Wednesday 21 November 2018

Unsolved crimes: Mystery blond holds key to solving brutal murder of RTE set designer

The brutal murder of RTE set designer Charles Self in 1982 sent ripples of fear through Dublin's gay community. Liam Collins revisits the mystery that remains unsolved to this day

Charles Self seen through the kitchen window of Annesley Mews having a cup of tea in the courtyard
Charles Self seen through the kitchen window of Annesley Mews having a cup of tea in the courtyard
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

A bitter January - It had been snowing on and off for a couple of days and Charlie Self's Renault car had broken down, so he left it in the car park in RTE and got the bus into Dublin to join friends for a lunch-time drink in The Bailey pub on Duke Street.

It was Wednesday, January 20, 1982 - the last day of his short life.

At about 2.45pm Charlie tossed back a last Black Bush, turned to his friend Bill Maher and said he'd better get back to RTE, where he worked as a set designer and was due to have a meeting with his boss Alan Pleass.

They left The Bailey together and walking up Dawson Street making vague plans to meet later that evening.

After work, Self went home and lit the fire before deciding to head back into town. He was picked up while waiting forlornly at a bus stop on the Monkstown Road at around 8.30pm by a sympathetic motorist who dropped him near O'Connell Bridge.

He had a few drinks in The Bailey before proceeding to the South William pub and then on to Bartley Dunne's pub in Stephen Street Lower, which was known as a "last port of call" for a man looking for male company.

Charles Self
Charles Self

Self was described by friends as unselfconsciously gay, but not camp. He wore an earring when it was unheard of among straight men and he had a preference for younger men, but according to friends he didn't pay for sex. "For one thing, he never had enough money," said one.

He left Bartley Dunne's at closing time and proceeded down Grafton Street and D'Olier Street to Burgh Quay, where he went into a late night joint called The Hotpot. He arrived about 11.40pm and left at 12.05 am.

Investigators later presumed that he had gone over to the public toilets at the corner of Burgh Quay and O'Connell Bridge, a notorious homosexual 'pick-up' location.

At 12.20am Self and a smartly dressed man in a two-piece suit, said to be about 25 years of age with fair hair flopping over his collar, got into a taxi on Eden Quay on the other side of the Liffey.

The taxi man, Patrick Shanley, remembered the two getting amorous in the back of the car. He dropped them to Self's home. It was 12.40am, a time confirmed by a garda on 24-hour duty outside a judge's house nearby.

The taxi man handed Charlie Self £1.30 in change, which was found in his blood-soaked pocket the following morning.

Designer to the stars

Thirty-two-year-old Charles B. Self was born in England in February, 1949. His mother died when he was very young, although some Dublin friends believed he was adopted. His father, a military man, may have re-married because they also remember meeting his parents when they came to visit. He had been largely reared by an aunt in Glasgow and had one sister who lived in London.

He had a good relationship with his family and had been over to Scotland some weeks before his death.

He had been living in Dublin since 1978 when Alpho O'Reilly, head of design in Montrose, had lured him away from the BBC with the offer of a job in RTE. He was the main set designer on The Late Late Show and weeks before his murder he worked on a Twink Christmas special, which got good ratings - he was in line for a wage increase.

He had moved into Annesley Mews almost straight after coming to Dublin. It was one of two mews houses with a shared courtyard off Brighton Avenue, a leafy road dotted with Victorian villas linking Monkstown Road with Seapoint Avenue on the south Dublin coast.

He shared the two-bedroom mews with Vincent Hanley, then one of the best-known Disc Jockeys in Dublin.

Hanley would later describe his friend as "hardworking, outgoing and fun-loving", a description with which others concurred.

Read more: Dublin's gay scene was hidden but it was thriving

By January 1982, Hanley was spending most of his time in London where he was working for Capital Radio. While he was away the odd friend with a key to the mews stayed in his room, the smaller of the two bedrooms on the upper floor of the mews

Bill Maher, who had previously lived there, says Self didn't often bring 'pick-ups' home. He'd had a bad experience the previous year when he was robbed.

He had reported it to the gardai in Pearse Street, who were known to be somewhat sympathetic to homosexuals, unlike many gardai. According to Detective Sgt Alan Bailey, who carried out a 'cold case' investigation of the murder in 2008, and who was a young detective in The Bridewell in 1982, "there was no one more homophobic than policemen" at that time.

Another RTE designer, Englishman Bertram 'Berty' Tyrer, who had recently worked on the Strumpet City television series, sometimes 'crashed' in Annesley Mews. If Vincent Hanley was in situ he slept on the sofa, but on the night of 20/21 January he was sleeping in Hanley's room as he couldn't get back to his cottage in Wicklow because of the snow.

A frenzied killing

At 8.45am on Friday, January 22, 1982, Berty Tyrer came down the stairs and found Charlie Self lying dead in a pool of blood, partly slumped against the front door, which was almost directly at the bottom of the stairs.

He stepped over the body and ran into the living room to ring for assistance. Unable to get a dial tone he ran across the courtyard and his call was logged in Dun Laoghaire at 8.59am.

The stereo was still playing in the living room and Self's black sweatshirt had been pulled up under his armpits.

Charlie Self had been stabbed 14 times, six of the wounds so vicious that the blade, a wooden-handed carving knife believed to be from a set he'd bought in Habitat, had penetrated his chest and come out his back.

He had also suffered three slash wounds, one of them five inches long, to the throat. Part of the cord from Vincent Hanley's red dressing gown was also wound tightly around his neck.

"The scene that was presented to gardai was that of a serious assault having taken place downstairs, initially in the kitchen area, then in the living room and finally in the narrow hallway at the foot of the stairs," Detective Sgt Alan Bailey would say later.

