December 18, 2008

“Yes, it was the husband...”

“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.

December 17, 2008

...And how gardai got their man

WITHIN MINUTES of Rose Callaly finding her beloved daughter Rachel lying dead in her own house, one of the biggest Garda investigations ever undertaken began.
Officers spent tens of thousands of hours trying to get enough evidence to have Joe O'Reilly charged with Rachel's murder.
But it would be almost three years before they had the satisfaction of seeing him jailed for life.
At one stage more than 70 gardai of all ranks were involved in the probe that lasted almost two years before the investigation was complete and a file was sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions.
Officers have revealed that they:
· Held case conferences every single day for weeks after the murder
· Interviewed more than 4,000 people
· Took more than 500 witness statements
· Carried out house to house inquiries within a 10 mile radius of the murder house and
· Visited every single house and business on the 15 mile journey between the O'Reilly home and Phibsboro bus station in central Dublin, where Joe drove after the murder.

But at the end of the day, it all came down to one man and his phone: Joseph Anthony O'Reilly and the mobile he had with him when he battered his wife to death.
If he had left the mobile at work that day as he went to kill his wife, he'd probably be a free man today.
Rachel's battered body was found by her distraught mother Rose at the family home just after 2pm on Monday, October 4, 2004.
Chief Superintendent Mick Finnegan, who was in charge of the Louth Meath Garda division which covers the Naul, visited the scene around 40 minutes after Rachel's body was found.
Dozens of gardai flooded into the area as a murder investigation began.
As well as officers from Balbriggan, the nearest big station, detectives from the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation – based at Harcourt Square in central Dublin – also drove to the scene.
They are the force's elite detectives and members of that unit are sent to every single murder in the state.
The unit was headed by detective Chief Superintendent Martin Donnellan at the time – one of the force's most experienced detectives. He was subsequently promoted to Assistant Commissioner and is now retired.
Another key member of the NBCI sent to the scene was Detective Superintendent Dominic Hayes. As well as playing a key role in the O'Reilly inquiry, D/Supt Hayes also led Operation Steel, the Garda crackdown on drugs boss Marlo Hyland.
The area around the house was sealed off as forensic experts, covered in white protective clothing from head to foot, combed every inch of the property looking for even the faintest piece of evidence that would help them snare the killer.
Parts of the house had seemingly been ransacked, with clothes and other items on the floor of the kitchen – it looked like the house had been ransacked.
Gardai initially suspected that Rachel had been murdered as she disturbed a burglar. Surely, in the struggle, the killer would have left some DNA in the form of blood or even hair, at the scene?
After a few days, they'd be disappointed, however.
The murder weapon could not be found. Officers searched the entire area, but simply couldn't trace it. State pathologist Professor Marie Cassidy could only tell gardai it had been a blunt instrument.
Finding the weapon – which has still not been traced to this day – would have been a huge advance in the inquiry.
And there was worse to come.
There was no DNA evidence. But, as the investigation proceeded, detectives would later see the full significance of that.
Within hours of Rachel's murder, gardai were looking hard at Joe.
Statistics meant they simply had to examine the possibility Rachel had been murdered by her husband.
The vast majority of women who are killed in their own home – as many as eight out of 10 - are murdered by their husband, partner or boyfriend.
And gardai knew it was extremely rare for a woman to be killed in her home by a stranger, so it was logical they would want to know O'Reilly's movements on the day of the murder.
At this stage he was not a suspect, but gardai knew they had to eliminate him before they could go after anyone else.
And that was the first problem the gardai faced: O'Reilly had a strong alibi.
And by 7pm, O'Reilly was at his mother Ann's home in Dunleer, Co Louth – around 20 miles away. He was playing the devastated husband role to perfection.
Detective Superintendent Michael Hoare, Balbriggan crime sergeant Pat Marry and Garda (now Sergeant) Aaron Gormley sat down in the living room of the O'Reilly home to interview Joe.
Calmly, deliberately, O'Reilly told his first lies.
