The legend of Lying Eyes
All the ingredients for a Hollywood plot were there: a hitman, lethal poison, a fake marriage certificate, contracts on the lives of three rich businessmen, sex with transvestites. But this was the real case of a divorced mother-of-two from Clare who had plotted to kill her millionaire partner and his two sons. At the end of an eight-week trial at the Central Criminal Court, Sharon Collins was found guilty. As Collins launches an appeal this week, Emer Connolly recalls the case
IT was a bizarre tale that gripped the nation and the endless fascination it generated will reignite this week as the appeal hearing takes centre stage.
Twenty months ago, the woman who became known as 'Lying Eyes' was convicted by a jury of conspiracy to murder her partner and his two sons. At the end of an eight-week trial at the Central Criminal Court, she was also found guilty of soliciting a poker dealer to murder the three men.
The woman was Sharon Collins, a divorced mother-of-two from Ennis in Co Clare. The 46-year-old had plotted to kill her millionaire partner PJ Howard and the two men who would stand to inherit his wealth; his sons Robert and Niall. Collins and Howard -- who was then worth an estimated €60m -- enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle together and appeared to have everything. But Collins was not satisfied with sharing. She wanted it all to herself.
Her ultimate aim was simple. Collins wanted to inherit Howard's millions and was prepared to wipe out anyone who stood in her way. But her devious plot was not so simple and it was its intricate detail that caught the imagination.
Collins' greed, deceit and ruthlessness, allied to myriad unusual ingredients, made this tale compelling, and public interest in the trial rocketed.
The introduction of elements such as an internet trawl for a hitman, the discovery of the lethal poison ricin in a prison cell, a fake marriage certificate, stolen computers containing crucial evidence, contracts on the lives of three rich businessmen, references to the mythical Maria Marconi and claims of sex with transvestites were more in line with the plot of a Hollywood film than an Irish court case.
But those extraordinary features were all part of the 'Lying Eyes' case that unfolded in the west of Ireland, and it all came from the vivid imagination of the ambitious Sharon Collins. The compelling detail will again be spun out in the Court of Criminal Appeal on Thursday as the long-awaited appeal by Collins and her co-accused Essam Eid gets underway.
Like Collins, Eid denied the charges against him. His legal team portrayed him as a conman and not a hitman, as had been claimed by the prosecution. Eid (54), who is originally from Egypt, was found guilty of demanding €100,000 from Robert Howard to cancel a contract on his life and those of his father PJ and brother Niall. He was also found guilty of handling stolen property, but was acquitted of burgling PJ Howard's business, Downes and Howard, in Ennis. The jury could not decide whether he was guilty of conspiracy to murder and the DPP later decided not to retry him on those charges.
The seeds were sown for this extraordinary tale on August 2, 2006, when Sharon Collins set up the email email@example.com. She made contact with an individual who used the alias Tony Luciano and had the email firstname.lastname@example.org.
There followed a detailed email correspondence between the two, and within two weeks, a deal was done. Lying Eyes agreed to pay a deposit of €15,000 for Hitman to murder all three Howard men. Hitman explained that he would kill "three bird in one stone" for $90,000.
Lying Eyes was quite open in her communication with Hitman and the two coolly discussed, via email, the methods they could use to go through with their plan.
One possibility was that the Howard brothers would be killed in an accident or poisoned. It was suggested that PJ's death would look like a suicide -- he would "jump" from his 14th-floor apartment in Spain -- on hearing that his beloved sons had died in such tragic circumstances.
Lying Eyes was determined not to be caught out, stating in an email, "I've got children of my own and intend on being around for them. That's another reason why I want to be as careful as possible that I don't end up in jail."
The detail of her plan was meticulous, as was evident from the pages and pages of emails that were exchanged between the two.
"I know it must seem terrible of me, but my back's to the wall and I don't have much choice. I would prefer it if it was just my husband, but because of the way he has arranged his affairs, it would be way too complicated if his sons were still around and I'd still be in much the same situation as I am now," she wrote.
