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Tuesday 22 October 2019

A garda's story of one of Ireland's most notorious crimes: 'Rachel O'Reilly didn't stand a chance in her home that morning'

An exclusive extract, from DI Pat Marry's new book, 'The Making of a Detective'

Rachel Callaly
Rachel Callaly

Rachel O'Reilly, a popular 30-year-old mother-of-two, was found bludgeoned to death in her north Dublin home on a Monday morning. She had just returned from dropping the children to school, her car keys were found underneath her body. The murder transfixed the nation, as the spotlight turned on the victim's husband, Joe O'Reilly. Now the detective inspector who brought him to book reveals for the first time the inside story of an extraordinary investigation that ended with a life sentence for O'Reilly. In an exclusive extract, from his new book, 'The Making of a Detective', the now retired DI Pat Marry revisits that October afternoon in 2004 when he responded to reports of a burglary

The house was called Lambay View. Two uniforms were deep in conversation on the driveway. When they spotted me, one came over and said the husband of the lady who had died wanted to go back into the house to get his coat. "Absolutely no way," I told him.

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I headed around to the back of the house, where I met my superintendent, Tom Gallagher. From inside the house I could hear the gut-wrenching sounds of people wailing and sobbing. It was the family and friends of the victim, the super told me, including her poor mother who had found her. I felt for them, but our first priority was to preserve the scene so we could figure out exactly what we were dealing with.

Superintendent Tom Gallagher was a straight-talking Leitrim man who commanded great respect, and he was no fool. He said to me: "Go in there, Pat, and come back out and tell me what you see."

In the kitchen, the table was over-turned and the drawers were pulled out. There was a sitting area to one side and there were DVDs thrown across the floor and cabinet doors were standing open. I could see why burglary was the first call, and why it was the wrong call. No burglar bothers with the kitchen drawers. To my mind, it looked like a non-burglar's idea of a burglary, staged and unconvincing. I made my way down the hallway. At the end, on the left, was a bedroom, and inside that bedroom was a scene of pure savagery. I saw the body of a woman with her head near the saddle board and her body twisted at an awkward angle. Her head, neck and face were bloodied and badly injured - I could see part of her skull because the wounds were so deep. Behind her, there was a small box with blood on it. It seemed somehow out of place in the scene. I looked at the blood spatter in the room, and it described a very violent death.

When I first encountered a crime scene, I spent a lot of time just observing and soaking it up. It was like a sort of meditative state, where I became still and tried to pick up on what I could feel or anything I could intuit about the scene. That may sound unscientific, but I found it an effective way to notice every detail. So I stood with the body of the deceased and I studied every aspect of her death. I tried to sense what had gone on in that room, and who might have wanted to commit such an incredibly brutal killing. One thing was certain - it didn't look like the work of someone trying to get in and out of the house as quickly as possible.

Rachel O' Reilly' s husband Joe sits in the empty kitchen of their family home Photo: Kyran O' Brien
Rachel O' Reilly' s husband Joe sits in the empty kitchen of their family home Photo: Kyran O' Brien

Eventually, I walked back down the hallway, through the kitchen and out the back door, to the fresh air and the normal colours of the world. My super looked at me with interest. "Well," he said, "what did you see?"

"I saw two things," I said to him. "Number one, it wasn't a burglary. Number two, the killer really hated that lady." Superintendent Gallagher nodded his head slowly. "You're correct," he said. "And I'd say the victim knew her killer," I went on. "And, like all murders, there has to be a reason." He nodded again. "Exactly." He told me the dead woman's name was Rachel O'Reilly, nee Callaly. Then he looked at me and said, "Go talk to the husband."

Gardai at the O'Reilly home. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Gardai at the O'Reilly home. Photo: Steve Humphreys

That evening, I headed out with two colleagues to talk to Joe O'Reilly about the events of the day. He was at his mother's house in Dunleer, Co Louth, and when we arrived she let us in and showed us into the sitting room. We waited for about 18 minutes, then Joe came in, fresh from the shower. He appeared calm, relaxed and collected. I led the questioning, and my first query was obvious: could he think of any reason why someone would want to murder Rachel? He said he couldn't. I asked if it was possible that Rachel was having an affair and maybe a disgruntled wife had killed her. His reply warranted a note in my notebook: "No, neither of us were having affairs." It seemed odd to include himself in that when I'd asked specifically about Rachel. I asked again about possible grievances, and then suddenly dropped in another question about the possibility of an affair, this time suggesting he might be the one who was straying. He denied it again. I felt there was more to it, but I let it go.

I asked if he'd had his mobile phone on him all day, and he said that he had. I asked for the number, and to my surprise he gave me a different number from the one he'd given me at the house earlier. When I queried this, he explained that he'd thought I'd wanted Rachel's number, and that's what he'd given me. I felt sure I'd asked very clearly for his number, so this also seemed a bit odd. I knew he'd been in the house with Rachel's body before our arrival, so next I asked for the shoes he'd been wearing at the time. He left the room to fetch them. He was gone a good while. When he returned he handed over a pair of black boots. As I took them, I looked him dead in the eye and said, "Are you sure you weren't having an affair?" He looked straight back at me and I held his stare. "Look," he said, "I did have an affair." I asked who the woman was and he told me: "Nikki Pelley, a girl I used to work with." I asked Joe the date and time of his last contact with her, and he told me it was at about midday on the day of the murder. We would hear a lot more of the name Nikki Pelley as the case progressed.