Apart from lying three times about having an affair with Nikki Pelley, O'Reilly also gave officers a false picture of where he was on the morning Rachel was murdered.
He told them he was at the Broadstone and Phibsboro bus garage in north inner city Dublin between 9am and 11.30am on the day.
And he said he was there with Derek Quearney, a 46-year-old former soldier who was his deputy at the Viacom advertising agency where they both worked.
The interview finished at 8pm. By 9pm, other officers had contacted Quearney. He backed up large parts of O'Reilly's story.
He told detectives he saw O'Reilly at around 10am in the depot, then again at 10.30am. He told the officers he left with O'Reilly to go back to Viacom at 11.00am. They got back to Viacom, in the Bluebell Industrial estate in the west of the city, at around midday. O'Reilly was in the office until after 1pm when he got a call to say Rachel hadn't picked up her two kids - which is when he headed to the Naul himself.
It was a rock solid alibi.
O'Reilly simply couldn't have done it, based on Quearney's alibi.
So, if it wasn't the husband, whodunit?
Gardai quickly focused on the possibility that it was indeed a burglary gone wrong.
The day after the murder the Louth Meath Garda search team was deployed to the area around the house in Baldarragh.
Some 500 metres from the house, on the road leading away from the property towards the Naul itself, sergeant Oliver Keegan came across something interesting.
He found a rucksack, camera bag and jewellery box from the family home dumped in a flooded culvert 500 metres from the house. The three items had been taken from the house.
The camera bag even had Rachel's name on it.
Was this the breakthrough? Perhaps the burglar had dumped the items in his panic after he killed Rachel.
Attention focused on a number of different criminals who were known to be active in the area.
In particular there was one gang from Ballymun in north Dublin, only 20 odd minutes from Rachel and Joe's house. Perhaps they were responsible for Rachel's murder?
But then disaster.
The house was forensically clean. All the fingerprints in the house could be attributed to either Joe, Rachel or Rose Callaly.
Nobody else's prints had been left behind. The only person whose blood - apart from Rachel's – was found at the scene was Thomas Lowe, the victim's natural brother.
In August of that year, he had been putting decking down for Rachel and Joe and had cut his hand. He went to the utility room to get a plaster and his blood dripped on the floor and washing machine. He went to clean it up, but Rachel told him she would do it.
However, she left a small smear of his blood on the washing machine. But gardai quickly ruled Mr Lowe out of the investigation.
Nor was there any forensic yield from the evidence found in the culvert.
But an absence of forensic evidence can quickly become a positive.
How, gardai, wondered, could such a violent incident take place and the killer's prints or DNA weren't at the scene?
What if the killers prints were there? What if O'Reilly was the killer? There was a perfect explanation for his prints being there, he lived there after all.
Gardai knew that if no-one else's DNA was found at the scene then there was a good chance O'Reilly was the killer.
"It stands to reason," one officer said.
"Nobody else's DNA or trace evidence was found at the scene. That sounds bad but, if you think about, the absence of someone else's prints points strongly to it being one of the people whose prints we lifted from the scene – Joe."
On October 8, just four days after the murder, Detective Chief Superintendent Martin Callinan got involved in the investigation.
He was head of Garda Crime and Security, the intelligence arm of the force.
It's normally tasked with tracking down terrorists and its operatives played a key role in destroying the Real IRA's campaign in the late 19990s.
But it is also the department of the Garda that handles telephone evidence.
Only the head of Crime and Security can request mobile phone companies to hand over mobile phone records of people of interest.
On that day, the now deputy garda commissioner formally asked for the records of O'Reilly, his lover Nikki Pelley and his alibi Derek Quearney.
It was around three weeks before gardai would get the results.
In the meantime, normal policing work continued.
Dozens of officers were involved in the probe every day, based in the incident room at Balbriggan Garda station – the very heart of the investigation.
As well as carrying out detailed searches of the area around the house and a forensic trawl inside the property, gardai also targeted the wider district around the hall.
Officers carried out door to door inquiries in the area, looking for witnesses.