The first investigation, led by Hubert Reynolds, one of the best-known murder detectives in Ireland at the time, centred on the man who had shared a taxi home with Charlie Self.

Gardai believed the murderer was unable to open the front door as the body effectively blocked it and had climbed through a small kitchen window, pulled a large stone bench in the courtyard over to the perimeter wall and climbed over it into the laneway.

Some music discs from the house were found scattered on the ground under the window.

Berty Tyrer told gardai that he had gone to bed shortly after midnight. He said he was disturbed at about 2.30am when a man came into the bedroom where he was sleeping and said: "Sorry, wrong room," and closed the door.

Other than that he heard nothing, neither someone taking the cord from the dressing gown which was hanging on a hook in the small bathroom wedged between the two bedrooms of the mews, nor the brutal murder that followed downstairs.

Tyrer later drew a picture of the man he had seen so fleetingly - he had curly dark hair, rather than the straight fair hair of the individual who had shared the taxi home with Charlie Self.

Was there a second young man in the house that night?

The woman who occupied the other mews that shared the courtyard, Mary Liddell (70), said that at about 4am she heard the sound of the stone bench being dragged across the courtyard and when she looked out she saw the figure of a man climbing over the courtyard wall into a nearby garden. She noticed that the door of Self's home was slightly ajar, with the light on inside.

In his book Killers: Murders in Ireland, the journalist Stephen Rae gives a definitive account of the first garda investigation, revealing that two of the customers in The Hotpot restaurant when Charlie Self was there (separately but at around the same time) were two young rent boys known as 'Kitty' and 'Ruby'.

After painstaking investigation detectives discovered that 'Kitty' was a 19-year-old from Bluebell, who strenuously denied being in the restaurant that night. Witnesses were unable to identify him and the taxi man was sure he was not the person who accompanied Self to Monkstown in his cab.

'Ruby' was also 19, from Coolock, and had an alibi for the night, while his fingerprints did not match any found in the mews.

Bill Maher got a call from a friend at work on the Thursday afternoon to tell him that his friend Charlie Self had been murdered "and the gardai are looking for you".

He went to Dun Laoghaire and was questioned for four hours. "I didn't have a problem with that, they were only doing their job," he says.

But some people, particularly in the gay community, regarded the investigation as heavy-handed in the extreme.

There was a funeral service in St Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Blackrock, Co Dublin, which was attended by the then director general of RTE, George Waters, and many of his friends and acquaintances. Afterwards his body was flown to Scotland for burial.

In the days and weeks that followed, brutal as it was, the murder soon faded from the media. Not only was it a different era, but there were a lot of other pressing issues.

Charlie Haughey was trying to have Charlie McCreevy ejected from Fianna Fail, the DeLorean car factory in Belfast was closing down, Tony Ward was dropped from the Irish rugby team, and on January 28 Garret FitzGerald's government fell after John Bruton introduced VAT on children's shoes in the budget.

That year, 1982, also became better known for another notorious murder which stretched garda resources.

On July 22, Bridie Gargan a 27-year-old nurse, was beaten to death with a lump hammer after being abducted from the Phoenix Park. Days later Donal Dunne was shot dead with his own shotgun.

Their killer, another habitue of Bartley Dunne's pub named Malcolm MacArthur, was arrested in the apartment of the then Attorney General, Paddy Connolly, in Pilot View in Dalkey, 10 minutes by car from Annesley Mews.

This event ushered in the era of GUBU - grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented.

Paddy Connolly died earlier this year in Dalkey, Co Dublin, and his friend Malcolm MacArthur is living nearby after finally being released from prison in 2012.

A new investigation

In 2008 Detective Garda Alan Bailey who, 26 years earlier as a young detective had investigated a case of false confession in regard to the Charlie Self murder, was put in charge of the Garda's Serious Crime Review Team reinvestigating the case.

He discovered what he believes are a number of "anomalies" in the original investigation, which led him to conclude that the murder scene may have been "staged" by the killer to divert attention from himself.

The window where it was believed the culprit had escaped was two foot in size and opened inwards - he didn't believe anyone could get through it, least of all without disturbing items of crockery on the counter. A window box was found placed almost carefully on the ground in the courtyard, almost full with clay and the plant still in it. If someone had managed to climb through the window they would almost certainly have kicked it over in the process.

"I firmly believe, even at this late stage, that an appeal should be made to the male who had travelled in the taxi with Charles Self on that fateful night to come forward and tell what actually happened and what caused him to flee the scene," said Bailey. "It should be stressed that he is now viewed as a witness and not, as in the past, the suspect for the crime."

Bill Maher is also convinced that the killer could not have escaped through the kitchen window and sees no reason why he would when he could have left through the front door.

The Charles Self murder case is still open, but Alan Bailey believes there is no hope of solving the mysterious and frenzied murder unless the man who shared the taxi with him that night - if he's still alive - comes forward to reveal his story.

Where Are They Now?

Bill Maher lives and works in Dublin. His uncle, Fr Niall Molloy, was killed in Kilcoursey House, Clara, Co Offaly, on 8 July, 1985. No one has ever been convicted in relation to his death.

Vincent Hanley died of an Aids-related illness on 18 April, 1987.

Berty Tyrer, who had moved to Sandymount, Dublin 4, died at the age of 80 of a heart attack at St Vincent's Hospital on 5 December, 1995.

Alpho O'Reilly, the man who brought Charles Self to Dublin, pulled into a petrol station at Ashford, Co Wicklow, at 3am on the January 2, 1996, filled-up his apple green Mitsubishi car (95 D 6446) and drove off in the direction of Wexford. Neither he, nor the car, were ever seen again.

Alan Bailey is retired from the gardai and works in the Capuchin Day Centre in Church Street, Dublin.

Sunday Independent

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