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Sunday 31 August 2014

'I am completely innocent and believe I was framed'

NIAMH HORAN EXCLUSIVE

Published 30/12/2012 | 05:00

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She will be known forever as 'Lying Eyes'. And her trial for hiring a Las Vegas hitman to kill her millionaire lover and his sons could have easily formed the climax of the thrillers she read avidly behind bars, serving her sentence.

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'Did you expect me to have horns?" Sharon Collins is looking in the mirror and putting on her lipstick in playful form.

"A tail maybe?" she says with a mischievous glint in her eye.

The corner of her mouth turns up into a smile as she enjoys the 'she-devil' analogy.

She will forever be known as Lying Eyes, a modern-day femme fatale that captured the public's imagination.

In 2008, the Clare mother of two was found guilty of hiring a Las Vegas hitman to murder her millionaire partner, PJ Howard, and his two sons.

It was a plot straight out of a thriller novel.

The plan was that sons Robert and Niall would be poisoned and their father, PJ, thrown off a 14-storey building in Spain where he had an apartment.

It was hoped the authorities would conclude PJ was so grief-stricken after hearing the tragic news of his sons' deaths that he took his own life.

Was her fiendish plan so bizarre that she might just have gotten away with it?

We will never know because the outlandish plot eventually unravelled.

The hired hitman approached his targets, telling them of the conspiracy and demanding money to spare their lives.

The gardai were contacted and the murderous scheme fell apart like a house of cards.

It's a lot to take in, as I watch this apparently timid creature preen herself in the mirror.

But to this day, Sharon maintains her innocence.

Later, during our day together, she told me how many of her fellow inmates in prison would confess their crimes to her:

"You could nearly see the relief coming over them straight away," she says.

But not Sharon.

"I didn't have that. And I couldn't say it – because it wasn't the situation."

She certainly doesn't look like the cold, calculating she-devil portrayed during the trial.

Children flitter around her, women steal quick glances admiring her elegant attire and shapely figure. And men turn their heads. No one seem to recognise one of Ireland's most notorious figures.

She's petite. With a soft mop of Barbie blonde hair, framing her delicate features.

Her porcelain skin is smooth and practically wrinkle free – save for a few faint laughter lines. She doesn't look the 50 years she will be celebrating this spring.

Her piercing ice-blue eyes compliment her dress, which emphasises her cleavage. And she certainly doesn't look like someone any man should be afraid of.

As she teeters up the corridor in stilletos towards a suite in the Old Ground Hotel in Ennis, Co Clare, her hips sway with all the femininity and sex appeal that must have caught PJ Howard's eye. In fact, it was in this very hotel back in 1998 that he spotted her for the first time through the smoky, crowded room.

The following day, PJ called into her furniture shop in the town centre, inquiring about a piece in the store. He chatted to her briefly and later, once he had picked up the courage, telephoned asking if she would meet him for dinner.

But this wasn't just any old-fashioned date in a sleepy country town.

He was going away to Spain for a couple of days and asked if Sharon would like to join him.

She balked: "But I don't even know you."

His reply? "You will by the time we get home."

How well does anyone ever know the person they fall in love with?

Logic or reason have no place in a lover's eyes.

Once back in Clare, the pair's relationship quickly blossomed.

So what attracted her to PJ?

"He was very generous to me. And very thoughtful," she adds. "And when I had the shop he made himself fairly indispensable."

While PJ was making himself 'fairly' indispensable to his new love, Sharon says she wasn't looking for a relationship.

She had just come through a divorce and wasn't keen on settling down.

But PJ persisted. He had amassed millions through property. There were trips to Spain and a lavish house. Holidays on his boat became part and parcel of a glamorous lifestyle.

At the time she was 35 and PJ was 49.

"He wasn't old," she said, rolling her eyes. "A lot was made of the age gap. But that wasn't a big age difference."

During the trial, it was reported that he refused to get married, so denying her any claim to his fortune.

The prosecution said she had been "googling" what her financial rights were after being with him for five years. Sharon insisted this couldn't be further from the truth.

"He proposed to me on his boat in Spain and I accepted," she said.

