Writer and Author

Tag: PJ Howard (Page 2 of 3)

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

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

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

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

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

It’ll be interesting to see what happens next.

A Broken Heart and the Faithful Followers

I was rather distracted today.  Too distracted to really register the Sun front page with the news that Ronnie Dunbar has dumped the women who yesterday was on two front pages pledging her undying love.  Apparently he nobly wants her to “go and live her life”.  Jordan and Peter Andre eat your heart out!

I know that people who are convicted of killing someone frequently have someone whose faith in them never wavers, someone who will wait until the ends of time to be reunited with them, who believes wholeheartedly in their innocence (one would hope).  Look at Nikki Pelley waiting for Joe O’Reilly no matter what comments it brought down on her. Or a case I have a particular interest in, Sharon Collins, who can rest assured, until we hear to the contrary, that P.J. Howard, the man she hired a hitman to kill, will be waiting for her release in five or so years time.

It happens all the time and they do say that love is blind but it always amazes me quite how blind it can be, or how steadfast…that’s probably showing a disturbing degree of cynicism but it kind of goes with the territory when you’re down the courts all day.

Devil in the Red Dress Steps Out Into the World

My book, Devil in the Red Dress is now officially available in the UK.  It’s the first time it’s been available outside Ireland and I’m interested to see how the story will translate somewhere that hasn’t been so familiar with the whole Lying Eyes, Tony Luciano affair.

One of the reasons I was attracted to writing the book was the fact that the story reads like a thriller and could have happened anywhere.  Even the barristers made references to the Coen Brothers and film noir.  To be honest you simply don’t get cases like this cropping up in Ireland and it was simply too good a tale to pass by.

I was aware while I was covering the trial and later researching the book over last summer that the story had gone truly global.  I did a lot of research on line (fittingly enough) and every time I searched people involved in the story I got hits from further and further afield.  Even doing a search now you can find accounts from the Telegraph, The Guardian and the Daily Record in the UK and CNN in the States. I’m not surprised particularly, it is a great story.

What did amaze me though was how far the coverage extended, there’s coverage from Spain, Hungary and even Vietnam. Now my Spanish, Hungarian and Vietnamese aren’t great, so I’m not sure what spin they were taking but it’s the first time I’ve covered a story that has become such an international talking point.

When you work in a country the size of Ireland it’s easy to get caught up in the local aspect of news…there’s frequently little else but the odd time, when a story arrives with a truly international dimension, that spans from the west of Ireland to the casinos of Las Vegas with a pitstop in Spain, it’s difficult not to get excited.

A lot of the Irish press focused once again on the local angle, the fact that the scheming femme fatale behind the internet plot to kill her millionaire boyfriend was a County Clare housewife from an old Ennis family.  Certainly this is a case that has gone down in Clare legend and it’ll be a long time before it’s forgotten in Ireland as a whole.

But there is another side to the story.  The so-called hitman Sharon Collins hired to do her dirty work was an Egyptian poker dealer in Las Vegas.  His story and his conquests had travelled through Ohio, Michigan & Illinois.  Much of the plotting took place while Sharon was staying with her partner PJ Howard at his apartment in Feungirola in Malaga.  This was a dimension that lifted things out of the parochial into the international.

I was fascinated by the international dimension and explored the American angle in far more detail the majority of my colleagues.  I’m not saying clever me, simply that this was the bit of the story that interested me.  It’s not often the bright lights of Vegas shine on an Irish court case after all.

It remains to be seen how my account of the whole twisted mess does on it’s first foray abroad but I wish it well.  It’s a story that should reach a wider audience.  But we’ll just have to wait and see.

A Collins in the News Again…

When Sharon Collins decided to hire Essam Eid to kill her partner PJ Howard and his sons Robert and Niall she ensured that anyone connected with the case would become a honey pot for the Irish media for months, if not years, afterwards.

