Sunday 25 February 2018

Eamonn Lillis: Catching a killer

CASE FILES: In an extract from his book, CSI Ireland, Ken Foy details the investigation in the days after Celine Cawley's death and the lies Eamonn Lillis told gardai before his arrest

Eamonn Lillis pictured outside court.
Eamonn Lillis pictured outside court.

Ken Foy

The morning of Monday, December 15, 2008, was crisp and sunny, but the scene that greeted gardai at Rowan Hill, a €3m detached modern house on Windgate Road in Howth, was extremely grim.

The emergency services had been contacted at 10.04am when TV advert producer Eamonn Lillis made a frantic 999 call.

During the ten-minute phone call Lillis gasped for breath as he explained how he and his wife had been assaulted. There were lengthy pauses in which Lillis was heard explaining he was unable to detect any breathing from his wife, despite attempts to resuscitate her.

"My wife has been attacked," he had told the emergency services.

When gardai and paramedics got to the property, Lillis' wife Celine Cawley was dead from severe head injuries.

Paramedic Stephen O Reilly from Kilbarack Fire Station later explained: "The temperature of her body appeared colder than what it should be for the time she was exposed on the deck. The patient seemed to be cold to touch."

Lillis told gardai that a burglar had attacked his wife and fled through the back garden. Officers drafted in the help of the air support unit after he gave a detailed account of what this man was supposed to look like.

Later that day, Superintendent John Gilligan told reporters: "We know, from what we've heard, the man ran down the back garden of the house, out on to a laneway and may have made his way in any direction after that but in particular the Windgate Road-Carrickbrack Road area."

But even at this stage, the investigation was heading in a very different direction.

Lillis gave his consent to have the house forensically and technically examined, telling gardai: "Whatever it takes. I just want him caught."

Just a few hours later he was in Howth Garda Station giving a statement to detectives. He agreed to hand over the clothes he was wearing - a grey hooded sweatshirt, grey T-shirt and green combat trousers so that the items could be forensically tested.

In a statement to Det Sgt Enda Mulryan Lillis explained how he got up at 6.30am and brought a cup of tea to his wife of 17 years, whom he had met in Kinsale in 1990.

He explained that she had a bad cold and so he had slept in the upstairs bedroom while she slept downstairs.

He said they watched television in her bedroom until 7.40am when he went for a shower. He then brought their teenage daughter Georgia to school.

He later went to the nearby Summit Stores shop in Howth and said he bought the Irish Times and drove home.

"The dogs ran up to the car. I decided to take them for a walk," he said. "I went into the washroom to get their leads."

He said the door wasn't locked and he did not see his wife at this stage. They were not going to work until later and had a meeting scheduled for 2pm.

He described the route he took with the dogs and that he saw nobody on his walk. On returning he let the dogs off their lead and put some rubbish in the bin before going into the kitchen.


"That's when I saw him on top of Celine," he said. "I don't know what he was doing. He was at her top," he continued. "I charged out the door, roaring."

He said the assailant sprung to his feet and swung at him with a brick.

"I slipped," he explained, giving details of the scuffle. "Then he legged it." He didn't know how he hurt his fingers, one of which had to be bandaged by ambulance staff.

"He was wearing a ski mask, definitely not a homemade balaclava," he said, describing the man's gloves as nylon and his jeans as dark blue. "I saw his mouth. He was definitely a white male.

"I saw him run away after he floored me," he said, suggesting he ran towards the back of the garden, where there was a six-feet high fence.

"We had fencing put up to the back after the last burglary," he explained.

Lillis said that he went numb when he saw no movement from his wife but managed to dial 999.

"When I pressed on her, she exhaled," he said, explaining that he performed CPR on the instructions of the emergency call taker.

"We've no enemies," he said. "I can only assume it was a burglar."

Dr Haroon Khan attended Lillis at the garda station on the evening of his wife's death.

"I noted he had multiple visible scratch marks on his right forehead and the left side of his face," he said. His left ring finger and right little finger were also injured and there were abrasions on his knee caps.

