September 21, 2009

“I know this is a stupid question, but I’m paid to ask them: how do you feel?”

His face betrays a gamut of emotions: terror, disbelief, despair, denial.
While I shake his hand, he stares off into the distance, as if he is can’t quite comprehend what is happening to him.
He looks as if he hasn’t slept since he walked free from a Garda station, 17 hours earlier: but who could blame him? How could anyone doze off after being grilled by gardai for almost a full day over the violent death of their sister?
As Anthony Ahearne walks towards us, it’s clear to see his world has been turned upside down.

I had seen this photograph of the 31-year-old the previous day, taken a few months, a lifetime, ago.
In the photograph with him is his sister Brenda, whose death he was questioned about all day Wednesday last week. They are celebrating her 30th birthday and both are clearly happy. It was taken in March, just six months ago. Brenda's sister Lisa is on the right.
But now in the flesh, Anthony looks completely different. The confident, relaxed, smile has dissipated. He seems to have shrunk, to have somehow gotten younger. As he approaches me and photographer Karen Morgan, I mistake him for a teenager.

(This photo, taken by Karen Morgan, shows how much he has changed from the birthday snap. ©Irish Daily Star)
The previous night he had been arrested after Brenda died following an incident at her twin sister Lisa’s home in the city. She suffered a single wound to the head, inflicted by the shaft of a poker. The poker embedded itself into her skull.
When we first heard about the death, it seemed an open and shut case: woman dies of head injuries, her brother in custody. We expected a court appearance in a matter of hours.
But within a few minutes of getting to the Richardson’s Meadows estate in Waterford where Brenda died, it was clear there was more to this story than met the eye.
A neighbour who spoke to Lisa’s partner John Kenny as the paramedics fought to save Brenda said he told her it was an accident, that Anthony was waving the poker about during a row and that the shaft broke off and slammed into her head.
A few hours later, John Kenny turns up and I speak to him. He fights back tears as he insists it was nothing more than an accident.
“It just flew through the air like a spear,” he maintains.
I check with a Garda contact. Could that really have happened? It’s possible, he says, warily. But the contact did confirm the poker was embedded in her head and, crucially, that there were no other injuries: whatever happened, Brenda had not been the subject of a sustained attack.
The next day, we write that the family insist it was an accident – other media outlets say she had been bludgeoned to death.
That’s the benefit of going to a scene rather than trying to cover a death from your office: you’ll always get something extra – whether it be an interview with a loved one or a snippet of information that changes everything.
Early the next day, I heard the news that Anthony had been released without charge: I knew that meant gardai were at least looking at the possibility Brenda’s death was an accident. If they felt they could prove she was assaulted, he would have been in court in a few hours.
I also know that, now he is out, there is a chance he’ll speak to us. Again, I head down to Waterford, negotiating with the Ahearnes all the way down from Dublin.
Eventually, after pleading, cajoling, begging and harassing the family for the whole day, Anthony agrees to meet us at 5pm.
We met in a car park in Waterford City, around 16 hours after he had been released from Garda custody.
He looks shattered, broken. A shell of a man.
There is no small talk. He stands glumly with his sister, Brenda’s twin Lisa, as well as her partner John Kenny and two of the dead woman’s three kids. They are standing by him. He looks grateful for the support.
I take the rest of them into the pub and offer to buy the kids a drink: they politely decline. Karen stands outside having a smoke with Anthony.
After a few minutes, he comes into the pub. He is ready to talk.
It was not an easy interview. He didn’t want to - refused to - talk about the actual events, but wanted to get across that whatever happened has been a mistake.
The conversation is stilted, awkward even: I try to draw him out, but his defences are understandably up.
And then I ask a silly question. As is my wont.
“I know this is a stupid question,” I say, “but I’m paid to ask them: how do you feel?”
What do I expect him to say? Great? Relieved not to be charged? Just wanna put it all behind me? You know yourself?
Of course I know how he feels – I can see it in his eyes. Put coarsely, he is fucked. But there’s no point me guessing that – I need him to tell me.
He looks at me as if I’m a muppet, as if it’s the most idiotic question that has ever been put to him.
But he starts talking.
“I will never be able to forgive myself,” he tells me.
He speaks of how he held Brenda in his arms as she slowly died; how he kissed her and told her to hang in there; how he begged her to stay alive; how he’ll never be able to forgive himself.
Stupid question number two from me: do you think you’ll ever get over this?
He stares at me. I can tell he’s thinking that really is the most stupid question ever. How could he ever do that? How could he ever put this behind him?
“I will never get over this. It will stay with me until I check out,” he says.
The interview is over a few moments later and we rush back to my car, a deadline looming.
As we work on our laptops, the Ahearnes walks past. Anthony is surrounded by his family.
But he has never been more alone.