The mysterious death of Shane Touhey
Shane Touhey was found dead in a Co Offaly river almost five years ago. His inquest recorded death by drowning but the Garda investigation into what happened was flawed, indifferent and at times bizarre. Philip Boucher-Hayes reports
Shane Tuohey, a turf-cutter from Rahan in Co Offaly, was 23 years old when he went missing on 2 February 2002. He was out for a drink with friends in Brian Cowen's home town of Clara and was last seen at about 4.20am. One week later, his brother Edwin pulled his body from the river Brosna. The Garda investigation quickly concluded that foul play was not suspected, and an inquest found that he had drowned by immersion in cold water. Case closed.
But his family was troubled by an apparent insistence on the part of gardaí that Shane had committed suicide when there was a wealth of evidence that might reasonably have given rise to a suspicion of foul play.
Shane was being verbally and physically abused by a group of men around his age in the months before his death. Witnesses reported that the abuse continued on the night he died. Some of the men involved in the abuse were possibly among the last to see him alive. One of those men made an allegation to Shane's father, Eamon Tuohey, that Shane had been assaulted just before he disappeared.
An Garda Síochána told this reporter that the initial Garda investigation could have been more “professional”, and that it failed in a number of respects to follow standard procedure. However, they hold to the conclusions of this investigation that Shane's death was accidental or suicidal.
The Tuohey family say they will accept whatever conclusions a more rigorous investigation may make. “We just want to know the truth about what happened to Shane... But we want a proper investigation,” says Eamon Tuohey.
The alleged assault
Listeners to RTÉ Radio 1 will have heard for the first time [on Today with Pat Kenny, 10am-12pm, Wednesday 29 November] recently how the search for Shane began in earnest on the Monday morning following his disappearance. As family, friends and neighbours gathered in Clara, Eamon Tuohey went to talk to one of the men that he believed would have been among the last to see Shane alive.
Eamon claims he gave this man a lift to meet his girlfriend. While in Eamon's car, the man said he hadn't done anything to Shane but that somebody else had. Eamon says this man described how there had been a row over whether Shane could get a lift home on the night he died. During the row, Shane bent down to look in the passenger-side window of the car. The man in the front seat opened the door and used it to hit Shane on the head. Eamon says he got this witness to demonstrate what had happened that night. “He opened the door out with as much force as was humanly possible,” Eamon claims. He heard that this action forced Shane to stagger back and fall against a wall around six feet behind him.
The following day Eamon's other son Edwin called this man and heard him repeat the allegation of assault. The phone call was made over the speakerphone of Edwin's mobile phone and the conversation was witnessed by Edwin's friend, Elton Delaney. Eamon went straight to An Garda Síochána with the allegation. He recalls that the garda he talked to entered nothing in his notebook or the station's log book.
It was to be four days later before gardaí interviewed this witness. In his nine-line statement he made no allegation of assault. Two days later he made another statement which specifically denied any assault. The other two men in the car when Shane sought a lift also gave statements to An Garda Síochána. The statement of the alleged assailant wasn't taken by gardaí until six months after Shane's body had been found and it makes no mention of any assault.
Those statements are contradictory of one another in several regards. But it would appear that gardaí made no further attempt to reconcile those contradictions before the inquest into Shane's death.
Searching for Shane
The people of Clara and Rahan responded to the search for the missing man with the customary generosity of a close-knit rural community. While there were a small number of gardaí present on the first day, there was no effort at coordination or leadership offered by the Garda for the rest of the week.
“It was a disgrace, what they didn't do for Shane,” says family friend Elton Delaney, who ended up drawing up a list of places searched and places to be searched in the absence of gardaí doing so. Garda Commissioner Noel Conroy's office has told this reporter, in writing, that “the searches were not carried out in accordance with normal procedures and guidelines”.
One week after Shane had gone missing, his brother Edwin was with a search party dragging the river Brosna with hooks and lines. On a whim, Edwin trawled a stretch of water that had alreadybeen covered by somebody else. As his hook neared the bank, he snagged Shane's body and pulled it to the surface. Others lifted the body from the water and the gardaí were called.
It wasn't long before the bank of the river was crowded with onlookers. A member of the search party, Aidan Deasy, describes “dozens swarming about the body. The gardaí were making no effort to keep them back.”
Again the Garda Commissioner's office has acknowledged that the scene should have been preserved. They say in mitigation of this failure, however, that this would have been of limited evidential value, as it was clear that the body did not enter the water at the point at which it was recovered. An independent forensic pathologist from the United States, Dr Kim Collins, who has been to Clara to examine the scene, says no such conclusion can be made. She believes professional investigative procedure would have been to preserve the scene regardless.
