Writer and Author

Tag: Tony Luciano

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.

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? Part 2

When I was in college one thing that used to confound me was headline writing.  It always seemed impossible to find that combination of words that sounded snappy enough, pithy enough and apt enough to sit at the top of my article.

When I wrote my first book (currently sitting in a drawer of my filing cabinet gathering dust) I sat for days with a dictionary of quotations on my lap flicking through it for inspiration.  I never had any problem with content – maybe something to do with the fact that I’ve always been able to talk the hind legs off a whole ark of donkeys and assorted livestock – but actually committing to something by giving it a title!  That was always the tricky bit.

Of course, these days, if pushed I can suggest several passable possibilities off the top of my head but there’s always the nagging feeling that I’ve missed the perfect phrase.  The Devil in the Red Dress (my soon to be published first book) kind of named itself.  The title is taken from a phrase in one of the emails between Lying Eyes and Tony Luciano (for more details on what the hell the book’s about have a look at The Story Behind the Book).  It suits the story and it’s been in the headlines before.

But tonight I’m trying to think of a title for this blog.  While the main purpose, granted is self promotional, and so naming it after myself makes sense I just can’t get used to seeing my name as a headline and want to get it back to byline size.  Of course, if you’re reading this once I’ve found the perfect phrase you won’t have a clue what I’m talking about but right now my name is just too big.

Of course, if I can’t think of a blog title then you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about and you’re probably thinking I’m rather big headed by now. But I am trying to find the perfect title that sums up why I’m here and what I’m about – and that hasn’t been used before.  Titles are the hook that draws you in and frequently the first thing that lodges in your mind.  A memorable title can enter the terminology of popular culture (not that I’m particularly aiming for the Zeitgeist here).  I’d like it to be my words not anybody else’s

It’s only when I sit down and try to work out what to call this thing I realise my distressing tendency towards pretension (well I might have had an inkling, I’m sitting listening to moody 60s French music as I write this although does it stop being pretentious if you actually like it but probably starts again when you draw attention to it – ah well.)  I’ve lists of rejected choices (Compost of the Mind was a serious contender for about ten minutes)

It’s ridiculous though, on a daily basis I send out copy that doesn’t have and doesn’t need a headline, other than for purely informative purposes.  If I write a book the title can be changed by the publisher at any stage.  But a blog is different.  It’s mine and only mine and so the pressure to name it right suddenly reaches monumental proportions.  I didn’t think this hard about naming the cat!

But as I say, this is a rather moot point.  If I find the perfect phrase this post stops meaning anything and if I don’t I’m just highlighting an irritating weakness.  After all this is a blog, not a diary…must resist slipping into confessional mode to the vastness of the Net…these things are dangerous!

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…

Hello world!

I’m always reading that writers should have a blog, somewhere where they can maintain their presence on the Web and hopefully embed their names into the brains of the unsuspecting book buying public.  I’ve hovered around the edges of cyberspace for a few years now, dipping an anonymous toe in the water and failing miserably to get any attention whatsoever.  Now I actually have a book on the horizon and I’m not just one of those annoying people who tells all and sundry about the opus they have stuffed under the bed, I thought maybe it was time to try and do things properly.  I can’t promise I’ll never raise the opus under the bed again but for the next few months I actually have a real, proper actual book to publicise so I’d better focus.

You’ll see in the bottom right hand corner a rather fetching book jacket.  That’s mine.  It’ll be out before Christmas and (shameless plug warning) that pretty little JPEG links through to Amazon – just in case you feel the urge…

By the way, the book is about a trial that recently hit the headlines in Ireland and around the world.  It was pretty quirky as conspiracy to murder trials go…a Co Clare housewife who saw red when her millionaire boyfriend wouldn’t marry her and hired a hit man over the Internet to kill him and his two sons.  The only problem was that the hit man she picked was a particularly inept Egyptian poker dealer who had a slight problem with following through.

To cut a long story short (and it is a very long story) the poker dealer turned up at the sons’ house and offered them a chance to buy themselves out of the hit.  He demanded €100,000, they called the gardai.  Once the investigation started it discovered that the poker dealer and his girlfriend had tried the exact same scam in California a couple of weeks before they touched down in Ireland.

The trial went on for eight long weeks this summer but the most extraordinary thing about it was the correspondence between the hitman and the housewife.  She called herself Lying Eyes, while the Nevada side went by Tony Luciano.  In July Sharon Collins was found guilty of both conspiring to kill P.J., Robert and Niall Howard but also soliciting someone to kill them.  The poker dealer, Essam Eid, was found guilty of extortion.  They’ll both be sentenced in October.

Anyway that’s quite enough plugging.  There’s plenty of time for that later, this is just the practice!

It’s going to take a while to really get this blog up and running so I suppose this is just a taster while I get on with messing around with themes and widgets and extra pages.  Once I’ve got that sorted I’ll settle down to trying to make this something other than just another author blog…although to be honest that’s exactly what it is.

If you’re visiting now, come back in a week or so, I promise the site won’t look quite so bare.  And I promise next time there won’t be quite so much hard sell!

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