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Tag: Eamonn Cooke

Beware the Big Bad Wolf

Mick Phillpott is no bogey man like Sawney Bean

Mick Philpott, who last week was sentenced to life in prison for setting a fire which resulted in the deaths of six of his 17 children, looks set to become the kind of legend that conservative mothers scare their children with when they won’t do their homework and eat their greens. His case has caused political ructions and spawned a slew of TV specials in numbers normally reserved for matters of grave national importance, like wars or epidemics. For a man who loves the limelight it must all be very gratifying, after all he’s no stranger to being cast as public enemy number one.

I’ve hesitated in posting on the case.  After all, it’s only a couple of months since I swore my days of writing about sensational trials are over. But Mick Philpott fascinates me. I’ve seen his type before. Most of us have. While Philpott might be being cast as the product of Trash TV and The Benefit Culture, his story is sadly nothing new. Men like him have been making bogey men for centuries. There’s something about that particular blend of monomaniacal swagger and ruthless selfishness that stops those of us who consider ourselves law abiding, or god fearing or unassuming members of society, in our tracks. We baulk at such shameless profiteering, such casual cruelty. It’s natural. If society has too many Mick Philpott’s in it’s midst the whole thing will come crashing down.

Delivering her sentence, the trial judge in the Philpott case went into unusual detail in highlighting a particular part of the evidence, including matters which had not been put before the jury. Mrs Justice Thirlwall’s full sentencing speech makes interesting reading and it’s also worth reading Grace Dent’s analysis of it. Both make clear the fact that Philpott was a very specific type of abuser. Dent compares him to Fred West, which is a fair enough but I’ve been struck by another comparison , a case I wrote about at the time and which sparked a similar furore in Ireland after the sentence, that of wannabe ruler of the New World Order and friend of social workers and gardai, Ronnie Dunbar.

I sat next to Dunbar for pretty much every day of his trial. That was back before criminal trials moved out of the Four Courts into the new Criminal Courts of Justice and in the absence of press benches the press often found ourselves sitting beside the prisoner in the dock. As the only left handed hack in the pack I usually found myself shunted down to the end of the row by clashing elbows. As a consequence I’ve sat next to quite a few of Ireland’s most notorious murderers. Most of them are very polite.

Dunbar was a particularly chivalrous child killer. He would great me with a warm smile each morning and once or twice bent to pick up a dropped pen. It’s unusual for a defendant to be so outgoing with members of the press but in this case, no one was particularly surprised. We’d already been regaled with stories in the press room from a colleague who’d doorstepped him during the hunt for his victim Melissa Mahon, whose body was undiscovered for two years. This journo, who’d fully expected to have the door slammed in his face was amazed to be ushered into the house. Dunbar shared that with Philpott. He liked the attention.

That craving for attention tends to put us on the back foot. When someone is aggressively upfront and outgoing they illicit a conditioned response. We smile and comply and engage – even if every sense is screaming that this person is as dodgy as hell. Before the brain has a chance to step in the head nods and the mouth smiles politely. Men like Dunbar and Philpott thrive on this. They are not the kind of killers who will hang about on the fringes of a crime, drooling over their gory deeds like the villain in a TV cop show. They will be front and centre, helping in the search, appealing on TV, offering suggestions. Men like that are so obsessed with control that they will try to take it everywhere. They are flamboyant in their seeking, greedy, hungry. We are always put on the back foot.

One of the most horrifying things about these cases is their inevitability, an inevitability most visible in hindsight. Fred West got help to lay the cement in the garage that covered the grave of one of his victims years before he was caught, Ronnie Dunbar became the go to person for albeit reluctant social services trying to care for vulnerable teen Melissa Mahon, Mick Philpott of course, was a memorable guest on the Jeremy Kyle Show. It’s easy to say after the fact that surely someone should have known. Surely the final tragic events could have been avoided? But these cases remind us that real life isn’t that easy. The clues might all be there but the great detective isn’t called in until after the fact and everyone else will smile through gritted teeth until it’s all too late.

