Missing woman’s brother vows to keep their dad’s dying wish and never stop looking for her
On the night of December 4, 2000, in the small, picturesque harbour village of Killala, Co Mayo, Sandra Collins walked into the local takeaway.
It was a particularly wintry night. Storms were battering the harbour and a icy grip had taken hold.
Aglow with the flush of new love, she greeted the girl at the counter in her usual courteous manner and placed her order.
Minutes later, with a large bag of chips tucked inside her beige jacket, she slipped out of the door and back into the night. That was the last anyone saw of her.
Long consigned to history as one of Ireland's "missing", her family refused to allow the curious case of her disappearance to remain out of the public eye.
In May 2014, after a cold case review, local plasterer Martin Earley went on trial for her murder. He admitted having a sexual relationship with Sandra around the time of her disappearance, but denied killing her.
The evidence against him was circumstantial: Sandra's body has never been found and there was no murder weapon or crime scene.
After a four-week trial, Mr Earley walked from the accused's bench a free man. Ruling that there was not sufficient evidence to find him guilty, Mr Justice Patrick McCarthy directed the jury to acquit.
"It was sad," Sandra's brother Patrick told the Herald.
"After we left court that day and drove in the gate to the house, my father said, 'This is just like a wake without a corpse'.
"It was like that because the neighbours rallied around. We cried and drank tea. My father said, 'I wonder, will we ever get Sandra back?' I said, 'I don't know. I hope we will, I just hope to God we will'."
Two years later, Joe Collins passed away not knowing where his daughter's remains were. His dying wish was for his remaining children to keep searching for their sister.
"He made myself and Bridie [Sandra's sister] promise that we would keep looking for her," said Patrick.
"He said, 'When you find her, put her in on top of me and your mother'.
"Later, when he was coming near the end, we were holding his hand and he was squeezing to let us know he could hear us. I said, 'Daddy, when you get to Mummy and James and Sandra tell them we love them and ask them to send us the strength to keep going so we can find Sandra and bring her home'.
"That was the last thing I said to him before he died."
In Killala, and Mayo, the desire for the truth is felt by everyone. For so long now the story of the girl who vanished without trace has hung like a cloud over hearts and minds.
"There is a silent secret hanging over the village," said Patrick.
"Sandra's ghost is here. I really did genuinely think that when Daddy got sick and even after he died, that someone would come forward. That their conscience would be picked. My father was tormented until he died."
The short life led by Sandra, one that her family believes ended on that cold December night, was all too often filled with sadness and isolation.
She was just 16 when she went to live with her arthritic aunt, and acted as her carer.
There was only one bedroom in the tiny cottage they shared, so Sandra slept on the couch in the tiny living room.
Her only outlet was the remote village of Killala and the odd night she could spend having a drink with a friend.
She met a few local men, but was known to be vulnerable.
Unbeknownst to her closest friends and family, she was leading a secret life.
As revealed in court, Sandra found out she was pregnant on December 4, 2000, the day she disappeared. She had told her GP that she intended to travel to England for a termination.
Several people saw her in a phone box in Killala through that day.
The State alleged that she called Mr Earley's mobile phone and that he made calls to the phone box.
Witnesses confirmed Sandra was wearing a light pink fleece on the day of her disappearance. This was found on the pier in Killala on December 9, 2000. A packet of sausages and two pieces of paper were found in the pockets.
Mr Earley's number was written on one piece of paper, while the other piece contained the numbers of two abortion clinics in Britain.
After a 17 -day trial, Mr Justice McCarthy told the jury there was insufficient evidence and directed it to find the accused not guilty.
"After the acquittal, I tried to get an inquest into Sandra's death," said Patrick.
"I was told that because it was still an open case that it couldn't be done. Then I got an anonymous letter in the post [saying] that she was buried under concrete and where she was.
"I handed that to the gardai and I haven't heard anything.
"I was reading it and my hands were shaking. I was thinking, 'Is this what we have been waiting for?'
"I think it was genuine. I can't see why anyone would write a false letter."
After a meeting with the Garda Commissioner last year, the Collins family has been waiting and hoping for new evidence.
"This past few months I've been thinking more and more about it," said Patrick.
"Every evening when the Covid numbers are released, I know this is selfish, but I think to myself, 'Please don't let anyone die who knows something'.
"They might have intentions to come forward and then they get stuck with coronavirus and maybe not survive it. We just want to know where Sandra is.
"We just want her back and then we will walk away."
Until then, the Collins family has to live with the knowledge that their sister met a violent end all those years ago and that her killer is still out there.
"I would love to sit down in the room with the person who murdered her," said Patrick.
"At one time I would have been afraid to do that but I'm not any more. I know people might be shocked by that.
"She had her flaws like the rest, but we will keep going for her."