MICHAEL Bourke can remember exactly where he was and what he did on April 26, 1999. It was the day BBC presenter Jill Dando, 37, was shot dead outside her Fulham home in south-west London.
Jill’s fate and the court battles which ensued would appear to have little to do with a Limerick man, who holds down a modest job and lives in east Limerick.
But the man who would later be charged and subsequently acquitted of Dando’s murder was Barry George, a nephew of Mike Bourke.
Mr George’s mother Margaret also hailed from Limerick, and it was here that Mike observed his sometimes unusual behaviour, when they would come over on holiday from London. But in spite of some niggling concerns he stood by him.
It was an emotional eight years of campaigning to have him freed, culminating in George’s release in 2008. The Court of Appeal in London quashed his conviction following a second appeal, and a year later a retrial found him not guilty.
Mike shines a light on this period, amongst others in the Dando case, in his new book - ‘Mike’s story, The battle to clear Barry George of the Jill Dando murder’.
To begin he starts at the end, with George’s release:
“It was Friday August 1, 2008, lunchtime had just ended and I was surprised at the early call. The jury was not supposed to have deliberated during lunch but perhaps they simply wanted to ask a question before going home for the weekend. As we made our way from the Old Bailey’s cafeteria down the stairs to the famous courtroom we heard that the jury were coming in. There was a verdict. This was shocking, very like the awful day in 2001 when we were again unexpectedly called from the cafeteria.”
George, now aged 50, has since moved to Cork, where his sister Michelle also lives, and is trying to rebuild his life after years of being hounded by the British press.
But among the many anomalies in the Dando case, there’s a few loose ends in Mike’s relationship with his troubled nephew, who suffers from epilepsy and was more recently diagnosed with Asperger’s.
Despite fighting for his release from prison, he hasn’t spoken to him since he walked free.
“We haven’t been in touch for three years. I don’t know why. When he got out things changed. Since the night of his release we’ve had no contact,” the 56 year-old author told this newspaper.
In the book he also states: “I had no further involvement with Barry”, but it is a sentiment which is left hanging in the air without explanation.
He believes that the publication of certain newspaper articles may have hindered his relationship with Mr George as well as possible internal family wrangles over the case.
During the trial he said he was “held in contempt by some who thought I should not be involved.”
“But I was not going to walk away unless Barry asked me to,” he wrote.
Mike kept notes on the case since 2000, and after 2008 started putting his collection of writings and notes into a book format.
Some of it makes for fascinating reading, though much of it has been heard many times over, as is customary in a case which grips the public’s and the media’s attention for years.
With no other person ever charged with her murder, and his nephew’s recent failed attempt to claim £1.4m in compensation over lost earnings, the book may have added appeal.
Where it becomes most insightful, however, is examining the upheaval a case like this can have on an ordinary man, who is not before the court, who has done no wrong; and the trauma that relatives of an accused undergo when their loved ones are brought before the court on the most heinous of charges.
Mike, like George, was the subject of unwanted press attention to a much lesser degree. At one stage he recalled putting a notice on his door in Limerick, advising: “No Photos No Story So Don’t Offer.”
He says he declined “substantial monies” from one British newspaper to sell pictures of the family, and while he was “tempted”, he felt it would have been “blood money.”
His older sister Margaret was, he said, “like a prisoner in her house” in East Acton.
He believes the family’s phones were tapped during that period, and was frequently forced to unplug the phone from the socket due to the volume of calls he received.
When he first heard that this nephew was arrested for the murder, he said he was shocked but did not think that he was guilty.
“I was puzzled, why would the police be interested in him, surely he wasn’t involved? Could he have done it?”
On another occasion he remembers sitting next to him when they were watching a thriller about a psychotic gunman. Something Barry said about the victim in the film sent a shiver down his spine. “I stole a sideways glance at him wondering for a moment would he be able to do it; was I sitting next to a murderer?”
But he stood by him, in spite of allegations that he had frequently stalked women and had an unhealthy interest in female celebrities such as Princess Diana. He later successfully sued a number a Fleet Street newspapers for damages.
Realising that he would need all the help he could get, Mr Bourke claims he helped organise a good defence team and began to write to him in prison “in an effort to keep his hopes alive.”
“I would try to support Barry in the assumption that he was innocent. It was to be an unpopular decision but Barry is a relative and as deserving of my support as any other. I also knew that he would not have any great family support beyond sympathy and he would need help. I can’t say that I felt greatly sympathetic towards him in an emotional way though for a time I would wake up early in the morning trying to make sense of it all.”
He said he was horrified when his nephew was sent for trial “on the little evidence which they had.” “One day a reporter asked me, ‘If Barry didn’t kill Jill Dando then who did?’ I had never given that any thought up to then, but I would in the future.”
Mr Bourke believes the real killer might have slipped under the radar “while the emergency services were trampling all over the crime scene destroying what might have been vital evidence, and then chasing red herrings leaving the trail go cold.”
Later on his feelings toward Mr George would turn again, as Margaret was hospitalised.
“I felt a real anger towards him for all of this horror which had fallen on the family.. He always wanted to be famous, and now he was, sort of, but for all the wrong reasons.”
- ‘Mike’s story, The battle to clear Barry George of the Jill Dando murder’ is available on Amazon.