“So was it the husband? Did he kill her?”
“Ah yeah. Well, I mean, that’s who the gardai are looking at, the hubby. I don’t think there’s anyone else, really. They don’t for an instant think it was a burglary.”
“I knew it. I fucking knew it. I knew he did it. The bastard. How did he think he could get away with it?”
“Well, he obviously thought he had planned the perfect murder. But it stands to reason he’d be the prime suspect. C’mon, when’s the last time you heard of a burglar beating someone to death? It doesn’t happen. A burglar who is disturbed is gonna do a runner out the back door – not beat someone to death. Look, when a woman’s killed in her own home, the first person the cops are going to look at is the husband – they’d be mad not to...”
“Yeah! Jesus, he’s some bollox. Imagine playing the grieving husband routine like that. I tell you, the second I saw him on TV, I turned round and said ` He did it. He’s guilty’. It was so obvious.”
“Yeah. Anyway, he’s goosed...”
“Really? Have they got enough to get him? I bet he thought he’d get away with it...”
“Well, they’re hopeful.”
In late 2004 and early 2005, I was having this conversation a lot. By a lot, I mean 10 or 11 times a day. Most crime reporters were having the same Groundhog Day experience. Your colleagues were asking you, your family was asking you – even some gardai were asking you. Everyone, it seemed, was obsessed with the case of a young woman beaten to death in her own home in rural north Dublin.
The woman was Rachel O’Reilly – her husband, in hindsight a cold, calculating, vicious sociopath, was Joe.
I was convinced Joe O’Reilly did it from day one. I was around 20 feet away from him a few hours after the murder. I saw the look on his face, which was definitely not of someone whose wife had been stolen from him in a horrendous attack. It was of someone who was relaxed, calm and carefree. The look on his face haunts me to this day. I knew there and then he killed her. But, luckily for me, I’m not a cop, so I didn’t have to actually prove anything.
But only a few other people saw him that day - I actually blame The Late, Late Show for the massive public interest – actually, obsession – that endures today about Joseph Anthony O’Reilly, husband, adulterer, father and killer.
Two weeks after he battered his wife Rachel to death at their home in north Dublin, O’Reilly went on RTE’s flagship chatshow to appeal for the public’s help in finding her killer. His performance on the show – and the image of Rachel’s mother Rose Callaly sitting impassively beside him – did two things. Firstly, seemingly everyone who watched it knew there and then Joe O’Reilly was a killer. You could imagine countless viewers turning to their loved one and saying ` That fella’s as guilty as sin.”
And, secondly, it transformed what had been up to then a murder probe like any other into one of the most high profile – and high pressure – investigations ever carried out by the Garda. It was clear he was lying. It was clear Mrs Callaly was extremely uncomfortable being near him. And it was clear O’Reilly was now suspect number one. He obviously thought going on the show would help deflect any suspicion from him, a grieving husband. But it was nothing short of a disaster for him. He was a really bad liar and came across as shifty, evasive and guilty.
He was hanging himself.
The murder of Rachel O’Reilly, beaten to death by the man who promised to love honour and cherish her a few years earlier, really did grip the nation. And it was, for me, his disastrous appearance on Pat Kenny’s TV show that catapulted his murder into the fascinated consciousness of almost every person in Ireland. It led to the case being on the front pages on a weekly basis – and it led to reporters like me having Joe on our mind on a daily basis.
I got the call that a woman’s body had been found at around 2pm on October 4 – two hours after the alarm was raised. We heard she had been found in her house, and were told it could be suspicious. In cases like this, where information is so limited, you automatically think that it isn’t a murder. There are numerous deaths in Ireland every month, where gardai initially are suspicious, but foul play is quickly ruled out. Suspicious quickly becomes suicide, a fall, or a heart attack. It feels silly now, with the murder trial behind us, including details of how Rose found her daughter’s horrifically battered body in her bedroom, to think that we reporters even contemplated anything but murder – it was clear as day to the family, gardai and paramedics at the scene that she had died a violent death. Just goes to show, I suppose, how little we reporters really know.
Anyway, we hot footed it to the Naul in north County Dublin after we got the nod that this was indeed a murder. As we drove the winding road from the M1, little did we know that we were heading into a story that would captivate us and the public for the best part of the next four years. Once we learned the basic facts (a young mum beaten to death in her own home), we immediately started speculating that it was her husband. As we spoke to neighbours outside the cordon, we were trying to build up a picture of her – and her husband. She was nice and chatty, people said. He seemed like a grand fella – he’s very big. Really? Yes, he’s about 6ft 4inches and is some martial arts expert. What’s her name? Rachel. Rachel O’Reilly. And him? Joe.
