Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Category: Crime (page 2 of 5)

Those twitching net curtains again

“Because they should know better…”

That’s what I was told when, as a young journalist, I asked why it was always bigger news when a crime was committed by someone in a white collar job. I never liked that answer. Let’s leave aside the fact that it assumes that anyone from a less privileged position in society doesn’t or can’t know that committing a crime is wrong, I just don’t think it’s the whole story.

Human beings as a species are naturally nosy. Maybe it grew up as a survival strategy, maybe it’s just one of our baser instincts, whatever the reason, there is a slightly sinful enjoyment to be had from peering into someone else’s life. Look at the success of reality television. Social media means we can stalk our nearest and dearest, not to mention people we haven’t seen since school or who we met briefly once long ago, like never before. But for proper Grade-A snooping, with added moral vindication, you really can’t beat the criminal courts.

When you’re reporting a trial there is a checklist you follow to find that perfect case. A perfect case, especially if you are a freelancer, is a story that will get you “above the fold”. A story that will have good enough quotes that they will appear as a “standfirst” in larger type at the top of your piece. A story with a strong enough hook that you’ll get a nice large headline and maybe a picture byline. A story that lends itself to pictures. A trial with a white collar criminal or a murder with a beautiful or heartbreakingly pathetic corpse tends to tick all the boxes. Add a sexual element, in murder at least, and you can guarantee the press benches will be full and it’ll be standing room only in the courtroom.

I’ve written about these kinds of trials for almost half my career. I wrote two books because the public appetite for these cases meant there was a market for them. I earned my living out from knowing which trials would generate the column inches, noting details when a death was announced, keeping an ear out for court dates, having the research ready. A big trial would mean more money, would mean the camaraderie of a large press posse following every move, could even lead to a book deal or a movie deal. A big trial would be a pay out.

But at the same time you tend to see the worst of people during a big trial. The rubber neckers who turn up every day, rubbing their hands with glee at the juicier evidence. The neighbours who’d grab you for the gruesome details. The callous jokes you hear yourself cracking at lunchtime with colleagues. Even though it was how I made my living, even though I shared the interest, the lack of empathy bothered me and became something I didn’t want to feed any more.

When we look at a white collar accused we do so with smugness. They should have known better than to be there, therefore we can freely judge them. They have transgressed, have let the side down – we are absolved from pity.  All too often this condemnation is extended to the victim. If the victim can also be seen to have failed morally in some way, then the way is clear to enjoy the gory details without being hampered by compassion. I can only imagine how the family of Elaine O’Hara are feeling this week as architect Graham Dwyer is on trial for her murder in a trial that is generating daily headlines about bondage and sadomasochism. Reading the headlines it’s sometimes hard to tell who’s on trial. Whatever the verdict at the end of the trial, Elaine O’Hara will be remembered by many because of her supposed sexual preferences rather than because of the facts, such as they are known, of her death.

I’m currently researching middle class crime in the 19th century for an academic paper – looking at the very early days of court reporting. I knew from researching the Ireland’s Eye murder that some things never change when it comes to the kind of trials that make the headlines but it’s fascinating to see how court reporting evolved in the early 19th century. Newspapers have never been free of the commercial need to draw in more readers. They’ve always had to “tickle the public”. There was never a time when sex didn’t sell, even when it couldn’t be mentioned.  The trials that are remembered today, that inspired songs and plays back then – like the murder of Maria Marten by William Corder, the famous Red Barn murder of 1827 – would still make headlines. Some things never change.

Dark Tourism

Long_Hole-Ireland's_Eye

Tourists visit the Long Hole on Ireland’s Eye in the 19th century, the scene of a famous murder.

There’s always been a fascination for murder. You only have to walk into a bookshop or turn on your TV to see crime, both fact and fiction, is where it’s at. Any high profile trial will have it’s followers. I’ve seen crowds queuing to get into court whenever a case caught the public attention. During both the Joe O’Reilly trial and the Eamonn Lillis trial the crowds got so large they caused problems for the courts staff. During both case, proceedings had to be stopped for public safety reasons. To be honest, if it wasn’t for this hunger I wouldn’t have had a job for as long as I did down the courts.

I’ve been researching 19th century crime for long enough to know that this ghoulish rubber necking is nothing new. The case that I’m focused on, that of wife killer William Bourke Kirwan, was no exception. Murder was a fairly rare occurrence in Dublin back then and when the trial took place in Green Street courthouse in December 1852 the crowds blocked the street.

I’ve been fascinated while researching the wider story how much of a thing this dark tourism was. In January 1853, just days after Kirwan’s sentence was commuted to transportation, an ad appeared in the Freeman’s Journal for “Kirwan the Murderer”. Sadly the advertisement doesn’t go into much detail and was never repeated so I’ve no idea whether “Kirwan the Murderer” was a Penny Dreadful retelling of the case or even a play. I haven’t been able to find any other reference to it and it’s unlikely that any playbill or copy of the pamphlet have survived, though I’d love to see them if they have.

I was amused when I saw it because nothing’s really changed. Any high profile murder trial  in Dublin will be followed by the tabloid commemorative booklet and then a little later with the TV3 re-enactment. It’s always the final flourish of the story. Just as it was then.

What we don’t generally get these days though is the actual murder tourism. It’s still there but they don’t often advertise in the papers. In August 1853 a series of ads appeared in the Freeman’s Journal for boat trips to Ireland’s Eye, the scene of the famous murder. The Long Hole, where Maria Kirwan’s body had been found, was a popular jaunt.  The picture illustrating this piece is an, almost, contemporary sketch from a tourism book, published around 10 years after the murder. The so-called Murder Rock would have been round about where the man and woman are standing as far as I can tell. In September 1853 it was reported that there had been so many pilgrims to the site all seeking souvenirs of the tragic events that the rock had been quite chipped away.

