A soldier accused of murdering a teenager 50 years ago in Northern Ireland was hounded to his death by authorities still trying to prosecute him, his grieving family said on Tuesday.
The veteran – known only as Soldier B – died of a cardiac arrest a fortnight ago at the age of 74, two years after he was sectioned following a breakdown.
His family said he had become a recluse and paranoid after a criminal investigation was launched almost 20 years ago into the fatal shooting of a 15 year-old in Londonderry in 1972.
He faced a possible murder charge after a court ruling in June overturned a decision by prosecutors to drop the case.
On the eve of Soldier B’s funeral, his daughter said: “He was hounded to his death. The case just kept coming back. It was relentless. I feel like he served a life sentence for the years he was hounded remorselessly.”
The veteran’s second marriage collapsed shortly after being told in 2005 that a murder inquiry was being opened into the shooting of Daniel Hegarty.
The boy was shot twice in the head by Soldier B during Operation Motorman, a military operation by the Army to reclaim so-called no-go areas set up by Republican paramilitaries in cities including Londonderry.
Daniel died after being hit by machine gun fire at 4.15am on Jul 31, 1972.
Version of events
According to the military version of events, soldiers said they were approached by aggressive youths, one of whom they thought was armed, and fired only after issuing three clear warnings for them to halt.
But eyewitnesses said the boy was shot from “virtually point blank range” without warning as they headed home.
Soldier B, who has not been named, had never got over the killing of a child and left the Army after serving six years. In civilian life he worked in education, his daughter said.
But the fresh investigation begun in 2005 by the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) into killings during the Troubles “wrecked his life”, she said.
“He became a recluse. It destroyed two marriages,” his daughter told The Telegraph, “He was consumed by it. When they told him in 2005 he was back under investigation, it led to his breakdown. He wasn’t far off retirement.”
A little over two years ago, Soldier B was detained under the mental health act after being found standing in the road, staring at the traffic lights and convinced he was being followed.
He thought someone crossing the road was coming to get him. He thought people were following him.
“It all started after the HET began investigating it all again and he just didn’t know what was happening.”
As a result, said his daughter, Soldier B “stopped living his life”. She added: “We lost our father many years ago to it. I want people to be aware of the impact.”
Soldier B, she said, had been deeply affected by the fatal shooting of Daniel and on anniversaries of the boy’s death would go away and contemplate what had happened.
“My father was vilified as though he had gone about like Rambo but he was doing his job in a conflict situation and made a split second decision that affected him for all his life.”
She added: “I am not naive; the loss of anyone in a conflict is awful. We feel for Daniel Hegarty’s family. My dad did too. If he could have gone back in time and changed things, he would.”
On at least two occasions, Soldier B had been told he would not be prosecuted only for the courts in Northern Ireland to overturn this decision and reinstate investigations. In June, Daniel’s family successfully challenged the most recent decision not to prosecute after the public prosecution service in Northern Ireland said it would not be charging Soldier B.
Daniel’s sister Margaret Brady told the BBC last week on learning of Soldier B’s death that the family had prayed for God to forgive the veteran.
Daniel’s cousin Christopher Hegarty, who was 16 at the time and wounded in the same incident, said last week he “would never forget it”. “I knew he was dead,” he said. “I put my arms around him and I pulled him into my chest. I just called his name. I’ll never forget it to this day.”
The prosecutions of soldiers who served in Northern Ireland during the troubles has been highly controversial. Last week the Government passed into law the Northern Ireland Troubles Bill which grants immunity from prosecution to anyone - soldiers and paramilitaries alike - who cooperate with a new truth and reconciliation body established to investigate unlawful and unsolved killings.
The Bill was opposed by all sides in Northern Ireland but former soldiers, including the veterans’ Minister Johnny Mercer, pushed for it. Veterans feared they were being disproportionately prosecuted because the Ministry of defence kept records that could have been used in future criminal investigations.