Murder of a young girl in Killycolpy, Co. Tyrone

The rural village of Killycolpy, Co. Tyrone was the scene of a brutal assault and murder on 25th September 1944. Some readers may find details upsetting.

American troops first came to Northern Ireland in early 1942. Among them was 2nd Combat Crew Replacement Center Group based at Cluntoe Airfield, Ardboe, Co. Tyrone. Until 25th September 1944, relations between locals and troops had been good. Everything changed that day.

On 25th September 1944, Private William Harrison Jr. was drunk after several days of heavy drinking. While on leave from the above USAAF Unit, he sexually assaulted and strangled 7-year-old Patricia Wylie in Killycolpy, near Stewartstown, Co. Tyrone.

The 22-year-old American had befriended Patricia’s parents Patrick and Mary and their 4 children. He had visited them in their small rural cottage near Killycolpy, eating meals there over the previous year. He also drank with Patrick in the local pub. On 25th September 1944, he asked to take Patricia into town on the pretext of buying a thank you gift for her parents.

Murder in Co. Tyrone

On arriving at Patrick Wylie’s farm at around 1700hrs, Harrison was already drunk. He had consumed 15 beers, a small gin with each, and 2 port wines in Dorman’s Bar. Harrison owed 3d 10s to Patricia’s father but he was out on a fishing trip. Passing Sadie Wylie on the way into town, Harrison and Patricia took a shortcut through the fields. They never reached the shop.

Instead, William Harrison led Patricia Wylie into the fields where he raped and strangled her. After an extensive search, the party discovered her body in a field half a mile from her home, semi-naked and covered in hay.

There are some inquests more tragic than others, but I feel that this is one of the saddest cases that any jury could be called upon to investigate.

County Coroner – November 1944

Arrest and Trial

Police arrested Harrison and his trial took place on 18th November 1944. The General Court Martial in Cookstown, Co. Tyrone found him guilty of rape and murder. The US Army Air Force Private admitted his guilt. His defence of diminished responsibility due to being drunk and suffering a traumatic childhood fell on deaf ears. His legal team of Lieutenant Ted Kadin claimed that Harrison possessed insufficient moral awareness. They claimed the GI did not understand the nature of the offence and could not tell right from wrong.

Major Clarence Liggitt (Senior Defending Counsel): Do you remember everything which took place after that?
William Harrison: No, sir.
Major Clarence Liggitt: Did you choke the little girl?
William Harrison: Yes.
Major Clarence Liggitt: Why did you choke her?
William Harrison: I don’t know.

The evidence stated he was born in Ironton, on the banks of the Ohio River to a mother of only 14-years-old. He claimed to have had his first sexual experience while drunk at 15-years-old. Since then, he was a chronic drinker although he graduated high school at 16 years old.

His military record already listed 5 prior Court Martials for being absent without leave or under the influence of alcohol. In England and Northern Ireland, he found himself drinking more and in 1943 had spent 6 weeks in a hospital with amnesia.

He admitted to taking Patricia from her home and wanting sexual contact with her. He claimed then to have blacked out although he was able to tell CID officers where to find his boxer shorts at the scene.

A US Army Medical Officer assessed Harrison and found him sane and able to distinguish right and wrong. The members of the court returned their verdict after only half an hour of deliberation. Harrison sat calmly in a hushed but tense courthouse.

William Harrison faced execution by hanging at Shepton Mallet on 7th April 1945. As in the case of Wiley Harris Jr., the hangman was Thomas Pierrepoint assisted by Herbert Morris. Private Harrison was one of 18 American servicemen hanged for rape or murder while serving in Great Britain during World War Two.