Sharon herself can guarantee the column inches for merely catching a cold while the intensely private Howard family have complained that they can no longer conduct their property business in Ennis, Co Clare without being constantly aware of prying eyes and smutty jokes.

Well today Lying Eyes effect can be seen again.  Sharon’s former husband, Noel, the father of her two sons and a familiar face to anyone who attended her trial, has appeared in Dublin Circuit Civil Court in an employment law scuffle.

It appears that Noel, when working as a security company manager, had allowed a security manager to sleep on the job and had got the sack as a result.  The full story is here.

It’s the kind of story that runs through the courts all the time without comment.  What makes it suddenly news is Mr Collins proximity to the notorious Devil in the Red Dress.  I can’t help feel sorry for the man.  All he did was stand by the mother of his children and give support to his sons, now he will be in the deflected spotlight for a very long time to come.

That’s the thing with high profile trials…the story keeps running long after the verdict has been announced.  For all those connected with the Ennis femme fatale this means that their lives are now flagged on the paparazzi antenna.  They might not have done anything but they too will pay some of the price.  That’s just the way things are – but that’s unlikely to be of any comfort to Noel Collins as he suddenly steps into the limelight.

A little bit of housekeeping…

I’ll post properly later on but I wanted to post the interview I did for Devil in the Red Dress on John Cooke’s show on Clare FM back at the beginning of December that I was ranting about yesterday.  I was totally befuddled with a cold at the time and then got overtaken by the festive mayhem and since New Years I’ve been confounded at every turn by gaps in my knowledge of all things Internet.

I’ve been trying to upload it for days now, ever since we had the post festive clear out, and yesterday it had me driven to distraction but finally everything is talking to everything else and we’re cooking with gas.

For the record the combination that worked the charm was Total Recorder for the encoding (I bought it ages ago for recording streamed radio interviews but stupidly didn’t realise it’s also quite a nifty MP3 encoder) then a fair amount of fumbling with WordPress 2.7’s new interface and working out which plug ins were messing the whole this up (never did work out exactly which I will post when I find out).

I also used Cool Edit Pro to top and tail it.  I’m not going to link to that since it’s a really old programme I’ve had ever since I used to work in radio many years ago and it’s not even supposed to work with XP.  The programme was bought by Adobe and now costs lots.  I like it though.  It works for me and I;m familiar with the interface and can use it to top and tail and normalize with no hassle.

Anyway back to the interview. It’s not a great recording, the husband thoughfully did it for me from home but I had all the sound recording software with me on my laptop so a rather precarious network of Y cables linking the computer to my Zoom,  not the most elegant set up but it’s audible.

I sound rather like a cross between a frog and Marlene Dietrich due to the cold but I’ll leave you to decide for yourselves.

Enough procrastinating… here it is…

 


 

The Next Big Thing…

Since the Joe O’Reilly trial in the summer of 2007 the Irish media seem to have managed a “trial of the century” every couple of months.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining, it is after all my bread and butter, but it’s got to the stage where you can spot one of these trials long before they ever come to court.

The O’Reilly trial really did have it all from the press’s point of view.  There was an attractive young mother, brutally murdered in her own home; the husband, who not only admitted he was the prime suspect but had even appeared suitably suspicious on the country’s biggest chat show and had a whole room dedicated to Star Wars; there was even a mistress who had been called early on the morning of the murder and again shortly after it.

It was a sensational case from as soon as the garda investigation began that only grew more extraordinary through every day of the three week trial some two years later.  But trials like that don’t come along very often.  Ever since, the media have been trying to find a replacement, a trial that will capture the magic of the Joe Show.  A certain type of case seems to fit the bill.

There’s usually an element of class about them – either the accused or the victim will be middle class, from a respectable home.  The victim is frequently a young mother, frequently someone who could be described by the colour writers as “the pretty blond…”, the husband is often in the frame.  The trials of Joe O’Reilly, Brian Kearney or John O’Brien all fitted the bill and the media, predictably, went nuts.