It’s not particularly surprising that cases like this become ciphers for other gripes. We seek justification, an easy ending. The idea that someone that blatant, that obviously dodgy, could go about with their swagger wreaking whatever havoc they may doesn’t sit well with an ordered society. So Ronnie Dunbar’s crime becomes a stick to beat the HSE with. Don’t get me wrong, there are massive failings in that area but the Dunbar case was the fault of one manipulative, narcissistic, sociopath not the social services in Sligo town. But it’s easier to think that it could have been prevented if the powers that be had been on their toes. It puts men like Philpott or Dunbar in a box, but that containment is an illusion.

Men like Philpott and Dunbar and Fred West fascinate because they are truly horrifying. They act with such disregard of societal norms that strikes against some very deep taboos. That’s why this particular type of robber baron takes the headlines, why they appear and reappear in fiction and legend. Take the case of Sawney Bean, illustrating this piece. It might have been a piece of anti Scottish propaganda but the tale of Sawney’s cannibal clan was used to terrorise generations of kids. The character crops up across popular culture too. Take Brian Blessed in Terry Nation’s original series of Survivors made in the 70s. His character Brod is a fictional take on much the same kind of character.

I’m not belittling the harm that Philpott, Dunbar and West have done. We are better off recognising this kind of abusive arrogance wherever it occurs rather than treating each new instance as an aberration and looking for somewhere else to lay the blame. Serial killers and cannibals might be outside the norm but narcissistic sociopaths who think the world owes them are two a penny and too many of them get what they want. Take the revelations about Jimmy Saville or the abuse detailed in the Ferns Report (and the rest) or pirate radio’s most notorious child abuser Eamonn Cooke. Abuse on this scale can only take place because an awful lot of blind eyes are turned. Philpott and Dunbar were both treated in the past as harmless clowns. Philpott got to make more TV. Staff walked out of Radio Dublin in the 70s when rumours were known but Cooke’s abuse continued for years. I’ve mentioned a disparate mix of cases in this post. They really only have one thing in common. The sexual abuse of the vulnerable. Arrogant men abuse. Arrogant men who are pandered to and allowed to continue. Sometimes they kill. All of the time they ruin lives.

I’m sick and tired of the constant surprise when these cases come to light. These men are predators. We should instinctively know how to spot them. It should be so deep rooted in us that we will run a mile but again and again those blind eyes are turned and nothing is done until it’s too late. The big, bad wolf is not cuddly. He’s a menace. He’s never a product of a society, however ill. He’s the thing we’re supposed to be keeping out. I didn’t mean for this to turn into a rant but it really does piss me off. As a journalist I watched some of the worst of these as they swaggered through their trials, acting the gentleman or even the victim. I’ve seen their victims tremble. But I’ve also known  my own big, bad wolf and I’ve been staggered at the blindness of others. Can we stop trying to blame these men on societies that are groaning at the seams and take a little bit of responsibility ourselves? I’m not in any way advocating anyone burning out their local paediatrician but if you know a child or a woman or a man who is in actually in trouble and who you genuinely feel is in danger for god’s sake say something to someone. The big, bad wolf does what he likes only when he’s allowed to and we all allow him.

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.

Trial by Ordeal

There’s a debate going on in the British media about the treatment of victim’s family’s during murder trials.  It was sparked by the cross examination of the parents of murdered teenager Milly Dowler during the trial of her killer Levi Bellfield. 

Bellfield, the convicted killer of two other girls, had always denied Milly’s murder so his defence team had to proceed accordingly.  The controversy arose when Milly’s parents were reduced to tears in the witness box during a particularly thorough cross examination from defence barrister Jeffrey Samuels QC.  Milly’s father Robert, was forced to admit that he had been a suspect himself in the early days of the investigation and private family rows were dragged out in front of the jury and the waiting press.

On the steps of the courts Robert Dowler said the family had felt as if they were the one’s on trial and called the questioning of his wife “cruel and inhuman”. The policeman who oversaw the case has said he was “shocked by their treatment” and has called for changes to the way things are done.  The British Director of Public Prosecutions has said that the case has raised “fundamental questions” that need answering.

