The birthday killing

  • 18 August 2005
  • test

While at a boat party in San Francisco,William Monaghan pushed a man overboard and killed him. Charged with murder one, he spent almost two years in a US jail before being found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
Now back home in Meath, he tells his story to Ciaran Cassidy

William Monaghan woke up the day after his 27th birthday in the suicide watch cell on the sixth floor of the San Francisco County jail. The Meath man, naked except for a raggedy blanket, stared at the grey walls, disbelief giving way to horror as he came to terms with the fact that he was facing 25 years to life for a charge of first degree murder. Two weeks later, as he was being introduced for the first time to the main population in the jail, the body of Lionel Voillat, a 30-year-old Swiss programmer, was washed up on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. Monaghan stood accused of his murder.

Two years after leaving home for San Francisco, looking for carpentry work and a good time, William, one of the 'Fodgey' Monaghans from Oldcastle, was now sharing a white-walled dormitory with 28 murderers and one toilet. Repeatedly over those first few weeks he'd think to himself, "How the fuck did I get to this point? Where did I go wrong?" Then he would recall the Saturday night before Halloween, 2002.

It was his 27th birthday. To celebrate, William and some friends went to a fancy dress party on a cruise ship in San Francisco Bay. He dressed up as Alex from the film A Clockwork Orange. For the night, the Royal Prince yacht was transformed into a three-floored nightclub and a crowd of over 200 partied under the stars, sailing under the Golden Gate bridge and around the former prison island of Alcatraz.

On the edge of a dance floor, William made eye contact with Viva Taylor. They smiled at each other. "There was chemistry there," he says. They talked. He took her picture; she took his. Then they went their separate ways. They met later on, and this time Viva was with her boyfriend, Swiss programmer Lionel Voillat. They spoke briefly, and parted again.

Viva Taylor had been with Lionel Voillat for five years. The two met at the Academy of Arts in San Francisco. He lived in San Mateo and worked for Electronic Arts, the popular computer games manufacturer. Taylor wanted to get married, but the Swiss immigrant was unsure. She was convinced they would eventually wed.

At around 11pm, she went outside for a cigarette, and Voillat remained indoors. She bumped into William Monaghan again and the two chatted beside a rail on the secluded second floor deck.

"Is that guy your boyfriend or your brother?" Monaghan asked. "Lionel is my boyfriend, we've been going out for five years now," she said. William told her it was his birthday. "Ah, Happy Birthday." She gave him a hug. That very moment Lionel Viollat walked onto the deck, catching his girlfriend embracing the guy from earlier.

"Go! Go! Go!" Voillat screamed. There was uncertainty at first about who he was shouting at. He stared at Viva, who reluctantly went downstairs. "I remember looking back and seeing them facing each other," she would later testify in court. She regretted that she did not have the foresight to stay and say, "hey, nothing's going on." "I didn't think it out... to see the danger of people being on the boat, drunk, standing by the rail…"

Friends of Lionel Voillat testified that the software programmer was drunk and had smoked marijuana that night, neither of which he dabbled in often. In court Monaghan was said to have had a number of drinks. According to those who knew him, Voillat was a man who "didn't take any shit" – much like William Monaghan. Neither was the type to walk away from a confrontation. "I am certainly not aggressive," Monaghan says. "I am defensive alright, I don't let people shove me around. One thing I can't stand is intimidation. It's one thing that freaks me out, I become very defensive if somebody intimidates me."

Monaghan tried to explain to Voillat that nothing happened. It was his birthday. We were only hugging, he said, but the Swiss man was angry. He was protective of Taylor to the point of being possessive.

"Voillat got aggressive and threw a punch, then he tried to kick me," Monaghan says. "I got his leg and pushed him back and he went over the side of the boat."

Just like that. The railing was only 36 inches high. Lionel Voillat fell 14 feet into the cold waters of the San Francisco Bay.

"I shit myself, I panicked, Jesus, what am I after doing," Monaghan says. "I saw this girl [Suzy Oto] calling security. I thought to myself, 'Fuck this, I'm getting out of here'. I thought they were going to pull him out of the water. I just panicked." Monaghan disappeared into the crowd downstairs as others raised the alarm.

The news had quickly spread around the boat that a man had been thrown overboard. The music stopped. Viva Taylor confronted William Monaghan. "Where's my boyfriend?" she demanded. "He might have had an accident, he might have fallen over," Monaghan said.

Angry friends of Voillat surrounded Monaghan. It looked like a lynch mob. They chanted, "Murderer, murderer, murderer," as security held back the crowd amid raucous scenes. A couple of punches were landed, and one man head-butted Monaghan, but he was shepherded for his own safety to the captain's office.

Overhead, a helicopter hovered. The coastguard's boat shadowed the yacht, shining a light across the cold water of the bay in the vain hope of spotting Lionel Voillat. After three and a half hours, the boat stopped circling the spot and returned to dock. Monaghan was booked, then arraigned and spend the next two weeks alone in a single cell on suicide watch.

On 14 November his body washed up between Angel Island and Alcatraz. Medical experts testified that Voillat had survived the fall into the bay and had died from exposure.


