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'I was suicidal when I was accused. I didn't see any point in living'

THE knock on Stephen Larkin's door came at 11.20am on Monday, December 15, 2008. It was just 70 minutes since gardai had arrived at the nearby home of Eamonn Lillis and his wife, Celine Cawley, who was lying dead by her kitchen door. The detective gave the name of the dead woman as Celine Lillis. It didn't ring a bell with the 30-year-old.

"If he'd said Celine Cawley I'd have known. He was there for an hour, asking me how long did I know Celine and her husband? How long had I been working there? What kind of people were they? Had I ever seen them argue?" he told the Irish Independent last night.

Mr Larkin had worked as a landscape gardener for Ms Cawley, spending a day or two there four times a year.

He'd given up his landscaping business a year earlier, and was deeply disturbed to be dragged into the death of a woman he hadn't seen in a long time.

An hour earlier, Lillis stated that he'd returned from a walk to find "a burglar" in a ski-mask straddling his wife.

He claimed the assailant sprang to his feet and swung a brick that "floored" him before dashing off. He said he suspected the man had worn a disguise because the couple might have known him. Lillis then pointed the finger of suspicion at their former gardener, Mr Larkin.

Mr Larkin was not told he'd been named, but he was asked if the record of his mobile phone signals would support his story that he hadn't been near Ms Cawley's house. He said the phone records would bear him out. He was then asked if he'd submit to having a DNA swab taken from his saliva.

He recalled: "I said I've no problem with that. I've nothing to hide. My ma was in the room and she was in tears. Within 15 minutes there were two detectives from the murder squad here to do a swab test."

Mr Larkin would be the first to admit he was no angel in the past. A number of petty offences meant he was on first-name terms with the Howth police.

However, in 2001 he'd taken a job working with a landscape gardener, and when his employer retired he handed Mr Larkin his contacts book and the then 25-year-old had set up in business.

Ms Cawley was happy with his work. "She was very nice to us, but we were never brought into the house. We'd have our lunch in the van. She'd come out and have a chat and tell us what she wanted done. It was always just her. If he (Lillis) arrived home in the evening and saw myself and my worker Brian with Celine, he'd just give a little wave and go into the house."

But in the minutes after he rang 999 to report the assault on his wife, the person uppermost in the mind of Lillis was the long-departed gardener he'd never spoken to.

Mr Larkin added: "I suppose I knew from day one that he'd named me, because the gardai were straight on to me. He must have got the phonebook out and looked up Celine's gardeners. And he must have said, right, pick him, he's from Howth."

From lunchtime that Monday, every news bulletin carried the bogus story put out by Lillis that a burglar had killed his wife.

Despite a wave of building developments and an influx of new residents, Howth remains a village with all the gossip that forms the currency of village life.

Detectives were seen entering Mr Larkin's home shortly after news of the killing broke.

As he puts it himself: "This is a small town and they all talk, and people were putting two and two together and getting five. Everybody was staring at me. A few people I knew did come up and shake my hand and say 'are you all right'."

But he wasn't all right. He went into one local shop and was refused service.

Mr Larkin doesn't know whether Lillis knew of his previous scrapes with the law when he deliberately fingered him for murder, knowing him to be innocent. He does, however, believe there was a class element to the husband's choice of scapegoat.

"Howth is like two towns. They're the rich crowd (at the top of the hill) and we're the lowest. Most of them probably think we're all blow-ins, scumbags. But most of us on these roads are here all our lives, like our parents and our grandparents."

It's over a year since Lillis knowingly named an innocent man as a suspected killer.

But the mud continues to stick.

Mr Larkin reflects: "It does stick. Since then, anything that's done in the town is me. It's all me, me, me, me, me. My name just goes up for everything. It's always been like that in Howth. It's always just been one person that gets blamed for everything. That's me now. Howth is weird like that."

He blames the false accusation by Lillis for sentencing him to an ongoing term of misery, illness and depression.

"I was suicidal because of it. I saw no more point in living. I ended up in an institution for five weeks of therapy. More than a year on, I'm still on anti-depressants," he said.

In the days and weeks after Lillis falsely accused him, Mr Larkin said, "I wanted to grab him by the throat. But if I was to run into him now on the street I'd walk on by. I don't want him to cause me any more trouble. For now the main thing is to get my name cleared and start my life again."

He said he now hopes to put the Lillis affair behind him and start afresh.

But a deep sense of hurt and grievance remains.

"He's after making my ma cry I don't know how many times, and I want something done about that."

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