The area of those inquiries gradually grew and grew until, several months after the murder, they had canvassed every house and property within a 10 mile radius of the O'Reilly home.
It was good, old fashioned police legwork, but it yielded few rewards.
Nobody had seen anything. No suspects were sighted. There was nothing out of the ordinary.
But then there was a breakthrough.
Just 500 metres from the O'Reilly home is the entrance to Murphy's Quarry. It is a huge, sprawling site, borne out by the fact that a mobile phone mast on the quarry was actually 850 metres from Joe and Rachel's house.
Like many businesses, the Murphy Quarry had a CCTV system installed. There were four cameras in the complex, with one of them pointing at the entrance, partially covering the road that leads to the O'Reilly home.
At the end of October, Gardai requested CCTV footage from the morning Rachel was killed.
When they looked at it, they saw a dark coloured car – to the non expert it was of poor quality – heading towards the O'Reilly home at 09.10, at a time Joe said he was in Broadstone. The car went the other way at 09.59.
They also collected images of a similar car heading north and passing by the Europrise building at Blake's Cross in north Dublin, around seven miles from Joe and Rachel's home at 08.55. It was caught on camera coming back towards Dublin at the same site at 10.07.
Gardai couldn't say what the vehicle was, but they knew someone who just might.
They collated all the images and sent them to UK company Kalagate, world renowned experts on analysing CCTV images.
In the meantime, gardai got initial results from the mobile phone companies in relation to the mobiles of O'Reilly, Quearney and Pelley.
The information, handed over at the end of October, was simply dynamite.
It led to Joe O'Reilly becoming the prime suspect for his wife's murder.
The data clearly showed Quearney's contention that he met O'Reilly at close to 10am at Phibsboro was wrong.
The evidence showed that O'Reilly's phone bounced off the mast at Murphy's Quarry – some 850 metres from Joe's house – at 09.25 and 09.52.
Yet O'Reilly, five hours after Rachel's body was found, had told gardai he had been in Phibsboro at that time. And Quearney backed that that up.
They knew O'Reilly was lying and they believed Quearney had made a mistake.
Once the phone evidence came back, events moved quickly.
On November 16, just over a month after the killing, Pelley and Quearney were arrested.
They were taken to Balbriggan Garda station. They weren't suspected of killing Rachel, but were being held on suspicion of withholding information. They were later released without charge.
But the process yielded positive results. Quearney admitted that he could be wrong about what time he saw O'Reilly at Phibsboro.
Armed with that, gardai pounced on the main suspect.
Just after 10.20 am O'Reilly was arrested by detective sergeant Pat Marry at the family home.
He was whisked to Drogheda Garda station where he was held for around 12 hours.
He occasionally refused to answer questions, as was his right. At other times, he kept saying: "I didn't kill Rachel."
But there was one seemingly innocuous question he did answer.
NBCI detective sergeant Sean Grennan asked him if he had his mobile with him all day on the day of the murder.
O'Reilly replied: "Yes. I think so."
It was enough for gardai to link him to the phone. If the phone was in the Naul at the time of the murder – so was he.
There was even better news towards the end of 2005 when Andrew Laws gave his report.
Although he said he could not be certain, he could say that there was either moderate or strong possibilities that the cars on the CCTV at Murphy's Quarry and at Blake's Cross could be O'Reilly's, or at least the same make and model.
The gardai had no murder weapon and no confession, but they were now building up a strong circumstantial case to show O'Reilly's guilt,
The phone evidence placed him in the Naul, the CCTV evidence seemed to back that up.
Coupled with emails he sent to his sister Ann in which O'Reilly spoke of his hatred for Rachel and now he believed the marriage was over, but was worried about his wife keeping their two kids, the gardai believed they had a strong case against him.
That was strengthened even more when experts working for 02 showed conclusively that O'Reilly's phone could not have been anywhere else on the day of the murder.
In June, 2006, Garda superintendent Tom Gallagher sent the massive file to the Director Of Public Prosecutions with the recommendation that, based on circumstantial evidence, O'Reilly be charged with murder.