Life in jail

Because Monaghan was deemed likely to jump bail, and because he had entered the United States illegally, he was arraigned on a $5 million bail, the highest ever figure for a non-US resident in American legal history. In a way, it was lucky for Monaghan, because if his bail was below a million dollars he would have been sent to San Bruno, a prison where rape is frequent.

His dormitory was one long cell, which housed 14 bunks, one shower, and one toilet. A prison official was constantly on watch. There was no hiding.

"There were some mad characters there," Monaghan says. "A very good blues player who killed his wife with a ball pin hammer. There was a navy SEAL, a highly intelligent guy in for matricide." Each resident of the dormitory had a story, each unique, except for the quiet Asian lad, who never revealed why he was inside.

The first six months were particularly bleak. Monaghan was stretched to breaking point, feeling both guilt and a sense of injustice at the same time.

"It mentally and physically tears you apart, reliving those few seconds, over and over every day," he says in a barely audible whisper. "I can still see him going over the edge. There was times you felt like killing yourself, ending the whole thing, but you get through it."

William would look at himself in a dormitory of murderers, killers, and gangsters and ask, "How the fuck did I get to this point? Where did I go wrong? What did I do to deserve this? I know the poor guy died, I really wanted the guy to live. It was just torment. It was an accident and all the witnesses said it was an accident."

The routine of life in the dormitory involved doing anything to avoid boredom. Playing cards, reading books, watching TV, even some study. Those charged with murder kept their heads down. They were in enough trouble as it was. Every once in a while, the delicate balance in the cell would would be disrupted when a new man arrived.

"There were several beatings and fights," Monaghan says. "I got into a couple of fights. One time there were two young drug dealers and I had to look after myself. You were with these 16 guys locked in the one cell and whatever you did, you didn't let yourself down, you had to hold your own and hold your side."

The wheels of justice moved quickly for Monaghan. Whereas some in his dormitory where waiting up to five years, he was called to trial after only six months. The judge's first ruling was that the case was not to be televised, a major reason why the Irish media never picked up on his story. Something he is very relieved about.

His trial began on 3 June 2003. "Nothing can describe the agony while you sit in that chair," says Monaghan. Desperate to keep his mind off the 25-year sentence he was fighting, Monaghan taught himself to write with his right hand, just to keep himself sane.

Two pictures of William Monaghan were painted in court. The prosecutors claimed he was a cold-hearted killer who went for a dance after throwing Voillat overboard. The defence argued he was acting in self-defence. Lionel Voillat deserved a "dunking" and didn't expect he would die.

The pivotal moment of the trial was the testimony of Viva Taylor. Breaking down on a number of occasions, she would continue on, saying, "What's a few more tears?", telling the jury that the death of her boyfriend was a tragic accident, crucially appropriating no blame on the defendant. "She saved the whole case," says Monaghan. "If she had been hostile, I was screwed, I probably would have got 15 years to life but she told the jury that I had being a gentleman the whole night, which was true."

The jury of eight women and four men cleared Monaghan of first and second degree murder, but could not decide on two lesser charges of manslaughter. The judge declared a mistrial on those two charges. "I was expecting ten years. I was in tears, I was crying me eyes out," he says.

The District Attorney was determined that Monaghan should be tried for manslaughter. In April 2004 at a hearing, Viva Taylor said, "I would rather see William Monaghan go back into society and try and have a good life." The judge agreed. Monaghan was bumped down to a charge of involuntary manslaughter – a crime he had already served the 18 months for and was allowed to go free. At five in the morning, Monaghan said his goodbyes and left the dormitory on the sixth floor of the San Francisco jail.


The return home

Arriving back in Oldcastle, he knew he'd been the talk of the area for the past two years. It was a case of small town, big story. Walking into your very own goldfish bowl. At first there were some awkward glares. People were a little uncomfortable around him. He waited for a backlash but it never happened. One after another, locals told him they were glad to have him home. Those few words meant a lot.

He is now working locally as a carpenter trying to get his life back together. He is a different man to the guy who emigrated nearly four years ago. His time in prison served as "a complete wake-up call. I was a materialistic zombie in America. Once you're in jail, you're stripped of everything, including your dignity, you realise the good things can't be taken from you."

He now walks away from confrontation. "I always have tried to talk myself out of a hostile situation, there will be no winners if it comes to violence, but I think now I can walk away. It freaked me out a lot that incident, it's such an easy thing to happen."

William consoles himself by saying at least things can never get any worse. "Whatever shit happens in life," he says, "you can never get that low again. It's a level you'll always remember."

After the trial, Viva Taylor wrote to William Monaghan. She was sorry about the whole mess. She knew her boyfriend had been aggressive that night. Either person could have been in the water. She hoped that William could eventually lead some sort of normal life. William wrote back and told her not to blame herself and wished her the best. He also wrote to the family of Lionel Voillat, saying that there was no bigger loss for a parent than losing a child. It was an accident, he wrote, and if he had the chance he'd swap places with their son. The family never replied.

William Monaghan's birthday falls on the anniversary of Lionel Voillat's death. "I don't celebrate birthdays anymore," Monaghan says. "I will find it hard to celebrate ever again." In America, on the same day, every year, Viva Taylor remembers her boyfriend. In court, she said that she was haunted about how that innocent night ended so tragically: "I just don't like seeing all these lives destroyed." p