Around the time this story was printed, the  Crown auctioned off all Kirwan’s belongings. The crowds for the viewings were massive, especially for the auction for one of Kirwan’s suits and his gold watch. I’ve always suspected that the National Library collection of Kirwan’s work was bought at one of these auctions. I wrote about my theory for their blog a couple of years ago.

Bidding was swift on all the lots according to newspaper accounts but one expected buyer did not turn up. The Freeman’s Journal noted, at the auction that included Kirwan’s suit, that it was a surprise that none of the bidders had come from a waxworks. Chambers of horror containing effigies of notorious killers were commonplace except, apparently in Dublin. The journalist noted this fact with some satisfaction. The crowd, as well, were less of a throng than one might expect.

Kirwan’s always been a good story. He caught my imagination and if you get the boat out to Ireland’s Eye even today, you’ll hear his story. I wonder will people still be telling the story of Joe O’Reilly in 160 years.

Beware the Big Bad Wolf

Mick Phillpott is no bogey man like Sawney Bean

Mick Philpott, who last week was sentenced to life in prison for setting a fire which resulted in the deaths of six of his 17 children, looks set to become the kind of legend that conservative mothers scare their children with when they won’t do their homework and eat their greens. His case has caused political ructions and spawned a slew of TV specials in numbers normally reserved for matters of grave national importance, like wars or epidemics. For a man who loves the limelight it must all be very gratifying, after all he’s no stranger to being cast as public enemy number one.

I’ve hesitated in posting on the case.  After all, it’s only a couple of months since I swore my days of writing about sensational trials are over. But Mick Philpott fascinates me. I’ve seen his type before. Most of us have. While Philpott might be being cast as the product of Trash TV and The Benefit Culture, his story is sadly nothing new. Men like him have been making bogey men for centuries. There’s something about that particular blend of monomaniacal swagger and ruthless selfishness that stops those of us who consider ourselves law abiding, or god fearing or unassuming members of society, in our tracks. We baulk at such shameless profiteering, such casual cruelty. It’s natural. If society has too many Mick Philpott’s in it’s midst the whole thing will come crashing down.

Delivering her sentence, the trial judge in the Philpott case went into unusual detail in highlighting a particular part of the evidence, including matters which had not been put before the jury. Mrs Justice Thirlwall’s full sentencing speech makes interesting reading and it’s also worth reading Grace Dent’s analysis of it. Both make clear the fact that Philpott was a very specific type of abuser. Dent compares him to Fred West, which is a fair enough but I’ve been struck by another comparison , a case I wrote about at the time and which sparked a similar furore in Ireland after the sentence, that of wannabe ruler of the New World Order and friend of social workers and gardai, Ronnie Dunbar.

I sat next to Dunbar for pretty much every day of his trial. That was back before criminal trials moved out of the Four Courts into the new Criminal Courts of Justice and in the absence of press benches the press often found ourselves sitting beside the prisoner in the dock. As the only left handed hack in the pack I usually found myself shunted down to the end of the row by clashing elbows. As a consequence I’ve sat next to quite a few of Ireland’s most notorious murderers. Most of them are very polite.

Dunbar was a particularly chivalrous child killer. He would great me with a warm smile each morning and once or twice bent to pick up a dropped pen. It’s unusual for a defendant to be so outgoing with members of the press but in this case, no one was particularly surprised. We’d already been regaled with stories in the press room from a colleague who’d doorstepped him during the hunt for his victim Melissa Mahon, whose body was undiscovered for two years. This journo, who’d fully expected to have the door slammed in his face was amazed to be ushered into the house. Dunbar shared that with Philpott. He liked the attention.

That craving for attention tends to put us on the back foot. When someone is aggressively upfront and outgoing they illicit a conditioned response. We smile and comply and engage – even if every sense is screaming that this person is as dodgy as hell. Before the brain has a chance to step in the head nods and the mouth smiles politely. Men like Dunbar and Philpott thrive on this. They are not the kind of killers who will hang about on the fringes of a crime, drooling over their gory deeds like the villain in a TV cop show. They will be front and centre, helping in the search, appealing on TV, offering suggestions. Men like that are so obsessed with control that they will try to take it everywhere. They are flamboyant in their seeking, greedy, hungry. We are always put on the back foot.

One of the most horrifying things about these cases is their inevitability, an inevitability most visible in hindsight. Fred West got help to lay the cement in the garage that covered the grave of one of his victims years before he was caught, Ronnie Dunbar became the go to person for albeit reluctant social services trying to care for vulnerable teen Melissa Mahon, Mick Philpott of course, was a memorable guest on the Jeremy Kyle Show. It’s easy to say after the fact that surely someone should have known. Surely the final tragic events could have been avoided? But these cases remind us that real life isn’t that easy. The clues might all be there but the great detective isn’t called in until after the fact and everyone else will smile through gritted teeth until it’s all too late.

It’s not particularly surprising that cases like this become ciphers for other gripes. We seek justification, an easy ending. The idea that someone that blatant, that obviously dodgy, could go about with their swagger wreaking whatever havoc they may doesn’t sit well with an ordered society. So Ronnie Dunbar’s crime becomes a stick to beat the HSE with. Don’t get me wrong, there are massive failings in that area but the Dunbar case was the fault of one manipulative, narcissistic, sociopath not the social services in Sligo town. But it’s easier to think that it could have been prevented if the powers that be had been on their toes. It puts men like Philpott or Dunbar in a box, but that containment is an illusion.