"The injuries were consistent with his being in a struggle with another person," he said. The following day at Howth Garda Station, Lillis went into even more detail in his second statement.

"I don't know if it was my imagination, but I think she opened her eyes. I don't know," he said, referring to when he was trying to check his wife's pulse.

Lillis had told officers that he had visited the Summit Stores in Howth to buy a newspaper and the investigation team made a key breakthrough when they obtained CCTV footage from the shop.

The footage showed Lillis wearing a dark sweater, dark runners with a white strip along the sole and a pair of jeans at 8.35am.

Significantly, when gardai arrived at his home less than two hours later, Lillis was wearing different clothes.

Over the coming days gardai canvassed hundreds of witnesses including Pauline Frasier, a neighbour who told officers how a high-pitched scream woke her up at 9.30am that Monday.

"It was like a shriek," she said, adding that it sounded like a woman. "It struck me as very odd. It's a very quiet road.

"About 30 seconds later it happened again," she said. "It was very unusual. I thought there was someone in trouble."

The fact that a woman had screamed at 9.30am combined with the fact that Celine's body was colder than it should have been when paramedics arrived at the scene, showed that Lillis had lied.

While gardai combed the house for evidence, he stayed with Celine's brother Chris Cawley.

During his time in the house, Lillis was prescribed Valium and sleeping tablets. Three days after the death, Mr Cawley had a conversation with Lillis about an article that had appeared in this newspaper which had revealed how a brick had been used as the alleged weapon.

Lillis told Mr Cawley it was a "non-story, ridiculous because everybody knows the brick was found. Sure, didn't I hold the brick in my own hand".

A crucial development happened three days after Celine Cawley was killed when gardai searching Rowan Hill found a black suitcase in the attic which contained Lillis' bloodstained clothes in a refuse bag.

These were the clothes he had been wearing when he was caught on camera at the Summit newsagents. They were not the clothes he had given gardai, which he claimed to be wearing when his wife sustained her injuries.

A black jumper showed heavy contact staining on the front, there were blood stains on the front of a pair of jeans and there were light spots of blood on a pair of blue and white striped boxer shorts.

A pair of black outdoor gloves were heavily blood-stained on the right glove and a pair of blue latex gloves were heavily stained. All the items tested positive for Celine Cawley's DNA.

What was particularly damning for Lillis is that gardai also found seven pieces of heavily bloodstained paper towels and tissue in the bag.

The paper towels tested positive for Ms Cawley's DNA and indicated that there had been an effort to clean up the blood.

Mobile phone technology also played a major role in the investigation when gardai got information that Lillis was having an affair with his masseuse.

Investigations established that Lillis and his mistress exchanged more than 200 text messages and almost 90 calls in the fortnight before his wife's death.

On the morning of December 15, the day of Ms Cawley s death, she texted at 10.26am: "Everything ok? And again, at 11.14am: "Getting a bit worried now babe x."

By then, Celine Cawley had been pronounced dead in Beaumont Hospital.
As gardai built up a full picture of Lillis' infidelity and studied the forensic evidence, they were also furnished with a post mortem report on Celine Cawley which was carried out by Deputy State Pathologist Michael Curtis.

He found that she died after suffering three blows to the head - two of which were dealt as she lay unconscious and face down on the ground.

The first blow knocked her down and the following two blows were inflicted as she lay motionless.

Dr Curtis also found that Ms Cawley's life could have been saved if medical assistance had been given in time.

With all the different strands of the investigation coming together, gardai felt that they had enough evidence to arrest Eamonn Lillis just five days after Celine was killed.

Early on the morning of Saturday, December 20, a number of gardai called to the Howth home of Celine's brother Chris Cawley.

"Eamonn Lillis was in a bedroom alone. I went to the room and woke him up," Detective Sergeant Gary Kelly later explained. "At 6.55am I arrested him for killing his wife, Celine Cawley."

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