Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Essam Eid (page 1 of 4)

Familiar territory

Recently in work I’ve been buried in 19th Century crime records. As has been obvious for the past while I’m now working with Findmypast, the online genealogy company. Since I started to research Kirwan I’ve spent so much time with historical records that working with them full-time seemed the logical progression.  I’m now their crime history expert and the past couple of months have been insanely busy as we were preparing for the launch of a major collection of court and crime related papers from The National Archives in London. I’ve recorded a couple of webinars showcasing the new records which you can find on the company’s YouTube channel is you’re interested.

As I posted a few weeks ago I was particularly excited to find Kirwan’s handwritten appeal among the records but I find the whole collection absolutely fascinating. After writing two works of true crime I know how tricky it can be to get hold of the actual paperwork. Unlike America, where you can request any document lodged in a public court, in Ireland getting hold of court documents is next to impossible. In fact when I was working on Devil the only garda statements I could lay my hands on where the ones that had formed part of the American case and so had been used as evidence in an American court. It used to be possible to get hold of the book of evidence if you had built up a good relationship with the gardai who had worked on the case or the barristers but these days it’s impossible. I’m used to hearing the exasperation and frustration from foreign journalists who want to research the case when they discover how little information is available here.

You can find out quite a bit from the judgements in appeals of cases which you can find on the Courts Service website but it’s not the same as the book of evidence. There’s also next to no chance of talking to prisoners here. I did get the chance to visit Essam Eid while he was in gaol in Dublin but that was a specific case. It’s rare otherwise.

That’s what I find so fascinating with the court records that you can find from the 19th century. With my Victorian subjects I can read their prison records, appeals and trial transcript. I might even find photographs. The amount of information I can get about a crime that was committed more than one hundred and sixty years ago is vast compared to what would be obtainable for a modern Irish case. I know how difficult it is because I’ve done it and because I still get regular contacts from reporters and researchers who are still doing it.  It’s thankless work, especially if you’re not able to get to the court for the trial itself.

I sat in the same room as the subjects of my books and was able to watch them and listen to all the evidence. I know as much about those cases as it’s possible to know for a writer. But I know more about Kirwan, who died a century before I was born. I know how tall he was, what colour eyes he had, how he spoke, how he signed his name. I know thirty years of his life and the lives of those around him. That’s one of the reasons why I love historical research so much. I know that if I dig hard enough, search thoroughly enough, I will find out more than I could find out sitting in the same room as someone.

When I was researching Devil, seven years ago exactly, I was excited by how much I could find out online. But the possibilities from the digitisation of historical material are awe inspiring. Most of the research I’ve done on Kirwan has been the good old fashioned legwork type. I’ve been in so many different libraries, my pencil case is bristling with readers’ tickets. But so many of the really exciting discoveries I’ve made have been through digitised material. I’m excited to see where things go from here. So many stories, so many connections, so many lives waiting to be discovered. I want to be on the front line of that. How could I not?

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.

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.

The End of a Very Long Wait

In March last year all the principal players in the Devil in the Red Dress case gathered in the Court of Criminal Appeal to hear Sharon Collins’ and Essam Eid’s appeals. Poker dealer Eid’s appeal on his sentence for charges of handling stolen goods was upheld and he was sent back to jail.  He’s since been extradited back to the States to face more charges related to the ill-fated Hitmanforhire website.

His co-accused was another matter.  Her case was more complicated and the three judge court required more time to deliberate. Sharon had been convicted of three charges of conspiring with Eid to murder her lover PJ Howard and his two grown-up sons Robert and Niall.  She had also been convicted of three charges of soliciting Eid to kill the three men.  Since Eid had been found not guilty of the conspiracy by the jury in the 2008 trial, Sharon’s three conspiracy convictions were overturned.  But then there were the soliciting charges.

Sharon’s lawyers argued that since the conspiracy no longer stood then she could not have solicited someone she didn’t conspire with.  The judges retired to consider their submissions and we waited.  And waited.

Today, over 18 months later, the same familiar faces gathered in the Court of Criminal Appeal to hear the long awaited ruling.  Legal counsel, gardai and journalists alike all waited anxiously for the final nod.  Would Sharon walk free?  Would the final three convictions be overturned? Would there be a decision that could have far reaching consequences for future conspiracy to murder charges?

