A MAN who killed a pensioner and seven of his best friends in the worst car crash in the history of the State has been jailed this afternoon for four years, with the last two years suspended.
Shaun Kelly (26) from Hill Road, Ballmaggan, Buncrana, Co Donegal, had originally pleaded not guilty to causing eight deaths by dangerous driving.
However on July 22 this year - four years after the deaths - he dramatically changed his plea to ‘guilty’ as his trial was due to begin.
He had also previously claimed he was unfit to face trial before withdrawing that application.
The men who died in the crash the road between Clonmany and Buncrana on July 11th, 2010 were Hugh Friel (66), Urris, Clonmany, Eamon McDaid (22) of Ballymagan, Buncrana; Mark McLaughlin, (21) of Ballinahone, Fahan; Paul Doherty (19), of Ardagh, Ballyliffin; Ciaran Sweeney (19), of Ballyliffin; Patrick J McLaughlin (21), of Roxstown, Burnfoot; James McEleney (23), of Meenaduff, Clonmany and Damien McLaughlin (21), of Umricam, Buncrana.
After hearing the case from 10.30am today and retiring to consider his sentence Judge John O’Hagan told a hushed court room at Letterkenny Circuit Court: “It’s at times like this it is difficult to be a judge; the tragedy which unfolded was horrific, beyond description.”
He sentenced Kelly to four years in prison with the last two years suspended. He also banned Kelly from driving for 10 years.
Kelly had been the designated driver on the night of the crash - the same night of the World Cup Final between Spain and the Netherlands - and hadn’t been drinking.
Shocking details of the horrific crash were revealed for the first time at Letterkenny Circuit Court today.
Kelly, dressed in black trousers, blue shirt and black jacket, sat clenching his hands as Alex Owens, prosecuting, listed the names of those who died when Kelly crashed the VW Passat.
Mr Owens had told the judge the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving was ten years accompanied by a maximum life driving ban.
He said Kelly had been returned for trial at the District Court on March 8, 2012 and a month later the State Solicitor for Donegal had written to Kelly’s legal team pointing out that an early plea could have an impact on the sentence handed down.
However Kelly, he said, had continued until July this year of relying on a defence which blamed a Mrs Anne McGilloway for the crash.
Mr Owens said “it was an extremely tragic case for all concerned including Mr Kelly”.
Shocking details of the tragedy were given to the court today including how the father of one victim - Mark McLaughlin - John had taken his own life on July 11 last year on the third anniversary of his son’s death.
The court also heard that Kelly had a previous conviction for dangerous driving when he overtook a car in a convoy near a Co Donegal beach in 2007 and almost crashed into a Garda patrol car.
Mr Owens said the men - except Mr Sweeney who had joined them later - had been watching the World Cup Final on TV at the High Stool Bar in Clonmany.
After the game all seven young men got into Kelly’s northern-registered 1.9 VW Passat and eye-witnesses later told how Kelly was seen to drive off at speed, with smoke coming out of the wheels.
The seat belts had been clicked into position to prevent a warning sound going off inside the vehicle but the men were not wearing them.
James Gallagher, who had been driving ahead of them with his wife Paula, later told gardai that he saw Kelly’s car driving at speed towards the back of his car before overtaking him at high speed, swerving in the middle of the road.
When Mr Gallagher flashed his lights at Kelly, the accused had put on his indicators.
“I remember saying ‘if you don’t slow down you are going to kill someone’,” said Mr Gallagher in a statement.
Fifteen to 20 seconds later he came across the car of Mrs Anne McGilloway. Smoke was coming out of her vehicle.
In her statement Mrs McGilloway said she had overtaken Mr Friel earlier but had not driven too far ahead, preferring to say just in front of him in case she got a flat tyre. Both of them had been at bingo in Buncrana earlier.
“I saw a big black car coming towards me over the white line - I said ‘oh my God’ - I then saw the driver trying to pull the car back on to his side of the road and said ‘Thank God he’s going to miss me’.
