'Esther was murdered to save Frank's image'
Colin Murphy talks to the sister of Esther McCann who, along with her niece, was murdered by her husband, swimming coach Frank McCann.
Marian Leonard has one consolation as she faces into watching TG4's reconstruction of the murder of her sister, Esther McCann, being shown as part of the Marú series on 2 November.
"Nothing that will be shown will be any worse than what our imaginations will have come up with about that night."
In the early hours of 4 September 1992, her brother-in-law, Frank McCann, arrived home from his pub in Blessington, The Cooperage, to find a crowd out on the street in front of his house and smoke billowing from the windows. His wife, Esther, and his sister's daughter, Jessica, for whom they were caring, were asleep in the house.
As he realised what was happening, he became agitated and panicked. He ran to a ladder being raised to one of the windows and tried to climb it. Neighbours held him back.
When the emergency services eventually gained access, they found Esther McCann's body collapsed on the landing. Jessica, 18 months old, had died of smoke inhalation in her cot.
Frank and Esther McCann were five years married. They had no children of their own but had applied to adopt Jessica.
As well as a publican, Frank was a senior figure in the world of Irish swimming, likely to become head of the national association. Esther regularly helped him out at fundraising functions. He told police later they were what they appeared, a happily married couple.
Marian Leonard, Esther's elder sister by two years, knew different. Esther had confided in her that her relationship with Frank had long gone cold, that he was rarely home and didn't communicate with her when he was, and that there were unexplained problems with their application to adopt Jessica, which were causing tension.
The night she died, Esther had telephoned Marian.
"She said she was going to have the conversation with Frank – about their relationship and about progressing the adoption and about how she would move on with the adoption on her own if he wasn't interested," Marian says. She doesn't know if Esther managed to have that conversation.
Marian was away that night, staying with her husband's parents in Tramore, Co Waterford. In the early hours, her husband, Billy, telephoned to say Esther and Jessica had died in a fire. She remembers little of that night, but was told afterwards that she had started to say that Frank McCann had killed them and that those around her had "shushed [her] up".
Marian's instinct was correct. Earlier that night, Frank McCann had returned home briefly from the pub and had started the fire using a blowtorch and gas cylinder, according to Garda evidence at his trial. He had then returned to the pub to close up, and arrived home to find his house ablaze and to play the part of distraught husband.
His apparent motive was bizarre. The previous year, a woman had contacted the adoption board to tell them that her 17-year-old daughter, who had special needs, had had a child by Frank McCann, who was her swimming coach. This had caused the adoption board to refuse Frank and Esther McCann's application to adopt Jessica. The adoption board had told the McCanns' solicitor, who had told Frank McCann, but had not told Esther. It was just a matter of time before she found out. Made public, it would likely have wrecked his career as a swimming official. Marian Leonard believes he was so concerned with his reputation and status that he chose to murder his wife and their niece rather than risk the revelation of his having fathered a child by a teenager.
"Esther died because Frank McCann did not want his image destroyed," says Marian Leonard.
Had the murder gone to plan, "he would have thrived on the sympathy that this brought him and he would have gone on through the ranks of the swimming association", she believes.
Frank McCann had been an international swimmer himself, later manager of the Irish team. At the time of the murders, he was president of the Leinster branch of the national swimming association and would in due course have become head of the association.
At the top of Irish swimming, two of his closest friends were later revealed to have sexually abused children. George Gibney, Irish Olympic swimming coach, left the country after allegations of multiple rape were made against him. Derry O'Rourke, who took over from Gibney as Olympic coach, was sentenced to 12 years in prison in 1998 for sexually abusing children he had met through swimming.
Marian Leonard remembers the three men meeting regularly in her sister's home. "They were his friends – that was his circle."
After the deaths of Esther and Jessica, Frank McCann played the role of the grieving husband. But Marian Leonard remembers "a lot of inappropriate behaviour". The night of his wife's funeral in Tramore, he returned to Dublin to host a birthday party for his mother at his pub. While in Tramore, there was an incident when he shouted out the car window at some passing girls that he was "free". A week after his wife's death, he went on a trip to America.
While he was ostensibly helping gardaí with their inquiries, and trying to throw them off the scent, Marian Leonard was giving gardaí vital "soft" information. The description she gave gardaí of her sister's relationship with Frank McCann was very different to the rosy picture he painted, which raised their suspicions. At the same time, gardaí had taken a closer look at a number of suspicious incidents in the run-up to the murder, including a number of gas leaks in the house, and deduced that some of these were earlier attempts by McCann to murder his family.
Part of the reason these hadn't caused any overt suspicion amongst the family was that they were already dealing with another incipient tragedy. Marian Leonard's eldest son, James, had been diagnosed the previous year with bone cancer.
"[Frank McCann] used the fact that we were all coping with James's impending death to get away with the attempts on Esther."
James died in April 1993, two weeks before Frank McCann's arrest. He, Esther and Jessica are buried in the same family plot in Tramore, along with Marian Leonard's parents. Marian Leonard's youngest child, Esther, who was eight at the time of her aunt's death, has recently completed a Master's degree in film. Her second son, Brian, who was 14 at the time, and whose Leaving Cert exams coincided exactly with Frank McCann's trial, studied law.
Her nephew, Patrick, who was 10 at the time, was inspired by how gardaí treated his family at the time to enter the force himself. Marian Leonard herself works in South Dublin County Council, where she heads a unit within the human resources department that is responsible for improving efficiency through the use of computers. She laughs when she describes her job and talks proudly about initiatives they're implementing to take on more staff with special needs.
In 2005, Frank McCann's lawyers successfully applied to have the three years he had served as a remand prisoner, prior to his trial, counted in his time served. This means he has now served 13 years. He came up for parole earlier this year, and Marian Leonard, her daughter Esther and Marian's brother, Pat O'Brien, gave depositions that McCann not get parole. He didn't.
Marian says she is frightened that, if released, he might come after her or her family, "if he perceived us to be in the way". She doesn't want to have her children "looking over their shoulders wondering where he could be".
McCann will come up for parole again in three years and they will go through the same routine again, she says, every three years for as long as is necessary. She says it with simple, matter-of-fact resolve.
"He's going to be there. After he's dead, he'll still be in our lives, because Esther and Jessica aren't."
Yet she determines not to let the tragedy, and its aftershocks, blight her life, or that of her family.
"We've been quite successful with our lives, in spite of Frank McCann – or maybe because of who Esther was and who James was. They wouldn't have been people to have been lying down. They would have had high expectations of us, and of us succeeding.
"Esther is a victim of McCann, but she wasn't a victim in her life."
TG4 screens Marú, a documentary reconstruction of the Frank McCann murder case, at 10.45pm on Thursday 2 November