Friday 16 November 2018

Kenneth O'Brien murder trial: Killer Paul Wells' astonishing tale of secrets, lies, betrayal and conspiracy

Kenneth O'Brien
Kenneth O'Brien

Andrew Phelan

IT was an icy Friday night in January and the rattle of a chainsaw kicking into life at the back of a terraced Dublin house must have gone unnoticed by neighbours.

If anyone did hear it, the sound of a power tool at work in a suburban garden would hardly have been out of the ordinary, even after dark.

Nobody could have imagined the horror of what was actually happening in that back yard.

Kneeling in the freezing cold, close to the wall and out of sight, a weeping man was chopping his friend to pieces with a chainsaw, after he had shot him in the back of the head.

This was the nightmarish scene described to gardai by Paul Wells (50) after he was arrested over the death of Kenneth O’Brien (33).

Kenneth’s body had been found dumped in a suitcase and in shopping bags in the Grand Canal in Co Kildare soon after he disappeared.

Kenneth’s partner Eimear Dunne. Photo: Collins
Kenneth’s partner Eimear Dunne. Photo: Collins

But while Wells confessed to the killing, he insisted it was self-defence.

To back this up, in interview, Wells told an astonishing tale of secrets, lies, betrayal and conspiracy leading up to that night of "carnage" at his home in Barnamore Park, Finglas, on Friday January 15, 2016.

Over the course of a near month-long trial, a Central Criminal Court jury had to decide whether they believed him.

For the gardai, the case started on the afternoon of Saturday, January 16, 2016, not just without a suspect, but without an identified victim.

A couple, Brian O’Dwyer and Mary Costigan had been out walking by the Grand Canal at Ardclough in Co Kildare when they noticed an an unusually new-looking suitcase floating in the water.

They dragged it onto the towpath, opened it and saw a plastic bag with red liquid and what looked like human skin inside.

Gardai search the Grand Canal near Sallins. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA
Gardai search the Grand Canal near Sallins. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA

Mr O’Dwyer rang gardaí and said; "I think we found a body".

The suitcase contained a human torso, wrapped in clear plastic and bound with red ratchet straps.

Deputy State Pathologist Dr Michael Curtis found the limbs and head had been cut "neatly" from the torso with what appeared to be a "high-speed mechanical saw."

Kenneth O’Brien, a JCB driver, mechanic and "devoted" father-of-one from Lealand Road, Clondalkin had been reported missing that day. Eimear Dunne, his partner, had become suspicious within hours of their last contact on Friday, January 15.

Grim find: Gardaí at the scene on the canal near Sallins, Co Kildare, where the remains of Kenneth O’Brien were found. Photo: Colin Keegan
Grim find: Gardaí at the scene on the canal near Sallins, Co Kildare, where the remains of Kenneth O’Brien were found. Photo: Colin Keegan

She and their young son Charlie had kissed him goodbye before they left home early that morning, his last words to them: “Don’t forget I’ll be late tonight.”

As far as she knew, Kenneth was to go to a construction job in Limerick - her 30th birthday celebrations that day had been cancelled because of it.

He was still alone in the house when he let a Wifi installer in to carry out work between 10am and 11am.

Garda underwater unit members search the canal near Sallins in 2016 for the body of Kenneth O’Brien. Picture: Collins
Garda underwater unit members search the canal near Sallins in 2016 for the body of Kenneth O’Brien. Picture: Collins

Kenneth and Eimear shared text messages with “ordinary banter” that day before contact ended abruptly at around 1.30pm. When she called him later, his phone was switched off.

Then at 3.30am, she got a text message from a number she did not recognise, supposedly from Kenneth.

“Lost my phone today, I’m staying in a hotel tonight, having a drink, talk tomorrow,” the text said.

This was “not like him,” but a more troubling text from the same number was to follow, at 7.39am.

“So here it is,” the text read. “I am heading for the ferry today, I can’t handle being home and want out. I met someone else, she came to Ireland yesterday. I met her today and I’m going with her.”

Eimear noticed the spelling and punctuation were off, and “I said, that is not right. Ken was very particular about his text messages. That is not him that texted me.”

Phoning desperately around that morning, she eventually got in touch with one of his friends, Paul Wells.

“Paul basically said look, he’s seeing somebody else,” she said.