*******

Joe O'Reilly, who worked for an outdoor advertising company, had an alibi for the morning of the murder but crucial mobile phone analysis revealed inconsistencies. As the investigation went on, his behaviour became more erratic. He went on 'The Late Late Show', against the advice of gardai. He "re-enacted" Rachel's murder before her horrified family. He claimed to his mother-in-law, Rose, that Rachel had come to him in a dream to ask if a dumbbell was missing from the spare room, suggesting it was the murder weapon. He also told a garda this.

*******

One member of the team preserving the house for technical examination had reported that Joe O'Reilly had arrived at the house while the scene was being examined. He revealed to the garda in question that he had a dream in which Rachel appeared to him and told him something was missing from the house. She specifically told him, in this dream, that a dumbbell and a towel were missing. He was telling the garda this so he could check if this was the case. Joe said he could confirm that the towel was missing - a brown towel from the hot press - but he wasn't sure about the dumbbell.

Joe O'Reilly. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Joe O'Reilly. Photo: Steve Humphreys

This towel detail was so silly, it was suspicious. It would turn out that Rachel appeared in a number of Joe's dreams, always with a specific suggestion about the crime scene, handily enough.

I went out to the RTE studios and spoke to the staff of The Late Late Show. Those who were responsible for looking after the guests in the green room remembered it vividly. They described to me how Joe had scoffed all the sandwiches, eating rings round himself, not a bother on him. This had seemed strange to them, given that he was living a hellish nightmare.

Rose, they noted, didn't touch a thing. She'd said she couldn't face eating.

They also recalled that Joe had spent much of the time on his phone, talking urgently to someone. After the show, he told Rose and the RTE staff that he had to meet with a client, so he wouldn't be availing himself of the hotel room offered to him as part of the station's hospitality. All in all, his behaviour backstage had raised as much suspicion as his performance on camera.

*******

Rachel's husband Joe appeared on The Late Late Show alongside her mother
Rachel's husband Joe appeared on The Late Late Show alongside her mother

It later transpired that he stayed with Nikki Pelley on the night of 'The Late Late Show' appearance.

*******

Contrary to Joe's statement that his marriage had been rocky but was now on steady ground, Nikki Pelley described how she and Joe were very much in love and wanted to live together. Joe had told her that he would be leaving Rachel to set up home with Nikki and his two sons. Naturally, she was asked why she had made the relationship sound casual in her statement. She said that Joe had asked her to play it down because if the gardai knew the extent of the affair, it might come across as a motive.

Nikki Pelley. Photo: Garrett White / Collins
Nikki Pelley. Photo: Garrett White / Collins

There was also the question of Joe saying that his only contact with Nikki on October 4 was at around midday. The phone records told us a very different story. They had, in fact, spoken at 5.45am, 7.35am, 8.13am, 11.02am and 11.05am. There was no way for Nikki Pelley to deny this evidence, and she didn't try to.

The next question was, of course: what had they been talking about? Her answer to this was also very interesting. According to Nikki's recollection of that Monday morning, Joe was calling her because he'd had a huge row with Rachel the night before, during which he'd allegedly told her he was going to leave and take the boys with him.

To this day, the closest Joe O'Reilly has come to an admission of guilt is those bizarre re-enactments, which showed that he knew the exact sequence of events as evidenced by the blood spatter analysis. Other than that, he has never acknowledged his brutal crime or Rachel's complete innocence. It seems unlikely that he ever will.

Back at Lambay View on the day of the murder, I had said to my superintendent that there would be a reason - a why. In this case, there were a number of different whys, all intertwined. It wasn't straightforward. The simplest explanation was that Joe had fallen out of love with Rachel and in love with Nikki Pelley.

In his simplistic view, he must have thought he could move Rachel out and move Nikki in, and his brand-new family would just take up where the old one had left off. It was a strange and compelling kind of self-delusion.

There was another layer as well, hidden deeper down. As happens so often in these cases, there was childhood trauma in Joe's past. One day at the Callalys's house, he'd told me that his father was an alcoholic, and although he left the family when Joe was just a young boy, by then he had hung around long enough to make a mark on his children. Young Joe was terrified of his father, whose drunken rages were unpredictable, threatening and deeply stressful. It's hard to foretell how a childhood terror will seep into adulthood, but it always does. It could be that those experiences fed into Joe's sense of rage. There was a childlike side to him, so maybe a part of him never grew up.

He was obsessed with Star Wars, as evidenced by the attic full of memorabilia and costumes. The children spoke of how daddy loved to dress up in the costumes, particularly the Darth Vader one. I'm not a psychologist, but experience tells me there could be something in that.

Perhaps Joe O'Reilly's desire to dress up suggested a desire to be someone else - someone stronger, braver, better; someone who was powerful and therefore safe? I've often wondered why we never found the Darth Vader costume anywhere in the house.

When an investigation is over, especially when it ends in a successful conviction, you have to step away and leave it behind. I could spend whatever years I have left to me pondering the whys - teasing them out, coming up with grand theories - but I know the simple truth is that human nature is made up of shades of light and dark.

Rachel didn't stand a chance as she went into her home that morning. She had no idea what was waiting for her, and probably had no idea her husband was capable of what he did to her. The Callalys can never have solace, but at least we were able to give them the truth. In the end, that's the most a detective can ever do.

The Making of a Detective - A Garda's Story of Investigating Some of Ireland's Most Notorious Crimes by Pat Marry; Penguin Ireland

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