Men like Philpott and Dunbar and Fred West fascinate because they are truly horrifying. They act with such disregard of societal norms that strikes against some very deep taboos. That’s why this particular type of robber baron takes the headlines, why they appear and reappear in fiction and legend. Take the case of Sawney Bean, illustrating this piece. It might have been a piece of anti Scottish propaganda but the tale of Sawney’s cannibal clan was used to terrorise generations of kids. The character crops up across popular culture too. Take Brian Blessed in Terry Nation’s original series of Survivors made in the 70s. His character Brod is a fictional take on much the same kind of character.

I’m not belittling the harm that Philpott, Dunbar and West have done. We are better off recognising this kind of abusive arrogance wherever it occurs rather than treating each new instance as an aberration and looking for somewhere else to lay the blame. Serial killers and cannibals might be outside the norm but narcissistic sociopaths who think the world owes them are two a penny and too many of them get what they want. Take the revelations about Jimmy Saville or the abuse detailed in the Ferns Report (and the rest) or pirate radio’s most notorious child abuser Eamonn Cooke. Abuse on this scale can only take place because an awful lot of blind eyes are turned. Philpott and Dunbar were both treated in the past as harmless clowns. Philpott got to make more TV. Staff walked out of Radio Dublin in the 70s when rumours were known but Cooke’s abuse continued for years. I’ve mentioned a disparate mix of cases in this post. They really only have one thing in common. The sexual abuse of the vulnerable. Arrogant men abuse. Arrogant men who are pandered to and allowed to continue. Sometimes they kill. All of the time they ruin lives.

I’m sick and tired of the constant surprise when these cases come to light. These men are predators. We should instinctively know how to spot them. It should be so deep rooted in us that we will run a mile but again and again those blind eyes are turned and nothing is done until it’s too late. The big, bad wolf is not cuddly. He’s a menace. He’s never a product of a society, however ill. He’s the thing we’re supposed to be keeping out. I didn’t mean for this to turn into a rant but it really does piss me off. As a journalist I watched some of the worst of these as they swaggered through their trials, acting the gentleman or even the victim. I’ve seen their victims tremble. But I’ve also known  my own big, bad wolf and I’ve been staggered at the blindness of others. Can we stop trying to blame these men on societies that are groaning at the seams and take a little bit of responsibility ourselves? I’m not in any way advocating anyone burning out their local paediatrician but if you know a child or a woman or a man who is in actually in trouble and who you genuinely feel is in danger for god’s sake say something to someone. The big, bad wolf does what he likes only when he’s allowed to and we all allow him.

How She Did It…Or Not…

It’s hard to believe that Devil in the Red Dress was published over four years ago. Even though I’m working on my fourth book at the moment Devil  is the one that keeps coming back like a bad penny and it’s not likely to stop doing so any time soon.

The main reason for this is the petit blonde at the centre of the Irish half of the story. Was there ever as winsome a femme fatale before the Irish courts as Sharon Collins? I doubt it somehow. I remember Sharon well from her trial – eight weeks is a long time to see someone everyday. Even with a very heavy Damoclean sword hanging over her head she still managed to sparkle when the mood took her. I remember watching some footage of one of her police interviews, shown to the jury to indicate minute differences in the syntax of her answers that had not been fully captured by the garda scribe. She sat in the bare interview room, twisting a handkerchief in her hands as she called the gardai by their first names. I watched that footage, the jury watched that footage and I don’t think any of us particularly bought her story. There was something of the air of a little girl twisting a curl around her finger to deflect a parent’s wrath.

The jury, after watching this footage and also after watching her on the stand over two whole days, convicted her on all counts. She was convicted of both conspiring to kill her lover PJ Howard as well as his two adult sons and soliciting someone to kill them. Her co-accused, Egyptian poker dealer Essam Eid, was acquitted on conspiracy charges and the DPP eventually conceded that it would have been difficult for Sharon to have conspired alone but the soliciting charges stuck. Despite her earnest demeanour, despite her protestations, it was hard to believe the story of the rogue creative writing tutor who had travelled from America with blackmail and extortion on her mind (this was honestly the main  thrust of her defence). About the only one who seemed to believe her story was her main victim, PJ Howard. He vowed to clear her name back then and hired private detectives to track down the mysterious Maria Marconi. Everyone drew a blank. One Las Vegas detective, so I heard from my sources, was so irritated by the wild goose chase she had been sent on that she approached gardai to give evidence in the trial about the non existence of the Machiavellian tutor. The FBI tried to find Maria Marconi. They drew a blank. No one by that name had  entered or left the United States at the time she was supposed to have been up to no good in Ireland. I tried to track down Ms Marconi when I was researching the book. I found most other people connected with the story. Her I didn’t find. At one point in their investigation the gardai thought that Ms Marconi bore a striking resemblance to Essam Eid’s dodgy paramour, Theresa Engle. Sharon Collins didn’t go with that one though. Maria Marconi was real and dangerous. Maria Marconi, the six foot invisible white rabbit of the creative writing fraternity!

I never had any doubt about the veracity of her conviction. I watched her daily for six weeks and I would have convicted in a heartbeat. There’s something about the story told by a guilty person on the stand that stands out. It’s hard to put your finger on but it’s something you start to see when you watch a lot of trials. It’s actually what drew me to the story I’m working on now. I was reading the transcript of court proceedings from a hundred and sixty years ago and that guilt was drumming out the same rhythm. It tends to show itself in a certain obliqueness, a reliance on minutiae, on incidental details that an innocent person wouldn’t have picked up on. If you’re aware of what you’re doing when you commit a crime surely part of your brain is going to be looking for loopholes, the details that can save you. Those are the things you’ll remember and those are the things you focus on. But you get so focused on the details that you forget to the basics of innocence. The fact that you didn’t do it. It comes out as “You can’t think I did it because of this thing” rather than “I’m innocent.” I doubt this is hard and fast but then the people who end up before the courts aren’t exactly the best criminals – they are the ones that got caught. That same rhythm’s in the Maria Marconi story.

