Thursday 21 November 2019

'We can't accept suicide as the only explanation of Kate's death'

A year after tragedy, Fitzgerald's father says law should be changed

SHATTERING LOSS: Clockwise from main: Kate Fitzgerald
had a promising career as a PR professional; Kate with her
father Tom and mother Sally; Kate with former US president
Bill Clinton
SHATTERING LOSS: Clockwise from main: Kate Fitzgerald had a promising career as a PR professional; Kate with her father Tom and mother Sally; Kate with former US president Bill Clinton
Kate with former US president Bill Clinton
Kate with her father Tom and mother Sally
Kate Fitzgerald had a promising career as a PR professional
SHATTERING LOSS: Clockwise from main: Kate Fitzgerald had a promising career as a PR professional; Kate with her father Tom and mother Sally; Kate with former US president Bill Clinton
Kate with former US president Bill Clinton
Kate with her father Tom and mother Sally
Kate Fitzgerald had a promising career as a PR professional

Tom Fitzgerald

When my phone rang at 5:20pm in my office in Ballingeary, west Cork, on August 23, 2011, I had no idea how that call would change my life.

"This is a ban garda," said the voice. "I have some news for you."

"Yes, what is the news?"

"I can't tell you," she said.

"Then why are you calling me?"

"You have to come to where I am."

"And where is that?"

"At your house."

Those last three words, while spoken softly, seemed loud as thunder.

No garda comes to your house without terrible news. Usually someone in the immediate family is dead or not far from it.

I left for home straight away. In the 20-minute drive through the countryside of west Cork, I tried to figure out what this terrible news might be. I had just spoken to my 22-year-old son William who is based in China. I had spoken to my wife Sally earlier. By process of elimination, it had to be about our 25-year-old daughter Kate who lived in Dublin. While we had spoken the previous day and she was just fine, I couldn't think how it could be anything else. I decided that I was engaged in a pointless exercise and should focus on driving home safely.

When I arrived home at around 5:40pm, I saw the garda car and I could hear Sally crying uncontrollably.

A young male garda walked over to me.

"What is it?" I asked.

"It's your daughter Kate. She's dead."


"It was suicide."

Those words had a finality that stopped the planet. They simply did not seem open to question. Wonderful, beautiful Kate was gone. It was simply unbelievable. Our dynamic 25-year-old daughter, full of promise, beauty and ambition -- was gone. The absolute finality was shattering. I couldn't think. Nothing could be done. It was over. No conversations could happen. Nothing could be brought back.

I tried to talk to Sally. She was inconsolable, unreachable, beyond shock, beyond the physical world. She held on to our two dogs and cried.

Trying to understand the story, I asked the garda. "How did she die?"

"Hanging," he said.

That simply did not seem possible. It was too horrendous. It was not Kate's way. How could it be? Kate would never choose to die this way. Although she had been recently fighting bouts of depression, this was a young woman who, since she was a tiny girl, always, always wanted to be well presented. She was always conscious of how she looked. It wasn't possible that she would end her life in a way that was gruesome and unsightly. On that awful day, I was too shattered to pursue this.

Later, I called William and told him the terrible news. He was to get the first flight out from Dalian, China, where he was based. He came via Istanbul and arrived in Dublin the next day.

I drove to Dublin. On the way, I spoke to the undertaker. He wanted to embalm Kate, to make her look better. I said: "No, don't touch her. I want to see her exactly as she is." I had seen my mother after the undertaker's work, and I didn't recognise her. I wanted to see my Kate as she was.

Growing up in west Kerry, the tradition is to see the body. Sally couldn't face seeing her daughter's dead body and chose to stay at home.

I picked William up at the airport and we went to the undertaker to see Kate. She was lying in a coffin dressed in a light blue shroud. She looked peaceful. I suppose some of that was the work of the undertaker. I can't imagine someone looking peaceful after a violent death. I cannot describe my feelings. Grief simply had become numbness. I went through the motions of arranging cremation and I paid the undertaker. I was on autopilot.

The rest of the story is too long to describe in detail, but crucially, three days after her death, (August 26) I got some news that made me believe it might not be suicide. Some new details emerged to raise my suspicions. I called the undertaker and told him to hold the cremation until I called him back.

I called the investigating garda and quizzed him in great detail about what he found and how sure he was that it was suicide.

Yes, he was 100 per cent certain it was suicide.

It looked as if she stopped taking her medication on August 18, he said. We found out that the anti-depressant she was taking could have led to psychotic episodes if one suddenly stopped taking it. It appeared she had been drinking heavily, he said. There were two empty bottles of alcohol in the house, he said.

I called the morgue where the autopsy had been done on the previous day. The person who answered told me they had been part of the autopsy team. Yes, they were 100 per cent certain it was suicide. All the marks on the body were consistent with suicide. I asked numerous questions. Definitely suicide, no question.

"How did she die?" I asked.

