Tuesday 18 June 2019

Inside the Garda's Black Widow probe

Details from the investigation reveal how detectives exposed the dark core of Catherine Nevin who died last week, writes Maeve Sheehan

Catherine Nevin. Picture: Collins
Catherine Nevin. Picture: Collins
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

The crime scene did not sit right. Publican Tom Nevin was on his back on the floor of the kitchen in Jack White's Inn, a wound through his chest and a cheque book beside him.

The accounts he had been working on at the table were in place. The force of the single shotgun blast pumped into his heart had caused him to collapse backwards on the floor. Yet his spectacles were "fully in position" on his face and he held a biro between his fingers. His wallet was in his jacket.

It was the morning after a bank holiday Monday on March 19, 1996. The raiders had left with the substantial weekend takings and Tom Nevin's black Opel Omega car - later found in Dublin.

A jewellery box was upturned in the lounge and bits of jewellery were all over the floor of the lounge, hall and stairs. Upstairs a cheap portable television was upturned in the corridor outside Tom's wife Catherine's bedroom. Assistant Commissioner Jim McHugh was surprised that armed raiders would bother with it. Catherine's room was a mess. The main light was on and the contents of a wardrobe were on the floor.

He turned to Catherine Nevin. She was in the sitting room being comforted by a neighbour. She whispered what had happened. She had gone to bed. Tom locked up and counted the takings in the kitchen. She awoke to see a masked raider, armed with a knife, and a second who she could hear moving around. The light was switched off so she couldn't see either. She was bound and gagged and after a long time, she heard them drive away. She freed her legs, got downstairs, tried to get outside but couldn't open the door, and pressed the panic button.

Had she looked for Tom at all, or called out his name during this horrific ordeal, McHugh asked. It never entered her head, she said. Her thoughts turned to her husband only after gardai arrived and asked: "Where's Tom?"

McHugh encouraged her to stay with a friend or relative, as the house was now a crime scene and would have to be examined. She refused, saying "nobody was going to put her out of her own house". It was not the reaction they expected from a grieving widow. From that first morning, there was a whiff of suspicion about Catherine Nevin.

The Nevins looked like a regular married couple running a thriving business near the seaside resort of Brittas Bay in Wicklow; she looked after the bed and breakfast, the restaurant and organising the staff, he ran the bar, did the accounts and looked after two rental properties he owned in Dublin 8.

Read More: Tangled up in a web of murder

Beyond the barroom bonhomie, the clinking gins, drinks on the house, the lock-ins and the laughs, staff revealed an unhappy and poisonous world behind the closed doors of Jack White's.

Most told a similar story of endless arguments. The couple slept in separate rooms in different parts of the house. She was tough, harsh with staff and gregarious, entertaining friends at the pub. He was quiet and gentle with few friends. A gentleman, they said.

Tom's niece worked there one summer and saw how Catherine "would berate and belittle" him in front of the staff and customers. "But Tom never answered her back," she said.

Staff said Catherine openly had affairs and that Tom knew about them. One waitress told detectives that Catherine would "ring down" for breakfast to be brought to her room when she had a lover staying. "They didn't care that I'd seen them," she said. "Tom Nevin knew this was going on but he never said anything. He used to drink a lot."

Some staff alleged that Tom Kennedy, a garda, and a judge, Donnchadh O'Buachalla, were among Catherine's lovers, a claim both would vehemently deny in court.

One said Catherine was "a very vulgar person and was always telling lies. She thrived on dirty conversations and wouldn't care who was listening." Catherine used to tell people her husband was an alcoholic who drank a litre of whiskey a day.

Three years before he was murdered, Tom was admitted to St John of God Hospital, in Dublin. A man who shared a room with Tom remembered him as "a very quiet man, not very open". They talked. Tom told him his wife was having an affair, that she was trying to get the pub off him, and that she "had put him in" to the hospital. When she came in to see him in hospital, it was so he could do the VAT books. "Catherine treated him like shit," he said.

Over the Christmas of 1994, Tom called to see his step-aunt, Patricia Flood. She was the first person in Catherine's family to meet Tom, when they started going out and they were "great friends", she said.

On this visit, he spoke about Catherine. "He put his hands over his face and he was crying," she said. He named a man he believed she was having an affair with, asking: "How would you like it to see him coming out of Catherine's room in the morning?" Could you not split the pub and get out, Patricia asked. But he didn't seem to think he could, he said.

A few days after Tom was murdered, members of his large extended family came to Wicklow for his funeral. Teresa Nevin, Tom's sister-in-law, later recalled being shown into the sitting room at Jack White's where Catherine was on the couch having her hair done by the hairdressers. She said Catherine jumped up to hug them, and "tried to cry". Teresa was even then suspicious of Catherine - which is why she listened carefully to her account of what happened. Catherine told the story of being almost asleep when two men in balaclavas with knives burst into her bedroom.

