Saturday 16 December 2017

How end of a brief relationship led to Sonia's terrifying death

Court told of the last harrowing moments of young mum Sonya's life in that hotel room

Fateful decision: Sonia Blount had briefly dated the accused but their relationship ended in
January 2014 - five weeks before her death - after he called her a 'slut' and 'mad' in a row
Fateful decision: Sonia Blount had briefly dated the accused but their relationship ended in January 2014 - five weeks before her death - after he called her a 'slut' and 'mad' in a row

Eimear Cotter

The breakdown of any relationship can be traumatic, particularly if one party views the relationship differently to the other. For Sonia Blount, her relationship with Eric Locke amounted to no more than a few dates. For Eric, they were "really into each other", she was a "great girl" and he was "falling" for her. It's clear that Eric Locke was looking for love.

In a letter to Sonia, found by gardai after her death, Eric said he felt his life had remained static while all his mates had moved on, getting married, having children and getting mortgages. He, on the other hand, was still living at home. He told Sonia he often wondered where he went wrong, and that it got him down, because the first question he was asked when he met new people was "are you married?"

Eric Locke: Will be pleading diminished responsibility
Eric Locke: Will be pleading diminished responsibility

It's also clear from his texts and what he told gardai that he thought their romance could have been a great love story. Sonia was open to love, but she had just come out of a difficult three-year relationship, and she told her friends her flirtation with Eric Locke was "nothing major".

The 35-year-old has admitted he caused the death of Sonia Blount but says he did not mean to kill her and will be pleading the defence of diminished responsibility.

It is the prosecution case that Mr Locke, of St John's Park East, Clondalkin, posed as another man on Facebook so he could lure her to a hotel room, where he caused her death. Her body was found in the Plaza Hotel in Tallaght on February 16, 2014. The pair had briefly dated but the relationship ended on January 11, 2014 after he called her a "slut" and "mad" in a row after a night out.

Eric Locke repeatedly apologised to Sonia Blount and begged for another chance. He claimed he was "hammered" and made the comment only because he was insecure and unsure about her feelings for him. He sent her many long, rambling texts begging for forgiveness. But Sonia stood firm, telling him she would "not have someone talk down" to her.

She also told him: "Words hurt and I will not let it happen again." It's fair to say that Eric Locke did not deal well with the break-up. He sank into a depression. On January 13, he walked off the job in the factory where they both worked. He then sent a text, saying he was "checking out".

Sonia Blount responded, asking "you're what?" She repeatedly texted him that day, saying she was worried sick and to contact his family as they were looking for him.

Later that night, Eric Locke texted her that he was in a hotel room with a rope, telling her "I'm doing this now, I just want peace."

However, he sent another message six hours later, telling her he couldn't do it. He asked her to meet him because he was "really on the edge".

She asked him to get help and not to contact her again.

Her friends Susan Kelly and Aisling Halloran and sister Claire Reddan all gave evidence to the Central Criminal Court that Sonia was very upset at the suicide attempt.

"She was worried sick about it, wasn't sleeping and couldn't eat," said Claire. "She just couldn't believe this was happening with someone… there wasn't a major relationship there to cause this."

In the aftermath of the suicide attempt, Sonia's friends said she "felt guilty" and "wanted to help him" as she was "always worrying about other people". Privately, she told her sister he was "a proper fruit loop". However, Sonia's kindness meant she responded to his texts for weeks after she broke up with him.

She later told her sister she had become concerned about Mr Locke's behaviour at work, telling her that "he kept looking at her in work and it freaked her out". Sonia was going to ask to change shifts, but hesitated because she "didn't want to get him into trouble or lose his job". She broke off all contact with him on February 8.

Around that time, Sonia began a flirtation with a guy called 'Shane Cully' who had befriended her on Facebook. It started off as banter, but it quickly developed beyond that, and the court heard intimate pictures and messages were shared between them. They arranged to meet in the Plaza Hotel on February 15.

In her messages to 'Shane Cully', Sonia indicated she was "sick with nerves" about the liaison as she had never done anything like it before. Indeed, in earlier texts, 'Shane Cully' asked Sonia what was the wildest thing she had ever done. She admitted she wasn't "all that crazy".

We will never know why Sonia decided to meet a stranger in a hotel for sex. However, as prosecutor Remy Farrell SC has told the jury, it's not for us to judge her.