"I've no conscience about my husband. He's a real asshole and makes my life hell, but I do feel bad about the others. However, I thought about it long and hard and I realise that it is necessary or there is no advantage to getting rid of my husband other than not having to look at his miserable face again. But I must be sure that I will be OK financially," she typed, in an email to Hitman.
She had carefully planned the details. In October 2005, she obtained a Mexican proxy marriage certificate over the internet and using this, obtained a passport in the name Howard. She believed that as the surname Howard was now hers, she was entitled to inherit PJ's huge fortune, in the event of his death and the deaths of his sons. Although the couple had pledged themselves to each other, PJ had declined to marry her, on legal advice. He did not believe she had an issue with that. However, in reality, she was keen to marry him and get her hands on his wealth.
"I'd be a suspect if anything looks suspicious, especially when I'd be the one to inherit. Many people think I'm with him for his money anyway. He's a bit older than me. We will definitely do business," she emailed.
The deal was secured between Lying Eyes and Hitman and the deposit was sent to the home address of Essam Eid and his wife Teresa Engle in Las Vegas.
As Collins tracked the progress of this package from a computer at Ballybeg House in Ennis -- the plush home she shared with PJ Howard -- the plot suddenly became very real to her. She now had to wait for Hitman to arrive in Ireland and kill Robert and Niall Howard, before putting an abrupt end to PJ's days.
But for all of her meticulous planning, she never stopped to check the validity of the hitman she had hired. She naively believed that Hitman would go ahead with the plan. In fact, she was so blinded by greed that she refused to contemplate the idea that her plan could fall apart. And that is exactly what happened, landing her and Essam Eid with six-year jail terms.
Eid arrived in Ireland at the end of September 2006 -- more than a month after the deal was agreed -- and using the name Tony Luciano, he contacted Robert Howard. He arrived on his doorstep on the outskirts of Ennis and presented him with a Toshiba laptop taken from the Downes and Howard business the previous night. He coolly explained to Robert that there was a contract on his life and on the lives of his father PJ and younger brother Niall. He demanded €100,000 to cancel the contract.
The Howard brothers contacted gardai and Robert arranged to meet "Tony Luciano" in the Queen's Hotel in the centre of Ennis town the following day.
That afternoon paved the way for the downfall of both Collins and Eid. A garda surveillance operation was mounted. Eid and his wife Teresa Engle were both arrested close to the hotel and gardai began an exhaustive investigation.
The finger of suspicion was not pointed at Collins until gardai took hold of vital evidence. As investigators deeply probed, they concluded that the petite, charming, blonde who had been PJ Howard's partner for the previous eight years was the chief suspect.
In one of her emails to Hitman, Lying Eyes wondered, "If the cops seize the computer, could they find evidence of my search?" She directed Hitman to take away the computers that had been stolen from the Downes and Howard office. Had this been done, it would have been impossible to prove the case.
One of the computers was found dumped in the grounds of the Limerick hotel where Eid had stayed on his arrival in Ireland. He handed the other to Robert Howard, which, in turn, was given to gardai. The third computer from which the email correspondence had been sent was seized by gardai at Ballybeg House. A technical examination of those three computers, along with two seized in the US, was crucial and led gardai to the door of Sharon Collins.
The discovery of the deadly poison ricin in Eid's cell in Limerick prison was one of the more enthralling aspects of the case. On foot of a tip-off from the FBI, gardai in Ennis were alerted to the fact that ricin was to be found in Eid's prison cell. The cell was searched and a test of a contact lens case found under the bed proved the presence of the poison. This fitted in with the email discussion between Lying Eyes and Hitman on the possibility that the Howard brothers be poisoned.
This strand of evidence was bolstered by the testimony from Eid's wife Teresa Engle. She insisted she had manufactured the ricin with her husband at their home in Las Vegas, before flying to Ireland with it. During the trial, Engle told how there was a plot to kill and said she had acted under her husband's control. These claims were refuted by the defence.
While Engle's damning evidence created immense public interest, nothing could have compared with the reaction PJ Howard attracted. Howard, now 60, had amassed millions through the property business, and he had managed to do so well away from the media glare.