Later that night, Teresa overheard her telling a guest she had been reading when they burst in. Asked if she saw them, Catherine replied that it was dark. "But Catherine, if it was dark, how could you be reading?" asked a relative of Tom. Catherine ignored the question, Teresa later told gardai.

Interviews with staff yielded more conundrums in the hours before the murder. Some staff noticed that Catherine seemed "on edge" that night. During the early evening, she kept running to and from the public and private areas of the house. She hardly touched her habitual Scotch and ginger.

Bernie Fleming, who worked at the pub, went upstairs at 9pm and noticed with surprise that the curtains in the restaurant upstairs were closed. They were never closed because the room was never used and they were "there for effect".

Later, at 11pm, Catherine told Bernie she was going down to check the washing machine. She was gone for 20 minutes and when she returned, Catherine said there was still another 15 minutes left to go on the cycle. Bernie thought this odd, because "Catherine does not know how to work the washing machine".

A few minutes later, at around 11.30, staff member Liz Hudson had another load for the washing machine. Bernie went with her. They saw that the machine was empty but dry. It hadn't been used. That night, many of the staff were getting taxis or a bus to the local disco at Arklow after work. Usually when they did this, Catherine allowed them to stay the night. Not this time. "There is nobody, and I mean nobody, staying here tonight."

Detectives also took note when several staff named someone called John Ferguson. Bernie Fleming said this 'John Ferguson' had been phoning regularly in the months before the murder. "Catherine had me warned that no matter where she was or what she was at, should John Ferguson call, she was to be contacted immediately," said Bernie.

A month after Tom's murder, Fergus O'Brien, a detective sergeant, was in Catherine Nevin's sitting room, speaking to her about the case. She left the room, he picked up a newspaper to read, and beneath saw a red address book, open at the name Gerry Heapes. O'Brien took the number and put the book back. When Catherine returned, he threw some names at her, and she checked her address book for them. "When she knew we were approaching the name John Ferguson, she closed the diary and changed the subject," he said.

By that time, fingerprint evidence showed that the drawers on Catherine's bedroom floor had been "lifted" there and not thrown. She had remarked on picking up a smell after the shooting. However, ballistics evidence suggested that she could have smelt it only from the kitchen, and she told gardai she hadn't been in the kitchen.

Gardai returned to Jack White's Inn with a search warrant that ultimately laid the trail from Catherine Nevin to the Dublin republican underbelly that she scoured for her husband's killer.

Detectives spoke with then Sinn Fein members John Jones and Gerry Heapes, and Willie McClean, who had been her lover, all of whom said they had been asked by Catherine Nevin to organise for her husband to be shot.

Jones ran a Sinn Fein advice centre from his television repair shop in Finglas in the 1980s. He knew the Nevins because they ran a pub in the area and were supporters of their local Sinn Fein cumann. That was also how Catherine met Heapes, a former prisoner, whom she invited to the opening of Jack White's Inn when they bought it in 1986.

Jones told gardai that in 1989 Catherine had repeatedly asked him to have Tom killed in a botched robbery, offering the £25,000 pub takings as payment. Jones dismissed the notion. "I said we're not into that type of thing," he told gardai, and eventually he told her not to mention it again.

Heapes told gardai he was approached by Catherine in 1990. She suggested a bank holiday weekend when the takings would be £20,000- £25,000 cash. He also ultimately rebuffed her.

McClean was a former lover of Catherine's. They met in the Red Cow Inn in the 1980s and began an affair. He claimed she asked him to kill her husband years later, when he went to visit her in St Vincent's Hospital in Dublin. "No fucking way," he said.

'John Ferguson' turned out to be Pat Russell, a financial adviser with an office on Merrion Square and also a former member of Sinn Fein in Finglas in the 1980s. He said Catherine contacted him because she wanted to switch accountants. She warned him not to identify himself when he rang the pub, so he used the name John Ferguson.

Gardai never caught the gunman. They later suspected it was Eugene 'Dutchy' Holland, a criminal suspected of murdering Veronica Guerin the same year. But McClean, Heapes and Jones would be key prosecution witnesses against Catherine Nevin, their testimony robustly challenged by the defence but ultimately accepted by the jury which convicted her of murder.

Catherine Nevin was arrested in July 1996. She refused to answer a single question over hours of questioning. At one point, Jim McHugh asked her to "look him in the eye" and tell him she had nothing to do with her husband's murder.

The interview notes record that she looked him in the face and grinned.

Sunday Independent

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