Why am I picking over the defence of a case that’s four years old, the time served, the matter closed? Well it’s not closed. Not if Sharon has anything to do with it. I haven’t heard her mention Maria Marconi recently but she still claims she was set up.

When she was first released from prison Sharon Collins wasn’t allowed to talk to the press. That embargo was up around New Years and sure enough there she was in the last days of 2012, making herself heard. Now this is a case that has made headlines both here and in the States. I know from experience that there’s massive interest in retelling it and it was always going to be the way that Sharon was courted to tell her part as soon as she could. Apart from the inevitable documentaries and movies she is apparently in discussions to write not one but two books. She’ll be following an age old tradition if she goes down that route. My Victorian case spawned at least three pamphlets from supporters of the convicted man. Back then the accused didn’t have as much of a right to reply as they would have in a modern court. They certainly wouldn’t get to take the stand. But Sharon did take the stand, and the jury didn’t believe her. They convicted. Unanimously. It was Eid, who also took part in an eerily similar plot on the other side of the Atlantic, they had difficulty with. Now in fairness, Eid also professes his innocence – but then the gaols are full of innocent men!

Perhaps it’s because I’ve dug so deeply into this story;  perhaps it’s because I’ve heard about the evidence the DPP didn’t use; perhaps it’s because when I’m face to face with someone I trust my gut but I find these protestations of innocence irritating. I get that this is a great story and the whole world is interested in learning more about it but using that notoriety to undermine the case put against you leaves a bit of a nasty taste. I’d be interested to hear why she did it, or how, what it was like emailing a man she thought was a hitman, discussing your partners death with such flippant coldness, but the perpetuation of the fairy tale she tried to fob off on the jury? No thanks.

The Devil in the Red Dress is Free at Last

So Sharon Collins is out of jail. She has served almost four years of a six year sentence for soliciting someone to kill her lover PJ Howard, and his two adult sons Niall and Robert. Today’s papers are speculated will she or won’t she reunite with PJ, who stood by her even as the emails detailing exactly what she was considering having done to him were read out in court. He never believed the case against her and was seen visiting her in jail but the camera-shy millionaire has been notable by his absence recently.

That’s all very well and I’ve nothing against a good old-fashioned romance but I’m more interested in the fact she’s out after serving less than four years for trying to have three people killed.

Now, obviously, nothing is as simple as that sentence might have made it appear. Collins was initially convicted on all six counts against her. Three of conspiracy to murder and three of soliciting someone to murder the three Howard men. Her co-accused Essam Eid, who’s currently serving a 33 month sentence for his part in an almost identical scam in resulting from another femme fatale trying to secure the services of phantom Mafioso Tony Luciano through the decidedly dodgy hitmanforhire.net. In the American case Eid was convicted of extortion. Here in Ireland the jury failed to convict him on the conspiracy charges, finding him guilty on two counts of handling stolen goods. Eid himself was surprised with that outcome. But it was that verdict that made the three counts of conspiracy impossible to stick on Sharon Collins, after all, it’s rather hard to conspire on your own. They were quashed on appeal last year.

Eid was released in 2011 and was promptly extradited back to the States to face the other charges relating to the hitmanforhire website (I’ve blogged on the lot if you take a look in the tags at the top of this post – and of course, for further detail there’s always my Devil in the Red Dress but enough plugging). He had been in jail since his arrest at the time of the Ennis debacle back in September 2006. So he would have served a little over four years.

Now Eid was convicted of handling stolen goods. The biggest thing he handled was a laptop and a computer. The laptop he used to check his email and the computer he dumped in the bushes outside his hotel but that’s a whole other story. There was also a map of Irish money that he’d just liked the look of, if memory serves me correctly.

Sharon Collins on the other hand handed over fifteen grand to see the love of her life and the two lads she had been a mother figure to for years, killed. She was quite explicit about how she wanted them killed. There were a LOT of emails between lyingeyes98@yahoo.com and Tony the hitman Luciano. They were very flirty emails and lyingeyes98 had no qualms about speculating how the three men were to die. PJ could be pushed out of a window she suggested, as she sat in the house she shared with him (let’s say). Robert and Niall could be poisoned by a good-looking honey trapper perhaps or their car could be rigged to crash on the winding roads of County Clare. She was never short of possibilities.

The jury believed that lyingeyes98 was none other than Sharon Collins and I agree with them. So that means flirting with someone who you, presumably, truly believe is a hitman and planning precisely how you want the hit carried out on three people who trust you and, also presumably, love you, is the same as handling a dodgy laptop and a poster of Irish bank notes. In fact Sharon Collins served less prison time that Essam Eid. She’ll probably serve less than Marissa Marks, her counterpart on the other side of the Atlantic, who lashed out at an ex’s new girlfriend in true adolescent bunny-boiler fashion but was quick to buckle when she was confronted with what she had done.

Sharon Collins always denied what had happened. She still does. It was all down to a psychopathic creative writing tutor according to her. The mystery woman who teams of private eyes have failed to track down – Maria Marconi.

Sharon Collins benefited for time off for good behaviour, a laudable aspect of the Irish penal system but one that also guarantees a third off the sentence for any-well behaved rapist, murderer or child molester. It makes the frequently low sentences here even lower on a regular basis.

Personally I think Sharon Collins should have served longer. Four years, not even, seems a ridiculously short amount of time for the plot she seemed to take some relish in plotting. It might not have been carried out, but she didn’t know that when she sent the emails, talked on the phone or sent the money. The fact that she ended up a patsy was a cautionary tale but not really a mitigating one.

