Monday 24 July 2017

Technology had a part in Sonia's death... and in delivering justice

CCTV, Facebook and phone trails led gardai to single mum's killer - her ex Eric Locke, writes Eimear Cotter

Sonia Blount
Sonia Blount

Eimear Cotter

Sonia Blount's murder is a modern type of murder, one that probably would not have happened 30 years ago, certainly not in the way it did.

It's also a murder that probably would not have been solved 30 years ago.

The social media tools Eric Locke (35) used to first woo and then lure Sonia to her death were also the tools that enabled gardai to build a murder case against him.

Last week, after one hour and 33 minutes of ­deliberation, a jury at the Central Criminal Court found Locke guilty of the murder of Sonia.

The mum-of-one was found strangled in a room in the Plaza Hotel in Tallaght on February 16, 2014.

Locke had admitted he caused her death but said he did not mean to kill her and pleaded the defence of diminished responsibility.

It was the State's case that Locke was "angry" his ex-girlfriend was meeting a stranger for sex and this "induced a rage" in him for "revenge and retribution".

Mr Justice Michael Moriarty imposed a mandatory life sentence, backdated to when Locke first went into custody in February 2014.

Eric Locke
Eric Locke

Sonia's murder highlights how pervasive social media is in modern society. It was from a Facebook post that her family first became aware a body of a young woman had been found in Tallaght, her sister Tracey Blount told Locke's sentence hearing last Friday.

Outside the Criminal Courts of Justice, the Blount family warned people to be much more vigilant online, saying Sonia "made an error of judgment and paid for this with her life".

Modern technology played a central role in this crime, both from the perspective of tracking the movements of the defendant and the victim and in terms of solving it.

This was commented on by prosecutor Remy Farrell SC, who noted that, thanks to CCTV, gardai were able to track Locke's movements on the night he killed Sonia.

The jury was shown CCTV footage of Locke having a drink in a pub in Clondalkin, while the fake "Shane Cully" was texting Sonia claiming he was in a taxi heading out of town. The footage showed the last movements of Sonia checking into the Plaza Hotel, and then of Locke collecting a key card at the hotel reception.

We know he put on a hat in the lift, probably to obscure his identity, as he's then shown on CCTV coming out of a lift, wearing the hat, and heading down the corridor to Sonia's bedroom.

There's CCTV footage of him walking down the corridor after killing Sonia. This time he's not wearing a jacket. He is seen leaving the hotel, dropping his phone down a drain and running away.

Locke's movements after the murder were also captured on CCTV. He was spotted in a second hotel and in a fast-food restaurant, so the jury had clues as to his demeanour after the killing.

He also spent some time surfing the internet after the killing, mostly looking at news websites to see if Sonia's body had been found.

It's these little details which gardai uncovered due to the wonders of modern technology that probably dissuaded the jury that Locke was mentally unwell and acting under a compulsion when he killed Sonia.

Investigating gardai also quickly built up a picture of the couple's relationship, as they downloaded the text messages from their mobile phones.

The Facebook messages between Sonia and "Shane Cully" were also downloaded, and were part of the prosecution case against Locke.

The jury didn't have to speculate about the relationship between Locke and Sonia, or her and "Shane Cully" because it was there on a printout in front of them.

It's frightening how easily Locke duped Sonia with the fake "Shane Cully" profile on Facebook, which he had set up a year before he met her.

Consultant forensic psychiatrist Dr Richard Bunn gave evidence on behalf of the defence at the trial and said when Locke was "Shane Cully" he didn't feel "inadequate" or "obsessive".

Indeed, Dr Bunn suggested "Shane Cully" was Locke's alter ego, and was what "Superman is to Clark Kent".

One of the reasons why Locke was able to fool Sonia was the "Shane Cully" profile was fully formed. He had numerous friends on Facebook and had posted pictures and comments.

"Shane Cully" didn't just drop out of the sky a few days after Sonia cut off contact with Locke.

Sonia did wonder if "Shane Cully" might be Locke pretending to be someone else.

A friend, Aisling Halloran, gave evidence that she asked Sonia if the person she was meeting could be Locke.

She said Sonia admitted the "thought had crossed her mind" but had asked "Shane Cully" to send her a selfie, and she was satisfied the person in the picture wasn't Locke.

It emerged Locke sent Sonia a picture of an erect penis, which he had downloaded from the internet. Sonia knew Locke's penis was deformed and scarred after unsuccessful surgery as a child.

At his sentence hearing last Friday, Sonia's sister Claire Reddin said Sonia was a loving mother to her young son.

Claire, who is raising Sonia's son Jake as her own, said she told him: "Holy God needed a very special angel and He chose his mammy."

She said the child spent months and months sobbing for his mother and asking where she was, as she had promised never to leave him.

She said it's been a long road to make him feel secure and she worries about the questions he will have and what he will read online as he gets older.

Claire said Jake is an amazing little boy and is Sonia's legacy, and she knows Sonia is looking down proudly on him.

Another sister Tracey Blount said the past three years had been "absolute torture because of the sudden, violent death of Sonia".

"No parent should have to bury a daughter," she said. "No three-year-old should have to visit his mammy's grave. Jake's special place is Sonia's grave. He leaves notes and talks to her."

Tracey said they feared Sonia was dead when they saw a notification on Facebook that the body of a young woman had been found in Tallaght.

Sonia's father rushed to the hotel, saw his daughter's car being towed and they knew something terrible had happened, she said.

Outside the court, family friend Liz Gaffney said: "A special word of warning to everyone using social media sites, we urge you to please be cautious and be aware.

"It is so easy to set up false profiles. Sonia made an error of judgment and paid for this with her life."

On behalf of Sonia's family, she thanked the jury for seeing Locke as the "lying manipulative person that he is".

Sunday Independent

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