Sunday 19 January 2020

Liam Collins: Moment I came face to face with a murderer

Liam Collins recalls the surreal events of a missing persons' search that turned into a triple killing two decades ago

TRAGIC: Imelda Riney who was shot in the head by Brendan O’Donnell
TRAGIC: Imelda Riney who was shot in the head by Brendan O’Donnell
FLASHBACK: The Sunday Independent’s coverage: Brendan O’Donnell
FLASHBACK: The Sunday Independent’s coverage - Liam Riney
FLASHBACK: The Sunday Independent’s coverage - Fr Joe Walsh
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

With the passing of time the images take on a surreal quality - a car burning on the lakeshore in the dawn light, gunfire echoing through the trees, a girl with long, deep russet hair and bleeding feet being bundled to safety, a small figure dressed in green squirming on the roadway as he was pinned to the hard, flint road.

Later, the sound of trudging feet as a silent and disparate group marched through the shadows of a dark woodland towards the graves of Imelda Riney, her little son Liam and nearby Fr Joe Walsh, all anxious to witness the final act of a tragedy that unfolded in the hours and days before.

The events of that Saturday seem to be telescoped in those memories but it is a story that had taken years to reach this tragic climax.

It is 20 years yesterday, April 2, 1996, since Brendan O'Donnell, the squirming figure on that remote country roadway, was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of those three innocents, a mother, her young son and a priest. Sixteen months later he died, largely unlamented, in the Central Mental Hospital in Dublin, of a heart attack while he was on prescribed tranquillisers.

He was 23-years-old.

In the woods between the villages of Mountshannon and Whitegate, Co Clare, there was a semi-derelict house that once belonged to a man named Willie Gleeson, which was often used by the semi-vagrant O'Donnell on his wanderings. Imelda Riney, who was separated from her husband Val Balance, bought it and was trying to restore the house while living there with her two sons, Oisin and Liam.

On Friday, April 29, 1994, Brendan O'Donnell broke into a house in the area and stole a shotgun and a box of bullets. He then wandered across the fields and called to Imelda Riney's house. They knew each other casually and he had told her of his troubled background, mental illness and time in jail. She was alone with Liam as her other son had gone off with his father.

Imelda told him not to bring the gun into the house and put the kettle on to make tea. He would later say that they then went upstairs and had sex, although her family disputed that she would have done this consensually. O'Donnell claimed that afterwards he heard voices in his head saying he would have to kill her because she was "the devil's daughter".

She told him "don't be raving" but he insisted she drive to Cregg Wood where he shot her in the head as she tried to wrestle the gun from him. He then shot Liam, explaining later: "I felt happy he wasn't growing up without his mother."

What became the saga of Brendan O'Donnell started as a simple paragraph in the newspaper some days later outlining the disappearance of a woman and child. The authorities seemed to treat it casually, a consequence of the 'new-age' lifestyle lived by those who bought small remote farms and properties in the woods and hills around Scariff and that part of Co Clare.

But locals knew different, they knew that lurking in the woods was a dangerously unstable young man from the nearby village of Whitegate, who some of them had come to fear with very good reason.

With news of the disappearance of Fr Joe Walsh from the nearby village of Eyrecourt, Co Galway, on the Tuesday night, reporters began to dribble into Mountshannon and I was among the first. Living locally was Declan White, a journalist who was trying to raise awareness of the missing woman and child.

But what really made the story was the photograph of Imelda Riney, with a big straw hat and flowing hair, artistic and looking like Picasso's muse, Francoise Gilot.

There was a surreal atmosphere in the days that followed. Reporters were crowding into the local hotel, the more energetic scouring the countryside for a story.

In the evening there was a party atmosphere in the bar as old hacks swapped 'war stories' and argued, some of them even accepting the official line "she'll turn up eventually".

Initially the garda authorities did not even connect the disappearance of mother and son with that of the priest because the investigations were being handled by different garda divisions.

But the penny dropped when Fr Walsh's car was found hanging over a pier on Lough Derg. By Friday, detectives with hard faces and tight lips began to arrive in the area. The casual atmosphere had been replaced with an urgency and alertness that had not been there in previous days.

A garda helicopter was on standby and went into action early on Saturday morning when the final episode in the drama kicked off. Shortly after 7.45am, O'Donnell broke into a house near the lake and kidnapped Fiona Sampson, forcing her to drive so fast that she eventually crashed. After dragging her barefoot through brambles, he hijacked a car belonging to Eddie Cleary, who had a farm in the area.

O'Donnell was spotted by the helicopter on the remote country road and pursuers and pursued met head-on. O'Donnell attempted to shoot his way out, but after the gun jammed he was wrestled from the car and onto the road where myself and Declan White knelt down and pleaded with him to tell us where Imelda and Liam were. He just grunted.

In that moment his was not the face of a cruel and callous killer, it was the face of someone unstable, troubled and confused. Unarmed, his power was gone. He was nothing now, just as he had been nothing before the events of that terrible summer's week so long ago.

Sunday Independent

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