But this is simply another case of Irish courts not handing sentences that seem the right weight. It’s something we see all the time with rape cases. Whenever I sit down to write about this issue I’m reminded of two particular cases. The first was Eamonn Cooke, the notorious paedophile and one time owner of pirate station Radio Dublin. I covered his one of his trials when I first started working in the courts back in 2006. He was convicted on rather a lot of counts of sexually abusing two little girls in the 70s. The girls in question had been six or seven when the abuse started. Because of the nature of the abuse, when it came to sentencing, the maximum sentence on each count was two years. The judge in that case, whose name unfortunately escapes me, had spent a lot of time working in the European Court of Human Rights. She said at the sentencing that she wanted to make each of these two year sentences consecutive rather than concurrent. This would have meant that Cooke would have been sent to jail for around 100 years. Of course the judge was quickly reminded that such things aren’t possible in Irish courts and the sentences would have to run concurrently after all. The judge was not happy.

The other case was rather better publicised. Gerald Barry, who killed Swiss teenager Manuela Riedo in Galway, was up on rape charges some time after his conviction. The rape was an unconnected case which had happened a short time before the killing. In that case, given the circumstances, Judge Pail Carney, sentenced Barry to life, rare enough in rape cases here, but it was his sentencing speech that was extraordinary. Judge Carney talked about this automatic third reprieve and said that while it was laudable that we should use a carrot rather than a stick to encourage good behaviour, the lack of flexibility meant that even someone like Barry had that carrot before them.

We do not have a system in Ireland where judges can recommend a minimum time served. Sentences are decided according to a strict sliding scale that will be held up to minute examination in the Court of Criminal Appeal. They are balanced by years of case law, fitted onto a complex graph of previous crimes that stipulates the gravity and weight of any individual case. But what happens when a case is extraordinary, unique. It happens more than you might think. Judges do not have the flexibility to “make an example” of someone, whatever if might seem from the press coverage. Sentences that do not fit on the rigid scale will be quickly overturned on appeal. So we’re left with a society where a husband can think it’s worth killing his wife because the sentences are so light (as was the evidence with Anton Mulder) or rape sentences of life imprisonment are so rare that it is always a cause for comment.

It’s good to have a system based on protecting the innocent man accused of a crime he did not commit. We should be wary of hanging judges and justice in name only. But we should also have a system where the victims of crime can feel that justice has been done. I’m not always sure we’ve quite got that one right.

The Siren’s Song

Image by Michael Stamp all rights reserved

Pinned above my desk are the pictures of three women. One is a young bride staring into the face of the man she has just married. One is a little girl marking her place in her book as she pauses to indulge the most important man in her life. The last is the resigned lover, waiting patiently to put her clothes back on whenever he has finished that less than Titanic-romantic life sketch. They are all reacting to the same man. The man who would go on to wreck each of their lives.

I first made their acquaintance almost two years ago and it felt like kismet. I have notes of that first encounter, bristling with excited exclamation marks. The first time I saw their faces I felt a thrill of recognition as I picked out each one. I was familiar with their story but hadn’t yet listened to their voices.  Now they won’t shut up!

Two years ago I had no plans to write a novel. I’d just finished my second book Death on the Hill  and I was looking for another subject. I went into the National Library to look through old cases searching for material, casting the net wide. I searched the library catalogue, putting in random searches and seeing what came up but I knew as soon as I saw it that I’d found something special. If you approached an editor today with a murder case involving a philandering artist who’d bumped off the missus to spend more time with the mistress they’d explode with delight. It’s a story that’s so embedded in the history of Dublin that even for me, a blow-in, there was a flicker of recognition. It’s one of those cases that never stays forgotten for long. It’s been fodder for numerous true crime authors, been turned into a play and was  prominently featured in a rather legendary RTE series back in the 1990s.

It’s mostly known as the Ireland’s Eye murder. It took place 160 years ago this year on the famous island just off the coast of Howth here in Dublin. One evening in September a young woman, 28-year-old Maria Louisa Kirwan, was found dead on the island. The only other person there was her husband, the wealthy artist William Bourke Kirwan. It didn’t take long for suspicion to fall on him, despite Kirwan’s insistence that he had spent the time his wife was dying sketching the sunset. There was a thorough police investigation and a sensational trial. But Kirwan’s conviction didn’t stop the debate and there was so much media and political pressure that his death sentence was reduced to transportation for life.

I’ve covered a fair number of trials of men who’ve killed their partners. I’ve written about many of them on this blog. Men like Joe O’Reilly, Brian Kearney, David Bourke, Anton Mulder, and yes, Eamonn Lillis as well. I’ve heard the excuses, watched the guilty wriggle in the stand. I’ve seen juries struggle to come to a verdict when the weight of taking away another’s liberty hangs heavy on them. I’ve watched the victim become nothing more than a disparate collection of evidence, watched their families try to redress the balance, trying to resuscitate a loved one scattered over a jumble of specimen jars. The first time I read Kirwan’s defence my gut told me he was guilty. The more I read the more he seemed just another spoilt, angry man trying to defend the indefensible and the more the women in his shadow fascinated me.

It soon became clear that to tell their stories I wouldn’t be able to write the book as straight nonfiction. Their history lies in the gaps in the documentary record. They appear as brides, little else. Despite the wealth of information that exists because this was such a very famous case in it’s day I found myself staring at a very narrow view. They were defined according to their relationship to a single event. There was no sense, as there was with all the men involved, that there was a life outside the crime, a full existence off-camera. These were women who lived in a time when to be female meant, for most, a life in the shadows of history, waiting at the corner of the scene, mute until they have to fight for their survival.The suffragettes were a generation away and Mary Wollstonecraft was within living memory. If I wanted to tell the story of the strong, lively, intelligent women staring out from these pictures I’d have to look into those shadows and step right to the edges of the scene.  So I embraced the gaps and started to write a novel.