Extremely uncomfortable in the spotlight, Howard suddenly found his lifestyle being dissected in public.
A letter written by Collins to the Gerry Ryan radio programme on RTE 2FM in April 2006 alleged that PJ had used transvestites for sex and that he had urged her to become a prostitute. She claimed he would take her to swingers' clubs. Taking the witness stand on the sentencing hearing in November 2008, PJ refuted those allegations.
Yet, despite the weight of the evidence against the woman who had so deeply betrayed him, he remained resolute in his defence of her. He told the jury she was not a greedy woman and said the allegations against her did not make sense. After stepping down from the witness box, he stunned the courtroom by planting a kiss on Collins' lips.
That was the ninth day of the trial and while he did not appear in the courtroom for the remainder of the case, he returned for the sentencing hearing and staunchly defended his lover.
On that date, he told the trial judge, Mr Justice Roderick Murphy, that Collins was "very straightforward and honest" and said he would never give up on her.
"Sharon is, in my opinion, one of the nicest people you could ever have been fortunate to know. She is a caring, loving and decent lady. I will not give up on Sharon and would have no hesitation whatsoever in living with her again," he told an intrigued courtroom.
He pleaded for leniency for the woman who had helped him through ill-health. "I am asking the court not to impose a custodial sentence as I do not believe that Sharon poses any threat to my sons. I ask the court to consider how a prison sentence would affect her mother, her two sons and myself," he said.
He said the episode had been particularly stressful for him and the prospect of seeing Sharon confined to prison for a long time was adding to this stress.
His support for her has been in evidence during her 20 months in custody, through his visits to the women's section of Mountjoy prison. The disbelief that surrounded his support for her continues to permeate through his native town, even after the passage of time.
His sustained devotion to the woman known as "Barbie" in some circles in her home town, has baffled many people, particularly in the face of the detailed nature of her plan to have him killed.
In a letter to the DPP in March 2007, PJ Howard expressed his view that Collins should not be charged and suggested that she had been the victim of a scam to extract money from her. In an effort to clear her, he sent Collins to Las Vegas in summer 2007 and hired a private investigator with a view to tracking down the woman who had, according to Collins, been at the root of the set-up.
That woman was called Maria Marconi. As part of her defence to the imaginative plot, Collins claimed that she had been the subject of an internet blackmail. She suggested that Marconi was tutoring her, via email, to become a novelist. She claimed she had confided in Marconi on personal matters relating to her relationship with PJ in which she had said "all sorts of derogatory things". She claimed she had attacked him "on every possible level as a man". A short time after this, she said she was contacted by a blackmailer requesting money. If the money was not paid, PJ would be informed of the horrendous things she had written to Marconi about him. She claimed this was the reason she sent the €15,000 to Las Vegas, but the prosecution argued it was the downpayment to Hitman.
Investigating gardai concluded that Marconi was a mere figment of Collins' wicked imagination and no such person ever existed. The prosecution treated her claim as a "fabulous lie" and accused Collins of concocting a story which was "growing legs to meet the evidence coming in".
Collins, who has always claimed she is innocent, wrote to the DPP three times in 2007, suggesting that she shouldn't be charged. In those detailed letters -- which she said she was writing with the encouragement of PJ Howard -- she said she loved Howard dearly and wanted the gardai to investigate "the theft and complete destruction" of her life.
"I didn't and wouldn't do what I was arrested for. I am an ordinary woman, living an ordinary life with which I was happy until this happened. I want my life back before it's too late," she wrote. Those letters were described by the prosecution during the trial as "emotional and manipulative".
In the aftermath of her being sentenced, Collins' solicitor Eugene O'Kelly announced that while she was convicted by a jury, she had been acquitted by her partner. He said she believed "the truth has got obscured some place in the elaborate set-up that is cyberspace."
On Thursday, the three-judge Court of Criminal Appeal will hear exactly why she -- and Essam Eid -- continues to protest her innocence, as legal teams for these unlikely partners in crime will present lengthy submissions in a hearing that is expected to last for two days.