Four months later on October 19, 2006, the DPP agreed.
He ordered O'Reilly's arrest.
The following day, three years and 16 days since she died, Joe O'Reilly was charged with her murder.
And in June 2007, after a four week trial, a jury agreed with Tom Gallagher and the DPP – its 11 members said, based on the evidence, O'Reilly was guilty.
Mick Finnegan, now retired, couldn't hide his delight as O'Reilly was taken down.
"I was always confident if we could get a charge and get him into court, we could get a conviction,” he said.

December 16, 2008

Why Joe O'Reilly thought he committed the perfect murder...

IT WAS a bright Monday morning and a fun loving, devoted young mum of two little boys was going about her usual business in north County Dublin.
Rachel O'Reilly – just six days away from her 31st birthday – left her home at Baldarragh, close to the Naul, at approximately 09.02 on October 4, 2004.
She came out the gate of her detached bungalow in her silver Renault Scenic people carrier and turned left, driving past Murphy's Quarry one minute later.
Twelve minutes later, at 09.15, she had made the short trip to Hedgestown National School, in nearby Lusk, where she dropped off her three year old son Luke.
After a short conversation with his teacher in which she handed over an insurance form and the premium, she was off again.
This time it was to Tots United Montessori in nearby Richardstown, where she arrived at 09.30. There, she dropped off little Adam, her 18-month-old baby boy, to Helen Reddy, the manager.
And then she was off again. This time she drove back to her home, Lambay View.
By rights, she would have stayed in the house for an hour or so, before heading to the gym and then picking up the kids at around 1pm.
But this was no ordinary day.
As she left Tots United, she had no idea that she had only 30 minutes left to live.
But her husband knew exactly what was going to happen to the woman the vowed to love, honour and obey seven years earlier.
Joseph Anthony O'Reilly, who was 32 at the time, had gotten up at around 5am that day.
Rachel would have been unaware of that, however.
The night before, they had had a blazing row and he told Rachel he was leaving her.
He had spent the night in the spare room, as he often did. It's unlikely he slept, however.
He spent almost an hour on the phone to his latest lover, advertising executive Nikki Pelley.
Pelley, three years older than O'Reilly, would later tell gardai that in that conversation, O'Reilly called his wife a "cunt".
But there was another reason why he probably didn't much sleep that night.
He was busy planning the perfect murder.
While Rachel was still asleep, O'Reilly drove from the Naul to Jackie Skelley's gym at Citywest, west Dublin, arriving there at 06.20.
It was a few minutes' drive, at that time of the morning, from Viacom outdoor advertising company, where he was depot manager, at Bluebell Industrial Estate.
He and his deputy, former soldier Derek Quearney, sat in the sauna for a while, before showering and heading off to work.
By 07.45 they were both back at Viacom, getting ready for their day's work.
They were planning to do an inspection of buses carrying adverts commissioned by Viacom at Phibsboro and Broadstone Bus Depot on the other side of town.
They had planned to travel in convoy but Derek Quearney, who served in the army for 21 years and retired in 1998 with the rank of sergeant, wasn't ready when his boss wanted to move.
O'Reilly wouldn't, couldn't, wait. He went on by himself while Mr Quearney dealt with some staffing issues.
It was just 8am and O'Reilly was on the road.
But he wasn't going to Phibsboro and an inspection of buses was certainly the last thing on his mind.
It's likely he drove from Bluebell, through Chapelizod and onto the M50.
He got to the airport at around 08.45 and came off the M50 onto the M1, heading north.
Ten minutes later he pulled off the M1 at the exit for Skerries, Donabate and Lusk.
He turned on to the old Belfast Road, driving past an Esso garage on his left just before the Skerries turn. On his right, he drove past a company called Europrise, specialising in wholesale plants.
He continued his journey, driving his four year old navy blue Fiat Marea estate at normal speed.
While he was at the steering while getting ready to murder his wife, Rachel was busy at home.