I’ve written fiction before but after two factual books it’s a joy to take the breaks off. There’s still a lot of research to do, more now that I can look beyond the independently verifiable actually but  now that research is a framework I can hang from like a kid on a climbing frame.

William Bourke Kirwan put down his profession as an “anatomical draughtsman”. In other words he earned a living drawing anatomical illustrations for the medical profession. It was a lucrative profession but he also fancied himself as a miniaturist and portrait artist. He wasn’t actually very good. I know this because the three pictures pinned above my desk are actually his work. They belong to the collection of his work that’s in the National Library collection. It’s a rather odd collection of scraps and half finished doodles along with some rather unconvincing skeletal legs. If this book was nonfiction I’d be able to make educated guesses about what, if anything, was the significance of some of the pictures.

But this book isn’t nonfiction, it’s a novel. I can look at them and put myself in Kirwan’s head, decide what he was thinking when he painted each one, why he painted each one. I look at the faces and I see my characters. It’s their stories I want to tell.

An Act of Incomprehensible Egotism

Yesterday’s front pages all focused on the blandly smiling face of the man who walked into a cinema screening one of the first showings of the latest Batman film and started shooting. In a few short minutes 12 innocent people were dead. Dozens more were injured. Before leaving for his one man rampage he had rigged his apartment so that it would blow if an angry neighbour went to complain about the music he had purposefully left blaring. It was the latest in the long line of lone nuts who, thanks to America’s particular love affair with guns, decided to vent his petty frustrations with an act of unfathomable violence.

It’s early days yet. The full list of the dead has only recently been released. There will be a lot more written about James Holmes as the world tries to fathom why he acted as he did. There will be, actually already are, the tired debates about whether it’s the guns, or the movies, or the Internet that brought an unbalanced mind to the brink. The victims will briefly honoured and the town of Aurora will be left with a stain of notoriety as it joins the long list of places where senseless acts like this have taken place. Places like Columbine, Virginia Tech, Utoya, which joined the list a year ago today.  the list is already far too long. It’s far too easy for those with a grudge, those with the petulant urge to stamp on ants, to find the means to lash out. Poignantly, one of the victims of the Aurora shootings, an aspiring sports journalist Jessica Ghawi, wrote her last blog post about the mall shooting she witnessed in Toronto. Incidentally that Toronto shooting must have surprised people familiar with Michael Moore’s 2002 documentary Bowling for Columbine…

 

So yesterday every front page showed James Holmes face. Once again we all want to stare into the face of a killer to try to read his crime in his face. It’s a natural instinct, to try to recognise the threat but it’s not that simple. Most of the time you can’t spot the killer in a crowd. You can’t see the missing piece that takes away that barrier, that makes taking another human life possible. Sometimes it’s there. Sometimes it’s not.

I spend a lot of my time writing about killing. I’ve spent a lot of time staring at the faces of those who have killed. You can’t see it in them. Not always. But still we try. I’ve written before about my theory that a fair number of the Irish men who’ve killed their partners have been Mammy’s boys, cosseted men lionised by dominant female relations who couldn’t cope with their wife’s defiance.  I wonder if there’s a similar thread between these lone gunmen? We tend to hear that they are loners, forgettable, frequently bright. How long must that petulant hatred bubble inside before they act on the mistaken egotism that the world should look at them, adore them, fear them? Whether that manifests as the right wing urge to start a new world order or a wish to be a real life super villain the result is the same. Innocent people die and innocent lives are wrecked.

It doesn’t help that the media response gives them all the ego massaging they could dream of. Holmes is portrayed as his cartoon hero. Impossible not to think back to journalist Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe concerning another of these shootings a few years ago about press coverage…

Whether or not there are copycat killings this won’t be the last time a disgruntled young man runs devastatingly amok. It’ll be another petulant foot stamp, another ego demanding notice. And the press will once again dance attendance, because how can they not? None of us can tear our eyes away. 

 

Sadly, tragically Holmes did far worse than flood his front lawn (Southpark reference again). In his mind he may well have become the super villain he seems to have wanted to be. It’s the people of Aurora who’ll have to come to terms with how very different that is in the real world to a couple of hours multiplex entertainment.

Art for art’s sake?

Female Addict No. 2 by Jason - The Training Room

Female Addict No. 2 by Jason

There was a lot of controversy just before Paddy’s Day when the news came out that Eamonn Lillis would be exhibiting two paintings in a public exhibition. The news, coming as it did shortly after the announcement that he had helped to organise a play in Wheatfield Prison that would be viewed by Irish President Michael D. Higgins, caused a bit of a debate on whether or not convicted felons should be preening for adulation from behind bars.

When it was reported, after the opening weekend of the exhibition in the museum at Kilmainham Gaol, that one of Lillis’s paintings had been vandalised, with the word “killer” scrawled on the frame, there was a certain amount of righteous clucking. Why should a man who had killed his wife get to show off in public? He was in prison as a punishment for his crime, and certainly shouldn’t be building a portfolio.

It’s taken me a while to get to the exhibition. I hadn’t wanted to comment until I’d seen what was there and I was curious about how the art work would be presented in a venue as iconic as Kilmainham Gaol.  But the sunshine this week was too much of a draw so I wandered across yesterday. I’d gone with certain preconceptions and my own views on the use of a notorious case like Lillis’s to sell the museum but when I got there my qualms were swept away.

While Lillis’s two rather insipid watercolours do greet you as you walk in the door The Crushed Bull exhibition actually has something genuine to offer.  For starters it’s not just the work of one headline grabbing killer, but that of prisoners scattered around the country’s prisons and those who went to two support centres after their release. There’s a range of styles and levels of talent on show but some of the pieces are genuinely arresting and thought provoking. It’s a varied collection. Paintings in a variety of mediums hang above sculptures in clay or stone.  There are mosaics, jewellery (mostly made by the women of the Dochas Prison – where Sharon Collins is serving her time) in all shapes and sizes.