We were so interested in him because, like gardai, we knew that when a woman is killed in her own home, the first person looked at is the hubby. Of course, stranger murders of women in their own homes do happen – but they are few and far between. Women’s Aid, for example, has compiled frightening figures on female homicides in Ireland. They show most women are murdered by someone they knew, and almost half of the solved cases involved a partner, husband, or ex. So, naturally, the more cynical among us were looking at this husband.
Cynically, and somewhat to my own shame, I bet an RTE cameraman on the scene that it was the husband. I said it was. He said not a chance. I bet him €20 that it was – with the loser making a donation of that amount to Vincent De Paul – I haven’t seen him since, strangely. There were a couple of senior gardai at the police cordon, chatting to reporters, telling us nothing. I said to one `could it have been the husband?’ `We’re looking at him,’ came the firm reply. But he was non committal. He’d say nothing more. How could he? Cops have to actually investigate crimes and bring enough evidence to persuade a judge or jury that they have the right suspect. Reporters, muppets that we are, want to know who the killer is within a few hours of the last blow being delivered. We’re fools sometimes.
Later that dark autumn evening, I was driving around Dunleer. It was around 8pm and we had found out that Joe O’Reilly – to us at this stage a grieving husband, was at his mother Ann’s house in the Meath town. I turned into her street and looked for the number of her house. It was just a normal housing estate, cars lining the cul de sac, lights on in the houses, the flicker of the TV screens jumping around as shadows outside as I drove past.
And then I saw him.
The O’Reilly house was on my right. As I drove slowly past the house (I always make sure the car is turned out of culs de sacs before doing a deathknock, just in case I need to make a fast retreat) I saw a giant standing in the doorway. He was huge. He filled most of the doorway. He was wearing a red fleece top and black tracksuit bottoms. He was looking out onto the street where I was, around 20 feet away. He could have been putting the milk out. He was so calm, and composed I actually didn’t think it was Joe O’Reilly. He looked as if he didn’t have a care in the world. He looked completely at ease with himself. I didn’t know what he looked like at this stage, so I thought it must have been a brother or a friend. I continued on a few yards, did a U-turn and drove back to the house. I got out and walked up to the door, somewhat nervous. I knocked, but nobody answered. The man standing at the door a few seconds earlier was nowhere to be seen.
It was only a few days later, when I saw a newspaper interview he did, that I realised I’d seen Joe O’Reilly on the day of the murder. Christ almighty, it was him. The look on his face, his demeanour, the lack of any despair or grief chilled me to the bone. I was convinced from then he was the killer.
Everyone else was convinced two weeks later when he went on the Late, Late.
A few hours before O’Reilly went on RTE television and turned himself into Ireland’s most hated, I was preparing myself to make a phone call. We had been following the case and we knew that gardai were becoming increasingly suspicious of him. Now, we decided, was the time to ask O’Reilly the hard question. He had done several interviews, posing as the devastated widower. But it was clear there was something not right about him. He seemed too eager to please the reporters; too happy to talk about the injuries Rachel had suffered; too happy to take a call. I’ve spoken to plenty of people who have lost a loved one to murder. Some talk, some don’t, but those who do are genuinely upset. Even if they try to remain strong for a stranger, you can see the despair in their eyes. O’Reilly, however, looked fine.
So, we decided, let’s ask him a few hard questions. We were hoping he’d admit to us he was a suspect. If he admitted that, we’d have a great story. But we needed him to confirm he was a suspect. If we said it off our own bat, he’d be seeing us in court. We needed him to say it – and I was faced with the task of coaxing it out of him. I prepared myself, steeled myself, for the call. I decided the only thing I could do was ask him straight out – look, a lot of people are looking at you in relation to the murder of your wife? Would you like to talk about this? The hope is he would out himself as a suspect. Still, even though it was over the phone, I was extremely nervous about asking a recent widower that question.
Thankfully, the decision was taken, way above my pay scale, that we would leave it to our sister paper, Star Sunday, to go after that line. So the next day, my colleague John Mooney had to make that call. I listened to the tape a few times. John’s been at crime reporting longer than me, but you can hear the nervousness in his voice as he prepares to broach the subject.
In the end, he need not have worried. O’Reilly volunteered he was a suspect. “'I have nothing to hide and I think the gardai know that. I didn't kill her. Everyone, including myself, is a suspect until this is resolved. I was questioned the same way everyone else was and statistically you know it's usually the husband, boyfriend, whatever." Bingo.
But, between me preparing to make the call and John actually making the call, O’Reilly went on the Late, Late.
And that changed everything.
Now, he is appealling the conviction. He'll be in the Court of Criminal Appeal on Thursday morning to try to get his conviction quashed.
The main point of appeal is that damning mobile phone evidence, that placed him close to the murder scene when he said he was 15 miles away, should not have been presented to the jury.
I don't think he has a chance of winning.