It was around 08.50 and she had already got Adam and Luke dressed and fed for the day. In a few minutes she'd load them into her Scenic and head off.
By 9am she and the kids were ready.
By 9am Joe was also ready.
He was only a few miles away from the house as Rachel drive off at 09.02.
She is seen driving past Murphy's Quarry at 09.03.
Seven minutes later, at 09.10, O'Reilly also drove past the quarry. But, unlike Rachel, he was heading towards the family home.
O'Reilly was playing a dangerous, high stakes game.
His plan was to get in, kill Rachel, get out and get back to Broadstone all within two hours.
It was a tight timeframe. If Rachel was running even a few minutes late, his plan was doomed.
But she was reliable. She was on time.
He got to the house at around 09.11. He had thirty minutes to prepare himself before his wife came back home.
First, he got the house ready. He closed the curtains in the kitchen, something that was never done.
Then he went round the house trying to make it look like a burglar had been inside.
He opened a few drawers, put some clothes on the kitchen table and laid other items on the floor.
Then he grabbed Rachel's jewellery box, with her wedding and engagement rings inside and other items.
He then took a brown rucksack bearing Rachel's name and a camcorder bag from the living room.
He put the camcorder bag and the jewellery box inside the rucksack and got into his car.
He drove out of the house and turned right, stopping at a ditch around 500 metres away.
There he placed the bag and its contents in the water, but made sure they could be easily found, before heading back to the house.
It was around 09.30 now. Rachel would be home soon and he needed to get ready.
He went back into the house and headed towards the main bedroom, the room where he rarely slept with his wife.
First, he made a small detour into another bedroom, the room where he slept the previous night.
He and Rachel both worked out a lot and that's where the weights they used were stored.
He picked up a dumbbell, took off the weights and went to the bedroom.
By now Rachel was only minutes way.
At 09.41 Rachel again drove past Murphy's Quarry, this time heading to the family home.
She got there probably one minute later.
She pulled her Renault Scenic up to the right side of the house and stopped.
She turned off the engine, took the keys out of the ignition, got out of the car and walked the few feet to the back door of the house.
The house had a front door, but it was never used – instead the family preferred the informality of going in through the patio doors that led to the kitchen at the rear.
Only two people know what happened next: Rachel and Joe. One can't say what happened, the other is unlikely to ever want to.
But gardai believe Rachel walked into the kitchen and Joe called out her name as he stood in the centre of the main bedroom.
Surprised to hear her husband's voice – especially as they had a row the night before – Rachel quickly headed towards the bedroom.
The bedroom was at the end of the hallway, at the right, so she would not have seen O'Reilly standing just inside as she walked towards it.
As soon as she turned right, into the bedroom, O'Reilly pounced.
With the dumbbell in his right hand, O'Reilly hit her square on the forehead.
Stunned, she fell to the floor.
O'Reilly didn't give her a chance.
He was on her immediately, repeatedly hitting her around the back of her head.
Rachel tried to defend herself and some of the blows rained down on her arms as she desperately tried to protect her head, his target. But it was all in vain.
Her loving husband Joe was well over 6 foot and built like an American footballer. He easily swatted away her meek protests, driving the dumbbell down again and again around the right side of her skull.
The dumbbell, although small, was heavy and it did irreparable damage to Rachel's skull.
A deep gash quickly appeared just above her right ear. It was so deep, state pathologist Professor Marie Cassidy would later say she could see part of Rachel's skull.
At this stage, Rachel was lying with her back to the floor, defenceless, her arms were outstretched and the top half of her body was unnaturally twisted from the force of the blows.
O'Reilly was by now crouching or kneeling over his dying wife, still pummelling her head with the dumbbell.
Blood had spurted everywhere. It went over him and his clothes, but it didn't stop him. Again and again he used the dumbbell on her.
The blood spurted so violently that drops of it even reached the ceiling, around nine feet up.
It splattered onto the walls of the bedroom. It even went outside the room and droplets of Rachel's lifeblood landed in the hallway, several feet away.
