Friday 18 October 2019

Andrew Phelan: 'Chainsaw butcher had dark past only hinted at in trial'

Murder probe: Members of the Garda Sub Aqua Unit at the scene near Ardclough, Co Kildare, where Paul Wells admitted dumping the body of Kenneth O’Brien in the Grand Canal. Photo: PA
Murder probe: Members of the Garda Sub Aqua Unit at the scene near Ardclough, Co Kildare, where Paul Wells admitted dumping the body of Kenneth O’Brien in the Grand Canal. Photo: PA
Andrew Phelan

Andrew Phelan

Almost from the start of Paul Wells's murder trial, the jury knew there were skeletons in his closet.

But they did not know he is also the chief suspect in the murder of bookie Dessie Fox 28 years ago.

He was an "IRA man" and had served time in Portlaoise Prison, the Central Criminal Court heard.

Ultimately Wells, who shot his friend Kenneth O'Brien in the head, chopped his body up with a chainsaw and dumped it in the Grand Canal, was found guilty of murder.

But the father of five's dark past was only hinted at to the jury, the details were never spelled out.

Wells was sentenced to seven years in 1996, after gardaí found a cache of weapons at his Bellyfermot home including two revolvers, a sawn-off shotgun, three sawn-off rifles and an air rifle, believed to have belonged to dissident republicans.

Victim: Kenneth O’Brien’s body was chopped up and dumped in a canal
Victim: Kenneth O’Brien’s body was chopped up and dumped in a canal

Before that, he had already clocked up four firearms convictions. He was used by the Real IRA in its extortion rackets, and was linked to a south Dublin man who has been convicted of terrorism offences in France.

Perhaps more chillingly, it emerged that Wells was arrested over the 1990 killing of Dessie Fox, who was shot dead by a gang working closely with the IRA.

Mr Fox was ambushed and killed in Prosperous, Co Kildare, in a robbery gone horribly wrong.

Investigating gardaí arrested Wells while he was on remand in Cloverhill Prison in May this year and questioned him over his suspected role.

He was released without charge and a file is being prepared for the DPP.

The jurors in the Kenneth O'Brien murder trial, naturally, knew nothing about this.

For a jury to be told anything at all about a defendant's past crimes is extraordinary.

An accused person is innocent until proven guilty and to ensure a fair trial any evidence of previous wrongdoing is usually excluded.

Yet, in this case, the jurors were repeatedly reminded of Wells's reputation - as being "ropey and dangerous", or "involved with paramilitaries".

Wells's own barrister Michael O'Higgins volunteered that he had IRA links.

While this might seem a curious defence strategy, Wells's image as a "bit of a heavy" was integral to the story he had told to back up his self-defence claim.

What Wells maintained was Mr O'Brien had wanted his partner Eimear Dunne murdered and thought that Wells, because of his republican background, was the man for the job.

On January 15, he claimed, Mr O'Brien turned up with a gun at his home at Barnamore Park, Finglas, Dublin, "determined to have Eimear killed".

Wells said he refused, they struggled and he shot his friend in a "panic".

He dismembered the body with a chainsaw, put the torso in a suitcase, the head and limbs in shopping bags and threw them in the canal.

The supposed murder plot may have seemed "staggering" but other dubious claims that were made about Mr O'Brien - that he "bugged his own kitchen", for example - turned out to be true.

The relatively brief defence evidence included an account of Mr O'Brien working on pipe bombs in his shed, as a "favour" for someone unknown.

It would be hard to deny that both men were "deeply flawed" characters. But did that make Wells's conspiracy story any more plausible?

Whatever brought Mr O'Brien to Wells's house that fateful night, the jurors were still left with a victim who had been shot point blank in the back of the head.

And that, they found, was murder.

Irish Independent

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