Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Anton Mulder

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.

The Dark Side of Love

Maybe it’s because I spend a large chunk of my working life writing about disastrous relationships but I’ve never been one for sugary romance. In fairness I was of a fairly cynical bent before I ever set foot in a courtroom but the last six years have not helped! The avalanche of cherubs, roses and all shades of pink that erupts so soon after Christmas these days just puts me in mind of the dentist. I listen to Jacques Brel singing Ne Me Quitte Pas and I think of barring orders and don’t get me started on the kind of stalking popularised by blokes of  a vampire persuasion (see Twilight or Buffy  for copious examples).

Perhaps this is why I’ve always liked films that look at the twisted side of love.  Last night I was watching the unusual Hammer thriller Straight on Till Morning.

Straight on Till Morning

Hammer’s Straight on Till Morning

Staring Rita Tushingham and Shane Briant it’s as dysfunctional a love story as you can get.  Brenda, who writes children’s stories in her spare time, leaves her home in Liverpool to go and get knocked up. Unfortunately the first bloke who gives this “ugly duckling” a second glance in swinging London happens to be a serial killer with a Peter Pan complex. He likes her coz she’s not that attractive. She likes him because he’s got a pulse. It’s not going to end well. Made in 1972, it was probably cashing in on previous successes in this very specific genre, but it’s an interesting film nonetheless, though rather stuck in its time. This isn’t Hammer’s usual fare. It really is a love story, although a twisted one and the frequent referencing of  J.M. Barrie’s book gives a literate shorthand to some psychological complexity.

Straight on Till Morning though, pales in comparison with earlier explorations of this kind of theme. Another of my favourites is the 1965 adaptation of John Fowles’ The Collector.

The Collector Poster

 

I read the book when I first moved away from home and it’s story of a lepidopterist stalker left me paranoid for weeks afterwards. The film, starring Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar, is a damn good literary adaptation. I still think its one of the most unsettling accounts of obsession. Freddie Clegg has watched art student Miranda Grey for half her life and becomes convinced that if he could only get her attention she could fall in love with him.  When he comes into a large sum of money he decides to take action.

But to my mind the best of the bunch is the brilliant and unsettling Peeping Tom, directed by Michael Powell of Powell and Pressburger fame,

Peeping Tom

 

Made in 1960 this was the film that arguable brought Powell’s career to an end.  The story of quiet, monumentally screwed up cameraman Mark, played by Carl Boehm with Anna Massey as his lodger Helen, was too dark for critics and audiences alike. It is a brutal story, though relatively tame by modern standards, but it’s also a brilliant examination of the cinematographer’s gaze and the distance both filmmakers and cinema audiences have from the subject.  Once again, the central relationship at the heart of the film is a dark reflection of romantic love.

But it’s worth remembering that all three of these films are disturbing echoes of a reality that is all too common. I’ve seen way to many trials of men who killed their partner because she threatened to leave.  In reality I always struggle to understand the mind of someone who would want to possess another human being to that extent. In many ways obsession is far scarier than any monster or psychopath. But there seems to be a fine line between desirable romantic passion and the time to change your phone numbers and notify the gardai.  But then at this time of year I’m always the one pointing out that anonymous Valentines cards are really quite a creepy idea. But then, I don’t do sugary romance…

A Line in the Sand

This Thursday, November 25th, is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.  It marks the start of a global campaign of 16 Days of Action.  Here in Ireland the campaign is being spearheaded by Women’s Aid with events running around the country.

Working in the courts you see the grim effects of this violence on a daily basis.  Any regular readers of this blog will know my views on sentencing for sex crimes and on the men who murder the women they are supposed to love.  There has to be a proper line drawn in the sand to show that violence against women is utterly unacceptable.  As long as men like Anton Mulder think they can get away with killing their wives with nothing more than a slap on the wrist that message hasn’t got through.

So many of the trials I’ve covered have been of men accused of killing women.  Colleen Mulder, Karen Guinee, Rachel O’Reilly, Siobhan Kearney, Jean Gilbert, Celine Cawley and Sara Neligan all died at the hands of those who were supposed to love them.  But it’s not just loved ones that kill.  The list of victims can be added to, Melissa Mahon, Manuela Riedo, Mamie Walsh, Rebecca French; a litany of women killed by men.  There are countless other women who can’t be named.  Women who lived but who were subjected to such brutality that their lives have been shattered.