Joe stopped. He thought he had done enough. There was not a sound from Rachel's prone body. The vicious attack had only lasted around a minute.
Gardai would later find evidence that Rachel had been entirely surprised by the onslaught – her car keys were still in her hand when they moved her body. She didn't even get a chance to put them down.
Slowly he got his feet and started the next phase of the perfect murder.
He walked slowly to the main bathroom of the house, where he was planning to get a shower to wash Rachel's blood off him.
But, as he was a few feet away from the shower, he heard a sound and stopped dead still.
It was Rachel. Her throat was gurgling.
He slowly walked back towards her prone body, knelt down beside her and delivered more hammer blows to her head with the dumbbell. When he was satisfied, he got up and went back into the bathroom.
There, he stripped off his bloodstained pink shirt and black trousers, before getting into the shower.
Once he was finished, he towelled himself off before putting his clothes on.
But they were not the ones he wore when he beat Rachel.
Instead, he had already prepared another pink shirt, almost identical to the one he had been wearing moments earlier, and another pair of black trousers.
He washed Rachel's blood off his black boots and put them on again.
He then gathered up his bloodstained clothing and two towels, one brown, one white, that he had used to dry himself.
He walked into the utility room, beside the kitchen where the washing machine was installed.
The machine was already loaded with Adam and Luke's clothing, but he pushed his own blood-sodden clothes inside before putting in washing powder and closing the door.
He then turned it on, waiting to make sure the wash cycle started.
Then he grabbed the towels and the murder weapon and ran to the patio doors – which he left wide open.
He quickly walked outside and got into his Marea estate, before driving out of the driveway.
It was 09.58. It was only 17 minutes since Rachel had walked into the house.
One minute later, at 09.59, he drove past Murphy's Quarry – unknown to him his plan for a perfect murder was already unravelling.
His car was caught on the CCTV system of the quarry driving away from the house, just as it had been almost an hour earlier driving towards the family home.
But he was blissfully unaware of that and was already implementing the next stage of his plan.
He got back onto the N1 just after 10am and drove straight back to Dublin.
Seven minutes later, he decided to send Rachel a text, pretending to be the perfect husband, but ultimately sealing his own fate as a wife killer.
At 10.07, Rachel's phone buzzed to inform her that the text had arrived, as she lay, slowly dying from inhaling her own blood.
The text said: "You and the boys sleep okay? Wish Jacqui (Rachel's friend) a happy birthday for me. XXX"
The text was sent from O'Reilly's phone as he drove along the N1, close to Blake's Cross.
Some 21 minutes later, at 10.38, it was O'Reilly's phone that went, to signal he had a call coming in.
By this stage, he was around the city centre, close to Park House on the North Circular Road.
The call was from his colleague Derek Quearney, who he was supposed to be with at the bus depot.
By 11am, he had managed to get to Broadstone.
Looking calm and collected he met up with Quearney and they headed off in convoy, with the former soldier driving his Citroen Xsara in front and O'Reilly's navy Fiat Marea following.
They drove down Church Street and turned right on to the Quays, where they headed towards Heuston and then on to Chapelizod, before finally making it back to Bluebell Industrial Estate and Viacom, just before midday.
Once he got into the office, his composure had disappeared – perhaps he had time in the journey to think about what he had just done.
Colleague Michelle Slattery saw him as he went to get a cup of coffee.
She couldn't help noticing his face was red, his eyes puffy.
And when she told him he looked like shite, he simply replied: "Ah, Jesus," before walking off.
Once ensconced in the safety of his office, O'Reilly decided to play the doting husband again by ringing his wife to see how she was – in reality he was carrying out a clumsy attempt to cover his tracks by trying to show he hadn't just been at the house.
He left another voicemail on Rachel's mobile, again asking how she was at around midday.
Then, at 12.50, Rachel got another call. This time it was from Helen Reddy at Adam's crèche, wondering why she hadn't picked up the tot.
"Just giving you a ring to see are you on your way and is everything okay," Helen said.
Unknown to her Rachel was slumped on the floor, but probably still alive. Just.