Kenneth had been working in Australia since 2013, returning to Ireland for his son’s birthdays and Christmas, and Wells told Eimear he had met another woman there and did not want to come home.

He showed her pictures Kenneth had sent to his phone, some of them “intimate”.

Eimear “felt weak” when she saw them.

She knew Kenneth had been unfaithful before and she “had a feeling something was going on” in Australia too.

Still, while the relationship had had its ups and downs, Eimear had felt she and Kenneth were getting on “great” and he had said he was home “for good.”

She told Wells: “There’s something not right.”

The next day, Sunday January 17, she met Wells again, outside McDonald’s in Liffey Valley.

“He’s gone, probably in a hotel room somewhere,” he said, showing her the photos again.

When Kenneth’s mother Susan heard the news about the discovery of a torso in Ardclough, she knew her son had worked at a garage in the area and hoped: “it doesn’t mean anything.”

But within days, a DNA sample she gave confirmed the family’s worst fears - the remains were Kenneth’s.

The next major development came about 20km further north at Pike’s Bridge near Maynooth on January 22, when a local walking his dog spotted the frame of a chainsaw in the waters of the Royal Canal.

Two days after that on January 24, back at the Grand Canal in Sallins, not far from Ardclough, a fisherman’s line snagged a suspicious looking Dunnes’ Stores bag in the water and gardai were called.

Det Gda Gerard Byrne could see a “flesh coloured object” inside - part of a lower leg with a foot. Garda divers pulled up three more Dunnes Stores and Tesco bags from the bottom of the canal.

Inside were plastic bags containing nine more parts of Kenneth’s body.

One bag contained the arms in four sections; the legs, also in four parts with the feet attached were found in two more bags, and a fourth bag contained the head, with a bullet inside. One of the upper arms was tattooed with the name “Ken.” His hands were never found.

A further post mortem revealed Kenneth had died from an “instantaneously fatal” gunshot wound to the head.

From the contact entry wound, it was clear that the muzzle of the gun had been pressed against his head when it was fired, the bullet tracking slightly downwards.

One of the early lines of inquiry in the murder investigation focused on Kenneth’s bank accounts - and Paul Wells’ name came up again.

The father-of-five was no stranger to the gardai - described in court as an “IRA man”, he had served time in Portlaoise Prison for weapons offences.

While Kenneth was in Australia, he had transferred large amounts of money home to Ireland through a foreign currency service. The biggest recipient - to the tune of more than €52,000 over 18 months - was Wells.

The pair had struck up a friendship through the garage Kenneth had worked in, but the amount he transferred to Wells’ bank account was more than twice the total he sent to Eimear for mortgage payments and childcare.

The net was closing, and even in Wells’ own family, the finger of suspicion was pointing at him.

His son Gary Wells would testify that on the night Kenneth was killed, his father told him not to come home as usual, but to instead go straight to his girlfriend’s house.

The next morning, he had returned to see his father out power-hosing the back yard, bottles of bleach on the decking.

Wells gave Gary shopping bags of rubbish from the shed to get rid of - one had a red-stained piece of cardboard inside. He also gave him a bag to bring to his brother Paul Wells Jnr, and Gary could see from the shape there was a chainsaw inside.

After the identity of Kenneth’s remains became public, Gary recalled, Wells was “edgy.”

His father said he “thought it was terrible what had happened” to Kenneth and that the gardai “would probably come to speak to him as a precaution.”

However, in early February, it was Paul Wells Jnr who “pre-empted matters” by coming forward and “self-reporting” to the gardai. In interview, he revealed that his father had told him that he killed Kenneth and took a chainsaw to the body.

On February 6, detectives found the remaining parts of the chainsaw in pools and gorse in the Curragh.

That morning, Wells was arrested at his home on suspicion of Kenneth’s murder. Before he was taken to Naas Garda Station, Wells told gardai: “He was my friend.”

He was interviewed 15 times over the course of the next six days.

Initially, a garrulous Wells told gardai the last time he saw Kenneth was over a cup of coffee on the Monday before he went missing. His gut instinct was that Kenneth had not wanted to come home from Australia and had “done a runner.”

He told how the pair called each other “bud”; he was like an “elder brother” to Kenneth, who confided in him about his affairs. The jury would hear of at least three - a neighbour, a woman called Anna from Rwanda and Aisling Walsh, who he had met in Australia.

