Auckland detectives are re-investigating the senseless rape and murder of a six-year-old girl on the 40th anniversary of her death.
Alicia O’Reilly was found dead in her own bed on 16 August 1980 with her sister Juliet, 8, sleeping just metres away in the same room of their Avondale home.
The horrendous crime shocked the country and hundreds of suspects were questioned in the homicide investigation, with every home and business in the neighbouring suburbs visited by police officers.
A few physical clues were left behind at the Canal Rd home, but forensic science was rudimentary in the 1980s and matching DNA to suspect samples was science fiction at the time.
The man who killed Alicia was never caught. As the years went by, her mother Nancye O’Reilly says any hope of justice faded away – although her anguish over the brutal death of her daughter has not diminished.
“It feels like yesterday,” said Nancye O’Reilly, who now lives in Whakatane.
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Alicia loved to have fun and was a “full on child”, said Nancye O’Reilly who laughed as she told a story about a meeting she had with Alicia’s primary school teacher.
The solemn teacher told her that “Alicia would be very good at parties when she grew up”, which Nancye O’Reilly took as a euphemism for being a troublemaker in class.
Laughter turns to tears at the memory of a police officer bluntly telling her what had happened to Alicia.
“I just put my arms around my stomach and I just kept rocking and making an awful, awful noise…..and then the policeman said: ‘Keep your voice down, your other daughter is in the next room’.
“And I shut up. And shut down. That’s the only way I can really describe it. It’s taken me years to get to where I am today.”
On the eve of the milestone anniversary of the little girl’s death, the Weekend Herald can reveal that detectives from Auckland City are actively re-investigating the cold case.
“This is unfinished business,” says Detective Inspector Stu Allsopp-Smith, who as a young trainee detective scoured the lawn outside the O’Reilly home for evidence 40 years ago.
“This case is one that has never ever gone away. It’s certainly stayed with me throughout my whole career.”
To protect the integrity of the investigation, Allsopp-Smith can’t reveal why the police have renewed interest in the cold case.
But he urged anyone who now feels uneasy about an alibi they gave during the original homicide inquiry, to come forward now if they have any doubts.
Loyalty and allegiances change, says Allsopp-Smith, in particular when people are in relationships where they might have felt pressure to protect someone.
His persistence behind-the-scenes has led to Auckland City police being handed the homicide file to review with a fresh set of eyes.
Detectives are rifling through boxes of documents and records to scan them into digital files, in order to look at the original evidence through a modern investigative lens.
“Already the team have identified some matters that require further investigation and enquiry,” says acting Detective Inspector Glenn Baldwin.
“Alicia’s murder was a horrific act and no matter how much time has passed since her death, Police are still committed to holding the person responsible to account.”
Now 67 and battling cancer, Nancye O’Reilly was grateful to the police for re-investigating her daughter’s death.
She doesn’t want to get her hopes up but if Operation Sturbridge does find Alicia’s killer 40 years on, Nancye says her need for revenge is now gone. She doesn’t want a criminal trial.
Just a name and a face to put to the shapeless phantom which gave her so many sleepless nights.
“If you asked me now, ‘have I forgiven the man who killed her?’ yes I have,” Nancye O’Reilly told the Weekend Herald.
“But not for him. For me. You need to do it for yourself.”
• Read A Broken Angel, the Herald’s special report on the Alicia O’Reilly cold case