At 1.18 O'Reilly rang again, sounding more urgent this time – why haven't you picked up the kids?
Six minutes later he rang again, sounding even more anxious. ""This is not funny. It's not like you. I am actually worried. Please ring me," he lied.
O'Reilly then rang Rose Callaly's home. Rose got worried and, after leaving a message for her dying daughter herself, decided to head from her home in Whitehall north central Dublin to the Naul.
She left at around 1.35 and got to the house just at 2pm.
She quickly entered the house through the wide open patio doors and started searching for her precious daughter.
She called out her name, but got no response as she slowly walked down the hallway leading to the bedroom.
She got to the bottom of the hallway and was met with a sight that will haunt her forever.
She told O'Reilly's trial: "I looked in and it was then that I noticed Rachel lying on the floor – that was her bedroom.
"She was lying with her head down, but I could not actually tell if her face was lying sideways or straight down because it was in such a state.
"As soon as I saw her I knew she was dead.
"The minute I saw her I knew she was dead and I knew she was murdered.
"I knelt down beside her I remember rubbing her arms and they were cold and hard and I knew she was dead a while.
"I just kept talking to her," she said.
Mrs Callaly said she panicked and left the room and tried unsuccessfully to ring for an ambulance on her mobile.
She went back up to the kitchen and searched for Rachel's new phone but could not find it – so she went back towards her dead daughter.
She said: "I was in such a panic and went back down and I knelt down beside her again and I spoke to her again.
"I went back up and I noticed the new phone but I didn't know how to use it.
"Eventually some man answered it. I said if you could get help, my daughter's dead.
"It was just a random number."
Moments later, Rose walked out of the house and was greeted by O'Reilly who had just arrived at the home.
He had a smile on his face.
But it quickly vanished when Rose told him she thought his wife, her daughter, was dead.
He ran into the bedroom and touched his wife on the back, before saying to her: "Jesus, Rachel, what did you do?" He tried a bit of CPR.
Gardai and paramedics quickly came on the scene.
When he was told his wife was dead O'Reilly played a stormer. He punched the doorframe in despair before steadying himself on the door.
He must have thought he had got away with it.
He had an alibi that put him 15 miles away at the time of the murder. His mother in law found the body. He left increasingly frantic messages on Rachel's phone and he seemed devastated when told she was dead.
But he was wrong. Two and a half years later, justice would finally catch up with him.

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. "Señor 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.

December 1, 2008

Hello

“Please. No. Please. Just go away. Please.”

Your heart is beating so ferociously it feels like it’s about to leap through your ribcage. Your mouth is dry. Your knees are weak. As you walk up to the door, you are silently praying for two things to happen. Firstly, you’re hoping the person on the other side of the door will talk to you. Secondly, you’re hoping they’ll pass on the chance to give you a damn good kicking.
Welcome to the world of the doorstep – the worst part of any journalist’s job.
Some reporters can’t do it. They simply can’t walk up to a house and ask to speak to whoever is inside, particularly if it’s a story about someone who has just been murdered and you’re hoping to persuade their family to speak to you. Who can blame them? It’s a tough gig.
I did my first one while I was on work experience, almost 15 years ago. It was an approach to the family of a man shot dead in the New Lodge area of north Belfast by loyalists. I was terrified. The family said no to my timid approach. I must have done hundreds of doorsteps since then. It doesn’t get any easier. I still get terrified every time I knock on the door.
It could be approaching the home of a family who had a child killed in an accident a day earlier. It could be confronting a paedophile, back in the community after serving his time for committing horrendous, unspeakable, crimes against kids. It could be approaching the family of a criminal, shot dead for losing €30,000 worth of heroin.
Approaching a house where people are coming to terms with a tragedy that has visited them - or who really, really don’t want to talk to a reporter - is as scary as it gets. It’s scary because you’re worried you might just get beaten to a pulp. It’s also scary because, when you’re approaching good people to whom something bad has just happened, you’re terrified they’ll look at you with nothing but contempt, before asking you how you can do your job and sleep at night.