He also painted a picture of his friend as secretive, volatile, a “bit of a headcase.”

Wells assumed he was being questioned because “I am the one who knew most of his secrets.”

He told how on the morning of January 15, he had dropped his wife Audrey and youngest son Andrew to Heuston Station for a trip to Cork, then parked outside the Jervis Centre to go window shopping.

He said he drove to the butcher’s in Clearwater Shopping Centre in Finglas, returned home and cooked chops for dinner. His son Gary came home but left again and Wells “vegged out” in front on the TV that night before going to bed at around 2am, he said.

Under sustained questioning over seven interviews, he denied any involvement in his friend’s death. However, as the crushing weight of evidence began to pile up in the interviews, his lies unravelled.

Gardai showed him CCTV footage of his movements in the hours after Kenneth was last seen alive. He was seen buying a SIM card at the Meteor store on Henry Street that Friday morning.

In the early hours of Saturday, at 5.38am, he was seen on CCTV driving southbound on the M50, when he claimed to have been in bed asleep. Later that morning, he was in Cleverbuys in Finglas buying black bags and bleach.

The mobile number that sent the fake texts to Eimear had connected to the mast at Broombridge, near Wells’ home.

He was shown the evidence of Kenneth’s transfers into his bank account but had could not explain what the money was for.  There was CCTV footage of Wells withdrawing thousands from the account - just under €20,000 in the weeks before Kenneth’s death.

Gardai told him forensic tests were being carried out at his shed and the boot of his car, which would later prove to be stained with Kenneth’s blood.

But it was only in his seventh interview that Det Gda Declan O’Brien revealed to Wells what his son Paul Jnr had told them.

Suddenly Wells became less talkative, repeating: “I’m not saying anything at this time.”

On the way from the interview room, he turned to Det Gda O’Brien and said: “I’ll tell you everything in the morning… what happened to Kenneth is tearing me asunder.”

He did not even wait that long, and called the station sergeant Tom Bowe into his cell that night and confessed to the killing.

He said he shot Kenneth in a struggle and the reason they fought was because he wanted Wells to kill Eimear. “No way was I ever going to harm a woman, especially her,” Wells said.

He asked Sgt Bowe to tell his son Paul Jnr: “I’m glad he turned me in.”

The next morning, he set out his full, shocking version of what had happened.

Kenneth had wanted Eimear murdered, Wells claimed, so he could take his son Charlie to live “happily ever after” with him in Australia.

Kenneth had mistakenly thought that Wells, because of his republican background was the “person for the job” and was under “some illusion” that Wells was “up for doing this thing.”

There had been a plan to meet beside the Jervis Centre on Friday morning, January 15, Wells claimed. Kenneth would give him the gun in exchange for the new SIM card which would be a “clean chip.”

Wells had no intention of killing Eimear, did not meet Kenneth and went home, he said.

After 5pm, he said, Kenneth “bounced up” to his house, asked “why did you not turn up?” and showed him the gun, in his waistband, in the kitchen.

“I then said to him that the whole thing was f**king crazy and unnecessary,” Wells told gardai.

He said Kenneth was to go back to his own house, take Charlie out and send a text, “a smiley face, that was a signal that it was clear to go to the house and take a life.”

“After I had shot her... I was to interfere with her clothing. To give the impression that she had been sexually abused. I f**king lost it. And I recall pushing him violently,” he continued.

Wells broke down in tears as he haltingly described what happened next.

They grappled, flipped over and ended up on the ground in a “rowing boat” position, he said.

The gun dropped to the ground.

"He tried to grab the gun off the floor. I thought if he got the gun he’d shoot me,” Wells said.

“I got to the gun and shot him in the back of the head...I pulled the gun a number of times. Click, click, click and he died instantly.”

“I just panicked. I swear I didn’t want to kill him, he was my friend.”

He passed out, he said, and when he came around, he had an “overwhelming sense of trying to survive” and had to get the body out of the house before his wife arrived home.

The body was “f**king heavy” and “the only way I could take him out was to take him out in parts,” he said.

He said he bit down on a tea towel, knelt down and chopped the body to pieces in his backyard with a chainsaw that Kenneth had loaned him.

