December 6, 2008

Talking to a killer...

"All I can remember is the kids shouting `stop it daddy, please stop it'."

HE BRINGS his face to within a few inches of the reinforced glass panel separating us. Cradling the phone between his shoulder and ear, he pauses, seemingly in an effort to summon up the courage to say what needs to be said. Then the words leap out of his mouth.
"I punched her once on the face and she went down," he machineguns.
Simultaneously, there is a bam! He balls his right hand into a tight fist and punches his left palm. Hard.
He can't stop. It's as if what he did to his woman three years earlier has been festering inside him ever since and now is the time to purge himself. He keeps talking.
"I just lost it. My mind has gone blank after that, but I have been told I beat her for around 10 minutes. My lawyer told me I used repeated blows against her and I have to accept it. I saw the photographs of what I did to her – I couldn't even recognise her. Her face was all purple. It was fucking terrible."
That was how, sitting in the visitors' area of Villena prison near Alicante in southern Spain, Paul Hickey told me how he beat his partner, Celine Conroy, to a pulp. And then some more. She lay alone, dying slowly, for up to seven hours after the attack. After he finished with her, he got a shower and went to sleep.
It would probably be more comforting to people if he had two heads: but the reality was he was depressingly normal. He didn’t look evil. He just looked like an ordinary young fella from central Dublin. His hair was cropped tight, he had a few spots on his face, the tracksuit was a bit grubby. You could be sitting beside him on the bus in the morning.
But killers are, largely, like that. Ask anyone who sat through the Joe O’Reilly trial in June and July last year, or Brian Kearney’s case earlier this year. Both men were frighteningly ordinary. On the outside anyway. O’Reilly is the coldest, most unfeeling man I’ve ever had the displeasure of being close to in my life.
Hickey’s so matter of fact about what he has just said that it takes a few seconds for what he has told me to sink in.
Holy Shit. This is huge. (This is a reporter being honest. When he told me I immediately knew I had a front page story. That was the first thing that went through my head. A decent, normal, person would probably have recalled in horror and tried to smash through the glass to get at him. But we’re neither decent nor normal when it comes to getting stories. We’ll probably pay for it someday. It was only hours later, when the adrenaline wore off, that I thought, really thought, about what he said. That’s when it hits you. The reality is, however, that I’m not there as a person. I’m there to take down what he says and put it in the paper.)
But there there's more, much more, to come from him. I ask him about his and Celine's three kids. They were in the house in San Fulgencio, near Alicante, when he slaughtered her in August 2005.None of the media covering his trial in Spain in November really knew what the kids saw, me included. We knew that he made the two eldest children walk past her body after he beat her so badly she died maybe seven hours later. But what about during the horrendous onslaught he unleashed upon her? Were they in the next room, oblivious? Or did they see the whole thing?
Hickey gives me a gruesome clarity on my question. It's the latter.
"Did Celine say anything when you were hitting her?" I ask.
"All I can remember is the kids shouting `stop it daddy, please stop it,'" he admits.
"I think I heard her say `Ah' when she was on the ground, but she didn't say anything else. I must have knocked her out with the first punch."
Occasionally, when you're interviewing someone, small sentences have huge import. In just 14 words, he has conveyed the full, unedited horror of what happened that night in August 2005. You're probably seeing it in your mind's eye as you're reading this: a nine year old boy, his six year old sister both appealing to their daddy to stop beating their mummy. Do they watch from a few feet, or do they try to get in his way? Who knows? But, either way, he doesn't listen. Instead, he keeps up the kicking, punching – biting even – until Celine is on the ground, unconscious. Dying.
His brutal honesty leaves me reeling and, honestly, excited at the same time. Reeling because it's a terrible sensation sitting across from someone who is, almost nonchalantly, describing beating a woman to death; excited because it's a great story. He's never spoken about it before.
I'd been expecting, in a way hoping, that he would have said the kids saw nothing. In fact, if you believe him, Celine's two eldest kids saw the whole brutal beating he callously and casually doled out to her.
A few minutes earlier, I had sat down opposite him in the yellow painted visitors' both of the prison. It was just like in the movies: he was behind reinforced plexiglass. We had to communicate via a phone handset.
I said hello. He smiled said hello back. Then it was down to business. I didn't think there was much point exchanging pleasantries with him. I wasn't there as a friend. I was there to ask him some questions.
Two days earlier, when he appeared in court in Elche and admitted beating Celine to death, he gave no explanation for what he did. Celine's mother, Sandra, later told reporters she had one question for him. "Why did you do it Paul? Why? I know we'll never get an answer, he's not man enough to give us an answer."
I gave it a go. It was really the only question to ask him.
I looked him in the eye and said: "What happened, Paul? Why did you do it?"
I was expecting some bullshit answer; that they had a row and she provoked him. But he was honest – or seemed to be. Only he knows why he did it. But, to me, he looked like he was speaking the truth.
He gives me his version of events.
With a slight, nervous, smile on his face, he says: "I had not been sleeping for days and I could hear voices in my head."Everywhere I went I could see people looking at me. Everyone was."On the night it happened, I felt terrible and went to a cafe nearby where I got a big glass of Hennessy. That must have had something to do with it."I went back up to the house and Celine was there."I started cooking and then asked her if she would do it for me."She said something like `Yeah, I will now.' There was no aggression or anything from her."But I just looked at her and said `What did you say?' and went up to her."
Here he explains how he went up a matter of millimetres from her face and got two of his fingers and prised open the eyelids on her left eye. He said he could see some sign inside the eye, like an X or a cross."I punched her once on the face and she went down. There was no reason for what I did. She didn't do anything to provoke me.
"My mind just went blank after I hit her the first time. I just lost it. I'll never be able to explain why I did it because there was no reason for it."
So that's it. This woman lost her life. Her kids lost their mother. Hickey lost everything. And he can't explain why he did it.
He then goes on to talk about the rough time he has been having in the prison, one of the most dangerous in Spain. He tells how a former cell mate tried to rape him, but he managed to fight him off. He tells how he had to share a cell with an English paedophile for a few months. And then he tells me how he was stabbed by Spanish gypsy, who put it up to him on a landing one day.
He motions to show me the puncture wounds on his body. Most are on his abdomen
but he also has one on his left forearm. As he lifts up his sleeve, I see a huge
black tattoo: Celine.
"When did you get that done?"
He looks away. "In here."
This guy is either crazy or evil. After he beats her to death, he gets her name tattooed on her arm. "Why did you do that?" I ask, incredulous.
"Because I still love her and always will. I can think of only two other times where we had a physical fight – we really loved each other." You know, I think he meant it. He was obviously so violent to her in the past that he has rationalised what he – he thinks he just went a bit too far, but didn’t mean to kill her.
In fact, he later says it was an accident and that he’s truly sorry for what he did. Only he knows if that’s a lie.
After about 40 minutes, the phone line goes dead. Visiting time is up. He smiles, knocks on the plexiglass and signals for me to ring him sometime in the future.
I walked out towards the freedom of the gates. He went back to his cell. Normal life resumed.