In the end it was all over in a heartbeat.  Almost half an hour after the listed start time of 12.15 the judges took their seats and Sharon was lead into the court by two prison officers.  She looked well,despite the tenseness of the situation.  Wearing a grey tweed jacket and black trousers, her face tanned and impeccably made up, her blonde hair tied away from her face in a spiky pony tail bun she looked outwardly calm, although her chest rose and fell in time with the deep calming breaths she had started as soon as she sat down.  She hardly reacted when the decision came.  In fact she looked, if anything, dazed, as if the words hardly registered.

The ruling came so quickly, a succinct no, that there was a ripple along the press bench as journalists confirmed what they had heard.  The appeal against the three soliciting convictions had been rejected.  The sentence and three remaining convictions stood.  After such a long wait things were as they had been before.  Sharon would face another year in prison, her earliest release date not until Christmas next year.  Even though, after such a long delay, the verdict cannot have been much of a surprise, hope must have shot up in spite of everything.  She didn’t look back at the court as the prison guards quietly led her back to her cell.

The 42 page ruling took some time to digest.  Outside the court, reporters pored over the few copies of the printed document trying to find a strong line to lead with.  She had appealed on 23 grounds, although two of them, relating to  the dropped conspiracy convictions do not play a part in the judgement.  The other grounds, all rejected, fall into three basic areas.

The first of these areas is to do with matters that happened in America, before the events in Ennis in 2006.  They include the so-called Royston case.  This was a case in the States, shortly before Eid and his “wife” Theresa Engle had travelled to Ireland for their inflated exploits in Clare.  The pair had been approached, through the hitmanforhire website, by a woman called Marissa Marks who wanted them to kill her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend, Ann Lauryn Royston.  Just as they would later do in Ennis, Eid and Engle approached their victim and made her an offer they assumed she couldn’t refuse.  They told Lauryn Royston that they wouldn’t kill her if she would only buy herself out of the contract. Theresa Engle has served eight months in an American jail for her part in this escapade.  Eid pleaded guilty to similar charges earlier this month and is due to be sentenced in December.

Sharon Collins legal team had said that the prosecution in the Irish case had not disclosed all the relevant documentation concerning the Royston case and had also failed to get samples from a food blender in Eid’s house in Las Vegas that had contained a white residue, suspected of being the deadly toxin Ricin.  Ricin figured large in the Dublin trial. There had been much excitement in 2006 when a contact lens case was found in Eid’s cell in Limerick prison that tested positive for the toxin. Irish authorities had been told to look for the lens case by Eid’s lover Theresa Engle who claimed that the white residue on the blender in the Las Vegas garage was left over from a kitchen chemistry experiment, when she and Eid had attempted to brew ricin according to recipes they had found on the internet. The problem was that samples from the blender were not forthcoming for either the Irish prosecution or the defence and the minute traces found in the contact lens case were too small for the defence to conduct their own investigation.

The CCA ruled that the prosecution in Ireland had done everything in their power to access the American material but it had not been forthcoming. They therefore rejected the appeal on these grounds.

Going back to the ricin evidence, the Collins defence team had also appealed on grounds of one of the more dramatic events in the 8 week trial.  After a lengthy period of legal argument that took up much of the first three weeks of the trial, Judge Roderick Murphy, had performed a spectacular u-turn on an earlier decision to disallow all the ricin evidence.  This decision would also have meant that the star prosecution witness Theresa Engle would have been a rather damp squib, unable to share many of the more damaging elements of her testimony.  Today the CCA ruled that the judge had been correct to reverse his decision and allow the evidence after all.  Prosecution witnesses had not been available for the legal argument so Judge Murphy allowed the matter to reopened to hear the additional evidence.