You spend a couple of minutes sitting in the car a few doors away, talking strategy with your photographer colleague. We agree that I’ll do the doorstep myself – two people often look more intimidating than one. And anyway, if things kick off, the snapper won’t be too far away. He’ll come and help me if there is a problem – after, of course, getting the pics.
You get out of the car, parked with the engine running and facing out of the estate in case you need to make a quick getaway. You take a deep breath and walk up the path. Sometimes, as you approach the door, you hope no-one is there, that your knock will go unanswered. That you can go back to the office and say you tried.
You arrive at the door. You take a deep breath. You knock. After a few seconds, the door opens. Now it’s all about who’s on the other side of the door. Rather, it’s all about how they’ll react to you. You can usually tell before they even say a word. You know by their body language whether they’re going to talk to you or not. Sometimes they politely decline. Sometimes they chase you away, spit at you, threaten you or even try to hit you.
Sometimes you wish they had hit you, rather than say what they said to you. A punch would have been less painful.
A day after the Omagh bomb, of August 15 1998, I was sent to Buncrana, Co Donegal by the Irish News. Three young children from that town had been killed in the bomb. I had to doorstep each family to see if they would talk.
The first family, that of James Barker, brought me in and gave me a full interview. The second family, that of Sean McLaughlin, did the same. Each also gave me a photograph of their boy. The third family, of young Oran Doherty, declined. The man who answered the door, who I can only assume was the young boy’s father, said something that has stayed with me - haunted me - to this day. I told him I was a journalist, that I was sorry for his loss and asked if I could speak to him. He looked at me, shocked and appalled, and appealed to me to go away. “Please. No. Please. Just go away. Please.” I apologised, walked away and slithered back under the rock whence I had come.
A few days later, I was doing another doorstep, this time in Omagh. It was the family of young Deborah Cartwright, a teenager killed in the bomb. I teamed up with a British reporter for it: there was no point in both of us doing it separately. Her father, an RUC officer, was standing in the garden, his hands in his pockets, staring at the grass. I took the lead. Again, I asked if he would speak to us. He said no. I apologised and walked away, expecting the reporter with me to also retreat. However, as I was walking away, I heard her angrily exclaim to him: ` What? Not even a word?’ I didn’t wait to hear his reply. I got out of there as quickly as I could.
Both those events taught me one thing: if people want to talk, they will. If they don’t, nothing you can do can persuade them. I have a rule that, if someone says no, I don’t go back and ask a second time. It’s pointless and just causes the family more anguish.
But sometimes people do talk.
Sometimes they bring you, a complete stranger, into their house, sit you down and talk to you about the loved one they’ve just lost. I used to wonder why they did. I’d tell whatever photographer I was with, if a reporter ever called to my door, I’d chase them. The photographer usually agreed – but they really don’t like reporters.
But then, after several years, I realised why so many of them opened the door, let me in and let it all out. Some people just like to talk to strangers about their grief. In April 2000, when I had been a journalist for six odd years, my own father, Gerald, died suddenly abroad. When it happened, all I wanted to do was talk about it. To anybody who would listen. I realised there and then why some people speak to me and other reporters on death knocks: they just like to get it out. Sometimes it helps talking to a complete stranger.
And sometimes seeing the face of your loved one on the front page of The Irish Daily Star – where I am Crime Correspondent – or other papers, gives validation to the victim. That they counted. That they were important. That they were necessary.
It’s the worst part of being a crime reporter. Sitting there as a mother tells you how much she’ll miss her son. Trying awkwardly to comfort her when she breaks down in tears. Hoping the ground will swallow you up when a father reacts angrily to your request for an interview.
This isn’t an appeal for pity: the feelings of a hack are nothing, less than nothing, in comparison to their suffering.
I’m just trying to show what it is like to be a crime correspondent in Ireland today. I want to talk about crime and what it’s like to report on it.
Being a crime reporter today is the most interesting, the most frightening, the most exciting, the most rewarding and most challenging of jobs. Read on and I’ll tell you why...