I’ve written a post over on The Anti-Room blog on the subject of sentencing for sex crimes.  It’s an important issue.  We need to draw that line in the sand and say it’s not acceptable if it’s ever going to stop.

Modern Feminism

It’ll be no surprise to anyone who’s a regular reader of this blog that feminism is something I care about.  I’ve written time and time again here about the violence against women I cover on a  day to day basis down at the courts and on occasion delved into the subject on a broader basis.

I was delighted to see the Dublin Writers’ Festival hosting an event with Susan McKay ( former journalist, writer and currently director of the National Womens’ Council) and Natasha Walters (broadcaster,writer & critic and author of  The New Feminism  as well as the recent  Living Dolls)  were in conversation with Irish Times journalist Anthea McTiernan.  The main thrust of the talk was the return of sexism highlighted by Natasha’s book  Living Dolls  but the conversation soon moved into other areas.

It’s great to see an event like that packed out.  There’s still a very pressing need for feminism, some battles may have been won and I’m grateful for how much easier my life and my career have been compared to my mother’s generation but there’s still a lot more to be done.  When I first started working in the Four Courts I was shocked by how many trials concerned violence against women.  These days when the Monday list contains four rapes and two murders trials with men accused of killing their partners I don’t even blink.

I don’t cover as many rapes these days but the one’s I did cover I will never forget.  Stories of violence, manipulation and betrayal that strip away any veneer of civilisation and show how bestial our society can sometimes be. Even now, covering murder trials, it’s no better.  There’s been a succession of men in the dock over the past three years charged with killing their partners.   So many strong, independent, loving women, women like Siobhan Kearney, Rachel O’Reilly, Karen Guiney, Colleen Mulder, Meg Walsh or Jean Gilbert, all brutally killed.  In all except the case of Meg Walsh it was the partner who was guilty of their death.

My latest book, Death on the Hill, due out later this month is about about another of these cases.  Eamonn Lillis was convicted in February of killing his wife Celine Cawley.  During the trial Celine, as a successful businesswoman, was branded a domineering harpy.  The newspapers happily snapped up the story put forward by the court.  But it was online, on the gossipy forums and various blogs that the real vitriol came out.  I came across one football forum while I was researching the book where the thread on the trial consisted of men posting pictures of Celine as a young model and joking about how much she had let herself go according to later pictures.  They were vile comments in a very public forum.  There were times when it seemed Celine was the one on trial.  That case really brought gender politics out into the light and we have a very long way to go!

Dangerous Mammy’s Boys?

I’m used to sitting beside people accused of murder.  When you work in a courtroom that doesn’t have a press bench you have to sit wherever you can.  An Irish courtroom doesn’t have a dock so the two roomy benches facing the jury tend to be a favourite perch for both the media and the accused.   OK the accused is usually less than happy to be seated there, but for us it has it all – space, somewhere to rest a laptop, a good vantage point.

Being left handed, I’m usually the one sitting furthest on the left, closest to the accused.  I’ve sat beside the Colcloughs, Dane Pearse and Gerald Barry (who we were warned had a tendency to bite).  Most recently I sat beside David Bourke when he told the court how he killed his wife.  I was close enough to feel the bench shudder as he sobbed into his hands when he sat back down.  I was close enough to see how he crossed his ankles, white socks with black shoes, while he listened to the evidence stack up against him.

It’s hard to be absolutely objective when you’re sitting in an emotionally charged courtroom all week.  All you can do is make sure partiality doesn’t creep into your copy but outside of that every one of us will have an opinion on the guilt or innocence of the accused.  When it’s a case that falls into a category, say wife killers or gangland or fratricide, there are a whole lot of extra preconceptions garnered from sitting through far too many of these cases to begin with.

Bourke was of course firmly in the wife killer camp.  He might have differed in some ways from those who had gone before; Joe O’Reilly, Brian Kearney, Anton Mulder, but you can’t help but compare.