The next area of appeal grounds concerns another dramatic bit of evidence.  Builder John Keating turned into rather a star during his evidence.  He had been called to provide an alibi for Sharon, who said she had been meeting him to discuss renovations of her mother’s house in Ennis at a time when she was supposed to have been sending a particularly incriminating email from the lyingeyes98 yahoo email account to Eid’s alias “Tony Luciano”. There was much confusion over Mr Keating’s diary and we were all treated to a bizarre account of a trip to England and family birthdays as he tried to pinpoint the exact date.  He also alleged that he had been threatened by one of the court gardai, although this was never proved. The CCA ruled that the whole confusing episode had been adequately explained by Judge Murphy in his charge to the jury. The Collins team had also appealed on the grounds that Detective Sergeant Michael Mulcahy had raised an incorrect suggestion that Robert and Niall Howard had both said in their statements that Sharon had been in the office of the family business at a time when the lyingeyes email account had been opened on the office computer.  Once again the CCA ruled that the matter had been dealt with adequately in the charge and there was no grounds on which to grant an appeal.

The final area is the one that had caused some consternation among gardai and journalists alike, the question of whether the remaining charges, for soliciting, could still stand.  The defence had argued that for one thing, the jury did not have an adequate explanation of the whole issue of soliciting to kill and further that since the conspiracy charges had fallen the soliciting charges should do likewise, on the grounds that one was impossible without the other.

The CCA however ruled that the judge’s charge was perfectly adequate and that he had “succinctly and correctly” explained the offence.  They also ruled that there was absolutely no inconsistency in a jury finding no conspiracy but then convicting someone of soliciting the other person to kill.  They pointed out that if Eid had all along been intending to pull a scam then there would have logically been no conspiracy to murder.  Sharon on the other hand would not have known this when she solicited Eid to kill the Howards.

There were plenty relieved faces when the judgement was announced.  I’m sure mine was one of the most relieved.  Whatever I might think of the grounds on which Sharon sought her appeal, if it had been upheld the story that I had written would have been invalid.  Even though the case affects real people, the book is always going to be my baby.  I’d love to get to visit the set of a movie based on the case, with my book credited with it’s part in that account. The rights have already been sold on Devil to producer Michael Duke. One day maybe I’ll get my set visit.

In the meantime I’ll be keeping an eye on what happens to Essam Eid in the States.  He pleaded guilty to conspiring to extort money from Ann Lauryn Royston and is due to be sentenced in December.  He could serve a maximum term of imprisonment of five years.  This is a story that just keeps going.

Sad news…

I don’t remember a time I didn’t want to write for a living.  When I was a kid I wrote tiny books – inspired by a Blue Peter Special Edition about the Brontes’ and not having learnt yet how to carry a story over more than a couple of hundred words.  I still have one of those little books.  It’s made up of four or five “folios” folded as small as I could make them from a sheet of typewriter paper (as it was in those days before home printing), stitched together and sewn into a cardboard cover.  I even stole a scrap of leather from the art room in school and attempted to make a binding. It was the closest I got, in those far off days, to being published.

I had started to write my first novel when I was 11.  I still have the first handwritten draft – half a page of fullscap paper written in blotting biro with every other word crossed out.  There’s a typewritten draft somewhere in my mum’s house, running to 10 whole pages with three chapters!  Over the years I’d go back to that story and it grew up with with me.  Even when I’d left home and realised that it was necessary to make some money at this writing lark in order to keep a roof over your typewriter I kept nibbling away at the story, changing it, stretching it, fiddling with it.

I’ve long lost count of the hours I spent sitting at a typewriter, then an ancient computer that took half an hour to boot, and finally this snazzy red netbook I’m sitting at now, working on that plot, those characters, friends now whose futures I worry about.  I never wrote out of anything other than love but as the years passed and the business of writing became a thing of inverted pyramids and word counts, I began to lose hope of it ever seeing the light of day. 

Back in 2008 my first book was published.  A million miles away from the story that had been started on that fullscap page it told the story of Sharon Collins and Essam Eid and the trial I had sat through for eight weeks that summer.  Written mainly through the two month summer court recess writing it was a totally different experience to the casual obsession that had sustained my story through all it’s permutations.  Devil in the Red Dress  is now available as a ebook and might even make it onto the big screen.  But all I cared about in the winter of 2008 when the book came out was that I was finally the thing I had always dreamed of being – an author.  I had written a real life book which was now available from real life book shops and even in the library.