I’ve often sat through trials that might have received steady coverage from beginning to end where, nevertheless, I was the only member of the press sitting in court.  But when the trial has this magical mix of sex, class and violence you know your working day has just grown by several hours since you will now have to be in court at some ungodly hour simply to get a seat.

The verdict will be characterised by a scrum outside the gates of the Four Courts, a scrum made worse by the fact that many of the papers have decided to send their own photographers and multiple reporters to make sure that every possible angle is covered.

It’s hardly surprising that news editors go nuts for stories that definitely help to sell papers.  The Irish public, it seems, simply can’t get enough of true crime.  I’ve heard this time and time again when I’ve visited bookshops to sign copies of Devil.  Several store managers have told me it’s their fastest selling genre.

It’s been a while since “petite blond mother of two” Sharon Collins was up for conspiring to murder her partner PJ Howard and young Finn Colclough, with his address on the exclusive Waterloo Road, was sentenced just before Christmas.  The search is now on for the next big thing.

There are a few possibilities, there always will be those trials that tick the sex and class boxes, as well as the ever present violence one.  Before the month is out there will probably be at least one trial that fills the press benches to bursting point and stirs the disapproving commentators who accuse the hacks of glorying in people’s tragedies.

But there lies the question.  Have the press over-stepped the mark and made criminal court proceedings into a form of entertainment that a greedy public devours in their daily news or is it simply that in these times we live in there are more news worthy killings than ever before and the press are simply doing their job.

There is a turn of mind, frequently muttered in the winding corridors of the Four Courts by members of the Bar unhappy that they now have to fight for seats with mangy hacks, that we are being overly sensational, introducing an ambulance chasing mentality to those solemn proceedings.

Certainly there have been rather a lot of tragic, blond, passably attractive, relatively young mothers virtually beatified by certain red tops over the past couple of years.  Telling the public that these women fall into the “sexy” murder category has certainly boosted sales in certain quarters.  These days the facts of a case have to pretty sensational to attract attention if the elements of sex and class are absent.

But then, maybe it’s just that the number of murders passing through the courts these days are so much more than Ireland used to see that the number of cases that tick the tabloid boxes is going to be far higher through simple statistical inevitability.  Unfortunately there are some people who kill those they are supposed to love, some men who see murder as an alternative to divorce while others fail to keep violent tempers in check.

Joe O’Reilly might seem to have started an avalanche of sensational murder trials but unfortunately such trials have always and will always appear; journalists and editors will always get excited about a good story and the public will always find human suffering interesting.  Maybe one or two women met their deaths while it seemed that the gardai would never have a sufficient case against O’Reilly but the reality is that we live in more violent times and the number of murders in Ireland has increased drastically in the past few years.

2009 will have it’s sensational trials that pack the court rooms with media and public alike and displace barristers who might have wandered in out of professional interest or possibly because they secretly have the same blood lust as the rest of us.  They are now a fact of life and until the public stop buying the papers that report on them that’s not going to change.

So all that’s left is to look ahead and spot the next big one then turn up early to get a seat!

After a Flurry of Activity…

The last couple of weeks have been absolutely nuts.  It’s only three weeks ago today that Sharon Collins and Essam Eid were sentenced.  A week after that I was working on the final edit of Devil in the Red Dress and a week and a half later we were celebrating the launch.

It’s only now that I can take time to take stock and suddenly I realise that apart from anything else I haven’t written a single Christmas card!  Tomorrow the first interviews start, first of all it’s out to East Coast Radio in Bray, Co Wicklow for a half hour chat, then on Wednesday it’s over to Phanton FM.  It’s still a bit weird being the interviewee rather than interviewer but I’m beginning to get used to it.

It seems that this is a subject it’s going to take people a long time to get tired of talking about – Sharon Collins managed to get herself into the papers again over the weekend by lodging her appeal through her solicitor.  That’ll be another circus when the time eventually comes around.

