The shocking tale of a brilliant young intellectual who turns into a bank-robbing junkie shows the destructive power of crack cocaine, writes Gemma O'Doherty
Just last week, Ross Skelton, a senior lecturer at Trinity College Dublin, was browsing through a thesis written by one of his brightest students. It had impressed him some years back when he read it first, and he decided to take another look.
His thoughts turned to the day a few summers earlier when its author, John O'Hegarty, called to his south Dublin home. The young graduate was coming to the end of a Masters degree in psychoanalysis, one of the university's most challenging courses, but he was running late with his thesis.
It was a fine day and the pair of them sat in the garden discussing how to resolve the matter and ensure John complete his degree in time.
When they first met, Skelton had been struck by the young man's intelligence and his ability to grasp profound psychological issues. He was articulate, engaging and respectful.
Impressed by his academic CV, which included a stint at the prestigious University of Louvain in Belgium, this was one student the philosophy lecturer wouldn't lose any sleep over.
Some time later, the thesis was produced: a fascinating insight into the logic of the unconscious. It was a work of excellence. O'Hegarty's future was secure. He had the world at his feet.
But this week, a Dublin court heard how John O'Hegarty put his knowledge of the human mind to work in a very different way to how his mentors at Trinity College might have envisaged.
Instead of pursuing an illustrious career in academia or mental health, he got into the sordid game of armed robbery, using reverse psychology to terrify innocent bank staff on a binge of reckless raids in the suburbs of South Dublin.
The plan was simple but effective. Dressed in various guises, one day a builder in overalls, the next a courier, he would fool his victims into thinking he was just another customer.
Casually holding a paper over his imitation gun, he would line up at the cashier's desk and calmly wait. When his turn came, there was no shouting or abuse, just a gentle request bolstered by a pointed gun to hand over the money.
Dublin's 'politest bank robber', was how his defence counsel dubbed him at the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court this week. As if the friendly manner in which he carried out his brazen attacks somehow lessened their criminality or eased the psychological scars of dozens of bank staff and customers left traumatised after the raids.
There were 16 robberies in all, carried out between March and December of 2004, which accumulated ?50,000 in stolen cash. O'Hegarty (33) received a four-year prison sentence, the last 18 months of which were suspended. The sentence was also backdated to December of last year, when O'Hegarty was taken into custody.
His defence pleaded for lenience citing an event in their client's recent past which had allegedly led him astray.
Having completed his degree, O'Hegarty chose an unusual route for someone of his educational achievements, and became a push-bike courier. He set up his own business with an English friend.
On a winter's afternoon in 2002, he was cycling up a one-way street in Dublin 4 on the wrong side of the road, when he hit a pedestrian who had stepped out in front of him. Roger Handy (56), a respected auctioneer, had looked in the direction of oncoming traffic, but never saw O'Hegarty who was coming the opposite way.
O'Hegarty claimed that he offered to help him, but the man refused. Some question this claim on the grounds that Handy had suffered such serious injuries, it was unlikely he would have been able to respond to an offer of help. Two weeks later, Handy's wife, Jane, allowed his life support machine to be switched off.
O'Hegarty received a ?350 fine for reckless riding of a bicycle and a ?100 fine for cycling on the wrong side of the road.
This week, Jane Handy, castigated the portrayal of O'Hegarty by his lawyers, saying their 'polite' client never found the decency to apologise for her husband's death. At Roger Handy's inquest, she said, he didn't even shake her hand.
But it was the death of Handy and its aftermath that turned John O'Hegarty, a high-flying academic, into a low-life thief, his legal team claimed this week.
In the weeks that followed, condemnation of Handy's death and criticisms of the courier trade on RTE's Liveline programme took their toll on him, and he became ravaged by guilt.
It was at this time he says he turned to crack cocaine, rapidly forming a habit that took over his life. Soon, he had reached a point where he would do anything for a fix. Robbing banks simply became a means to an end.
But O'Hegarty's addiction came as news to former business associates this week, who were shocked to hear that he was involved in drugs at all.
"He was very quiet and unassuming," recalled John Martin of Cyclone Couriers, Dublin's largest courier company who employed O'Hegarty at one stage. "As a company, we are very image conscious. We don't employ guys in shiny tracksuits. If we get the slightest whiff of drink or drugs, they would be out the door. There was nothing to suggest there was anything dodgy about John."
Acquaintances believe O'Hegarty may not even have used drugs regularly before embarking on a addiction to one of the most lethal, illegal substances.
'He wouldn't have been a drug user before the accident," said one of his associates this week. "He was an intelligent guy with very good parents. Very middle class, living in Ballsbridge. Today he is a healthy guy who's been drug-free for some time. But when he was on crack, he was as thin as a rake, at least two and a half stone lighter than now. He used to put the fear of God in us.
"He hid it for some time but at the end, he would have taken your eye out and tried to sell it back to you he was so hooked on crack. It absolutely destroyed him, all for a two-minute high."
This week, staff at Trinity College were dismayed to see what had become of John O'Hegarty.
"To think, I was only holding his thesis in my hand last week and saying how good it was," says Ross Skelton.
"Some students are wobbly and you worry about them, but John wasn't one of them. He was very psychologically-minded. He wasn't the very best I've ever known, but he was certainly in the top 5pc. But when he finished, he just disappeared out of our lives. We just presumed he had gone on to better things."