Writer and Author

Tag: Maria Marconi

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.

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.

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!

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