Friday 19 October 2018

Joanne Ball tragedy: Manipulator murdered his wife, killed her dog and then sold drugs

Joanne Ball's brutal and calculating husband concealed his wife's murder for at least five days, writes Maeve Sheehan

Joanne Ball with Keith Lee,
Joanne Ball with Keith Lee,
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

A smiling Joanne Ball posed in the countryside in her khaki parka with faux fur-trimmed hood in the photograph issued to the media after she was reported missing by her husband, Keith Lee, the night before Valentine's Day.

Only Lee knew that his pretty 38-year-old wife was wearing that coat when he strangled her. Afterwards, he pulled the faux fur hood over Joanne's head, taped black plastic bin bags around her body and placed her in a sleeping bag. He concealed her body in the wardrobe, pretending the murder never happened while he plotted to save his own skin.

This involved coming up with a desperate story that he had been trying to save her from self-harm when he placed his hands around her neck. He would explain that he didn't call gardai or an ambulance because he didn't want her to be taken from him, and that he was "off his head on drugs".

He would claim that he sat with her dead body, holding her hand, that he sat up with her watching television, holed up in the squalid Ranelagh flat for five days after he killed her.

He claimed he put her in the wardrobe only to protect her body from his pet Rottweiler and a couple of cats. There was the matter of Joanne's adored Chihuahua, Ziggy, who went with her everywhere but was killed, probably by Lee after he murdered Joanne. In a particularly poisonous lie, Lee would blame Joanne, claiming she had killed her own beloved pet.

When gardai burst their way into his flat and discovered Joanne's body in the wardrobe two days after she was reported missing, Lee's self-serving plan was almost complete.

He had sealed the wardrobe, barricaded the front door, packed a bag and was preparing to make a run for it through the third-floor window.

The case made sordid headlines as the murdered woman found in the wardrobe. But behind the headlines, detectives uncovered a complex yet sadly familiar story of abuse of power, by a man who had manipulated his fragile wife throughout their 18 years together, betrayed her and ultimately murdered her.

On remand in prison for the crime, Lee took his own life shortly after 8am last Thursday morning - his third attempt at suicide. His death denies Joanne's family the chance of finding out the truth behind the brutal crime, made worse by the crude concoctions and lies he told to try and minimise what he had done.

Joanne Ball and Keith Lee had been together for most of her adult life. They married four years after they met. Lee, who was originally from Inchicore, was a hotel chef who later supplemented his income with small-time drug dealing.

He dealt in everything from ketamine to cocaine to cannabis, mostly to other chefs and on the traditional music scene. Joanne, from Garristown in north county Dublin, hated drugs and she wouldn't allow him take drugs in front of her.

She was a fragile and gentle woman who loved nature and animals. She and Lee shared a love of trad music and were regulars at gigs in city-centre pubs and venues. Joanne was in the charge of their silver Nissan Micra because Lee never learned to drive. But in other aspects of their life, he was in the driving seat, the controlling partner in the relationship, according to investigators.

It was Lee's drug activity that finally ended their relationship last year. One October night, a Garda drugs team swooped on a city-centre music venue and arrested Keith Lee, along with a stash of drugs worth €11,000.

Lee was released without charge but the fallout was far-reaching. He had already lost his job as a hotel chef due to his drug-taking. He was about to lose his home and his marriage.

After the music venue bust, gardai raided the couple's rented home in Garristown. This prompted the owner of the house to ask the couple to leave.

After that, Joanne left her husband. She moved in with friends in Garristown. He stayed in the city centre, eventually ending up squatting in a bedsit in a large Georgian building in the southside suburb of Ranelagh. The tenants had moved away, but the rent continued to be paid by social welfare and the keys were passed around among a group of friends.

Lee had other relationships - with an American woman and later with a woman from north Dublin, whom he was still seeing in February of this year when it seemed a reconciliation with Joanne might be on the cards.

Joanne agreed to meet him on February 6.

Gardai later established that the couple appeared to have patched things up and spent several days together. They were seen in pubs and clubs in those days, and she was spotted by neighbours in the vicinity of the flat in Ranelagh. In fact, the last sighting of her was in Ranelagh, on the morning of February 9.

Gardai believe that Lee murdered Joanne sometime later that day. They believe the probable motive was that she found out he was still seeing the other woman, even while she was trying to save their marriage.