We do know that decision to meet 'Shane Cully' ultimately cost Sonia her life. Sonia did wonder if he might be Eric Locke pretending to be someone else. She told her colleague Aisling Halloran about her new man when working the early shift on February 14, saying it was just a "casual thing".

Aisling Halloran said she asked Sonia if the person she was meeting could be Eric Locke. She said Sonia admitted the "thought had crossed her mind" but she had asked Shane Cully to send her a selfie, and she was satisfied the person in the picture wasn't Eric Locke. He later told gardai that Sonia got "a shock" when he walked into the room in the Plaza.

The court heard that Mr Locke became "severely hurt and depressed" when Ms Blount blocked him on Facebook, blanked him at work and told him to stop texting her. He initially asked his sister Kim if she would ask a mutual friend if he could hack Sonia's Facebook account.

"I'm back with that girl," he falsely claimed. "She's ripping me off behind my back."

He said he had the information from two reliable sources but needed to know for sure if it was true so he could stay away from her.

However, he was told the account was private and couldn't be hacked. Detective Garda Camon Ryan told the court that officers began interviewing Eric Locke on February 16, after he handed himself in to gardai.

He admitted he had "hurt" her. He told gardai he had suffered with depression for years, but meeting Ms Blount had brought him "back up". He said they had finished about four weeks earlier and it brought him "back down". He claimed he set up the fake 'Shane Cully' profile because he wanted to talk to her.

They had arranged to meet in the Plaza Hotel, and he told gardai Sonia got "a shock" when he walked into the room. He said he wanted to "frighten her and talk to her" but denied he wanted to murder her. He said she didn't ask him to leave, but wanted them to leave together. "I thought that once we got to reception, she'd scream and that's what stopped me," he said.

Earlier that day, he'd gone into town and bought a Stanley blade, pellet gun, cable ties and masking tape and brought them with him to the hotel room. Mr Locke said Sonia was "terrified" when she saw the items. "She was frantic. We had a fight and it happened.

"I used my hands on her neck," he said. He pointed to the scratches on his face when asked if Sonia had done anything while he strangled her.

"She said: 'Eric, what are you doing?' but her voice was low," he told gardai. He added that he had put her top in her mouth because he panicked.

He initially denied using anything other than his hands, but admitted using the cable of a mobile phone charger "briefly", after a bloodstained charger was shown to him.

He also denied raping her, claiming they had consensual sex before she saw the items he had brought with him.

During the interviews, gardai repeatedly asked him if he was upset that Ms Blount was meeting 'Shane Cully', but he denied it. Earlier last week, State pathologist Prof Marie Cassidy said Sonia Blount died as a result of asphyxia. This was caused by compression of the neck which was exaggerated by suffocation due to a gag in her mouth.

She said there were bruises to her neck, and they indicated two types of strangulation were used, the marks being consistent with cable ties and an armlock.

The jury was told that significant force would have been needed to the front of the neck to cause Ms Blount's death and it would need to have been maintained for a sufficient period of time. "Probably there would have been a struggle," Prof Cassidy said.

Scene of crime examiner Detective Garda Janette O'Neill told the court there were some items strewn around the floor, including cable ties, masking tape and a mobile phone charger, and it was her view a "violent struggle" had taken place.

The trial also heard that DNA matching Mr Locke's was found under Ms Blount's fingernails. Forensic scientist Marcie Lee Gorman said she was told that Mr Locke had said he strangled Ms Blount with his hands and a phone wire.

His jeans were bloodstained and she found a DNA profile matching Ms Blount's on the stain. The witness was told Mr Locke had scratches to his face and that blood was found on Ms Blount's fingernails.

Ms Gorman said she found DNA matching Mr Locke's in the samples taken from Ms Blount's nails. However, she said it was equally likely this came from Ms Blount scratching him as from the intimate contact he said they had had.

The jury was also shown footage of Eric Locke running away from the Plaza. Taxi driver Ian McEvoy said he picked him up near the hotel shortly after 5.30am on February 16.

Mr McEvoy said Mr Locke asked him to take him to Clondalkin. When he asked him if he had had a good night, Mr Locke replied "I won't be going there again".

He said he saw fingernail scrapes on his left check, which were "very noticeable". Mr McEvoy said Mr Locke told him he had been in a club and was dancing with a girl when her boyfriend came over and gave him a few smacks.

The taxi driver told the court he said to him: "You're going to have to explain that to everybody" and Mr Locke just shrugged.

The trial continues tomorrow.

Sunday Independent

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