Rabbit By Peter - Wheatfield Prison

Rabbit By Peter – Wheatfield Prison

But even if you didn’t come to the exhibition hoping for a glimpse into the minds of some of the county’s worst, it’s almost impossible to forget that this isn’t an ordinary group show. It’s a point that’s rather clumsily underlined in the first room of the exhibition where the Lillis paintings hang beside a collection with a distinct prison bar motif and the painting of the tabby cat staring intently at a goldfish hangs across the disturbingly surrealist grouping on a small chest of drawers in an empty room. A pair of glowing eyes stare out of the drawer in the painting by Eric B. from Portlaoise Prison (notorious for it’s gangland inmates), who signs his work with a pentacle. On top of the chest of drawers in the painting is a pocket watch, an empty wine bottle, a gun and two severed fingers with red lacquered oval nails.  There’s a clay elephant across from that painting, which is right by the door into the exhibition. It’s wearing glasses and is next to a card proclaiming it The Elephant in the Room, by Anon from the Midlands Prison, home to the most notorious of them all, Joe O’Reilly. One thing that’s certain about this opening grouping is that the elephant is somewhat redundant – this exhibition is wearing it’s credentials firmly pinned to it’s chest.

It’s a shame though. You see, when you turn the corner and enter the exhibition proper, you begin to see a point beyond the voyeuristic.  There’s some real talent here and some genuine insight. Some of the work might be a little to obvious in their influences but the cubist Female Addict No. 2 by Jason, from the rehab centre The Training Unit, makes a real impact. That’s why I used the image at the top of this post.  There are some more aggressive pieces (though none as obvious as Erik with his severed fingers). Here and there there are skull motifs or devils but most of the landscapes are noticeably empty. Some of the most poignant works are from the remand prisoners in Cloverhil Prison, where many wait to be deported. A little girl beams up at an anonymous dad, a group work gives a patchwork of political protest. This isn’t really an insight into the criminal mind, just a glimpse at the attempted rehabilitation of men and women who made mistakes and are now paying for them.

I’ve covered the courts for long enough to see the number of people who’ve entered a life of crime because they didn’t have a hell of a lot of choice. Time and time again there are people who couldn’t escape from a hopeless existence, who wandered into a life of drink, drugs and violence because they couldn’t see another way. I’m not saying they were right. I’m not saying that those who commit crimes, especially violent ones, shouldn’t pay a price, but I do believe in second chances. If prison art classes or theatrical performances help to encourage people to go in a different direction, show them a better life, then shouldn’t they be applauded rather than condemned? Exhibitions like this one should never be about the freak show, they should be about redemption.

It’s unfortunate that the Crushed Bull was sold with one of the biggest circuses of recent years. Lillis isn’t the kind of person who can really benefit from this kind of initiative. He, like other middle class, headline grabbing criminals, doesn’t need to have his horizons opened – they should already be. People like Lillis threw away lives that many of those they now get to see on a daily basis could only dream of. That might make them attractive to news editors across the board but when it comes down to it, they should have known better. Lillis’s involvement in an initiative like this only muddies the water and distracts from the positive. Instead of talking about whether Lillis is having too much fun in prison the discussion should be about the value of the arts…except that’s a subject that doesn’t tend to make headlines in quite the same way.

Ladies – Do Not Be Tempted to Do This if Your Leap Year Proposal Doesn’t Go as Planned

So today’s the day us women get to pop the question. The one day in every four years that we won’t get viewed as mad, desperate and a probable bunny boiler if we prod the love of our life towards the alter. Personally I think the whole thing’s a load of twaddle. I proposed to The Husband back in the day. He also proposed to me. In fact, we used to propose a lot to each other in those days. It was a bit of a running joke. There might have been a bit of eventual down-on-one-kneeing on his part but that was only when we’d both decided to make it official – at a time that suited us rather than a kink in the Julian calendar.

But why even bother proposing? If you want to marry your true love and are worried about whether or not he’ll say yes, you could always take a leaf out of one of my former subject’s books. Sharon Collins, the Devil in the Red Dress herself, has been making headlines on the far side of the Atlantic this week. On Tuesday the L.A. Times no less, carried an overview of the whole hitmanforhire.net saga – a mere six years after the FBI closed it down and almost four since I wrote the book on it. I always said it was one of those stories that was never going to get old! Sharon was a woman who didn’t worry about the lack of a proposal and had absolute faith in the internet’s capacity to provide for every whim.

You see, months before she’d found hitmanforhire.net, Sharon had taken rather extreme measures to ensure she was married to her Mr Right. Her partner, P.J. Howard was unarguably devoted to her but Sharon wanted to make the whole thing official. She wasn’t the kind of woman who would pop a leap year question and anyway, PJ had already made his feelings on the matter clear.  PJ was a multi-millionaire (this always was a very Celtic Tigery story) and wanted to make sure that his sons inherited the property business he had built up with their help. If he had married Sharon her own two sons would have stood to take a share. PJ wanted to make Sharon his life partner, he wanted to look after her, but he didn’t want to marry her. There was a compromise of an Italian getaway with private vows in a picturesque little church but there was never going to be a proper, legal wedding.

Sharon went on the holiday, she made the private vows, she even wore her red dress to the “reception” party PJ threw her when they got home. But she had thought of a way round it and wasn’t about to take no for an answer.