“The next thing I remember was a loud bang and smoke inside the car. I realised this car hit me,” she said.
Mr Owens said the impact was such that it ripped the front wheel off Mrs McGilloway’s car.
Kelly, he said, continued on, colliding further up the road with the car being driven by Mr Friel. It had ‘fish-tailed’ into Mr Friel’s Toyota Corolla, the pensioner’s car colliding with the side of the Passat being driven by Kelly.
The impact pushed Mr Friel’s car 18 metres up the road and into a ditch. Kelly’s car went into a ditch “demolishing a telegraph pole”.
Sgt Carol Doherty, then based in Carndonagh, arrived at the scene with other gardai, fire crews, ambulance crews and a priest.
She said paramedics tried to perform CPR on Mr Friel but he died at the scene.
Kelly’s seven friends were also dead.
“It was devastating,” she told Mr Owens.
Asked by Judge John O’Hagan about previous convictions, Sgt Doherty said Kelly had been convicted on June 26, 2007, at Buncrana District Court of dangerous driving in March that year.
She said a garda patrol car had spotted five vehicles speeding in a convoy on a beach road at Lisfannon.
Kelly was the second of the five vehicles and when gardai went to investigate Kelly pulled out to overtake the car in front of him and was driving head-on towards the garda patrol car. The garda car was forced to reverse to avoid a collision.
Kelly was fined €1,000 for the offence.
He had also come to garda attention twice since the deaths, said the sergeant.
On May 10, 2012 he was convicted at Buncrana District Court of driving his father’s lorry without a rear registration plate the previous August.
On May 15, 2011, he was also stopped by gardai driving a lorry “at some speed” through Buncrana Main Street at 2.40am at a time when a large number of people were leaving a local nightclub.
Sgt Doherty said that when Kelly was asked for his name by gardai he gave the name Christopher O’Donnell before admitting who he was. Kelly was given a caution.
Defence counsel Eoin McGonigal asked Sgt Doherty if Mrs McGilloway’s car had caused skid marks on the road.
Sgt Doherty said that it hadn’t and that Mrs McGilloway had been on the correct side of the road.
The families of seven of the victims gave heart-breaking victim impact statements to the court, with some of them asking the judge not to jail Kelly.
Anthony Friel who lived with his brother Hugh Friel told the judge that he had considered taking his own life several times since the crash and hadn’t been able to farm his land since because Hugh wasn’t there.
“I ask ‘how can a 66-year-old man been wiped off the face of the earth?” he said.
“My world has fallen apart. My world has been turned upside down.”
He said he had sat up the night of the crash waiting for Hughie to come home “but he never did”.
The family, he said, felt very angry.
PJ McLaughlin’s sister Aoife criticised Kelly’s defence of the case, particularly a fitness to plea case in Donegal Town.
“We have a full life sentence,” she said.
“This will be our fifth Christmas without PJ. He always took the seat at the head of the table. The manner in which Shaun Kelly dealt with this case has made it so much more difficult.”
She said she and her family felt anger, agony, hatred and resentment.
“We are still grieving for our PJ - the loss of a life for what it could have been and what it should have been.”
However relatives of four victims said they didn’t see any point in jailing Kelly.
Ciaran Sweeney’s father Eamonn told the judge: “He (Kelly) needs all the help and support he can get, not punishment. Enough lives have been ruined… sending him to jail will make it harder for us - it is not what Ciaran would have wanted.”
Dr Mark Hogan, a psychologist who has treated Kelly for the past four years, said the accused has accepted responsibility for what happened on the day of the crash and felt remorse for the lost lives.
Kelly’s father Liam said his son was incapable of addressing the court. He said he wanted to apologise to all the families and everyone traumatised on the day.
He said he had persuaded his son not to go to America in the months before the incident.
“If he had gone this accident would not have happened,” he said.