They suspect that Lee strangled his wife sometime in the afternoon when he was stone-cold sober. Far from mourning over her dead body for days, as he had claimed, he then went about implementing a calculating plan to cover up her murder that involved everything from sourcing the masking tape and bin bags to pretending to her friends and family that she was still alive.

He posted messages on her Facebook page. He replied to text messages her friends and family sent to her mobile phone. "I'll be home soon," went one of the texts to her family.

But Joanne was not "home soon". When her family inevitably contacted Lee asking to speak to her, he had to admit that she was not with him.

On February 13, under pressure from Joanne's increasingly worried family, Lee reported Joanne missing at Store Street garda station. However, he led gardai to believe that she had mental health issues and gave as his address a friend's house in North Strand, to deflect them from the squat in Ranelagh.

Lee could well have made his escape were it not for Joanne parking the car in a reserved space in the large forecourt in front of the building in Ranelagh. In an opportune coincidence, someone phoned in the registration number of Joanne's car to gardai after she had been reported missing. The car reg pinged up on the system as belonging to a missing person.

That was how gardai came to storm the flat at 3.45pm on a Thursday afternoon on February 15, two days after she was reported missing.

As gardai burst through the barricaded doors, they encountered the Rottweiler, who had to be removed by the dog warden, before gardai could search for Joanne.

Lee had thrown himself through the window on to the ground three floors below. He was bleeding profusely from self-inflicted wounds and his ankles smashed in the fall. But for a garda ripping off his shirt to make a tourniquet to stop the bleeding, Lee would almost certainly have died.

Gardai stripped the masking tape off the wardrobe and unfurled the sleeping bag and layers of black plastic to find the body of Joanne, still wrapped in her khaki coat.

Lee was discharged three weeks later into a full-on murder investigation, led by Detective Superintendent Peter O'Boyle and Inspector Paul Costello, who investigated cases such as the disappearance of Trevor Deely, and Superintendent Gerry Delmar, from Donnybrook Station.

Lee was interviewed over 24 hours, a self-serving exercise in which he refused to take responsibility for what had happened, according to informed sources. His account at times defied logic.

He admitted that he and Joanne had a row about another woman he had been seeing. He claimed that Joanne was self-harming with a mobile phone cord and that he put his hands around her neck to try and save her. He did not waver from this story, even when told the marks on Joanne were not consistent with a cord, and no such cord was found at the flat.

Gardai had also established that in the days before Joanne's body was found, Lee continued to deal drugs - a period when he claimed he was "out of his mind". Yet he had the wherewithal to sell cocaine or cannabis to up to a dozen customers, all of whom were tracked down and interviewed, possibly to their horror.

Lee was also seen in some of his usual drinking haunts in the days before Joanne's body was found. Some witnesses noticed that he looked pale and not himself.

As for his odious claim that Joanne strangled her beloved Ziggy, not a shred of evidence emerged to support this lie.

The dog's body was examined at the veterinary hospital at University College Dublin, where vets found no evidence of strangulation. Although tests are ongoing, the dog appears to have suffered a head trauma that more than likely killed the animal, according to informed sources. And Lee is the prime suspect for inflicting it.

Ziggy was one of three large photographs brought to the altar at the moving funeral service for Joanne at her local church in Garristown in February.

He shared that special place at the altar with a photograph of her parents, Catherine and Dermot, and one chosen by her family of Joanne, looking radiant.

Fr John Conlon told hundreds of mourners who packed into St Cianan's church that the photograph represented her love for Ziggy, her love of animals and of nature. The gentle and beautiful soul they remembered that day was summed up in the image, shared by Fr Conlon, of her mother, Catherine, placing a butterfly in the coffin, beside her daughter.

Lee's death in his prison cell on Thursday morning means that the murder investigation is now effectively over. He had been on suicide watch but tricked the prison officers by placing a pillow under his bedclothes.

The next step is that gardai will prepare a report for the inquest into her death, which was delayed by the criminal investigation.

A separate report will be prepared for the inquest into the death of Keith Lee. The Prison Service is also expected to launch an investigation into the circumstances of his death.

According to sources, Lee left three notes, of one or two pages, two for his family, one for Joanne's. They shed little further light on what happened to Joanne but repeat the illogical series of extraordinary events that he stuck to during his Garda interviews.

His funeral is expected to take place in the coming days.

Sunday Independent

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