She found a website that seemed to provide the answer. Sharon put a lot of faith in websites that made offers that seemed too good to be true. Just as she would later believe that the “hitman” she flirted with in numerous phone calls and emails could solve her little succession problem, so she thought that the Mexican “marriage certificate” she got through the post would give her full inheritance rights.  She had spent a little time in research, in fairness to her. She had found that double proxy marriages do actually exist. A double proxy marriage, for the uninitiated, is when neither the bride or the groom can physically attend the ceremony so send proxies in their place. They normally take place when one party is in prison or, in Montana, the only place where double proxy marriages actually exist, when both bride and groom are in active service in the military. They are not supposed to be used when one party doesn’t know anything about it and they have never been legal in Mexico.

Sharon found a website though, that offered proxy marriages without the usual checks and balances that the legitimate arrangements tend to require. She sent the money and shortly afterwards was the proud owner of a very ornate piece of paper that said that she and PJ were legally married. The paper was so ornate and official looking that it actually got her an Irish passport in her new married name. Quite what she intended to do with this passport never came out in her trial. It was the view of the gardai and the prosecution that the marriage certificate would have been used to lay claim to PJ’s estate if the enigmatic Tony Luciano and his associates had actually done what she had ordered.

Unfortunately for Sharon there was no Tony Luciano, instead there was Essam Eid, Theresa Engle and hitmanforhire.net. The dodgy marriage certificate was found in the safe in PJ’s house and the gardai and FBI found all the gory details of the rest in the salacious emails that had passed between her and Eid. Sharon’s currently sitting in jail in Dublin, Eid’s in jail in the US. It’s one of the best illustrations of caveat emptor I can call to mind and it’s probably one to bear in mind today – just in case.

The Final Curtain Call

I might be apt to look to endings at the moment but it was with a curious sadness I saw that Marissa Mark had been sentenced to six years for hiring Essam Eid to kill her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend. You see, Mark’s sentencing is the absolute final act in the story I’ve been following for the past four years, the story that gave me my first book and the story that was just the best story of any trial I’ve followed in six years of the courts.

If you haven’t heard about the bizarre story of Essam Eid, would-be Internet hitman and hapless conman, then take a look at the page The Story Behind The Devil in the Red Dress on this blog. It still amazes me that Eid managed to hook not one but two femme fatales with his hitmanforhire.net website – the link to a cached version of the now defunct site is over to your right. Not only did he manage to hook two clients with that piece of flim-flam but he also got two idiots applying for work!

Eid is currently serving a 33 month sentence for the Marissa Mark case. He was sentenced in December on a single charge of conspiracy after finishing his sentence for the Irish leg of his escapade. I feel kind of sorry for the guy, even though he was so spectacularly inept at a life of crime (he tried it twice and got caught twice). He was hoping for a non custodial sentence and time to rebuild his life and reconnect with his daughters. At his appeal last March he asked for early release to attend his daughter’s graduation. He always did seem to be an exceptionally proud dad – he even incriminated himself during the Irish trial by pointing out his beautiful daughter to the jury. I admit it, I always had a soft spot for Eid – as a character I couldn’t have made him up!

It’s a little strange to think that all the sentences have now been handed down in this case. Nothing’s pending any more. This has been a very long and drawn out story to cover. By the time Mark is released from jail, assuming she serves the full six years, she will be more than twelve years away from the break-up that drove her to try to get her ex’s new girlfriend killed.

Even though on paper, Marissa Mark has a lot in common with Sharon Collins when you look at the facts of their individual cases there are some stark differences. Sharon was a mature woman who was considering killing three people for financial gain.  She flirted back and forth with Eid in an extraordinary series of emails and phonecalls and mused about the best way to kill her partner and his two grown up sons. When she is released from prison next year all eyes will be on whether she is whisked away to foreign climes by her number one victim, the staggeringly faithful, although increasingly on and off, PJ Howard.

Mark on the other hand will be deported when she gets out of prison, to Trinidad and Tobago where she was born and which almost all her family have now left. She pleaded guilty, unlike Sharon who cooked up a fictional blonde writing tutor called Maria Marconi as an alibi and still maintains her innocence. Mark also called off the hit – although Eid and his girlfriend Teresa Engle turned to the victim, Anne Lauryn Royston, in an attempt to get more cash.

Mark financed her dealings with Eid and Engle from Paypal and three credit cards she fraudulently accessed from her work in an insurance firm. Her legal team described her actions as “an absurd whimsical plan” and noted that Eid was clearly more of a scam artist than a hardened criminal.

At her  sentence hearing she told the judge “That’s not part of my personality. That’s not part of my character. That’s not who I am at all.”

Nine members of her family spoke for her at the hearing. They described her as “kind, thoughtful, loving, with an infectious laugh”, the “kind of person who would give you her last dollar”. Mark followed her mother to America when she was 10 and since then has been climbing towards the American Dream. After a brief youthful wander off the tracks she had graduated college and gone on to get a good job in New York.  She owned her own house and car and had a dog called Angel who waited at the door for her every day.

It does seem harsh that she will now be sent back to the country she left as a child although, unlike many of her family, she had never obtained US citizenship. At the sentencing, US District Judge Gene E.K. Pratter noted that there was a strong need to deter others from trying something similar. She told the court “Society needs to see that a person who uses this impersonal device to put another person’s well being at risk will be punished.” It’s hard to argue with her point. If this case has shown one thing it’s that too many people believe you really can buy anything online.

While I was researching Devil in the Red Dress I learnt more than I ever want to about the kinds of things that people offer online. It’s too easy to assume that what you do from your computer, sitting in your living room, study or bedroom, has no consequences. Whether it’s bullying people you can’t see or trying to buy something you never would face to face, just remember that it’s still real people, real money, real laws, still real life. Just because you’ve never left your house doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

Still I’m going to miss the unfolding of this virtual story. While I know I won’t have heard the last of it this particular story arc has finished. It’s going to be a long time before I find another story quite like the story of the devil in the red dress and the poker dealing Egyptian “hitman for hire” from Vegas.

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