I had begun to think of myself more as a journalist than a writer (I know they both involve the written word but trust me – there’s a difference) but now I suddenly had that dream again.  I had always worried that once I had written one book the ideas would dry up but it turned out the opposite was true.  The ideas bubbled to the surface in a never ending stream.  I remembered this had always been the dream, the writing life.  I decided to try and get an agent.  That’s when I contacted Ita O’Driscoll of the Font Literary Agency.

I had some idea of trying to find representation for a continuing media career but Ita pointed out I’d been doing that myself for years.  She persuaded me to show her “the story” and saw something in it even after all those years of pulling and stretching.  I had resigned myself to a life in non fiction but Ita suggested that I had something else that could work.  When the courts broke for the summer in 2009 I started to work seriously on the novel.  It was Ita’s faith in me that made me look again at those characters, born so many years ago in Wimbledon.  After three months of major surgery I’ve now got a novel that I’m proud of and one day I’m really hoping I get to write the sequel.

Even before we actually signed an author agent agreement Ita would spend ages on the phone discussing the book and my hopes and ideas for the future.  She gave me invaluable advice and made the future seem so exciting, even to someone jaded by years of media pessimism.  I’ve never had any illusions about this business.  I know times are tough and the future uncertain but writing is what I am.  I’m not going to stop just because things are changing. Even so the value of having someone in my corner who believed in my ideas as much as I do (who wasn’t married to me) was incalculable.

Ita advised me throughout the negotiations for my third book Death on the Hill.  I had always said I wanted to find new and bigger challenges with each new book but when I started covering the trial of Eamonn Lillis last January, it quickly became clear that this was another story that deserved more time in the telling than newsprint would allow.

Once Death on the Hill was on the shelves and the publicity trail had been trailed it was time to look to the future again.  Once again Ita was always willing to talk through the options and lend her support.  I decided to take a risk and try something bigger for my next non fiction book.  I talked through the possibilities for hours with Ita.  She encouraged me to believe in my idea and to take the leap to try something more ambitious than I’ve ever attempted before, something that will really test my skill as a writer.  I kept her regularly updated – I was excited about this new departure – I still am.  She encouraged me at every step of the way, giving me feedback and advice that helped to shape the idea as it was still forming. 

She called me on Friday and I thought it was just a usual call with news or lack of it.  But instead there was a bomb shell.  After careful consideration Ita has decided to retire as an agent.  I don’t blame her in the slightest.  I know her reasons and totally respect them but I can’t help but be upset.  Even though I know we will keep in touch it feels like I’m losing a friend, an ally.  I’ll miss having her on my team, miss the long chats when we checked in with each other.  I realise this post reads like a eulogy but I suppose it is in a way.  Ita put her faith in me and that made a massive difference when things were tough and perhaps didn’t work out the way they were supposed to.  The world of publishing seems a lot more daunting without her at the end of a phone.  It’s a little bit scary being an author at the moment.  Having a supportive agent certainly makes everything feel a little bit more manageable.  I’ll miss Ita as an agent but I really do wish her every good luck with this next stage in her life.  I’m not looking forward to trying to find someone else who has that much faith in me.

It’s all Digital

The last few weeks it’s been all about Devil in the Red Dress.  I haven’t written so much on the case since the book came out.  This week though has been particularly Devil  orientated.   As of yesterday the Kindle edition of the book is out.  It’s now available for download from the Kindle store for Kindle, ipod, iPad, Blackberry and Android.

It’s always seemed appropriate for Devil  to find it’s way into digital format, after all the story it tells is a very 21st Century one.  The whole story centred around the idea that you can buy anything on the Internet.  At it’s heart was a website hitmanforhire.net.  You can find a link to the cached version of the  page in the links to the right. The website itself is now owned by the production company who bought the rights to the book.  Sometime soon it’ll be reborn as film marketing but back in 2006 it promised something quite different.

Coincidentally, Essam Eid, the man allegedly behind hitmanforhire’s original incarnation hit the news again this week.  He won’t be fighting his extradition to the States on the second raft of charges coming out of the website.