One thing I’ve noticed about the rash of wife killers who’ve passed through the courts over the past couple of years is how many of them are the same basic generation with similar quirks and weaknesses.  Very often, for example, you will see an extremely close relationship with the female members of their own family.  We frequently have to share the long bench not only with the accused but also with droves of the extended family there to offer their support.  It’s often the case that it’s the women who give us the hardest time, who look at us as if they just scraped us off their shoes and tut as notebook pages are turned.

Joe O’Reilly’s mother has always been one of his most trenchant supporters, his sister was the one he emailed joking about her beating up his wife Rachel.  Brian Kearney’s sister spent much of his trial stroking his back when he got stressed.  It’s a common pattern. Bourke seemed to fit the bill in this respect as well.

I’m not for one moment saying these women had anything to do with their male relation’s murderous tendencies but sitting looking at them during their trials it was commented on that these were men who came from a generation when men in a female dominated family could be treated like little tin gods.  Picked up after, fed, made to feel they were the centre of the universe.  I’ve met men like that over the years.  They had a difficulty encountering a strong minded woman.

These men also show childish impulses.  O’Reilly had a room dedicated to Star Wars memorabilia.  The way Bourke cried on cue smacked of a kid used to stamping his foot and turning on the waterworks to get what he wanted.

I’m not making a hard and fast rule here.  There have been plenty of men on trial who were simply bullies and abusive thugs but the highest profile killers, the one’s branded middle class and media fodder, these were the ones who tend to fit the bill.  The cossetted princes of their own little fiefdom who simply couldn’t understand how the woman they had deigned to allow to step in to look after them should want her own way.

It’s staggering how often you hear stories from the witness stands about how the accused would niggle and bitch when he didn’t get his way, would throw a tantrum when things didn’t happen the way he liked it.  After you’ve seen the same story played out half a dozen times you can’t help wondering what the hell has the Irish mammy bred?

Was it this cosseting, this deference, that made them the time bombs that suddenly went off in their wives’s faces?  It’s a horrible thought.  Because if it did happen to be true how many more will there be?

Another Sentence Controversy in the Irish Courts…

Yesterday 45-year-old Philip Sullivan learned that the life sentence he had received for the rape and violent sexual assault of two young boys had been over turned.  The Court of Criminal Appeal once again decided to go on the light side when it came to the sentence a convicted sex offender should serve.

Sullivan will now serve 12 1/2 years of a 15 year sentence.  He’ll probably be out sooner than that.  As a prisoner under Irish law he’s entitled to an automatic quarter off his sentence and today he Minister for Justice announced that he would wouldn’t be touching this automatic entitlement any time soon.

In fairness this isn’t all that much sooner than he’d be back on the streets if the life sentence had been left intact.  The average length of jail time for Irish life sentences is about twelve years.  That includes those who received mandatory life sentences for murder.

The subject of minimum sentences has been buzzing around for years and there are arguments on both sides.  Certainly sitting in court on a regular basis and watching the sentences handed down I’ve often heard Judge Paul Carney voice his displeasure of the Court of Criminal Appeal’s tendency to knock down the more punitive sentences to an arguably lenient average.

Take the Sullivan case.  I covered that sentence last year and the story was immediately the fact that a life sentence had been handed down and the speculation about whether it would stick.  This was a particularly nasty case.  Sullivan was in a position of trust as a caretaker to an apartment building.  He was a repeat offender.  The victims were only nine and eleven years old and his crimes were of a particularly nasty type.

The guy is a predatory paedophile who had served time on previous occasions and yet went on to abuse these two boys over a period of over two years.  12 and a half years just doesn’t seem enough.

With the Finn Colclough sentence there was some surprise when the figure turned out to be ten years.  Quite a few of those in the press bench had been speculating a lower figure.  The sentence for manslaughter can be anything from a suspended sentence to life.  It seems to average out at around seven or eight years.  Wayne O’Donoghue served three for the accidental killing of 11-year-old Robert Holohan.

Rape sentences are usually in and around eight years but have notably been a lot less.  Adam Keane hit the headlines in 2007 after his three year suspended sentence for rape was activated and subsequently extended by the Court of Criminal Appeal to seven years after it emerged he had made a triumphalist gesture at his victim as they caught the same train home.