The engagement ring was, she claimed, the most lavish present he gave to her during their relationship.

She has kept it to this day – but it's not the giant sparkler she's currently wearing on her right hand.

In a garda interview on June 26, 2007, Sharon told officers: "Money does not float my boat at all."

During her trial, Detective Sergeant Michael Moloney told how Sharon denied she would use a Mexican marriage certificate she obtained over the internet to claim PJ's money when he and his two sons were dead.

She told gardai that the wedding certificate had not looked genuine. "I haven't the certificate. I burnt it. I wish I kept it. If you saw it you would see it was not authentic, not at all."

Sharon claimed in that garda interview that it was this reaction that had spurred her into paying more than €1,000 for a proxy marriage over the internet. "It was just an act of defiance on my behalf, a private one."

She claimed that she had told Mr Howard about the proxy marriage although he told gardai he knew nothing about it.

The court was told that PJ's solicitor alerted him to the fact that pre-nuptial agreements had no standing in Irish law.

He felt his property business was too small to be divided up – PJ was adamant that his sons Robert and Niall were going to inherit it and he remained insistent on that.

Sitting in the hotel, it's bizarre to hear her talk so matter-of-factly about the details of the case as she recalls holidaying in Spain with another couple on PJ's boat in Puerto Banus when it all fell apart.

PJ received a phonecall from Robert telling him the astonishing story that he had been approached by a Las Vegas hitman who claimed he had been hired to kill PJ and his sons.

"You recall this thing of throwing him off the balcony?" she said.

"Well we weren't in the apartment," she explained. "That could never have happened. We weren't alone and we had people with us all summer."

It wasn't until February 2007 that Sharon was finally arrested.

She was at home in bed, while PJ was in Spain, when she heard a knock at the front door.

It was the guards coming to take her down to the station.

"I couldn't believe it. I couldn't have seen it coming," she said.

"Terror. Absolute terror and distress.

"You couldn't even begin to imagine how awful that is. You feel that your freedom is taken from you. Absolute panic [sets in] but you hope it is going to be sorted."

PJ flew back from Spain straight away.

"There was pure and utter disbelief for him too. He said he would get it sorted out," Sharon added.

Although PJ remained steadfast, she had no contact with his two sons after her arrest.

Coming up to the trial she didn't sleep for months. "I was constantly waiting to be rearrested for something else. Every morning I was waiting for somebody to come along again."

The stress became so physically overwhelming that one night she fainted, hitting her head off a bedside locker. "It all became too much."

"A lot of people don't realise this but the lead-up to the trial is probably more stressful than being in prison. It's the unknown, it's hanging over you."

When the trial finally came around it lasted six weeks in total.

The most fascinating part for a captivated public who watched the courtroom drama unfold was that PJ stood by her through it all.

Despite the weight of the evidence that suggested she had betrayed him, he remained resolute in his defence of her.

He told the jury she was not a greedy golddigger and said the allegations against her did not make sense.

After stepping down from the witness box, he stunned the courtroom by walking over and planting a kiss on her lips.

How did it make her feel when he did that?

"Oh. I don't know how I felt really," she says dismissively, almost as if she didn't want to be reminded of it.

"I could see he was doing everything he could to try to get the message across that I couldn't have done this. You are just trying to claw your life back together again and show a united front and say 'no, actually, we are together' and we are still a couple and I think that was what he was trying to do."

It must be a lovely thing, I suggest, to see someone's love being tested so much – and they still stand by you through it all.

"Well I think he would have known that I would have done the same for him."

Why does she believe he stood by her?

"Because he knew me. He knew how I was with him. And I think that only the person you are with really knows you."

Some say he was blinded by love?

"That wouldn't be PJ Howard at all. PJ is very astute. And I think people that know him, certainly in this locality, would know that wouldn't be him."

The hardest part of the trial, she said, was coping with the glare of publicity that comes with being the accused in a high-profile criminal trial.

She added: "Has anyone ever accused you of doing something that you didn't do? Well magnify that and imagine the focus is on you.