The case he has to answer is very similar to the charges he faced here in Ireland.  Instead of Clare woman Sharon Collins, the alleged client in this case is a 28-year-old accountant from Pennsylvania, Marissa Marks. She was arrested last months and has been charged with paying $19,000, using three credit cards and a PayPal account, to have her ex boyfriend’s new girlfriend killed.

It’s going to be interesting to see how this arm of the story pans out.  The so-called Royston case was dangled in front of us so tantalisingly at Eid’s Irish trial.  I wrote about it at length in Devil as it’s almost impossible to tell one story without the other when you put everything together.

Basically Eid is now accused of approaching Ann Lauryn Royston, the girlfriend of Joshua Hammond (otherwise known as “Monte Carlo”) and threatening to kill her.  It’s a very similar account to the one given by Robert Howard during the Irish trial.  Mr Howard told the court that Eid had approached him at the house he shared with his brother one night in September 2006.  Eid had shown him photographs of himself and his brother Niall and another of his father, PJ Howard, on his yacht.  Eid had told him that someone wanted the three of them dead and had paid handsomely for their immediate dispatch.  But then he made the offer.  Pay up and the hit’s cancelled.  A meeting was organised with Theresa Engle, Eid’s lover, who’d made the trip to Ireland with him.

Rather unsurprisingly, Robert and Niall Howard called the gardai as soon as Eid had left and Theresa Engle and Essam Eid were arrested the next day when they came to collect the €100,000 Eid had demanded. 

It’s always beat me why Eid got involved in the hitmanforhire scams.  Up to that point he had a completely clean record and was working at the Bellagio casino in Las Vegas as a poker dealer. He’s always denied being “Tony Luciano”, the front man of the operation.  He has suggested that it was all Theresa Engle, that he never wrote any of the dozens of emails sent between the Tony Luciano email and the famous lyingeyes98@yahoo.ie address that allegedly belonged to Sharon Collins.  I’ve heard one or two theories about why Eid might have got involved in as much as taking the plane to Ireland and making that bizarre visit to the Howard boys, but none of them are proven.

But it appears it wasn’t an isolated case.  What wasn’t generally known at the time of the Irish trial was that a couple of weeks previously Eid and Engle had allegedly done almost exactly the same thing in California.  Like the Ennis case the couple apparently paid their victim a visit to demand money to cancel a hit on her.  Lauryn Royston was working as a mortgage advisor at the time and told investigators that Theresa Engle and a man called Essam had made a formal appointment to see her.  But when they arrived the man called Essam showed her photographs, supplied during the commissioning of this so-called hit and told her “someone wants your head”

According to documents from Theresa Engle’s subsequent trial the man then demanded $37,000 to cancel the deal. After a couple of phonecalls Lauryn and her boyfriend Joshua, found themselves heading to meet Theresa Engle.  Just like in Ennis. And just like in Ennis the innocent parties rang the cops.

Like I said it’s all there in my book Devil in the Red Dress.  Why not download it and read it for yourself? (Shameless self promotion over for the moment and back to the story).

What really interests me about this new trial is that I’ve heard, from sources close to the investigation, that one of the witnesses is likely to be a particularly shadowy figure from the hitmanforhire hall of fame.  “John Smith”, who also signed himself No Risk, was one of two men who filled out the application form on Hitmanforhire.net. 

The first applicant was Private Brian Buckley.  Private Buckley was one of the star witnesses in the Clare trial. He found the website looking for cheats for the Hitman computer game and filled in the application form as a joke.  He got the fright of his life when his phone rang and he found himself in conversation with “Tony Luciano”, the name behind the website.

John Smith is a bit of a different case though.  His emails weren’t evidence in the trial but there’s a couple of them in Devil.  He seems to really know his natural poisons, suggesting blowfish bladder as a personal favourite.  It’ll be interesting to see whether these emails, and John Smith’s evidence provide the kind of smoking gun that Ricin was supposed to provide in the Irish trial.  A contact lens case found in Eid’s cell had tested positive for Ricin and Theresa Engle gave evidence of a bizarre chemistry experiment where she and Eid cooked up the toxin on their kitchen stove.  It was the one thing that raised the allegations above a con and was understandably one of the most contentious pieces of evidence of the whole eight week trial.