That’s another trial I followed and coincidentally yet another sentence handed down by Mr Justice Paul Carney.  Looking back on the cases I’ve cited here they’re all his sentences.  He’s often quoted as making side swipes at the CCA as he hands down sentence and it’s easy to see why.  He’s the most vocal of the judges who dislike having their sentences more often than not reduced.

I’ve often wondered if some of the more lenient sentences he imposes are there to make a point on the assumption that they’ll end up the standard length on appeal.  The Adam Keane sentence would fall into that category.

But back to the subject of minimum time served.  I noticed another news story this evening while I was checking the rss feeds on my phone.  A judge ruled today that a man who raped and murdered a women should serve at least twenty two years in jail.  As soon as I saw the headline I knew it wasn’t an Irish story.  No matter how bad the crime, here a judge won’t be able to say how much of a life sentence the accused should serve.  Sure enough it was a court in Belfast.

Mandatory minimum sentences do exist under Irish law but only in very specific circumstances.  Murder carries a mandatory life sentence but as I’ve already said that can end up meaning as little as twelve years.  Some drug sentences have mandatory minimums but that’s about it.

Covering rape after rape after rape and seeing traumatised women watch their attacker walk off to serve a sentence that doesn’t usually even hit double digits, it’s hard not to be in favour of minimum sentences.  Rape is considered serious enough to be dealt with by the Central Criminal Court, the highest criminal court in the country.  But the sentences don’t always reflect that.  Of course every case is different but the average sentences for sexual offences in this country tend to be pathetically low.

I’m generally madly here but it’s something that you see again and again.  A man who stole the childhood of his now adult victim gets a pitiful couple of years compared with the lifetime of damage he’s inflicted.  Those who have held a woman against her will, terrorised her, traumatised her get a sentence in single figures once all the mitigating factors are taken into account.  I’ve watched trials that would fit these descriptions and each of them has helped to make up my mind on this one.

The subject of sentencing is always going to be a minefield, once again by virtue of the fact that each case must be judged by it’s own merits but as long as stories keep appearing that this one has been released early or that one had their sentence reduced on appeal it’s going to feel as if an attitude exists that sex crimes are somehow less serious.

I wouldn’t be in favour of mandatory life for any rape conviction but there should be some that deserve the same automatic penalty as murder.  In the meantime these stories will keep cropping up and the perception that you can commit a crime in Ireland and be out in a flash will prevail.

I Wanted to Take Her With Me, She Belonged to Me

Today the Neligan family watched their daughter’s killer sentenced to life in prison.  Brian McBarron’s mother sobbed audibly as her 26-year-old son sat impassively as the sentence was handed down.  Sara Neligan had died from knife wounds inflicted on her by the man who supposedly loved her.

She was seen by a friend with bruises on her arms some weeks before she died.  She told the same friend that she planned to leave him and made plans to catch the 7.30 train to Wexford.  She never made it.

He told gardai when interviewed that he had wanted to take her with him when he killed himself.  A blue nylon rope was found tied in a noose above the bed where Sara’s bloody body lay.  He told gardai that he didn’t know what had happened to him.  “I just went out of my mind”.

He went to the kitchen, grabbed a knife and slit Sara’s throat as she sat on the sofa.  The 33-year-old intensive care nurse put up a fight and managed to make it as far as the bathroom but McBarron had followed her there.  He stabbed her “a good few times”.  A post mortem revealed that she had suffered three fatal stab wound to her chest and neck as well as the slash to her throat.  Sara died where she lay in the bathroom.

He moved her body to the bedroom and laid her on the bed.  He estimated he had spent around an hour cleaning out the apartment and threw out three bags of bloodstained clothes – both hers and his.  CCTV footage from the Wintergarden Apartments on Pearse Street where the couple lived showed him making the trip to dispose of the incriminating evidence at around 2 o’clock in the morning.

The following afternoon he went to the local hardware shop to buy some rope.  But he didn’t hang himself.  He stayed in the flat with Sara’s body until he let gardai into the apartment at around 8 o’clock that evening.