"The whole country is watching and everyone is saying you did this terrible thing which you couldn't really imagine doing anything worse could you?

"Imagine that and you can't prove no matter how hard you try, you just can't do it.

"Imagine how that feels? It's just so frustrating and you'd love to run out and scream 'I didn't do it' but you can't do that either.

"You just have to try to be dignified and hope that eventually you will be able to prove that it wasn't you."

But there was a "mountain of evidence" against her.

The prosecution successfully linked Sharon to her co-accused, Las Vegas 'hitman' Essam Eid, through a number of emails.

They showed that Sharon had obtained a fake marriage certificate and a passport in the name of Sharon Howard in a bid to copper-fasten her claim on PJ's wealth after his death.

What is her answer to the huge weight of evidence that was stacked against her?

"I think that is just it. It is so elaborate and there is so much. I couldn't imagine doing that for starters – but if you could try to put yourself in the position of somebody who did that? Well you wouldn't leave that sort of trail. It's just too much. It's just too much.

"It wasn't me. That's all I can say to that. I didn't leave that trail behind me."

But somebody had to?

"Yes," she replied..

Did she think somebody tried to frame her?

"It has crossed my mind. I just hope someday I will be able to prove who it was."

Does she have a name in mind?

"I do."

She insists she will continue to try and clear her name – and believes an email to the Gerry Ryan Show may hold that key. This was mentioned in court as part of the prosecution case

When the guilty verdict was read out she said she had "an absolute sinking feeling of disbelief and horror".

"Oh, I couldn't believe it," she whispered.

The frightened look on her face revealed that she was reliving the moment in her mind.

"There was a couple of seconds where it didn't sink in. I heard it and I was still waiting for something else to be said to take it away but it didn't happen."

The first person who went through her head was not PJ, but her two sons, who were standing next to her at the time.

Recalling the moment when she was led away from the dock, she said: "Committal was quite a blur to me. I think I was in such a state of shock that I don't remember. Your mind goes into survival mode to block it out. I can remember being in the van and looking around and thinking that you wouldn't put an animal here.

"And once I got to the prison I remember them telling me that I had to take a shower and thinking, 'what? I have to take off my clothes in front of you?' It was totally humiliating."

She spent the first day crying her eyes out in front of the prison governor.

She wailed and sobbed that her life was over, while he reassured her that she would be out in a few years and would have a new perspective on life.

"What I can remember most about the first night there is being perished with the cold but, of course, that's shock isn't it?"

Although she had a cell of her own, she lived in fear of how the other women would react towards her:

"You're afraid of everything. You're wondering if the women are going to attack you. It's very intimidating."

She recalled how a group pounced on an inmate next to her, viciously beating her to the ground.

"I thought that night I was going to have a heart attack, I had such a pain in my chest."

"A lot of women there would have been in and out often but it was very new to me so there was a little bit of a divide in that respect. And then I think there was so much media attention around my case – that separates you as well."

As in you're seen as a bit of a celebrity in there?

"Well you're not a celebrity but they're wondering about you from reading the papers."

So was her coping mechanism to stay away or to try and befriend them?

"Oh definitely to keep my head down. I went around blinkered.

"I didn't see much or hear much. I was switched off, on autopilot."

She explains how she spent most of her energy at the beginning trying not to get a custodial sentence.

"PJ said he would try to do everything he could to make sure I didn't get one. Of course I did get one," she said, rolling her eyes in annoyance.

So how did she pass the long days inside? "I would read an awful lot," she said.

What books?

"Thrillers usually, that would be my kind of thing," she looks for a moment as if she's said too much, as if choosing the thriller genre as her preferred reading material was some sort of clue.

Who's her favourite writer?

She doesn't answer.

"At this stage I've just read so many."

"Other times I'd just stare at the wall, talk to myself, then I began aromatherapy, which made me feel like I had a purpose, a job to go to."

Did she ever feel like ending it all?

"Before the trial I certainly did.

"I had it well thought out. I thought it would be better for my family rather than being charged. I thought if that were to happen I would prefer to be dead. But I really don't believe you should ever take your own life." She then paused, before quickly adding: "Or anyone else's life for that matter."