It’s going to be fascinating to see where the story goes next.  It’s got plenty of scope to run and, as always, I’ll be watching it develop and keeping writing about it.

Postscript to a Brutal Story

Sean Keogh was sentenced to four years in jail today.  He was convicted earlier this month for his part in the murders of Polish men Pawel Kalite and Marius Szwajkos in Drimnagh in February 2008.  His co-accused in that trial, 19-year-old David Curran, is already serving a life sentence for the murders.  Curran was the one who wielded the screwdriver that left both men brain dead within seconds.

Throughout the trial it was obvious that Keogh was very much the afterthought in this trial.  His part in the attack was really little more than a henchman and it wasn’t until the very end of the trial when the DPP dramatically introduced a new charge of assault which Keogh instantly pleaded guilty to.  He had admitted himself that he had kicked Pawel Kalite in the head and face as he lay on the pavement outside his house, fatally wounded.

Whenever there’s a co-accused whose part in proceedings is relatively cut and dried they will always appear to be something of an after thought in the trial.  It was the same with Essam Eid during the Devil trial.  It was always Sharon Collins’ legal team who stood up to fight every legal challenge.  She had a lot more to fight for.  Eid had been caught red handed.  So in this trial Curran was the one who had been seen with the screwdriver.  He was the one who had done the deed.  Even when he was charged with murder Keogh was never really cast as anything more than a tagger on, a follower, nothing more than a henchman to Curran’s brutal villain.

Fighting a murder charge on “common design” or “joint enterprise”; the legislation that allows the get away driver to be charged with robbery even if he never set foot in the bank, is always a tricky one.  In the case of Keogh it was certainly a tricky one to convince a jury on.  And in the end they weren’t convinced.

It emerged today that Keogh had a much longer record than Curran.  Keogh had been a regular of the children’s courts and the circuit and district courts, racking up 75 previous convictions.  They weren’t major crimes, mainly the kinds of charges you hear for a habitual joy rider.  He’s someone who’s drifted from one misdemeanour to another until his out of control path led him into real trouble.  This was a trial that shone a spotlight on the lives of some teenagers in sink estates all over, brutal, senseless and frequently brief.  A life filled with drink, drugs and petty crime with little or no respect for life, their own or others.  A depressing view but an all too common one in the daily business of the criminal courts. 

Sean Keogh kicked the head of a dying man – hard enough to break his teeth – yet it’s all too easy to dismiss him as the hapless henchman.  His crime is after all one of assault, not of murder.  But the sheer, depressing brutality of this case is going to stick.  Even if it’s a horribly familiar tale.

Ricin in the News Again

Lat week in the UK a father and son were jailed on terrorist charges.  They were by all accounts a nasty pair – neo nazi thugs who planned to overthrow the Government.  But what made me pause as I was flicking through the news headlines was the method they had decided to wreak havoc with…that favourite of extremists and conspiracy theorists…Saddam Hussein’s biological weapon of choice…the third most lethal toxin known to man…RICIN.

I know more than I would ever wish to about this particular poison thanks to the research I did when I was writing Devil in the Red Dress.  The toxin had formed a crucial part of the prosecution case against both Sharon Collins & Essam Eid, it was the one thing that raised Eid’s involvement to more than a rather unsuccessful con artist.  In the summer of 2008 we spent days in a rather stuffy courtroom in the Four Courts listening to the details of how ricin was found in Eid’s cell in Limerick prison and how the army were scrambled into action and the services of an elite lab in the UK were drafted in to test the microscopic traces found in a contact lens case under Eid’s bed.

It was only when I started researching the book that I realised what a thorny issue ricin is.  Ever since UN weapons inspectors found that Saddam Hussein had been stockpiling the stuff it’s been popping up in newspaper headlines with an infamy it hasn’t enjoyed since it was used to off Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov in a memorable piece of cold war skulduggery.  The assassination using a rigged umbrella as Markov was crossing Waterloo Bridge has passed into the popular consciousness and has appeared in countless spy movies over the years.  What people don’t tend to remember is that another Bulgarian dissident was attacked at around the same time and lived.  Ricin has it’s problems as a method of assassination and hasn’t been used as often as you might think.

