Sunday 25 August 2019

The secret that haunted Margot's 'nondescript' killer for 20 years

Margot Seery: murder victim
Margot Seery: murder victim
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

Howard Kelly was an ordinary office clerk who got away with murder, but the guilt consumed him in the end.

Every weekday morning Howard Kelly showed up for his ordinary job at his ordinary workplace at the Millenium Building in Naas, Co Kildare. He was an accounts administrator in the corporate services division of the Health Service Executive. He had a pure economics degree from University College Dublin which made him a little overqualified for the work. He wasn't particularly ambitious. He had started a master's but dropped out. He worked in the accounts departments most of his adult life. He was single. He lived alone in Osprey Apartments in Naas. He had split years ago from his girlfriend, with whom he has two children, who are young adults.

His colleagues later told investigators that he was quiet and introverted. Certainly no one suspected for a moment that they were sharing an office with a murderer. He harboured this secret from the age of 21, when he committed the crime, to 41 when he confessed it. His ordinariness provided cover. He was an adopted child, raised on a residential housing estate in Kimmage. He went to local schools, had friends, and was always polite to his elders. There was nothing in his past relationships either to suggest that he was killer.

One investigator described him in one word last week: nondescript. He seemed to try not to draw attention to himself and spoke with the gentlest of voices, he said. He was also a lifelong smoker of cannabis and took psychotropic drugs - but detectives couldn't say whether he did so to banish his guilt. He was haunted by mental health problems.

Kelly twice tried to unburden himself of his secret. In 1997, four years after the murder, he admitted himself to St Loman's psychiatric hospital in Dublin. He had suicidal thoughts and felt he was on the edge. During his two-week stay at the hospital, he told a nurse that he had killed a woman. His confession was noted in his medical records but was never reported to the gardai. He was discharged with his secret still pretty much intact. He was admitted to a psychiatric ward again a year later, for drug-induced psychosis - he was hearing voices and seeing things. This time, he did not confess.

On another occasion, he met one of his old college friends for drinks in a pub in Rathgar. After a few pints, Kelly came out with it, telling his friend that he had killed a woman. His friend later told detectives that he simply didn't believe his pal Howard Kelly had actually killed someone.

On a summer's day last year, Kelly felt compelled to confess to his crime. He finished up work on a Tuesday evening and drove to Rathmines garda station in Dublin. He got there around 6.30pm and asked to see a garda. After that, he checked into the psychiatric ward of a hospital and when he was discharged, moved in with his widowed mother in Kimmage. Neighbours saw him doing errands around the garden, unaware of the trouble he was in.

Kelly's confession unleashed a story that is frightening on many levels. It was a murder known only by the murderer, missed by gardai, doctors and pathologists; a murder which, but for guilt, he would have got away with, while the mystery about his victim's missing organs still lingers in the background.

Margot Seery was a "cool mam", according to her daughter, Niamh. She was one of seven children raised in Rathkeale, Limerick. She was a vivacious and gentle person, according to her brother, Patrick. When she finished school, she studied bookkeeping and later got a job in a betting office in Dublin. She was separated from Niamh's father and lived in a flat on Kenilworth Square in Rathmines.

In her only interview on RTE's Prime Time last week, Niamh recalled the last time she saw her 48-year-old mother in October 1994, as she left to spend the Friday night with her father in Tallaght.

"I said goodbye to my mam when I was leaving, pressed the buzzer on the apartment like I always did and she used to look out the window and shout down bye to me. On Saturday morning, I called her at work, just to see how things were, no real reason. They told me she hadn't turned up into work," she said.

At 1.30pm on Saturday , October 8, the manager of the building entered Margot's flat and discovered her body. She was lying on her stomach on her bed, fully clothed. A doctor and a garda were called. Neither believed her death was suspicious. There was a smell of alcohol in the room. There was a little vomit to the side of her mouth. There was no sign of forced entry and nothing was taken. A consultant pathologist later attributed her death to "asphyxia due to inhalation of vomit caused by alcohol". An inquest ruled "death by misadventure."