Since Bellfield was sentenced to a third life sentence on Friday column upon column has appeared debating whether victim’s families should be subjected to such harsh treatment on the stand.

My first thoughts on all of this? The silly season has begun.

This is one of those issues that tends to gather steam when the sun comes out and everyone’s trying to find a story that’ll run and run while the courts and the politicians take their summer holidays.  It’s the kind of story that suits this time of year.  I’m not saying it’s not a serious one, just that the hysteria that’s surrounding it is the kind that reaches fever pitch when there’s not a lot else to cover.

I’ve written countless column inches of the treatment of victims myself.  I’ve written about the way Celine Cawley was demonised during the trial of her husband Eamonn Lillis for her killing. I wrote the book on that one! I’ve written about how the judge in the Melissa Mahon murder trial called her parents’ victim impact statement “disingenuous in the extreme”. I’ve written about the two day grilling Veronica McGrath received from the defence when she was describing how her father had died at the hands of her mother and ex-husband, how this grilling brought up custody arrangements for her children and her own rape allegation against a former partner. 

Or there’s Sean Nolan, killed by schoolboy Finn Colclough. I’ve been accused of demonising Sean myself by writing about the trial, as I was considered too sympathetic to his killer.  Or the women who faced former pirate radio DJ and child molester Eamonn Cooke in court, sitting in a stifling courtroom without so much as a glass of water while he stalled the trial for more than a month.  I could go on.

Because you see I’ve written about the treatment of victims a LOT.  It’s part of the reality of what goes on in court.  Standing in the witness box isn’t fun.  You will be asked awkward questions, you might even be asked personal questions you would rather not answer. If you are a major prosecution witness who has a key piece of evidence against the accused you might feel like the defence are out to get you…well the truth of it is….they are.

But it’s not because they’re playing a game, it’s not because they don’t want to see justice done.  If anything it’s quite the opposite. The accused, until the jury says otherwise, is innocent and, just like any other man or woman in this state or another with a similar system, deserves a rigorous defence.  If you were accused of a crime would you have it any other way?

The presumption of innocence is not about protecting the guilty, it’s about seeing that the innocent get a fair trial.  It’s a good system and from what I’ve seen it’s a system that works.  It’s a system that we mess with at our peril.

The thing with the presumption of innocence is that it does mean that once in a while it’ll seem unpalatable.  Once in a while there’ll be a complete scumbag who deserves to have the book thrown at them, who will manipulate his defence team and will make things as difficult as possible for the family of the person they have killed or raped.  Someone like Gerald Barry who killed Swiss student Manuela Riedo and raped a French student in Galway.  Barry took to the stand to describe how Manuela had willingly had sex with him before he killed her.

It’s horrible listening to a killer justifying their actions.  Horrible when you’ve heard the post mortem results and know exactly what wounds were inflicted where.  Horrible when you know the truth is quite different.  It’s not pleasant for me, sitting there as a neutral observer. I can only imagine what it’s like for the family of the victim.  But it’s what happens.  When you’ve got an a cold blooded killer, an animal, a monster, they’re not going to fess up and make things easy for their victim’s family, they’re not going to worry about people’s feelings and they’re not going to worry about manipulating their defence team.  But it’s still the defence team’s job to defend them.

As I write this I’m trying to think of a trial where something like this hasn’t happened.  Where there haven’t been differing accounts of the killing or the rape, where key prosecution witnesses haven’t been grilled by the defence, where the guilty haven’t denied their crime.  Because one thing’s certain when there’s a trial.  The accused is saying that he or she did not do whatever it was that was done. Once that not guilty plea has been made there’s only so many ways the trial can go as both sides try to prove their version of events.

I wonder if Levi Bellfield had stood trial at another point in the year, when there was a royal wedding perhaps, or the Olympics or even just a low grade political scandal, would there be quite such an outcry at a trial which worked much like any other. I’ve nothing but sympathy for the victims of violent crime but the courts are about criminal justice and sadly victims don’t really have a place in that. They can be witnesses during the trial but they can only be victims when the jury has spoken and the person in the dock is no longer innocent.

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