This hasn’t stopped the countless ricin recipes from cropping up on the Internet.  They would have you believe that the production of ricin is nothing more than a simple home chemistry experiment, barely more complicated than the old adding a mint to a bottle of cola to cause a plume of fizz several feet high (and don’t try that one at home children, it might not be life threatening but it certainly makes a hell of a mess).  It’s the ease of production that makes ricin so attractive to your average nut.  There aren’t many chemical weapons you can cook up in your kitchen after all.  That’s certainly what Essam Eid thought when he cooked it up using a coffee filter and a blender in his Las Vegas kitchen and it seems that’s what appealed to Ian and Nicky Davidson when they were looking for something to get rid of “Zionist” politicians.

But it’s not as simple as that.  This is one of those cases where what you find on the Internet might not be what it appears.  Certainly the most common recipe, the one that appears on most of the right wing forums (like I said, been places researching that book that would turn your stomach – I’m sure I’m on some form of security watch list at this stage (if I am then  – Hello Boys, do say Hi sometime.)  I ended up spending way too long on the ricin research portion of the book.  Not because I found it overly fascinating but because it’s so difficult to find straight answers and I’m not a bio chemist.  You see the most common recipe was actually written by a fifteen year old.  You can tell by the spelling and the confusion about basic chemistry.  I’m not going start linking to the recipes, before you start wondering.  I’ll get to the why later.

Now this first recipe that I’m talking about goes back to the newsgroups in the early days of the Internet.  It doesn’t make ricin.  At best it makes castor bean mash (castor beans are the main ingredient in ricin recipes – even the ones that actually work).  Castor bean mash has been used as a fertiliser by American farmers since the 1950s.  It contains about 2% ricin, slightly more than the beans do in their natural state.

Then there’s the so-called Al Qaeda recipe which has cropped up in another high profile terror trial. Except in that ricin trial there actually wasn’t any ricin.  There is a recipe floating around on line that is supposedly written by Muslim extremists but this also doesn’t actually make ricin, at least not the kind of pure stuff that you’d need for chemical weapon purposes or any other purposes.  It makes a good fertiliser though.

Ricin is arguably the big bad wolf of the Internet.  Recipes are easy to find but don’t deliver what they claim.  The press and the authorities will periodically lament the ease with which such a deadly toxin can be made and the nutcases take notes and get onto Google.  Don’t get me wrong, ricin is a very nasty substance indeed.  If it kills you it will do so almost cell by cell and the death it brings will be truly agonising.  It’s one of the three most deadly toxins known and is more deadly gram for gram than anthrax or arsenic.  But as a murder weapon it’s less than impressive, which is probably why Markov has the distinction of being the only high profile, provable ricin assassination.  Ricin is also a pretty lousy weapon of mass destruction.  There are all kinds of problems with getting it out there, although apparently Saddam had his weapons guys working on that one.

What ricin does have is the instant fear factor.  It doesn’t matter that the vast majority of cases that come to light were making use of these bogus recipes or that the white powder they had made was once again little more than fertiliser.  I’m being deliberately vague in this post.  The recipes I’m not going near because despite their uselessness there are still deluded souls out there who cook them up with murderous intent and I cover trials, I don’t want to end up as evidence in one.  I’m also not going into detail to back up my argument because – well – it’s all in the book, there’s a whole chapter on this and I’ve no wish to repeat myself.

But seeing a trial like the Davidson one brings home the draw this stuff has and how many people believe it really is that easy to make.  It was almost impossible when I was doing the research to get anyone official to talk dispassionately about the whole ricin thing.  I understand why.  It is a scary substance and there’s always the chance that someone, somewhere will one day make it right. And as long as they’re cooking up ricin they’re not making something that actually kills.  For all the times ricin has appeared in the news over the past few years it’s always been because the means of making it was found never because it’s killed anyone.  But it’s always irritated me that this wooliness exists. 

