The Colin Whelan murder trial

  • 14 April 2005
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Colin Whelan coldly planned his wife's murder, boasting of his anticipated insurance windfall to a woman he met on the internet, and then faked his death and absconded to Spain. Siobhan Gaffney reports from the court where he was sentenced last week

As Colin Whelan made his wedding vows to Mary Gough in September 2000, he was already calculating how to strangle his new bride and cash in on their £400,000 life insurance policy.

Sentencing Whelan at the Central Criminal Court in Dublin on 12 April, Judge Paul Carney called the murder "the most calculating and callous killing that I have ever encountered in my time in court".

Twenty-seven-year-old Mary Gough, from Stamullen, Co Meath, had first met Colin Whelan in 1993, in the Huntsman Inn. Whelan was to be her first and only boyfriend. He murdered her on 28 February, 2001, when her body was found after he phoned for an ambulance.

Mary Gough'slove for Whelan, who she "loved too much", was her "one true mistake in life", her mother, Marie Gough, said in court last week.

The elaborate plans Whelan had made to murder her daughter were revealed to Marie Gough and her family only last week in court.

"What I heard in court was a complete shock, a total shock because we didn't know why she was murdered,"Marie Gough said. "He must have not loved her, if he had loved her, he would have walked away if anything went wrong.

"If he didn't want Mary, why didn't he just walk away", she asked. "I can't understand it".

"I treated him like a son, the lads treated him like a brother, we were all one happy family", Marie Gough said.

Yet Marie Gough said she "bears no grudge". "I don't carry that burden, I'm not that type of person. I couldn't carry that burden. Life is hard enough."

Whelan's betrayal of Mary Gough began in June 2000, when he doubled their life insurance policy so that each partner would receive £400,000 if the other one died within 10 years. This policy was, according to an independent financial adviser, "inappropriate and highly questionable".

Within weeks of setting up the insurance policy, Whelan surfed the net for ways to kill his bride-to-be, as Mary Gough prepared for her wedding day. A computer analyst with Irish Permanent bank, he searched the internet from work for terms such as "asphyxiation", "loss of consciousness", "how long to take to die for asphyxiation", "lack of oxygen to the brain" and "death by strangulation".

After just four months of marriage, Whelan commenced an on-line romance with a British woman, allegedly boasting of his anticipated £400,000 windfall. He urged his cyber-girlfriend to call him the "Celtic Tackle" and sent a photo of his face superimposed onto the body of a male model. Whelan was set to meet this British woman for the first time on 2 March, 2001.

But some time on 28 February, just six months after he married, Whelan strangled his wife and then made it look as though she had fallen down the stairs of their Balbriggan home. Within minutes of Mary arriving at Beaumont Hospital in the early hours of 1 March, 2001, questions were raised by the medical staff which led gardai to believe her injuries were inconsistent with a fall.

A nurse who dealt with Whelan quickly informed gardai in Balbriggan that Whelan had scratches on his chest. The doctor who tried to resuscitate Mary noticed marks on her neck and chest that suggested that she had not fallen down the stairs.

Later that day, Dr Marie Cassidy, the State Pathologist, confirmed the suspicions of gardai that Mary had in fact died of asphyxiation, strangled to death with the belt of a dressing gown. After strangling his wife, Whelan is thought to have then replaced the belt on the dressing gown and left it in the master bedroom.

Marie Gough recalled arriving at Beaumont Hospital after one am on 1 March 2001. "I walked up to Colin and he was sitting with his head in his hands and I said 'how's Mary', he just said she was dead, just like that. I couldn't get over it, I'll never forget the way he answered me.

"He was just sitting there. I was looking at everyone else roaring and crying. I didn't know what to think", she said.

A month after Mary Gough's murder, Colin Whelan was charged with the murder of his wife. He denied the charge and his trial was set for 13 October, 2003.

But seven months before his trial for murder was due to start, he faked his own death and fled to Majorca, where he worked as a barman until being spotted by an Irish tourist in July 2004, and subsequently extradited.

Like Mary Gough's murder, Whelan had carefully planned his escape from Ireland. Driving his 2001 Peugeot 206 car to the Upper Cliff Road in Howth with some of his personal belongings, he abandoned the car before high-tailing it to the Mediterranean.

A major sea, air and land search was carried out, but no trace of the computer analyst was found. However, gardai and the Gough family believed he was still alive.

Marie Gough said she believed Whelan had help when he faked his own death. "He had to be helped, that's the way I feel, to me you can't do all those things on your own. I feel sorry for the people who helped him after yesterday."

In Majorca, Whelan worked in the Squadron Bar in the resort of Puerto Portals and was known as Martin Sweeney or Cian.

The bar he worked in was very popular with Irish and British holiday makers, not the ideal place for someone in hiding to choose to work.

He told friends in Majorca his parents were dead and he had no family. He had a girlfriend and large circle of friends, his work colleagues told media after his arrest. It is believed that Whelan was vetted by Spanish police and issued with a National Identity Card in the name of Martin Sweeney. This was the name on a false Irish passport he used.

In court last week, the Gough family heard for the first time how the Garda fraud squad took possession of Whelan's computer and traced the history of his internet usage. They discovered that he had conducted at least 21 internet searches using terms such as asphyxiation, strangulation and choking between July 2000 and February 2001.

Supt Tom Gallagher who led the investigation said that Whelan had downloaded a transcript of a case from the North Carolina Supreme Court regarding death by strangulation. This case bore "remarkable similarities" to the Balbriggan murder, the court heard.

In both cases a duvet was used to keep the body warm so that it would appear the "accident" had just happened. Both cases involved the use of a towel to conceal ligature marks around the victims' necks.

Defense barrister, Mr Hugh Hartnett SC, read an apology to the Gough family on behalf of Colin Whelan saying, "I live with this regret and sorrow for the rest of my life".

"There are no words to explain my act", Mr Hartnett read to the court. To Mary's mother, Mr Whelan said, "I apologise for the protracted delay today and I apologise for taking your daughter, friend and soul mate so unnecessarily".

Whelan's apology rang hollow to the Gough family.

"He didn't write to me, he could have asked to speak to me Monday or yesterday. I wouldn't have minded for him to apologise to my face. He'll get out in so many years for good behavior, his family can visit him, bring him little gifts, talk to him and put their arms around him and give him a hug. But I haven't got that, I stand in a grave yard and that's it", Marie Gough said.

Whelan sat motionless during his sentencing, with his head bowed, and displayed no emotion.

Delivering his victim impact statement, Mary Gough's brother, Gerard, said: "Our family is living a life sentence since her murder and we'll always have to live with it. We won't get off for good behavior. Mary is gone forever and we can't run away, Mary won't be coming back."

David Gough, twin brother of Gerard, addressed Colin Whelan directly, but Whelan failed to meet his gaze, instead keeping his head down.

"On 1 March, 2001, you, Colin Whelan, strangled Mary and for that we'll never, ever, ever forgive you. You caused devastation to our family when you brutally strangled Mary and you took a piece of us too," he said.

"Then you fled the country, which shows you for the coward you are. You tried to rob us of justice, you thought you were above the law but you are not. Justice has finally been done here today.

"Mary's only crime was loving you too much. No time in prison will ever be enough. The one thing you can't take away is the wonderful cherished memories of Mary and the wonderful part she played in our lives. May she now rest in peace."