Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Sharon Collins (page 1 of 6)

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?

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.

Art for art’s sake?

Female Addict No. 2 by Jason - The Training Room

Female Addict No. 2 by Jason

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

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

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

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

Rabbit By Peter - Wheatfield Prison

Rabbit By Peter – Wheatfield Prison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Final Curtain Call

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

A Matter of Convention

I’m still whizzing round on the publicity merry-go-round for the new book this week.  Today started off with back to back interviews and a reminder that even when you’ve a few interviews under your belt at a time like this you can still get that curve ball thrown at you when you least expect it.

My second interview of the morning was with Declan Meade on the Morning Show on East Coast FM.  I’d been in to talk to Declan when Devil came out so it was nice to be back.  at the end of the interview he asked me a question that had honestly never occurred to me before (an achievement since I’ve been eating, breathing and sleeping this book since the trial in January). Why, he asked me, had I referred in the book to Celine Cawley as “Celine” while referring to Eamonn Lillis as “Lillis”.

When you write a true crime book there are a lot of things to take into consideration.  Quite apart from the fact you have to make sure you get the legal end of things absolutely right and double, and triple check all the factual details there are other, more subtle considerations.  The language you use must be evocative but you’re not writing a work of fiction, it’s a record of an event, a tragic event that has traumatised all those touched by it and that has to be taken into account.

One of the most basic things that you have to decide on are what to refer to the principal characters as.  In a court report of an ongoing trial there are conventions that you tend to stick to.  Witnesses, the deceased and the accused are all referred to by their surname with the appropriate title before hand.  Sometimes, to avoid confusion, say if numerous members of the same family are giving evidence you might resort to first names for clarity but for the most part its the formal title followed by surname.

When you’re writing a book or even a more fluid kind of article this form of address doesn’t always work.  It can sound clunky and artificial.  So you’re left with a choice.  Do you use first names or surnames.  Forenames can sound overly familiar but can feel like a natural choice when you’re talking about the victim, someone to be viewed with sympathy and compassion whose place in the story is to have a tragic ending.

For the convicted however it’s the flip side.  Once they’re marked a killer by the decision of a jury they often lose their title, to be referred to ever after by their surname only.  Referring to them by their first name just wouldn’t sound right, so they become the surname with an extra dose of ignominy.

It’s not a hard and fast rule of course.  It can depend on the house style of the publisher or publication you’re writing for, sometimes everyone gets the surname approach although it’s generally not the other way around.

When I was asked the question I wondered briefly was I actually calling Celine Cawley by her first name because she was a woman. I know that when I was writing Devil and when I’ve written about both cases on this blog it’s been first names all the way.  I don’t think it’s as simple as that though.  I frequently refer to people who’ve played principal parts in the trials I’ve covered by their first names, mainly because I write in a more informal style here and it just sounds better.

There might be an element as well of the fact that when I’m writing about a case in depth it’s very hard not to develop a distance from the subject as you chisel the words into shape.  I know when I’ve written true crime I think about the people and situations I’m describing in much the same way I would think about characters and plots when I write fiction.  I’m aware that I’m talking about real events but to shape them into book form I need to treat them in the same way I would the raw material for any other kind of book.

It was a question that really got me thinking – always great when that happens.  I’d love to hear what you think on the subject, weigh in with your own thoughts please – I’m perhaps too close to the subject by now and can’t see the wood from the trees.

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