As I start looking forward to the interviews I’m suddenly having to think about what’s in the book.  You get to the stage in the last days of writing and editing where you couldn’t see the wood for the trees if you tried…it just becomes all trees and details.  Now I’m thinking about how to sell the story and it’s a whole different ball game.

I’m also thinking again about making a trailer but more of that in a few days.

I’ve written often here about the fact that I think that this is very much a defining trial of our time.  With the elements of sex, celebrity and excess, not to mention the Internet it has everything that seems to make our generation tick.

It fascinates me that I could find out so much about the lives of people I had never met, who live thousands of miles away.  Their past addresses, criminal records, school friends.  Trying to find out about people here in Ireland is a different matter entirely.

For Sharon Collins and Essam Eid the attitude was that whatever you wanted, be it a false marriage, a hitman or a deadly toxin, you could find it in a few clicks of the mouse online.  But there were many points during the trial where the short comings of Ireland’s access to the World Wide Web became all too clear.

When we heard about Sharon’s attempts to contact “Tony Luciano” from her home in Ballybeg House outside Ennis, for example there was always the mention of the appallingly slow dial-up speeds in the house.  Now this wasn’t a case from some time in antiquity, this was 2006 and her partner, PJ Howard was the head of a €60 million property business.  The problem was that broadband was simply not available.

So the most technologically advanced murder conspiracy plot this country has almost certainly ever seen was conducted at dial up speeds or in stolen moments during the working day.  The situation with broadband is a little better here in 2008 and broadband might have reached much further into the heart of Ireland but still there’s a lot further to go with the amount of information available online.

Whether you’re talking about government departments or the judiciary, the information available is general at best.  There are one or two exceptions but even they are firmly rooted in paperwork.  I recently filed my taxes using the Irish Revenues online service ROS.

It was a great service but in order to register I had to go through three different registration procedures, two of which required a secure password to be sent to me by traditional post.  Just to contrast this, I could access court documents in America with a password sent to me in a matter of hours through their secure server.

Collins and Eid might be pretty bad examples of how to use this incredible resource we have access to nowadays (see The Story Behind the Book for more details) but surely it’s time Ireland started making full use of the facilities available to them.  There are Irish companies who use the Internet well but they are still in the minority.

I’ve learnt a lot about what’s possible and what’s fantasy while researching Devil in the Red Dress.  I was surprised by how much possibility the Internet opens up, as a journalist I take Google for granted but there’s a lot more out there.

I’m very excited about the possibilities with the global village you get glimpses of with the Net but the antics of Collins and Eid only go to show that there are still plenty of dark corners out there were dodgy people lurk…and some are more successfully dodgy than others!

Only Two Days to Go!

It’s only two days until Devil in the Red Dress is launched.  It should be on the shelves by the weekend.  Every time I walk into a bookshop I imagine how it’ll look on the shelves.  Now I don’t have long to wait to see if I’m right.

I’m concentrating on the book this week so I won’t be blogging about the current trials in the Four Courts.  I’ll be finding out about what happens in the Dane Pearse trial the same as anyone else – on the news.  It’s rather nice not to have to sit through another lot of post mortem evidence, even though after a while they become just data and facts.

A couple of us on the press bench were talking last week about the effect that following the courts has on you.  There was a general consensus that we’re generally speaking a cynical bunch.  Day after day seeing the worse side of humanity tends to have that effect.

One of the things that attracted me to the story of Sharon Collins and Essam Eid was the fact that with this trial there were no post mortems.  I’m not saying it wasn’t a harrowing experience for those who received a visit from “Tony Luciano” but the fact is that both Sharon Collins’ plot to kill her millionaire partner and his two grown up sons and Essam Eid’s scam to approach the “marks” and demand money to cancel the “hit” ended up miserable failures.

