News Courts

Friday 19 September 2014

Aoife's coffin was a cold metal drum, ten feet down

Donal Lynch reports on the CCTV evidence shown to court as Robert Corbet is tried for the nanny's murder

Donal Lynch

Published 18/05/2014 | 02:30

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Gardai dig up an area beside the home of suspect Robert Corbet in Timahoe Road, Portlaoise, Co Laois
Robert Corbet is led away after his appearance at Portlaoise Court, where he was charged with Aoife's murder
Aoife Phelan

ON the screens of Court 19 on the sixth floor of the Central Criminal Court, a haunting image flashes for a few moments. It is the Corbet yard in Capoley, Co Laois, by night. Through an illuminated cobweb we see some indistinct movement. The web feels like an appropriately macabre framing device. Everybody watching knows that this quiet corner of the Midlands was where blonde, smiling Aoife Phelan was buried, her coffin a metal drum. In the public gallery a woman places her hand over her mouth as details of the case are read out. And yet nobody here looks more frightened than the accused, 25-year-old Robert Corbet, who wrings his hands under the table and watches hollow-eyed as his movements during October 25 and 26, 2012, are laid bare before a jury of eight men and three women.

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The picture moves to daylight. We see Mr Corbet, in his tracksuit top, his hair longer and shaggier than in the dock, moving throughout Portlaoise making purchases in a hardware store and at an outlet of Argos – his every movement seemingly caught on camera.

Soon we are back in the Corbet yard. It is morning time.

"The truck reverses to the point on the map marked 'body'," explains Garda Paul Wilson.

"It seems to have a load of filling gravel in the back." The truck then unloads its contents. "The driver exits and checks," Garda Wilson tells

us. Footage from the yard at about 3.16pm that afternoon shows a forklift containing building material.

"It is seen moving in the direction of the map marked 'body'," Wilson tells the court.

The trial has already heard that Mr Corbet was arrested on suspicion of murder on November 5.

At first he first denied involvement, but began to make admissions after phone records were put to him. We hear details of searches conducted at the Corbet home and land at Capoley on the following day – November 6, 2012. Garda Eamon O'Connell testifies that he was directed to dig in an area that looked like it had been recently filled with hard core.

The dig progressed at a painstakingly slow speed, as each bucket of filling and earth was sifted for evidence. Eventually, though, he came across something of interest. During the dig Garda O'Connell saw rubble, concrete, hard-core filling and builder's waste. At a depth of six to eight feet, he found lorry tyres, sacks of domestic waste and an oil drum. He immediately told his sergeant, who was searching an area of the River Barrow, where the accused had told gardai he had dumped Ms Phelan's body. (This, Mr Corbet's defence said, was "a wild goose chase ... a voyage of fiction".)

The following day the excavation of the yard continued. Further materials were found buried, including some timber, before gardai made a grim discovery: a large metal drum, eight to 10 feet deep.

The lid of the barrel caught in the teeth of the digger and was torn off. Garda O'Connell told the court that he quickly saw what he thought was a leg in a black boot and blue jeans, and an item of red clothing with fur trim. He said he knew that Ms Phelan was wearing a jacket with a fur trim when she went missing and he immediately felt he had found her body.

Mr Corbet had met Ms Phelan, a nanny, at a bar called Coppers in Portlaoise the previous June. She was five years older than him and there was a spark of interest on both sides. Mr Corbet told gardai that after that initial meeting there had been texting and there had been sexual contact between them. Subsequently to that sexual contact Ms Phelan told Mr Corbet that her period was late and that she was pregnant. On Thursday the jury was given her phone records, which matched with records recovered from a deleted WhatsApp file on Robert Corbet's phone.

These records showed hundreds of messages between them in the days before she disappeared, including 260 messages on October 23, 2012 alone. Mr Corbet told Ms Phelan that he was going to London for the weekend to attend the christening of the child of a single mother (he would later travel to New York to visit an ex-girlfriend). "Fair play to her. Sure I know I can do this by myself as well," Ms Phelan replied. "I suppose I have to anyway. You're never going to be around."

She then referred to being more than two months pregnant and said he would have to get his priorities straight.

"You think I'm not trying?" he replied. "I'm trying to get as much money saved up at the minute so I'll be able to help out. Maybe that's a silly priority to have."

There was also mention of baby names, with him suggesting 'Roisin'. The final text messages between them included several sexual references and arrangements to meet that coming evening. They ended with a message: "I'll be there in one minute."

Paul Bates, a friend of Aoife Phelan, earlier last week told the court that she was in "good form" as she went to meet Mr Corbet. She was never seen alive again after that last meeting with Mr Corbet. Garda Wilson said cctv footage showed Mr Corbet's jeep leaving the yard at Capoley around 8pm and a similar jeep passing Collier's Lane, Portlaoise, 15 minutes later. This is where Ms Phelan was last seen, and Garda Wilson said the footage appeared to show the jeep returning after collecting her.

Isobel Kennedy SC, prosecuting, told the court that a post-mortem was carried out by State Pathologist Dr Marie Cassidy, and Dr Cassidy found that the cause of death was asphyxia due to ligature strangulation and blunt force trauma to the head and chest.

The dynamics of the relationship between Mr Corbet and Ms Phelan have been an important element of the trial.

Ms Kennedy told the court that in his statement to gardai, Mr Corbet said Ms Phelan became "pushy" about entering into a relationship. There had been an argument and Mr Corbet had "caught (the deceased's) neck around his forearm until she was motionless" Ms Kennedy said.

"And then he placed a black sack around her head, tied cables around that and then disposed of the body."

The court session ended on Friday. Robert Corbet admits the manslaughter but denies the murder of Aoife Phelan. The trial continues, with Mr Corbet expected to take the witness stand in the coming days.

Sunday Independent

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