It might not matter in the long run whether the nuts cooking up castor beans in their kitchens are on a hiding to nothing, what probably matters in the end is that they think they are making one of the most deadly poisons known to man and they intend to use it.  But I can’t help thinking that it should be reported right and the media at least shouldn’t just accept the deadliness of the white powder in a case.  You very seldom see the actual percentage of ricin in a sample made public, if it was ever tested for in the first place.  Most tests check for the existence of ricin, which you will have if you have castor beans.  What would be more useful is if they had the percentage of ricin.  Then you could tell if the guy in the dock was just a rather dumb crackpot or someone really dangerous.  But then, the guy in the dock is usually the dumb guy, the one whose plan had the fatal flaw that led to his capture.  The really clever ones don’t tend to end up in the dock.

RIP Gerry Ryan

I was sitting in court yesterday listening to the closing speeches in the trial of Sean Keogh and David Curran, which I’m covering for the Sunday Independent. The press bench was fairly full, it usually is as a trial comes to an end and the verdict approaches.

Shortly before 3 o’clock a ripple went through the gathered journalists.  Suddenly people weren’t taking down the particulars of the speeches but instead holding whispered conversations and poring over laptops and mobile phones with feverish intensity.  The barristers continued in full flow to the jury as one by one the journalists got up and left hurriedly.

The speed with which people left their posts was different from the more unhurried reaction when a verdict in another court has come through.  There was an urgency usually reserved for terrorist acts or the deaths of heads of state. Whatever was causing the mass exodus was something of national importance.

What had happened of course was that the news of Gerry Ryan’s death had started filtering through to newsrooms around the capital and those newsrooms were suddenly scrambling every available staff member.  The news first broke on Twitter, I’m not going into the pros and cons of whether those using the social networking site should have broken the news when RTE, Ryan’s employers were holding off to allow for all his family to be notified.  Twitter is the kind of place where it’s impossible to keep a secret, especially one this shocking.

If you’re not familiar with Irish broadcasting, Gerry Ryan was one the genuine stars.  His show on RTE’s 2FM had been one of the biggest shows on Irish radio for over 20 years.  I’d say there are very few people in this country who can honestly say they have never listened to his morning show, whether they tuned in regularly or not.  He was a broadcaster everyone had an opinion of, be it good or bad, but there is no denying the fact that he was well loved by his colleagues and his legion of fans.

Whether you liked his style or not if you’ve ever worked in Irish broadcasting he was one of the ever present big names.  News of his sudden death of a heart attack at the age of 53 was genuinely shocking, His passing leaves a sizeable hole in the 2FM schedule that will be extremely difficult to fill. 

I was lucky enough to go on his show just before my book Devil was released in 2008.  In one of the more bizarre twists of the trial, Gerry Ryan and his producer were both called by Sharon Collins’ defence team to be witnesses in the trial.

The day they were called there was excitement in court as we all arrived in to take our seats, passing by the familiar figure in a huddle with the barristers on the far side of the Round Hall.  His evidence, when it came, was brief and somewhat underwhelming.  It concerned one of the most salacious bits of evidence in the trial. An email found on Sharon Collins’ computer, addressed to the show, had detailed accusations of all kinds of sexual kinkiness from an unnamed partner.  The email was being used by the prosecution as proof of intent but the defence were saying it was just a writing exercise that had never been sent.  Gerry Ryan was called to back this up and confirm that he had never read the steamy contents of that email.

He took the stand and answered a few brief questions and the court sat in rapt attention before he and his producer disappeared to catch a plane to wherever they were due to do the show from the following day.  He gave the trial a little sparkle that day and yet another bizarre twist in one of the oddest trials to have passed through the court.

When Collins and her co accused Essam Eid were sentenced in November 2008, just days before the book was due out, I got a call from the Gerry Ryan Show asking me to come on and talk about the trial.  I was over the moon but it was by far the largest audience I’ve ever spoken to, even with a radio background.

I needn’t have worried. He was a brilliant interviewer. The time flew past and I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much talking about a Central Criminal Court trial.  He was happy to talk about his own involvement and it was one of the most enjoyable interviews I’ve ever done.

It’s not much of a connection, a brief 15 minutes or so of shared air time, but it’s what came into my head when I heard he’d died.  Irish broadcasting has lost one of it’s most larger than life characters and a consummate pro.  I can only send my condolences to his family and friends and the colleagues who will also feel his loss acutely.  RIP.

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