During the closing speeches in their trial, earlier this year, it was pointed out that, even without a body count, people had still been hurt.  Certainly listening to the victim impact statement given by Robert and Niall Howard at the sentence hearing it was clear that they had suffered immensely, living in fear since the incident and their relationship with their father seriously damaged by his refusal to give up on the woman who had plotted to have them killed.

But even taking their pain into account, this was still “light relief” compared to trials involving a violent death.  As I researched Devil the sheer breadth of farce in this plot kept taking me by surprise.  On this blog I have links to the websites that featured in the case…take a look, tell me, do these look like legitimate businesses?

Whoever happened upon hitmanforhire.net and thought they’d found the answer to all their problems was at best gullible, at worst deluded.  The fact that Sharon Collins admitted to buying a Mexican proxy marriage certificate from proxymarriages.com, even after receiving an email from the Mexican embassy telling her that double proxy marriages did not in fact exist in Mexico, is rather a strong indicator that her radar for a good Internet buy is a bit skewed.

I feel for the Howard brothers, as well as Sharon’s own two sons Gary and David Collins.  Even Eid and his co-conspirator Teresa Engle have children who do not deserve the humiliation of a connection with a case as ridiculous as this.  Sharon’s partner, P.J. Howard had to put up with the shame of having lurid sexual allegations made about him in court, allegation that he has since strongly denied.

But for an outsider’s point of view it’s an incredible story and despite all that humiliation, a comparatively victimless crime. Ricin may have featured but it was never actually called into play – if it had been we may have had a completely different story.

It might be a rather bleak and black comedy but it’s easy to see it as a comedy none the less.  Many have compared the plot to the Cohen brothers and it certainly would make a good companion piece to Fargo.  I hope that anyone who reads my book will get a sense of the story that reads like a movie plot.

It remains to be seen if it ever ends up on the silver screen but if it does, they won’t have to change a thing!

Finally Ready to Roll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally the End Really is in Sight!

So Sharon Collins and Essam Eid woke up this morning knowing how long they’d be looking at the same four walls.  It’s hard to believe that after all this time the story finally has an end.  Now all that’s left was to give my story an end which shouldn’t have been so difficult since they’re one and the same story.

It was a ridiculously busy day yesterday.  The sentence hearing went on most of the day and by the time I finished work it was almost ten o’clock so I was looking forward to a fairly gentle start to the day before settling down to writing.

But some time after 8 the phone rang and there was a voice saying they were calling from the Gerry Ryan Show.  Now Gerry Ryan is one of the top broadcasters in Ireland.  He’s also a pretty integral part of the Sharon Collins story.  One of the most lurid elements of the trial was a certain letter recovered by gardai from the hard drive of one of the computers Sharon had access to.

This letter, only part of which survived, had been written in a fit of pique around April 2006.  It was part of an email to the Gerry Ryan Show and the section that survived was a catalogue of allegations about PJ Howard’s sexual tastes.  Now Sharon has said that these allegations were taken out of context and PJ has said they are just totally untrue but the Gerry Ryan letter is still one of the most distinctive pieces of evidence.

Well today it wasn’t Sharon contacting the show, it was the show contacting me.  I ended up reminiscing with Mr Ryan himself about his appearance in court.  An unexpected start to the day to say the least.  And after the Gerry Ryan Show it was Neil Prendeville on 96FM in Cork to follow up on a piece I did for him before the sentence yesterday…all before 10.30 in the morning.  Then Spin 103 just before 2.  I suppose this is what they mean by publicity – I’m feeling positively over exposed but if it gets The Devil in the Red Dress out to a wider audience then needs must.

But the main work of the day was writing my final chapter.  In fairness this is a story that pretty much tells itself but there was still an awful lot to cover just giving an account of yesterday’s events.

It’s now almost done and now the real work begins.  It’ll be a while yet before I can stop telling this story but I’m beginning to look forward to moving into the next phase of this author business.  Right now though I’m so tired I could fall over so a more in depth post will just have to wait until tomorrow.

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