Lessons after Sarah Everard will never be learned
Robert David Coulter stood in front of a judge in 1961, charged with abducting a 14-year-old girl, a red flag that could have saved another woman’s life.
I didn’t mean to start looking into Coulter, a man I’d never heard of. I was looking into much worse men, trawling through newspaper archives when his case caught my eye.
There had been a number of men up for trying to abduct girls aged around 14 or 15 with the men usually 19-22 or so in that decade.
Some were tales of ‘love’ where there was no ‘abduction’, no assault, some hand holding and maybe a kiss. I thought of my grandparents, and my grandfather first meeting my granny when he was 19 and she was 14.
Nothing happened then and they didn’t marry until a few days after her 21st birthday. In all, they spent over 60 years together before he died in 2016.
That’s in no way to defend this type of age gap. At 18 and over you really do have no business being with a 14-year-old, but there was a clear distinction between misguided teens and more sinister stranger snatchings in these cases.
Often, the former received a harsher sentence than the latter, men being sent down for 18 months or more while the strangers and serial abusers just walked free with a slap on the wrist.
Coulter fell into the latter category.
After facing charges of breaking and entering in the summer or 1961, Coulter abducted a 14-year-old girl from her home in Newtownabbey a few months later.
Few details exist online about the case.
Coulter was 23 at the time, an unemployed labourer of no fixed abode. One newspaper entry details a Detective Constable S. Steele stating he saw Coulter on the Saturday. When the officer told Coulter he was enquiring into the abduction of the girl from her home, Coulter said he could assist in the enquiries and made a written statement.
When charged, however, Coulter said "I don't wish to say anything."
Belfast Telegraph, Monday 4 December 1961 - Robert David Coulter
Although the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) lists Coulter’s court appearance for the earlier breaking and entering charge, there is nothing about this case. There are no more news articles about it, either.
Whatever happened, it seems he was not found guilty.
By the point I was reading about this case, I had noticed how men who kill women and children tend to have ‘lesser’ sexual-based offences in their history. If that’s true, I wondered, then did Robert David Coulter go on to do anything else?
Yes. He did.
In Portadown in 1963, 25-year-old Mona Black vanished.
Four days later, she was found, her head half submerged in a bucket of water, having been strangled. The coroner was clear on that. Strangulation was the cause of death.
Mona had also been raped.
Her body was lying on the floor in a backroom of a terraced house belonging to Robert David Coulter.
Coulter hadn't met Mona by chance. He had told a friend he'd planned to sneak her into his house, after a dance, under the cover of darkness when his wife was away at her mother's.
Coulter had married a woman called Shirley, previously. They had an 18-month-old daughter and Shirley was four months pregnant with their second child.
The same friend spoke about how he and Coulter had arranged to meet Mona and her friend a few days before, Mona getting into the back of the car with Coulter where they had sex, despite the other two being in the front.
Mona, Coulter claimed, had told him she was pregnant and threatened to tell his wife about their affair. She had ripped her own dress, claiming she was going to accuse him of rape.
He hadn't meant to strangle her, he claimed, first blaming it on being drunk and then saying that he'd only meant to put his hand on her throat to try and keep her from shouting.
Coulter couldn't explain why a ligature was also found around Mona's neck when her half naked body was discovered.
After he had 'accidentally' killed Mona, admitting her body went limp beneath him with his hand around her throat, Coulter moved her body to a back bedroom and, in his own words, "...went to bed and I think I slept soundly."
He was charged with murder and found guilty of manslaughter by a nine-man jury who clearly swallowed his lies and ignored Mona's raped and strangled body.
While in prison, serving a 12-year sentence, charges against Coulter for stabbing his pregnant wife in the stomach multiple times shortly after he killed Mona, were dropped.
His wife's actions, defence counsel had argued, had "stretched the accused's nerves to breaking point' and 'any reasonable person in his position would be 'round the bend"'.
In other words, she'd brought it on herself.
Shirley, thankfully, recovered from being stabbed so many times. She gave birth to a son just a few weeks before Coulter's trial began.
There is no further word about Robert David Coulter, yet it is inconceivable to think that a man who had already abducted one girl, murdered a young woman and stabbed his pregnant wife, all by the time he was 25, would abstain from reoffending.
Perhaps he did. Perhaps he died in prison before he could be released.
Or, perhaps, like many others who have gone away for raping or killing women and children, he was set free amongst an unsuspecting community with no way of knowing who they were chatting to in the pub.
I couldn’t help but think of this case as the news emerged from the trial of the man who murdered Sarah Everard.
He, too, had come with warnings. The signs were there if anyone had wanted to see them.
Thankfully, Wayne Couzens won't ever see freedom again, but far too many do, and women and children pay the price.
I wonder if there will ever come a time when those in power will want to do the work to identify those who are the biggest threat to women and children, or will they just carry on sacrificing them, as they always have, simply because it’s easier.
The lessons to be learned from Sarah Everard’s murder are not new. They should have been learned a long time ago. They could have been learned after Mona Black's nearly 60 years ago.
That they haven’t is no accident.