Sunday 19 November 2017

'Sympathy for his injuries, yes, but he was in my house'

Wife Kathleen says her daughter was so terrified by the experience, she wanted them to move house, writes Maeve Sheehan

FIGHT OR FLIGHT: Martin McCaughey and his wife Kathleen in their home in Dundalk from which Martin gave chase. Photo: David Conachy
FIGHT OR FLIGHT: Martin McCaughey and his wife Kathleen in their home in Dundalk from which Martin gave chase. Photo: David Conachy

ON the night of June 27 2008, all seemed quiet in the McCaughey household. The family slumbered in their dream home, Benvista. Martin and Kathleen in their large en-suite bedroom on the first floor; the children, Andrew, Katie, and Brigette, then aged 14, 12 and 10, in theirs.

Martin, a successful property developer who grew up in the border town of Dundalk, built the house, with several living rooms, a bar and a vast kitchen. Outside, there are stables and a paddock for the horses, acres of lawns, a gated entrance, and a life-size wooden Wendy House for the girls.

The view from an enormous upstairs living room skims the rooftops of Clann Chullainn Park, one of several council estates built by Martin's firm in nearby Coxes Demesne, to take in the Cooley Mountains beyond.

When a burglar from the council estate broke into the property developer's expensive home on that fateful June night four years ago, their worlds collided with far-reaching consequences.

The McCaugheys lived a nightmare that ended only last week when Martin was acquitted of assault for deliberately driving his car over the burglar. The burglar, Daniel McCormack, 27, suffered two broken legs, spent six weeks in a wheelchair, got a suspended sentence, and pocketed €175,000 in an insurance claim, and, according to his sister, is traumatised.

In a climate in which rural garda stations are closing and crime is rising, the McCaughey case resonates. The Government strengthened the law last month, removing the obligation on householders to retreat when defending their home from intruders.

Yet the debate is the same one that raged across rural Ireland seven years ago when a farmer called Padraig Nally was jailed for shooting an intruder on his land: how far would you go to defend your property? Fortunately for most of us, we will never have to put our answers to the test.

Martin McCaughey exuded relief, sitting at the breakfast counter in his vast kitchen, recounting in minute detail what is probably one of the most disturbing experiences of his life. His wife Kathleen seemed glad he was talking about it. For two years, he fretted silently about the trial and decided against confiding in Kathleen to order protect her.

"He wouldn't be like that," she said. "He didn't talk about it and I wouldn't mention it to him because I knew it would just upset him."

Kathleen awoke first, at 5.30am to see a figure standing in their bedroom, just outside the en-suite bathroom. "I thought it was one of the kids," she said, and called out: 'Who's that?' Then Martin woke up. It took a second but they soon realised that the figure in the darkness was a man, wearing a cap and standing about 10 feet from their bed. "He stood there with a screw driver in his hand, looking at us," said Martin.

There was a stand-off for a fraction of a second. Martin, still in bed waited for the intruder to move. But he didn't. Kathleen screamed, and Martin leapt out of bed. The intruder fled through patio doors into the garden, setting off the alarm in the process. Martin saw him flee across the fields towards the Clann Chulainn estate. He searched the house before giving chase, fearing that an accomplice was still hiding in the house.

Upstairs Kathleen, who was comforting the children, heard him shouting for the car keys: "I said 'where are you going, you're not even dressed?'" she said. "He said 'I have to get the guards, I have to get the guards'."

She assumed her husband was going to the garda station. Martin set off for the estate in his Mercedes: "I told them what direction he was going in and that I was going on down to keep an eye on him. They said they would be on the way," he said.

Martin turned into the housing estate and saw the intruder ahead between two houses at the top of estate. He drove at him, trying to box him into a corner. The car, he says, "tipped him" but, according to Martin, "he wasn't injured" at that stage. He started running, towards a cul-de-sac. At that point, Martin claimed the car skidded and hit the burglar, pinning him against the railings. The intruder fell.

Martin stayed in the car: "I couldn't see. I shouted at him not to get up. He said I can't get up. At that stage then I got out of the car."

He was standing there in the middle of the road, barefoot and in his boxer shorts when gardai arrived. Kathleen and Andrew had to drive around with his clothes and shoes.

Daniel McCormack was on the ground, unable to move, beneath some railings, the stolen jewellery stuffed in his pocket. An ambulance took him to hospital. He had suffered two broken legs and remained in hospital for two and a half weeks. He was in a wheelchair for six weeks and on crutches for several more months. He didn't deny the robbery but later testified that he was struck twice by the Mercedes, and that Martin McCaughey had threatened to kill him if he got up.

Daniel's sister said last week she thought her brother was going to die. He has been traumatised ever since, she said.

Martin claimed it was an "accident". He had never intended to hurt Daniel McCormack. "All that was going through my mind is that I wanted him to stay where he was until the guards came. I was just hoping that the gardai would get there sooner rather than later," he said this weekend.