For more than 20 years, Margot's family believed that this was how she died.

Kelly did not know or could not remember the name of the woman he murdered. But he recalled in gruesome detail the events that followed after she invited him into her flat that fateful night.

He was studying for his master's at the time. It was a Friday night. He had been drinking in various pubs around Rathmines with one of his college friends. They were drunk and walking along Kenilworth Square when they met two women and they stopped to talk.

Kelly was interested in Margot's younger friend. As Inspector George McGeary later said, Margot was fearful for her friend because Kelly was so drunk. She invited Kelly to come to her flat for a coffee to sober him up.

He agreed, leaving his friend and Margot's friend on the square.

He asked Margot if her friend was coming back. She told him she wasn't. He said he took off his shirt and threw it over her. He knelt on her two arms and he strangled her. He remembered that he held on to her for five minutes because he had read somewhere that people can hold their breath for three minutes under water.

He lifted her body on to the bed, demonstrating to detectives how he picked her up around her torso, which may have caused the excretion around her mouth.

There was a knock on Margot's door. It was his college friend and Margot's friend. He sat still until they went away. He waited for an hour, then left.

In his first garda interview, he claimed that he had been intimate with Margot but later retracted that. In his final statement, he said "something came over" him, he was entirely unprovoked, but he felt "compelled" to strangle her.

Kelly's confession was one thing, proving it was another. He didn't know his victim's name but he pointed out three possible houses on Kenilworth Square where he thought she lived. Gardai checked the records and found that a woman called Margot Seery was found dead in one of those buildings on October 10, 1994.

More corroboration came from Kelly's college friend, with whom he'd been drinking on the night of the murder. Detectives separately tracked down Margot's younger friend.

Both were shocked to be drawn into what was now a murder investigation, according to sources. Both recalled the night in question, and both gave similar accounts of what happened. They each recalled knocking on the door of Margot's flat, getting no answer and leaving.

Detectives went to the Dublin City Coroner's Office to check Margot Seery's inquest records. They showed she died of choking on her own vomit. Detectives sought permission to exhume her body, hoping the state pathologist could tell from the hyoid bone in her neck whether she had been strangled. If it was broken, then she probably was. The exhumation proved fruitless. The deputy state pathologist, Dr Michael Curtis, quickly discovered that the bone and other internal organs, were missing from her body.

Gardai traced the pathologist who performed the post-mortem, and the mortuary technician, whose job it was place the organs back in the body when the pathologist finished his work.

The pathologist had long retired, according to informed sources. He was unable to shed any light on what happened to the organs. The mortuary technician was dead.

There were two possible theories: Margot's organs could have been sold (unlikely) or they had been returned to the wrong body - other post-mortems may have taken place on the same day as Margot's, and if there were, further exhumations would be required.

As for the first, gardai heard stories of organs being sold for medical research for a 'fiver'. But there was no evidence of this.

In the end, Howard Kelly's confession and the corroborating evidence was enough for the DPP. He pleaded guilty and received a mandatory life sentence last Monday.

Margot's family welcomed the belated justice. One of the most poignant aspects of the case was how the belief that Margot's death was drink related blighted her daughter's memories of her. In her Prime Time interview, Niamh Holliday said: "I was angry, kind of thinking she was irresponsible. She got really drunk and couldn't control her actions really and that was how I felt for ages." Her anger is now gone, she said, and she is relieved to know the truth.

The inquest into Margot Seery's death will be re-opened, to correct the error that her death was misadventure. The coroner may also seek an investigation into the strange circumstances in which her organs disappeared, which was another affront to her family.

Although there is nothing to link him to other crimes, Howard Kelly's investigation file will be forwarded to the serious crime review team, according to informed sources.

Sunday Independent

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