Wednesday 22 November 2017

Horrific details of Rebecca's death laid bare

Murder trial hears how 30-year-old mother of two was beaten, kicked and stamped on before lifeless body was placed in burning car, writes Abigail Rieley

Rebecca French's body was found in the boot of her burning car. The 30-year-old mother of two was dead by the time the blaze started. Her wrists had been bound together with a plastic cable tie that had melted off in the heat, her arms and legs were bent up in front of her. A blue plastic bag was tied around her head and face with another cable tie. What looked like a red petrol can lay on its side close by.

The damage done by the fire made forensic examination more difficult but, as State Pathologist Professor Marie Cassidy told the trial of the two men charged with her murder, it was still possible to see the bruising on her body and the fractured bones.

Lithuanian nationals Ruslanas Minekas, 26, and Ricardus Dilys, 28, both with addresses at Goodtide Harbour, Wexford town, deny the murder of Rebecca French in Ard na Dara, Clonard, Wexford, on October 9, 2009.

Rebecca's family sobbed as Prof Cassidy went through her post-mortem results last Friday. Any post-mortem evidence is harrowing but the details of the destruction the fire had wrought were particularly graphic. So too was the evidence of Rebecca's violent death.

Prof Cassidy told the court that the cause of death had been blunt force trauma to the head. There were three depressed fractures to the back of the skull made with an object with a relatively small striking surface. Prof Cassidy explained to the jury that the blows had been sufficiently hard to break apart the plates of the skull.

She told the court that the plastic bag, tied so tightly around Rebecca's head that the cable tie had left a mark across her head, could have caused suffocation, but had more likely been placed there after death to catch the blood pouring from her head wounds.

There were other injuries as well. Prof Cassidy told the jury that Rebecca also had five broken ribs and extensive bruising to the right side of her body, consistent with being kicked and stamped on. Bruising to her face was consistent with punches and heavy slaps. Her arms were also bruised, in a pattern that suggested she had been trying to defend herself.

Prof Cassidy said the absence of any soot or smoke in Rebecca's lungs indicated that she had been dead before the fire in the car took hold. She would also have been dead, or at least unconscious when the cable ties were placed around her wrists as there was no indication she had struggled to free herself.

Toxicology results had revealed that Rebecca had a moderately high level of alcohol in her blood, more than two-and-a-half times the legal limit. She had also taken methamphetamine, otherwise known as crystal meth.

It is the prosecution's case that both Mr Minekas and Mr Dilys were responsible for Rebecca's injuries. They say that it was Mr Minekas who fractured her skull when he hit Rebecca around the head with a golf club while Mr Dilys kicked and stamped on her.

On Thursday the jury heard from several witnesses who had seen Rebecca on the morning of her death. Louise Fowler said Rebecca had almost crashed into her. She told the court she was driving home after dropping her children to school when a blue Opel Corsa swerved across the road and almost hit her. She had been surprised to recognise the driver as Rebecca.

Ms Fowler told the court Rebecca had a "very scary, wide-eyed look on her face". She said she couldn't be sure whether Rebecca had been scared by the near collision or whether she was drinking "or anything like that". She started crying as she agreed with defence counsel for Mr Minekas, Conor Devally, that it would not have been unusual for Rebecca to have been intoxicated.

Jacqui O'Hanlon told the court she knew Rebecca well, having once worked with her for around six months. She said Rebecca had come into Aldi, where Ms O'Hanlon worked, at around 10am that morning. She was with another girl.

Rebecca had come to the counter with a basket of breakfast food while the other girl had walked around the shop. Rebecca had chatted to her as she paid for the food. She seemed to be in good form, Ms O'Hanlon said.

As they were leaving the store, Ms O'Hanlon noticed the other girl had a plastic bag over her wrist. She could see there was something in it so she called them back.

The girl seemed disorientated, she had two black eyes, swollen on the lids but not underneath and spoke very quickly. There was a bottle of rum in the bag. Rebecca came back to pay for it but Ms O'Hanlon said she had to refuse the sale because of the early hour.

Sarah Hall, who worked in the New Line Store, saw Rebecca come in with another girl at around 9.15 that morning. She told gardai, in a statement read to the court, that Rebecca had come to the counter to buy cigarettes and possibly cigarette papers. "When I was serving her it looked like she was in her own world. I couldn't smell drink on her but she definitely was on something."

The other girl had not come up to the counter. Later that day the shop discovered a bottle of wine was missing.

The court also heard from the people who had seen Rebecca's blue Opel Corsa on fire later that afternoon. It had been spotted a little after 4pm. By the time gardai and the fire service arrived the car was blazing. The fire had to be put out before the car could be examined. It was then that Rebecca's body was found.

A garda patrol car on its way to the burning car stopped and officers spoke to four men walking along the road nearby. The men were the two accused, local man Patrick O'Connor and Polish national Piotr Pasiak.

Another patrol car called to Mr O'Connor's house in the Ard na Dara estate in connection with an unrelated matter. Garda Ian Tanner told the court that the door of the house had been opened a crack when he knocked. He couldn't see the face of the man who answered but could tell he had sandy-coloured, shaven hair and was not Irish.

At around 5.25pm gardai arrived at the house in Ard na Dara. Entering the house, they saw the two accused sitting with two other men and a woman. Mr Minekas and Mr Dilys were not wearing trousers or shoes, gardai said.

The washing machine was working and clothes in a basket beside it appeared to be bloodstained. Gardai found rubber gloves, a box of latex gloves and cable ties in a cupboard in the kitchen. There were other cable ties in the ashes in the fire place and the remnants of what appeared to be rubber gloves. An assortment of women's jewellery was also found in the ashes. Gardai found earrings, rings, a bracelet and links from a chain as well as the remains of a zip. The seat covers from one of the chairs in the sitting room had been removed and matching ones were found in the washing.

The trial will continue next week before Mr Justice Barry White and the jury of seven men and five women. It is expected to last at least two weeks.

Sunday Independent

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