For the record, here is a list of injuries Celine Conroy suffered at the hands of Hickey on the night he killed her:

• A 2cm cut on her right upper eyelid • A 2.5 cm long graze on her right cheek • A 4cm graze, also on her right cheek • A haematoma on each of her eye sockets • A bruise on her right forehead • Bruising and swelling on bridge of nose • A 1.5cm bruise under her chin • Bruising of the nose • A 1cm cut to the nose
• Another 1.5 cm cut to the nose • A 1.5 cm cut to the left upper eyelid • A massive bruise to the left half of her face • A cut to the left corner of her mouth • A cut to the lower left lip • Bruising to both ears • Bleeding from both ears • A lesion 4.5cms by 0.5cm on the right upper chest • A bruise to the upper right chest, measuring 3.5cm by 2cm • Another bruise in the same area, again measuring 3.5cm by 2cm
• A bruise between her breasts measuring 5cms by 3cms • A 2cm bruise to the left side of her throat • A swelling to her left collar bone • Four irregular bruises down the right side of her torso • Another bruise, this time 3cm long and in the shape of a half moon on her right side • Bruising to the right abdomen • A bruise 3cm by 4cm to the pubic area • A 2cm gash to the left abdomen • Bruising to the left buttock • A 0.5cm graze to her left ankle • A 3cm by 2cm bruise to her left forearm • A 4cm by 2cm to her upper left arm • An 8cm by 2cm bruise on her right forearm • A 5cm by 4cm bruise on her right elbow • All but two of the teeth had been beaten or kicked out of her upper jaws.
That's what he did to her.


