Garda's final plea: 'Vindicate my good name. I'm innocent'
Inquiry to investigate GSOC'S conduct prior to honourable sergeant's suicide, writes Maeve Sheehan
In the early hours of May 28, Michael Galvin, husband, father, sergeant in charge, one-time Gaelic football star, Sligo manager and coach, finished his shift at Ballyshannon Garda Station, and took his own life.
A note addressed to his wife, Colette, was later found by his colleagues. He wrote that he could no longer take the pressure of an investigation by the garda watchdog, the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC), which had left him feeling like a criminal. He wrote that he was innocent and he asked his loved ones to vindicate his good name after he was gone.
A week after his death, Sergeant Michael Galvin is not only vindicated, but the Minister for Justice has set up a judicial inquiry to examine the garda watchdog's handling of his case.
It is the second judicial inquiry in a year into GSOC. The first - led by retired Mr Justice John Cooke - effectively suggested that the watchdog jumped the gun in launching a full public-interest investigation into suspicions that its offices were being bugged by An Garda Siochana.
This one will examine the garda watchdog's methods. Was it too hard on Michael Galvin? Was he fairly treated? Should he have been subjected to a criminal investigation?
The events that led to Michael Galvin's decision to take his own life are rooted in another tragedy - the death of Sheena Stewart, a young mother, in a road accident. The garda conduct in that tragic case was what the garda ombudsman had been looking into in the first place.
Ms Stewart, 33, was the mother of three young children. Originally from Ballybofey, she went to school in the Royal and Prior Comprehensive in Raphoe, and later moved to Letterkenny, where she was a volunteer at Cara House, a local charity.
She spent New Year's Eve celebrating with friends in Bundoran, the seaside tourist town a little over an hour away from Letterkenny. As the evening wore on, something happened to upset her. She had been drinking. She separated from her friends. She was on the streets on her own and distressed and crying when she was spotted by a garda on duty.
After speaking to her, he offered to drive her to Ballyshannon, around seven kilometres away, from where she could get a late bus back to Letterkenny. He dropped her at the bus station.
By midnight, Michael Galvin, 46, or Mick, as he was known, was on his way from his home in Leitrim to Ballyshannon to start his "tour of duty" at 12.30am.
He wasn't supposed to be working. But earlier that day, he got a phone call asking him to cover for a colleague, and he agreed.
He was raised in Carraroe, Sligo, where he was a famous county footballer. His club, St Mary's, later paid tribute to him as a "hard tackling" defender who became "an integral part" of the senior team that won the Sligo Senior Championship in 1996, and he became captain the following year.
As a garda, he was stationed in Manorhamilton and moved to Ballyshannon two years ago, where he was "sergeant in charge" of the station.
On New Year's Day he had been in the station 40 minutes when a call came through about a possible hit-and-run incident. Sergeant Galvin and a colleague drove to the scene of the accident in a garda van.
Sergeant Galvin was in the passenger seat. In a statement he made subsequently, he said that they drove over Ballyshannon bridge and he observed a woman on his left-hand side, sitting on what he thought was the footpath, in front of the bus station. It was around 1.20am.
CCTV footage would later show that Sheena Stewart was actually on the road when Sergeant Galvin and his colleague pulled up at the bus stop - and it was this anomaly that would later trigger GSOC's decision to launch a criminal investigation into Michael Galvin's recollection of events.
In any event, he and his colleague stopped the van and got out. She stood up and walked into an alleyway. Sergeant Galvin and his colleague followed her and spoke to her. They told her that they were on their way to a hit-and-run accident, but assured her that they would be back.
The CCTV footage suggests they interacted for more than a minute, according to sources. When they left, Ms Stewart was standing on the footpath, which was also caught on CCTV footage.
But over the next 20 minutes, she wandered onto the road and then back on to the footpath. Some local people who were afraid for her safety called the garda station to alert them. At one point, Ms Stewart lay on the road, according to informed sources. Two cars swerved to avoid her, but at 1.50am, the driver of a mini bus tragically did not see her. Local people tried to resuscitate her but she was later pronounced dead in hospital.
Two investigations were launched after Sheena Stewart's death. One was the garda investigation into the collision that killed the young woman. The second was GSOC's parallel investigation to find out whether gardai had taken "appropriate action" prior to her death.
The case was forwarded by local garda management under Section 102 of the Garda Siochana Act, which requires the referral to GSOC of "any matter that appears to the garda commissioners to indicate that the conduct of a member of An Garda Siochana may have resulted in the death of, or serious harm to a person".
As one of three gardai who had interacted with Ms Stewart on the night of her death, Sergeant Galvin was asked for a statement some three weeks after she died. He submitted it to gardai on January 25 as part of their criminal investigation.
Gardai later gave it, along with the others, to the designated GSOC officer dealing with the case. He spotted the "inconsistency" between what the CCTV footage showed and Sergeant Galvin's statement.