"She broke her neck."

So, it was instant, I thought. Based on what they told me, I was looking at possible psychotic episodes, alcohol and instant death. In such circumstances, suicide seemed possible. I discussed it with William. Reluctantly, I gave the go-ahead for cremation.

One year ago, on September 9, 2011, a moving article appeared in The Irish Times.

It spoke about how people with mental problems could suffer in the workplace. While it was written from direct personal experience, it neither identified the writer nor the workplace. I was standing in line at Bewley's airport hotel when a friend of Kate's called me to say that this article was written by Kate. As soon as I read it I recognised it as Kate's work. I called The Irish Times to see how this could happen. Through this process, we got to know Peter Murtagh, The Irish Times editor who spoke to Kate on the day of her death.

He did not know of her death when he ran the article, and he was shocked. Having spoken to her that evening, he described her as "highly intelligent, thoughtful and extremely lucid".

On November 26, 2011, Peter Murtagh wrote a powerful article about Kate's death (by suicide as we all then believed). At that time we had come to terms with Kate's death as a suicide. It is important to say that while Kate mentions suicide in the September 9 article, no doctor had ever diagnosed her having a suicide attempt.

February 16, 2012: I was leaving for work when the postman arrived. He handed me a large brown envelope so heavy with paper that it was ripped across the middle. We were expecting a medical report on Kate from St Patrick's Hospital, and at first glance that's what it seemed to be. We pretty much knew what was in that report, so I put it on the stairs and started for work.

In 10 minutes, I got a call from Sally. She was in shock.

"Why did you leave the autopsy report on the stairs?"

"I didn't. That was the medical report from St Pat's!"

"No, it's the autopsy report!"

"How is that possible! Don't read it! I'll be right back."

February 16 was as traumatic as August 23. We waded through the details of the autopsy. We went to our local GP to interpret some of the medical terminology. It didn't seem consistent with what we had learned previously.

1. Kate did not die of a broken neck. She died slowly of ligature strangulation.

2. Kate had not stopped taking her medication. The medication levels were clinically spot on.

3. Kate had not been drinking heavily. She died with the equivalent of one drink in her system.

4. Other evidence that we had in our possession became crucial to the case due to the new information. We cannot discuss this due to the garda investigation.

5. Kate's hyoid bone -- a small bone in the neck -- was broken. This unattached bone in the neck can only be broken by horizontal pressure. It is extremely rare in suicidal hanging and even more so with a young person.

We've spoken to a number of legal people on this matter and since the autopsy report, we've done a lot of research, and this injury is always a strong indicator of murder.

We went back to the Kevin Street gardai. They reluctantly agreed to have another look. Two more weeks and I was told that they had looked and said there was no reason to investigate further.

I went to the Garda Ombudsman and after some persuasion he agreed that the investigation must be reopened. It took almost three months from the arrival of the autopsy, but, based on a demand from the Garda Ombudsman, a team of detectives reopened the investigation on May 4. It was now almost nine months since Kate's body was found.

The stress of this uncertainty has caused endless pain to our entire family. Sally spent more than six weeks in hospital to deal with the stress.

There is a lot that we cannot reveal at this point, but we can't accept suicide as the only option any more. With the loss of the body and the complete clearing out of her house, Sally and I don't believe that anyone will be held responsible. We spent six months coming to terms with the news that our daughter had taken her own life and trying to understand how a young woman who had such promise could do this.

After two successful interviews just days before her death, she was about to get a prestigious new job with Ernst and Young. Why would she suddenly decide to end it all? Now we must learn to live with possible murder and the strong likelihood that no one will be caught.

The gardai told us there were no photos taken at the death scene. The morgue told us there were no photos taken at the autopsy. The gardai told us this is standard procedure if it is not a "State case". A "State case" is one where there is a decision of foul play at the time of death. If there isn't such a decision, then investigation is less than intensive.

What happened in Kate's case could have happened to hundreds of people around Ireland. If the gardai on the scene are convinced that it is a suicide or an accident, then it doesn't become a "State case." The system simply does not work in a case like this.

If the on-scene gardai are satisfied that it is not a State case, it will not be investigated as a State case. This deficiency needs to be addressed. Keep in mind that this is the way the system works right now.

This story is far from over, but it is not too early to write this cautionary note. All unnatural deaths need to be investigated differently. The system must be changed. It might be too late for Kate, but if she were here, she would want her death to help other people.

I am writing this today because it is one year since Kate wrote her anonymous article to highlight depression.

She would want the world to be aware that sometimes, what appears to be suicide may not be. Ireland needs to change the laws so that all unnatural deaths are investigated as State cases, no matter how they look. Let's call this change "Kate's law". I think she would like that.

If anyone knows anything about the death of our daughter, Kate Fitzgerald, please contact Detective Superintendent Gabriel O'Gara, or detectives at Pearse Street garda station (01 666 9000).

Sunday Independent

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