It had taken me two days to get into the prison to see him – and it just goes show that luck plays a massive part in getting a story. It all started when Hickey (31) was frogmarched into the tiny underground courtroom in Elche on Wednesday, November 12. He was there to face the charge of murdering Celine at the San Fulgencio apartment on August 28, 2005. There were around 15 Irish and Spanish media people there to report on it: Celine's horrific death had made the headlines when it happened and the trial would be no different.

Two Policia Nacional officers walked the shackled Hickey into the courthouse through a side entrance. Around an hour later, he was standing in front of the judge. We had all been expecting him to plead not guilty, even though the weight of evidence against him, in the shape of witnesses and forensics, was compelling at the very least. The reason we thought he was going to fight the case was that the state and Celine's family were demanding a 20 year jail term. But, as often happens in the Spanish system, there was a last minute deal. The state and family (who in Spain have the right to bring their own criminal prosecution against a suspect) both agreed to drop the formal murder charge in return for a plea to of guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter. The deal was he'd do 15 years. With remission and the sentence being backdated to when he killed her, he'll be out by 2015. Celine's family, through, gritted teeth, accepted the deal. Hickey stood up in the small, airless courtroom at about 5pm to accept that he killed her.

I was, with other reporters, sitting across from him. I looked over at him – I was only around 10 feet away – and caught his eye. He looked back at me and nodded. What's the protocol for interacting with a killer? Do you ignore him? Do you give him a dirty look? Do you give the him the finger? If you're a normal member of society, you'd probably do all three – but reporters aren't normal people. We're freaks who look at everything the prism of getting a story. Everything else comes second. So I nodded back at him. He smiled slightly and raised his eyebrows as if to say: `I'm really, really in trouble here. Terrible, isn't it" I nodded again and went back to listening to the proceedings. A few moments later, I looked over towards him and, again, he caught my eye. Again we had a silent, secret, conversation. I knew I was in with him. I knew I had a chance.

In Ireland, reporters don't speak to prisoners as they are led to and from court: but this wasn't Ireland. The very fact that the judge had allowed the camera people and photographers into the court building to get Hickey showed that Irish rules didn't apply. Bring a camera into an Irish court complex and you'll soon be getting familiar with prison food. A few minutes later, the case was adjourned for an hour or so and everyone filed out of the court. I dawdled more than usual as all the other hacks rushed outside, with good reason. They were eager to see Celine's loved ones’ reaction to Hickey as hew paraded past them. I thought I could get a few words with Hickey as he was being led away – the quotes might make a decent angle for my story. His cuffed wrists were in front of him as he was led out past me. "How are you?" I asked, "Do you want to say anything?" "I'm grand," came the surprisingly cheery reply. And then this: "Come in and see me and I'll tell you the whole story..." "Okay. Where are ya?" I was frantic for the answer; he was now a few feet beyond me, being led out by the police. "Veeyeno," he shouted over his shoulder.

Great. Where the hell is that, I wondered, rather frantically. I thought there was only one prison in Alicante, called Fontcalente. Maybe he was in another part of Spain. While I was digesting this, all hell was breaking loose outside the courtroom. Relatives of Celine got stuck into him, verbally, as he was led out. In front of the press and their unblinking cameras, he launched a volley of abuse at them. "Shout your mouth," he shouted and then laughed at her family.

Afterwards, a few hacks sidled up to me and asked me what I had said to him. I, truthfully, said he told me he was grand. I just forgot to mention the invitation to visit him in prison. Oops.