“Must have f**king made about six attempts… I kept bottling it. I was practically expecting him to wake up,” he said. "I felt sick. That smell was all over... of death.”

It was “f**king savagery... nothing but pure carnage,” he said.

After changing clothes, he picked up the body parts, put the torso in a suitcase that also belonged to Kenneth and put it in his wife’s car, driving it out an unplanned route to the Grand Canal.

“I’m ashamed to say I put that suitcase in the water,” he said.

He admitted he the first fake text to Eimear to “buy some time.”

Later that morning, he went to Eimear’s house after she contacted him, before returning home to face “the horrible task of sorting these other bits.”

He parcelled Kenneth’s head and limbs, in bags weighed down with fire bricks and put them in the boot of his car, he continued.

That evening, he went for a drive in Co Kildare with Paul Jnr, to discuss his son’s upcoming stag party. Paul Jnr had no “absolutely no idea” what was in the boot - the bagged body parts. Wells pretended he had to go to the toilet, got out and threw the bags into the canal.

The following day, he said, he flung the broken-up gun out his car window into the Liffey at Strawberry beds.

Wells said he had forgotten Kenneth’s hands, which were on the shelf in his shed and bagged these and threw them into the Liffey at Islandbridge the next day, Monday January 18.

He said of his sons “them boys knew nothing,” that Paul Wells Jnr was “totally innocent” and he passed the chainsaw on to him because he “never wanted to see it again.”

The money he withdrew, he said, he had given back to Kenneth.

Prosecutor Sean Gillane SC argued that Kenneth had been “executed efficiently” by Wells in a “premeditated act.”

He pointed to the purchase of the SIM card and Wells having asked Gary to stay out of the house on the night of the killing - which Wells initially lied to gardai about.

Wells had also asked Gary a week earlier to get plastic in work because there was a leak in their shed -it was a similar type to the plastic found by gardai.

Wells’ tears in interview were “not the product of conscience” but an example of him exercising “control and manipulation.”

Mr Gillane said the accused maintaining he shot Kenneth in the back of the head in self defence did not make sense. He also pointed to the “meticulousness” of the wrapping of the torso and the “almost professional” cleanup by someone supposedly in a panic.

Against this, Wells’ defence said the evidence for a planned killing did not “add up” and asked the jury to consider the plausibility of the supposed plot to kill Eimear Dunne.

While some of the things Wells said did not sound credible, they were established independent of him to be “totally or substantially correct,” Michael O’Higgins SC, defending said.

He asked the jury to take account of seven “suspicious” coincidences that supported the allegation of a conspiracy to kill Eimear Dunne.

The CCTV at Mr O’Brien’s home that was not working on January 15 - the access code had been changed and Mr O’Brien was the only person who could have changed it.

The cancellation of Eimear’s birthday party because of the “lie” that Mr O’Brien was working in Limerick.

A set of keys Mr O’Brien got cut on January 14,  two phones he had “on the go,” his passport missing from the house safe.

The suitcase he gave to Wells, which, he said, Kenneth did not want Eimear to see being taken. The removal of Mr O’Brien’s boss’s phone number from Eimear’s phone. Mr O’Higgins suggested all this showed Kenneth  “setting up a clear run, believing Mr Wells was going to his house to kill his partner.”

Was he capable of this? The defence used a number of incidents to illustrate Kenneth’s “deeply flawed character.”

His best friend Patrick Bogey said on one occasion, Kenneth asked him to go to his house because he was worried a man was “coming to shoot me.”

Mr Bogey was told to go to the window of a bedroom where there was a firearm, and to wait for a hand signal from Kenneth.

Another time, Mr Bogey said he walked in on Kenneth as he worked on pipe bombs in his shed. This, the defence argued, showed Kenneth’s “disregard for life.”

Moreover, Mr O’Higgins said, the prosecution had not sought to advance any reason why the killing occurred, and the jury had not heard about it because “the evidence isn’t there to support it - you are left with a blank.”

Only Paul Wells really knows why he killed his friend Kenneth O’Brien in his back yard on that cold January night. All the members of the jury had to try to fill in the gaps in this grisly story was Paul Wells’ version of events.

When he was charged, Wells had admitted: “I am responsible for killing Kenneth and I gave a true account of what happened.”

Today, a jury found him guilty not just of killing the man he once called his "bud", but of murdering him.

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