He always admitted the killing, saying today, in a statement read to the court by his barrister Richard Kean SC that Sara was “a beautiful and talented young woman who had the world to live for”.  She didn’t deserve to die that way, he went on.

Sara Neligan became the latest woman whose partner was convicted of her murder.  She joins women like Colleen Mulder, Karen Guinee and Siobhan Kearney, who were killed because they wanted to leave the relationship.  Sadly, she will not be the last.

She and McBarron had met in Waterford some months before her death.  On the night of her murder they went for dinner in the Holiday Inn beside their apartment building.  The last sighting of her alive was by the CCTV cameras that watched her walking across the complex towards her apartment.

McBarron told gardai they didn’t argue that night but admitted he knew of her plan to take the early morning strain to Wexford.  He told gardai when they charged him with Sara’s murder that he was “deeply sorry” for what he had done.

Sara was the middle daughter of retired cardiac consultant Maurice Neligan and his GP wife, Patricia.  In a victim impact statement read to the court by prosecution barrister Paul Coffey SC her family described her as “a beautiful, kind, caring and dignified young woman” who had died “long before her proper time”.

She worked as a nurse at the Mater Hospital, the place where her father had been a consultant for many years.  She could not have known, when she moved in with McBarron, that he was capable of killing her, even though, as the court heard today, he had a previous conviction for assault causing harm.

Speaking afterwards, family friend and solicitor, the Sheriff of Dublin Brendan Walsh spoke to journalists gathered outside the Four Courts.  After watching the photographers chase Mr Neligan down the road to get that perfect shot he asked for the family’s privacy to be respected.

People stay in abusive relationships for any number of reasons, sometimes simply because it’s all too easy to ignore the confrontations when the heat has died down.  There will always be men who think of women as possessions and would rather kill them than think of them having a life without them.  Over the past couple of years, cases like this have appeared before the Irish courts with depressing regularity.

Working in the Four Courts you see far too many cases like this and eventually familiarity breeds desensitisation and you stop getting annoyed by the sheer waste of it all.  You get to see trials like this as nothing more than a familiar story guaranteed to shift newsprint.  But every now and then the stark reminder breaks through the cynical veneer and you realise that there are way too many of these trials these days.

Hearing the sentiment read out so clearly in court is enough to widen the cracks as the killer’s words “she belonged to me”, “I wanted to take her with me” become shocking “gold plated” news…until this trial slips inevitably into obscurity and the latest tragedy takes it’s place.

Back to Work

The Courts are back at work today and tomorrow is the first list in the Central Criminal Court so it’s back to the day job.  It’s always a little like going back to school once the Michaelmas term starts – well actually it’s exactly like going back to school apart from the lack of lessons and the fact that I don’t spend my summers playing on the streets these days.

So tomorrow it’s back to the grindstone and a different murder, after three months immersed in the intricacies of Ms Collins and Mr Eid.  Of course, their story isn’t over yet.  We’ve still got the sentence to come with all the excitement that will bring (from a journalistic point of view that is).  They were due to be sentenced on Wednesday but it looks like things won’t happen quite that quickly.  The appearance on Wednesday will just be a nod and a wink and the real fun will be deferred until a later date.  As far as the book is concerned that means it ain’t over until it’s over.   in lieu of a fat lady we’ll just have to await a tune from Mr Justice Roderick Murphy.

So until the date is decided for us to gather in Court 2 again and find out how long it’ll be before Sharon Collins can send her own book off to publishers it’s back to normality.

I cover murders all the time, it’s one of the main areas the news agency I work for covers.  Every  now and then there is a trial that is elevated to circus proportions by the press and public.  The kind of trial that ticks all the boxes to sell newspapers.  In the last few years there’s been a run of high profile cases – Joe O’Reilly, Brian Kearney, Anton Mulder, John O’Brien.  These trials tend to be the ones that centre on sex or money so Sharon Collins fitted the bill even without the added curiosity of her being a woman.

Despite the number of trials like this in recent times they aren’t the standard case to come towards the Central Criminal Court.  The trials that usually come up are sad, sordid affairs, a moment of violence that may never be repeated or an unhappy chain of events that were waiting in some way to happen.  Most trials go almost unnoticed, certain ones almost guaranteed to sink into obscurity.

