Writer and Author

Tag: Hitmanforhire

How She Did It…Or Not…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Devil in the Red Dress is Free at Last

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Appeal Date Set for the Devil in the Red Dress and her Hitman for Hire

It’s been a while in coming but the date has finally been set for Sharon Collins’ and Essam Eid’s appeal.  The pair will find out whether they are to serve out the remainder of the six year sentences they received at the end of their 2008 trial in March next year.  The two appeals will be heard on the same day and the whole procedure is expected to take two days.

If you’re not familiar with the case you can find out all the gory details here.  That’s right, it’s the one I wrote the book about…that’s Sharon Collins herself on the cover on the right.  The pair at the centre of one of the most bizarre trials to come before the Irish courts years were convicted after a six week trial last summer. 

She’s a Co Clare housewife who decided to shop for more than groceries online.  He’s a former Las Vegas poker dealer who had decided to branch out into the “hitman” business.  Needless to say it didn’t end well, although at least the plotting came to naught and no one was killed.  In the end Sharon was sentenced to six years for conspiring to kill PJ, Robert and Niall Howard.  Eid was also sentenced to six years for trying to extort €100,000 from Robert Howard and also for handling items stolen from the Howard family business.

He had already served almost two years in jail after his arrest in September 2006 so will be the first of the two to finish their sentence.  However he will have to face additional charges when he returns to the States.  His former “wife” Teresa Engle has already served 8 months for her part in a similar scam to the one they tried to pull in Clare, that the pair attempted to pull of in California shortly before their trip to Ireland.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens next.

Finally Ready to Roll

So it’s all done bar the shouting.  The Devil in the Red Dress is almost ready to hit the shelves and several months of stress and hard work is finally nearing fruition.  My story of lyingeyes98 and hire_hitman has finally come close to being complete, apart from a last bit of polishing.

The last couple of days, writing an end to the story and composing and epilogue, not to mention giving interviews in the first throws of publicity for The Book, I’m really beginning to appreciate the absurdity of this story.

Now there’s been a lot of discussion around the country about whether the jury were right or not to convict the Clare housewife of plotting to kill her millionaire boyfriend and his two sons.  I’ve heard a lot of arguments about whether Sharon Collins is innocent or guilty and naturally enough the conspiracy theories started flying before she’d even hit the prison yard.

I’ve spent the past couple of months researching the subject.  It comes in handy when you’re writing a book on the subject.  I also sat in court every day of that 32 day trial.  I have read all the emails sent to and from the website hitmanforhire.net, both those from Sharon to the mysterious Tony Luciano or Essam Eid, who may or may not have been a hitman (even a jury couldn’t agree on that one) and the ones from the two hapless guys who contacted the website looking for work (?).

No matter what you think of the hapless Mr Eid, who entered into a life of crime only to be arrested on both outings, the emails sent by “Bernie Lyons”, the woman who kept forgetting not to sign herself Sharon, point in one direction only.

There are a lot of emails.  It makes fascinating reading  – it’s not often you get to read a plot from beginning to end.  But one thing is clear, at least one of these parties was absolutely sure what she wanted.

During the trial both defence teams made a lot of effort to prove that neither Collins nor Eid had actually written those emails.  But when the emails from Tony Luciano are written in the bouncy but broken English that mirrored exactly the language in the statements made to gardai after his arrest in September 2006.  The emails from Lying eyes also have a haunting familiarity for anyone who sat through Sharon Collins trial.

I spoke to her several times during those eight weeks, I watched her give evidence over two days.  I’ve spent months poring over those emails and I’ve come to one inevitable conclusion.  Either the person who wrote them was a Pulitzer worthy author or an Oscar ready method actor or a certain blonde 45-year-old woman from County Clare simply didn’t cover her tracks sufficiently.

I know that it’s easy to look at a story this complex and see some hidden conspiracy but sometimes Occam’s Razor is the way to go.  As the gardai pointed out at Sharon Collins sentencing on Monday, she is the ONLY person who could have sent EVERY email to the wannabe hitman and who was also in the right country to place EVERY phone call to Mr Luciano.

There will no doubt be an appeal at some stage and they will find as they do, but I’ve read a hell of a lot of evidence during the writing of this book and anyone who could have set up Sharon Collins could have commanded a hell of a lot larger prize than the mere €100,000 demanded by Eid when he landed up on her “step-sons” doorstep and demanded money to drop the hit.  We’re talking world class hackers here.

I suppose I’m just asking the general population to look at the facts before they cry conspiracy.  It’s a complex case, believe me! But the outcome certainly appears pretty straightforward when you look at the evidence given in court.

We’re not talking about an innocent little ingenue here.  We’re talking about a 45-year-old divorcee and mother of two grown up sons who knew what side her bread was buttered on and wanted to secure her position.

Nothing wrong with that…but I wouldn’t recommend you look for the ultimate solution on Yahoo, or Google for that matter.  As Sharon Collins found out, there are an awful lot of fakes on the Internet!

On Being a News Subject rather than Reporting It…

Well Devil in the Red Dress has had it’s first public outing.  Yesterday’s Sun and today’s News of the World both talk about a “sensational new book” on their front page – when I first saw the trail for the News of the World got all excited and wanted to know who had written it!

It’s odd reading material from my book as a news story.  I’m so used to being the one reacting to the the news it’s weird being the news myself.  Writing a book puts you in a bubble where it’s easy to forget about the outside world.  You concentrate so much on telling the story that everything else melts away for the duration.  Now we’re getting close to publication it’s all about changing gear and getting out there and selling my tale.