On March 26, according to Sergeant Galvin's solicitor, Michael Hegarty, the GSOC officer, phoned the sergeant at work to ask him to attend an interview in Dublin over inconsistencies in his statement and the CCTV footage.
He wasn't told what this inconsistency was. But he was informed of the possibility that a criminal offence had occurred of "making false and misleading" statements and "perversion of the course of justice".
Sergeant Galvin put the phone down, stunned. His professional body, the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (AGSI), referred him to solicitor Michael Hegarty, who represents the group.
He, in turn, contacted GSOC. "To be quite honest, we couldn't believe it and we thought there must have been some mistake," he said. But the letter confirmed the possible offences under investigation were false statements and perverting the course of justice.
On May 20, Sergeant Galvin came to Dublin, along with a solicitor, to be interviewed by the GSOC investigator. Having viewed the CCTV footage to identify the "inconsistency" noted by GSOC, Sergeant Galvin had prepared a statement explaining how it arose.
He wasn't asked for a statement until three weeks after the event. And from where he was sitting in the van, coming over Ballyshannon bridge, it looked like Ms Stewart was on the footpath. It was 1.20am and dark.
"What was important was that he stopped, and spoke to her and reassured her," his solicitor, Michael Hegarty told the Sunday Independent.
Before the interview began, Sergeant Galvin was told that he was being interviewed "after caution" because of "the possibility" that he had committed the criminal offence of making false and misleading statements to a garda investigation. He presented GSOC with a prepared statement, explaining the discrepancy.
This talk of possible criminality weighed heavily on his mind. Mr Hegarty spoke to him both before the interview, and afterwards. "He was nervous. I spent a lot of time going through things with him. I told him, there is nothing criminal here, there is no basis for any criminal charges," he said.
John Redmond, the general secretary of the AGSI, said Sergeant Galvin "changed completely" after the inquiry began. He was "consumed by the investigation", he said last week. "He felt his job was gone, he felt his reputation was gone, and worse than that, he felt he was going to face up to five years in prison."
However, it seems that GSOC investigators were not aware of the impact this criminal investigation into garda conduct in relation to the death of a woman was having on Sergeant Galvin.
As far as GSOC was concerned, the inconsistencies had been cleared up after Sergeant Galvin's interview. Kieran Fitzgerald, one of the GSOC commissioners, said last week: "Only on the day before his death did we finally conclude, just a week since he was brought into us, what our finding would be."
The finding cleared Sergeant Galvin and his two colleagues. It is understood that GSOC found no evidence that Sergeant Galvin had provided false information or tried to pervert the course of justice. Furthermore, it found no evidence of disciplinary breaches or criminal offences by any of the three gardai.
Sergeant Galvin wasn't told of this positive outcome, according to Mr Fitzgerald, because it was not "normal practice" to do so. The protocol was to first send a file to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and to inform the garda by letter once the DPP returned a decision.
As GSOC prepared to wrap up its investigation of Sergeant Galvin, he succumbed to pressure. Because he died in a garda station, GSOC was obliged to investigate the sergeant's death too.
On RTE last week, Kieran Fitzgerald said he imagined that most gardai would be used to the "cold" language of an investigative process.
But at the funeral mass before her husband's burial last Sunday, Colette Galvin spoke to a thronged church full of his family, friends and colleagues of her loving and caring husband.
"He gave his life to the job and I hope that after today, all decent and honest members of An Garda Síochana will be allowed to do their jobs without horrendous and unnecessary investigations by GSOC," she said.
According to Sergeant Galvin's colleagues, the family felt it was a further affront that his death was being investigated by the very organisation that they believed had been the cause of the stress and pressure.
His last wish was that his good name should be vindicated, and once the bank holiday weekend was over, his garda colleagues took up this cause, with the blessing of his family.
On Tuesday, John Redmond organised a press conference to air the family's and the AGSI's concerns. Two days later, Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald announced a judicial inquiry into GSOC's handling of its investigation into Sergeant Michael Galvin, in both the public interest and in his family's interest.
Suspicions of bad blood between gardai and GSOC linger. Flashes of tensions emerged briefly last week - in the AGSI criticising GSOC's "humiliating" and heavy-handed approach in its investigations; and in GSOC insisting it would carry on investigating Sergeant Galvin's death despite his family's concerns.
Minutes before the minister made her announcement, GSOC issued a press statement announcing that it was shutting down its investigation, citing the "misleading, inaccurate and inflammatory commentary" that could damage public confidence.
The minister's swift action was shrewd.
A judicial inquiry - which will be formalised in the coming weeks - will ensure an independent appraisal of GSOC's methods. But it has also firmly put a lid on what was turning into an ugly row between the garda oversight body and garda representative groups over the suicide of a sergeant, whom friends said valued honour so much that he could not bear to be the subject of criminal suspicion.
The inquiry will be formalised in the coming weeks. In the meantime, Sergeant Michael Galvin's family may find some space to grieve.