Sunday 22 October 2017

Hammer murder trial sheds light on dark secret behind closed door

Sinead Webster held their baby son in her arms as she asked her husband if he had hurt missing Anne Shortall, writes Andrew Phelan

Victim: Anne Shortall had told Mr Webster she was pregnant Photo: Michael Kelly
Victim: Anne Shortall had told Mr Webster she was pregnant Photo: Michael Kelly

Andrew Phelan

Roy Webster was a "happy-go-lucky chap, a normal guy", well regarded by those he worked with and lived alongside in the quiet corner of Co Wicklow that he called home.

A family man, he had a five-year-old daughter he doted on and a new arrival - a six-week-old son with his wife Sinead.

He ran his own cabinet-making business from a workshop in a shed at the back of the family's bungalow. To clients, he was an obliging, hard-working, talented tradesman.

But in early April, 2015, despite appearances, his life was no longer normal, because a dark and terrible secret lay behind his workshop door.

As he spent that Easter weekend with his family, they were unaware that metres away, wrapped in a duvet, was the bound and bloodied body of a woman.

The woman - mother-of-three Anne Shortall - was being searched for by her worried family, gardai were asking questions and time was running out for Mr Webster.

In the dock: Roy Webster, who denies murder but admits manslaughter, said he and Ms Shortall had had 'a fling'. Photo: Collins
In the dock: Roy Webster, who denies murder but admits manslaughter, said he and Ms Shortall had had 'a fling'. Photo: Collins

The horrible and tragic events surrounding Ms Shortall's disappearance and death unfolded at the Central Criminal Court last week, where Mr Webster is pleading guilty to her manslaughter but denies her murder.

The jury heard how Mr Webster, now aged 39, met Ms Shortall (47) at the end of a work night out in Wicklow town on December 20, 2014.

By his own account, he ended up going back to her apartment where they had sex.

He stayed until the following morning and got a taxi home to his then-pregnant wife and daughter.

In the following months, Ms Shortall tried to make contact with Mr Webster through one of his cousins on Facebook.

Mr Webster would later describe to gardai calls Ms Shortall made to his home in the middle of the night, and that she was looking to start a relationship but he was not interested.

What happened between them was just "a fling", a "silly drunken thing".

Meanwhile, the court heard of a stray Facebook message accidentally sent to a stranger in late March 2015 in which Ms Shortall wrote: "Tell your mate Roy that I need €5,000 for an abortion."

According to the prosecution, Ms Shortall later directly texted Mr Webster: "I hate to be the bearer of bad news but I'm pregnant."

She told him she was looking for money for a termination when they met outside her apartment in South Quay, Wicklow town, on April 2.

He did not believe her and asked for proof. They arranged to meet the following afternoon, Good Friday.

First, that morning, he had a job to finish on Aileen Geoghan's kitchen in Greystones, but both had forgotten it was a bank holiday and she was not able to pay him.

Next, he had to pick up a children's book he had ordered for his daughter at Bridge Street Books in Wicklow town - Fancy Nancy and the Posh Puppy.

Finally, he texted Ms Shortall: "Meet at Leitrim". She replied "on way" and they met outside the Leitrim Lounge pub.

He drove her in his work van to the Murrough, a coastal industrial area, where they argued and, according to the prosecution, she threatened to "reveal all".

Read more: 'I hit Anne with hammer' – what accused told wife

Read more: Mum-of-three sent message demanding €5,000 for abortion from murder accused

The court has heard only a brief account of what happened next. What we do know is Roy Webster picked up a hammer and hit Anne Shortall a number of times about the head.

Then he tied her hands with duct tape and wrapped the same tape around her head. He drove her back to his home, eventually hiding the body in his workshop.

Ms Shortall had made her demands for money while she was under growing financial pressure as rent arrears culminated in an eviction notice.

Her money troubles had deepened since her separation eight years earlier from her husband, Colin.

Living in a rented apartment in Wicklow town, she led a 'night owl' lifestyle; going to the pub nearly every night. On other nights, she babysat her grandchildren. She would sleep until the afternoon.

Ms Shortall was alcohol-dependent, was on anti-depressant tablets, and had not worked in years.

However, a day before she disappeared, with her eviction imminent, she texted letting agent Mary Broe to say she had got the arrears and at least six months' rent - which would have amounted to just over €5,000. She said she would see Ms Broe the following Tuesday. "I ain't going anywhere," she texted the agent.

When she left the apartment at 3.50pm on April 3, her daughter Emma (22) noticed she had not taken her cigarettes, which was unusual because she was a chain smoker. She had also left her phone charging under a pillow.

Emma and her sister Alanna (19) became worried and found Mr Webster's number on their mother's phone, saved as 'Ashwood Kitchens' with the final text messages the pair had exchanged.

When contacted, Mr Webster initially lied about knowing Ms Shortall and then said he had met her and that "all I know is she is going to meet a friend in London".

Ms Shortall was reported missing on April 4 and garda enquiries soon turned to Mr Webster.

Again, he lied and by the evening of April 6 he had given two witness statements. In them, he admitted having had "a sexual encounter" with Ms Shortall in December. He said when she told him she was pregnant he said he would "go halves" with her if she could prove he was responsible and if not he was "not coughing up".

He told gardai that after talking for a few minutes in his van on April 3, Ms Shortall got out and walked back toward Wicklow town and that was the last he saw of her.

The next day, April 7, Detective Sergeant Michael O'Brien was at Mr Webster's home at Ashbree, Killoughter, Ashford, to discuss media coverage linking Mr Webster to the case.

As they sat around the table, it was Sinead who prompted her husband, in a soft voice with their baby boy in her arms: "Have you anything to say that you are not saying... if you have something to say tell us now. Did you hurt her?"

Mr Webster hesitated and then started to cry. "He said he did hurt her," Det Sgt O'Brien told a hushed court.

Mr Webster's wife said to him, much more directly and forcefully: "Did you hit her, Roy?" Det Sgt O'Brien recalled. He began to cry again and said "I did." The tension seemed to be mirrored by the courtroom's palpable silence.

"I asked him the question then: 'Where is she, Roy?' And then Sinead said: 'With what?' And he said: 'I hit her with a hammer,'" Det Sgt O'Brien continued. "I said: 'Where is she, Roy?' And he said: 'She is in the workshop'. At that stage, Sinead Webster said: 'In our workshop?' And he said: 'Yes," Det Sgt O'Brien told the jury.

Sinead Webster then dropped to her knees, the baby still in her arms, and gasped. A diabetic, she began to have a fit and injected insulin.

Garda Michael Wall got paper to take down a statement from the accused on the spot.

"She put me under so much pressure, I hit her a couple of blows, a mistake that is after ruining so many lives," Mr Webster said. "I was trying to keep it together for everyone but she had me against the wall. Everything I had worked so hard for.

She was just threatening and threatening. I grabbed the first thing I could and I hit her."

Garda Wall, who had taken the baby, then handed him to Mr Webster to bottle feed. Gardai eventually called him out to his workshop to show them where he had hidden the body.

The detective looked behind hoarding and saw a pair of hands tied with duct tape.

The accused, dressed in a dark suit, wept again in the courtroom as the heart-stopping scenes in his home that day were recalled by the sergeant - the day the lives of two families were shattered.

The prosecution evidence is du e to resume tomorrow and the defence has yet to present its case.

But this has been a trial that speaks of the horrors that can sometimes lie behind closed doors.

Sunday Independent

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