The hope, the small chance that she would be found innocent spurred her on. She had few people to talk to on the inside.

And was often burnt by the people she felt she could confide in.

"A few of the officers, at the start, I felt I could confide in – but because there was so much media attention it was very hard to know who I could trust and sometimes I didn't find out that quickly.

"You'd end up seeing things in paper."

What about other well-known female prisoners on her wing?

"Like?" she said, flashing the same wicked smile she gave earlier.

"Catherine Nevin," I suggested.

"The Black Widow."

"Yes she was there."

Did she try to befriend you?

"Yes."

And did you become friendly with her?

"Initially."

I remarked how Nevin would be an obvious person to confide in.

Crime wasn't in either of their backgrounds before they were convicted, they had both become equally high-profile following their trials, and both had found themselves in similar situations – except of course for the fact that Nevin's husband was killed.

I suggested that Nevin would have been a natural confidant.

"That's what I thought," she replied, shrugging her shoulders.

It seems a rift emerged between the two women, which Sharon said she couldn't talk about openly.

She added: "I felt we had nothing in common and I didn't encourage the relationship because I didn't take to her.

"She wasn't someone that I trusted."

Through all of this, PJ still visited her behind bars.

She found their meetings very difficult.

Emotion wells up in her eyes for the first and only time during the interview.

But she keeps her composure and holds back the tears.

Why did he break up with her after standing by her for so long?

"He didn't. That isn't the case," she insisted.

"First of all, we both agreed the visits couldn't continue because of the media frenzy."

I remarked how it was strange that the final straw emerged from something that seemed so simple.

Here was a man who publicly stood by her when she was accused of attempting to murder him and his two sons.

She finally concluded: "I think when you are separated for a long time you start to grow apart.

"It's a natural thing and that's the way things went. No final conversation was ever had."

Did he ever quietly ask her if she really was behind the plot?

"No. We discussed it initially and he just accepted it."

So it wasn't the fact that he didn't believe her in the end and simply saw sense?

"No," she replied.

Does she still love him?

Choosing her words with care, she replied: "I think I'll always care for him."

And love?

"Em..." she said, "In many respects, yes."

The last time they spoke was during the holidays, to wish each other a brief 'Happy Christmas'.

And she seems very up-to-date on his current relationship status.

How did you feel when you saw him with another woman on his boat in Spain?

"Crew," she replied, cutting me off.

"But there was another woman he was photographed with..." I insisted.

"Crew," she said, but more forcefully this time.

And what of finding love again for herself?

"I think everybody would like to have somebody in their life for companionship and to enjoy things with."

Do you think you eventually will meet someone again?

"Yes. It's just not something I'm focusing on at the minute."

She has recently stepped back out to the local bar for the first time since her release.

It was Christmas Eve and she went to the same place she first met PJ. "It was great," she said. "I was welcomed with open arms."

How does she feel about the 'Lying Eyes' tag?

"I hate it."

I pointed out that she as an avid reader of thrillers, she would be well aware of the role played by femme fatale in many crime dramas. Does she think it's an image she will ever be able to shift?

"Time can do a lot of things," she replied.

Everyone brings baggage to a relationship. Some have children, others are divorced. Her situation is somewhat more complicated. How does she think a future partner will handle it?

"It's an interesting one. Look at what I'm convicted of. So wouldn't it be a very difficult one for anybody to put themselves in that position, don't you think?

She bursts into a fit of laughter: "I'd be terrified something would happen to them and I'd be blamed.

"People would say I did it. So does that answer your question?

" Life on my own is preferable than going down that road."

But she won't have to worry about being short of suitors.

While behind bars she received countless letters from both men – and women – seeking a relationship.

For some, danger can be a very potent aphrodisiac.

For now though, she's busy concentrating on her career – with two books in the pipeline, a movie deal and several shows in the US fighting over rights to her first television appearance.

In no time at all she'll have a pretty nest egg she can finally call her own.

The Sharon Collins story has everything you could ask for.

Just like something that could come straight out of those thriller novels she would once read to pass the interminable days behind bars.

Sunday Independent

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