We had around an hour to wait until he came back, so I got busy. I'm lucky enough to speak bad Spanish so I managed to talk to the one friendly cop, who told me Hickey was housed in Villena Prison, about 30 miles from Elche. I then sidled up to his lawyer. "Any chance of a chat with him? He said he wanted to talk to me..." "I will ask him..." "Thank you..." "...tomorrow." Ah. "Is it possible you could do it now, tonight? You could give him my card." "I will do it tomorrow." I had to strike while the iron was hot. So tried another tack. I approached Hickey's (Dutch) interpreter – he agreed to give him my card. The hour passed and eventually Hickey came back to hear that the jury had accepted the plea bargain. The interpreter came up to me and told me he had given my card to the lawyer. But, I wondered, would he give it to Hickey? Moments later, Hickey was brought out of court in handcuffs again and my photographer colleague Jim Walpole got this picture of him. It was just one frame, but it highlighted perfectly the contempt Hickey showed for everyone that day, especially Celine’s family.

The next day we headed up to Villena. I tried to get in to see him there and then – but they said I needed to make an appointment for the following day. All we had to do now was wait. And hope. We had to hope that he authorities would let us in; that Hickey would have been given my card and that he would still want to talk to us.

(This is Villena Prison, in another photo taken by Jim Walpole. Hickey is housed in an area to the right of the guard tower.) The appointment was for 6.30pm – we got there an hour early, just in case. In cases like this, it's hard to control your nerves. I was pacing up and down in the circular reception area before my appointment was processed. You can't help but get the jitters. You know you're so close to getting a scoop, and you've been stupid enough to tell your bosses back home that you think you'll get in all right. They're waiting by the phone so they can design the front page – if things go to plan. Jim was trying to keep me calm – something that's quite hard to do as I do get ratty when I'm nervous. He was also trying to get a few secret snaps, so it was somewhat tense.
After what seemed an eternity I was called to the counter. The prison official checked my passport against the registered visitors for the day. "SeƱor O-tu-lay...?" "That's me." "Ok, puede entrar. Tiene que esperar unos minutos." Having to wait a few minutes was no problem, I assured him. I was in. But then disaster. They were refusing to let Jim Walpole in – we hadn't given his passport details the previous day. Now it was up to me to bring in a camera and take a sly shot of Hickey. Still, a snap by a talentless amateur like me is better than no photograph at all. We had already disabled the flash and shutter noise on my small digital camera, so I could take a pic without being seen or heard.
It was a great plan and it would have worked perfectly were it not for those pesky Spaniards and their high – tech prison security. I had to go through an airport style metal detector to get into the prison proper. Camera, phone, watch, money – everything was taken off me. I went through one set of electronic gates, then another.
Then, with other visitors, I was told to walk through a door and found myself in the exercise area of the prison. It was a large gray yard. We walked to the bottom right of it, where another door opened. Through another set of electronic doors and we were in the visiting section of the part, or module, of the jail where Hickey was being held.
I desperately scanned every isolated booth, looking for the pale young Irish man. My stomach was churning – what if he didn't get the card? What if he didn't want to know? In the corner of my eye, I noticed rapid movement in one of the booths. It was Hickey; he was waving his hands to get my attention. He smiled as I walked into the booth and closed the door.
He was sitting down, wearing the same tracksuit he had worn to court just two days earlier. He held up the phone on his side and motioned me to do the same with the one to my right. "Hello," I said. "Hello," he replied. He explained why he agreed to see me. “I remember you from the trial. I remember you looking over at me and saying hello. I thought you looked like a decent fella, so I thought I would pick you.”
And then he started talking.


  1. That's quite a story, Michael. You've given us a sense of Paul Hickey, but also, as I think is more your own intention, what motivates you and what your thoughts were in the process of getting this interview and talking to a killer.

    I just happened to have gone to the movie 'Milk' yesterday, which is about the life and assassination of the San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, who was killed by his fellow supervisor Dan White. I had a similar feeling about the killer's internal rationalization for the killing, which is that largely they did not know themselves what exactly drove them to it.

    Sent over here through Declan Burke's blog, by the way. I think you'd better start using your own material and write some fiction, as all these Irish crime writers are surely going to steal it if you let it sit.

  2. I just don't understand how u could sit and look tat killer in the face and get excited about it SICK..