We’ve got so used to murder these days that trials will be graded on their story worthiness.  A domestic tragedy scores well, if the wife was a tragic mother, preferably blond and passably good looking, or the husband rich enough and preferably having an affair.  On the other hand, a row between drunken young men is brushed off almost completely.

I know why this happens but it does seem as if some human lives are being ranked as better than others simply because of who killed them and how they died.  Each murder trial or attempted murder or even conspiracy to murder is a personal tragedy for someone. Lives are wrecked no matter what the circumstances.  It always seemed sad that some stories will never be told.

Ah well, there’s work to be done before tomorrow’s list; notebooks and pens to dig out after their two month’s break.  There’s little time for philosophising once the work’s begun so I’m just making the most of the calm before the frenzy of the new term.

Deep breath, back straight and off I go…back to work at last.

Getting Started…I Hope

Well the blog should be up and running now.  Any more technical glitches will just have to wait until I get home.  I know that once we set foot back in Ireland it’ll be back to madness.  The Courts are back on October 6th so I’m back in the day job.  Sharon Collins and Essam Eid will be putting in an appearance on the 8th and that’s when the circus will really get started.

There have always been high profile cases through the Irish courts but since Joe O’Reilly was sentenced in July 2007 there has been one after the other.  Anton Mulder, Brian Kearney, John O’Brien all came before the Collins, Eid trial and all can still sell papers today months after their various convictions and acquittals.  We have moved without noticing it into a time where criminal trials are hyped almost as much as Hollywood films in the Irish media.  I should know.  To a certain extent my job depends on it!

Collins and Eid is a special case though – and I’m not just saying that because I’ve written a book on it.  The fact that no one died and proceedings had more than a tinge of farce to them meant that this was less of a guilty pleasure than the family tragedies that normally hit the headlines.  That’s not to say that people weren’t hurt as a result of these proceedings, it’s simply that we didn’t have to listen to the post mortems of their grief in quite the same way.

There’s also been a delayed conclusion.  With a murder trial there is only one possible sentence on conviction.  As soon as that verdict is handed down whoever’s in the dock knows they are about to start a life sentence and an appeal will be formally refused.  With conspiracy to murder there is a need for a separate sentencing as no fixed penalty has been set out.  So we will all gather on October 8th and wait with Collins and Eid to hear their fate and there will be headlines and TV programmes and books and some people will wonder publicly whether the whole things has perhaps all got a bit too much.

But in the meantime, I’m on holiday.  When I was a student in Bordeaux I always daydreamed of returning one day to work on a book.  Now as I sit by the window in our rented apartment gazing out of the window onto all the old yellow stone leaving it to the very last moment before I get ready to go out to dinner with the husband I’m conscious of how close I came to that.  The book may have actually been written in Dublin but I still don’t have an end for it, and won’t until that sentence.  So I’m technically still writing it.  Looking back over this post though, the sun’s playing havoc with my syntax and sprouting flourishes in every clause that probably shouldn’t even be there.

There’s a church here called St Pierre, not far from our apartment.  It’s a quiet little church, all vaulted ceilings and candles.  To the right of the door there’s a statue of a saint I’d never heard of – Ste Expedite.  The statue is of a very pretty Roman legionary holding a cross that says Hodie, the Latin for hello and stamping on a crow that’s cawing Cras meaning tomorrow.  He’s big in Chile and New Orleans apparently.  He’s also the patron saint of procrastinators, and computer hackers.

I discovered all this when I googled him after we’d wandered in to avoid the heat of the afternoon sun.  There’s also some doubt about whether he actually existed or whether he was simply some random bones that had been labelled expedis, basically First Class Post, when they were shipped out to some French speaking nuns for cataloguing.  But Rome decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Ste Expedite seems a very appropriate saint for this current endeavour.  I’ve certainly done my fair share of procrastinating and I like the idea he may or may not have existed, rather like Sharon Collins’ alibi, Maria Marconi.  There’s even computer hackers in there as well.

Well I’ve rambled enough.  There’s an evening going on out there that I’m ignoring and the husband is looking a little irritated.  I should probably try to focus on actually having a holiday before there’s no more time for procrastination.

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