Back at Benvista, gardai milled about and Martin fixated with finding out how the burglar had gotten in and how long he had been in the house. It was clear he been in several rooms. The screwdriver and two necklaces were abandoned just outside the house. An antique decorative knife, usually kept in the upstairs living room, was on the floor downstairs.

Two bottles of whiskey were by the door and a third bottle was open on a table in their "bar".

"It went through my mind did he get into the house before we went to bed? The house was all alarmed and all the doors were all alarmed.

"Then when I seen the bottles of whiskey in the bar, I said to myself was this fella in the house all night?"

Martin retrieved the CCTV footage that morning: "It showed him coming across the wall at 5.20am." He got in through a rarely used side door to the garden in a television room, which one of the children had opened to let the dog in.

The household was disrupted for weeks afterwards. Brigette, the youngest, was most affected by the trauma. For three months, she refused to stay in the house at night time and slept at her aunt's house across the road.

"She was terrified to come into the house. She wanted us to move out," said Kathleen.

Kathleen got in four cleaners to scour the house top to bottom, of the skin-crawling sensation of the burglar's presence. But by far the worst thing, she said, was "seeing him standing in the bedroom with the screwdriver in his hand."

Martin McCaughey got on with his work. Six weeks later he got notice of Daniel McCormack's personal injuries claim, which he passed to his insurer. He gave a statement to gardai, formally identified the jewellery, and heard nothing more.

And he only learnt after the event that Daniel was prosecuted for the burglary in the Circuit Court in Dundalk in January 2010. He got a three-year suspended sentence. The judge said that Martin was "perfectly entitled" to chase an intruder out of his house and "commended him for his bravery."

Burglary was a serious violation of a person's peaceful enjoyment of their home, he said.

Martin didn't hear the judge's supportive words. He was on holiday at the time with his parents in the Canary Islands, where a garda phoned him to tell him that McCormack had been prosecuted.

"They phoned me to say that he was in court the day before and got off with a suspended sentence. They said they had now been directed by the Director of Public Prosecutions to prosecute me with assault and endangerment," he said. "You're joking me, I said. You must be mistaken. This couldn't be right."

Martin claimed he was never given reason to believe that he would face any charges arising out of the burglary. But he returned from his holiday, and reported to the Garda station, where he was charged with both offences. Two days later, he made the first of eight or nine appearances before the trial began in Dundalk Circuit Criminal Court.

The experience was so far removed from his everyday life that at times it seemed surreal. He makes no bones about how tough he found it to jostle in packed court rooms teeming with all human life.

The seriousness of the charges dawned on him later when he was briefed by his barrister. "The worst case scenario was jail," he said. "I never imagined that jail would ever even be mentioned to me."

He shared none of this with Kathleen or anyone one else: "I felt it was the best thing to do."

The trial date was fixed for February 13 and 14. As the date drew near, his solicitor asked him to contact his insurance company to find out how the personal claim was going. Only then, he learned that the insurer had paid Daniel McCormack €175,000 to settle the case but Martin McCaughey had never been informed of this.

He was horrified, especially because of the implications it had for his own trial.

Then last weekend he was spooked by a series of crank phone calls.

Brigette took the first of the calls. "They were just saying, who are you, will you come out, I'm outside?" said Martin. The following day, Martin picked up the phone and the caller hung up. The calls, about 10 in all, were from a private number and never traced. The timing couldn't have been worse. Last Monday morning, his legal team met at his house at 8.30am. Martin hadn't slept for several nights. He couldn't eat, or manage even a coffee, but he gulped down water.

The trial ran for two days. At times he felt "ok" but towards the end his heart sank. He was stung by the prosecution's portrayal of him as a vigilante who used his car as a "weapon". His mood sank further when the judge gravely advised the jury on the issues to consider in the event of arriving at a guilty verdict.

The jury took two and a half hours to deliberate. "I knew now my legal team was concerned," he said. As Martin waited in the court house, a retired garda struck up a conversation. He noted the prison van outside the court house: "Very strange", he said. "I said: 'What? Jesus Christ.'" He thought who else could it be for but himself?

"There was nobody else in the courthouse, only us and two prison officers standing at the back."

The jury found Martin not guilty by a majority verdict to an overwhelming feeling of "relief".

There were celebratory drinks with friends in the local pub but Martin and Kathleen "just wanted to get home."

It's clear that both were seriously shaken by their experience.

Kathleen said: "I think you move on for your children, you have to be brave and show the braveness for them."

They feel that Martin should never have been prosecuted in the first place. He has "a serious legal bill" to pay while Daniel McCormack's fees when he was prosecuted were paid by the state. Although Dundalk is a small town, the property developer and the burglar are unlikely to run into each other again. They might live only miles apart but they occupy different worlds.

Benvista is now the least likely house in the neighbourhood to be burgled: there are panic buttons, more alarms, a German Shepherd and a shotgun licenced for clay pigeon shooting which Martin now keeps in the house. Neither he nor his wife ever again want to revisit the situation they were in; but if burglar does get past security, he said he will pursue him. As for regrets? "I do have sympathy for McCormack's injuries. But he wouldn't have gotten them had he not come into my house."

Sunday Independent

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