldn't leave her bedroom in the middle of the night, even to use the bathroom. She's lived through an ordeal and a terror we can't even imagine. Although she says, she is getting better, she admits that her life has been haunted by that night. Her tormentor being free to stroll around Cork, even with an escort, while her friend lies in her grave, has left her petrified all over again.
Feature image via RTE's Prime Time