To be honest I’m looking forward to it.  The more I looked into the details set out in the trial the more interesting I found Sharon Collins and Essam Eid.  I spent eight weeks of the day job covering Sharon’s trial for the national and local media, I knew all about the emails, the letters to the Gerry Ryan Show (one of the most famous talk shows on RTE, Ireland’s national radio service), the fact that her lover, one of her three potential victims was standing by her and proved as much by planting a kiss directly on her lips as he left the stand.

At the Central Criminal Court, Sharon was very much the leading lady and there were many days when her co-accused faded into the background, a “patsy” bobbing along in the wake of the great white defendant as his defence counsel put it in his closing speech.  It wasn’t until I started researching The Devil in the Red Dress that I came across the details of another leading lady on the other side of the Atlantic.

Teresa Engle’s trial for extortion in California yielded evidence just as lurid as that in the trial I sat through.  Arguing that she had been pushed into her involvement with Hitmanforhire.net and the subsequent attempts to extort money from the unfortunate “marks” she painted her “husband” Essam Eid as a kinky sadist who made her do all manner of depraved things in bed.  It was news to me, for example, that Eid had neglected to tell his first wife Lisa that he was in favour of polygamy even when he moved wife number 2 into the family house.  Teresa was always referred to as his wife in the Irish courts because that was what she called herself.

I’m looking forward to talking about the weird symmetry that I found looking through the evidence against these two convicted women.  Both of them got involved with a dodgy marriage  – Sharon ordered a Mexican proxy marriage online while Teresa claimed she married Essam bigamously in a Vegas wedding.

Both of them accuse the partners they were so keen to snare of all kinds of sexual perversions (although the only claim that has had any evidence to back it up was the fact that Eid was in the habit of having threesomes with wives 1 & 2 – it was the one thing the wives agreed on in their statements to the FBI).

Finally both women had a staggering determination to get what they wanted. Sharon Collins would trawl the Internet to find someone to bump off her lover and his two sons when he refused to marry her and give her and her own two sons a claim to his millions.  Teresa Engle on the other hand was so desperate to have a baby that she left her husband (who hadn’t told her he’d had a vasectomy), took up with a raging drug addict for a decade with whom she had the longed for baby, then dumps him and goes back to husband number 1, who was a better financial bet to play the kind of happy families she had always wanted to.

It’s a bizarre symmetry but one that gives the ballad of Lying Eyes and Tony Luciano an easy narrative flow that real life doesn’t often have.  Maybe if Sharon Collins had met Teresa Engle under different circumstances (other than when Teresa turned up to give evidence against her) they could even have been friends.

When gardai first heard Sharon’s alibi, a woman called Maria Marconi who she claimed had been teaching her to write a novel but may have really been dating her blackmailer, they thought she and Teresa could have been one and the same.  The description Sharon gave the gardai matches Teresa in all respects other than her hair.  Sharon would tell of her friendship with Marconi rather wistfully…perhaps she could have found it with Teresa Engle.

When I start publicising Devil properly I’m looking forward to telling people about these two mirrored lives and everything else I found out when I researched the story behind the Hitman trial.  But it’s not the same as reporting news.  It’s telling a story certainly but it’s something that other people will report.  It’s all a change of perspective and one that I’m looking forward to.  It’s a great story after all…and one that’s been great fun to write about!

What’s in a Name?

I’m not with Shakespeare on this one, a name is everything when it’s the first thing people see on the skinny spine of your book.  The one thing in bold enough letters to stand out amongst it’s neighbours.  A title can be the first hook that makes someone pull the book out of the shelf and open it to read on.

According to the Internet I seem to have two titles for my book.  When it’s published my story of Sharon Collins and Essam Eid will go by the name The Devil in the Red Dress but that hasn’t always been the way.  For most of it’s gestation it went by the working title Lying Eyes, a reference to the email address Sharon used to correspond with her online “hitman”.  The Devil title came later once the book was more fully formed.  It also comes from the screeds of emails sent between Sharon and the ridiculously chatty “Tony Luciano”.

That’s the title that will be on the cover of the book and is listed on my publishers website and on Amazon (I still get a kick out of being able to look myself up on Amazon but that’s just totally by the by).  But the other title’s still out there.  It’s still in the page title of the Amazon listing and there’s a load of Norwegian sites that are listing the old title (never thought there’d be a market for Irish true crime in Norway, you learn something new every day).

It’s a minor thing but it just brings home how much stuff lingers around in cyber space after you’ve finished with it.  We live in a world now where all the detritus of our lives can find it’s way into the public arena via the web.  Throw away comments and affiliations made in college now have a half life that lingers for anyone with access to a search engine to find.

In the course of writing the book I’ve been so aware of what can linger on line and what can be lost.  The Internet has changed the practices of journalism to such an extent.  We can do so much from the comfort of our desks without even having to pick up a phone these days.  Sharon Collins would have done well to remember how much things linger in cyber space.  The bulk of the case against her was the scraps left behind from a life online, emails recovered from the hard drives of computers she’d had access to, an email account that wasn’t nearly as anonymous as she had thought.

Following in her footsteps this summer I was able to look at web pages she had visited, that had been mentioned in her trial, as they had looked when she had visited them.  Some of the websites are now long since defunct.  Hitmanforhire.net itself was taken down once people started coming out of the woodwork with tales of Tony Luciano’s approaches.  But thanks to the wonders of the Internet you can travel back in time and look as web pages as they used to look.  OK so it’s not magic, but it’s still reasonably cool, except when the thing hanging around is a discarded title.  Ah well, as long as Devil in the Red Dress makes it’s own impression…

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