Missing CCTV tapes
Although it is a small town, there is a remarkable number of highly sophisticated CCTV cameras dotted around Clara. This reporter has counted at least 10 cameras that would have been in use at the time of Shane's disappearance, and might have been able to shed some light on his last movements and those of his alleged assailant.
It would appear that none of the tapes from those cameras were preserved by gardaí. Offaly-based security consultant Sean O'Brien says there can be no question but that gardaí knew of the existence of all of these cameras. “They used to bring me tapes from them all the time and we'd examine them for different crimes and fights and so on.”
John Regan, then manager of The Mill House, where Shane had been drinking, reviewed a tape from his cameras in the presence of gardaí. Both he and the gardaí were able to clearly identify Shane. Regan believed that gardaí took the tape away with them at the time. Last year, however, he got a call from gardaí asking him if he still had the tape because they couldn't find it. With the passage of time, Regan cannot be sure what happened to the tape. Whether he accidentally recorded over it or gardaí lost it is incidental, though, as once again Noel Conroy's office has acknowledged that a more “professional investigation would have made reference to this CCTV footage which should have been available”.
Having admitted the failures to conduct the investigation in “accordance with procedure”, and what a more “professional investigation” might have done, the commissioner's office finds that “these matters did not affect the outcome of the original investigation”. But there were other questions over Garda conduct of this investigation, that were put to the commissioner, that his correspondence has ignored or failed to deal with.
The statement by ‘Geraldine'
“Geraldine” is, by her own admission and that of her brother, a chronic alcoholic. Her brother fears that her drinking is affecting her health to the point that she may “not have long left”. She is very suggestible and “doesn't always know her own mind”, says her brother. Her identity is masked here for the sake of her elderly mother and the dignity of her family.
On 11 April 2002, gardaí took a statement from Geraldine. The statement is unsigned. It details how she was in a relationship with Shane Tuohey for a year-and-a-half, how she felt Shane was a loner and how he would talk about suicide at least once a week.
Geraldine's statement would have been very strong support for the Garda thesis that Shane Tuohey committed suicide. Except nothing in that unsigned statement is true. Geraldine was not in a relationship with Shane; it is probable that she barely knew him. Her brother says she couldn't have met Shane more than once or twice and certainly not enough to form the opinion that he talked about killing himself once a week. When Geraldine turned up at the inquest into Shane's death, she refuted everything in the statement. On further examination she said she could not now recall anything she had said to gardaí when they called to her mobile home and that at the time they took a statement from her she was not sober.
The jury at that inquest formed their verdict of “death by immersion in fresh water” on the basis of the evidence of the then state pathologist, Dr John Harbison. Although Harbison's autopsy does not record the presence of water in the lungs, it notes “froth” in the bronchial airways. It is also perhaps noteworthy that his typewritten notes record that there were “sketchy reports” that Shane was suicidal. His notes do not record any allegation that Shane may have been assaulted. Could this be because he was given one piece of information but not the other?
In giving direction to the jury, the coroner said he did not suspect that “acts of murder or assault had taken place. If Dr Harbison had suspected foul play he would have told gardaí.” On the basis of the evidence presented to them, it took the jury only three or four minutes to make up their minds.
Since the inquest, Eamon Tuohey has sent his son's file to two pathologists in the US: Dr Kim Collins, forensic pathologist at the Medical University of South Carolina and Professor Greg Davis, state medical examiner for Kentucky. While neither have excluded the possibility of drowning, both have looked more closely at an injury to Shane's brain. It was significantly swollen, indicating possible head trauma.
Kim Collins's report concludes: “It is my opinion that the manner of death of Shane Tuohey is indeed a homicide.” Greg Davis offers the opinion that there were “enough inconsistencies in witness statements and the circumstances surrounding death to indicate to this forensic pathologist that the case should remain open with a manner of death ‘undetermined' with a strong likelihood of ‘homicide'”.
An Garda Síochána have asked state pathologist Dr Marie Cassidy to review John Harbison's post-mortem examination and conclusions alongside those of the forensic scientists from the US. They say she has concluded in support of Harbison that death was “due to drowning and that there are no other findings at post mortem to support any third-party involvement in this young man's death”.
In November of last year, the Garda Commissioner ordered a re-investigation of Shane Tuohey's case. Whilst some shortcomings in the initial investigation were highlighted, the commissioner's office says, “Both investigations into this matter reveal no evidence to suggest that his death was of a criminal nature.”
While the Garda Commissioner has admitted several shortcomings in the original Garda investigation, his reply fails to deal with several other questions which, nearly five years after Shane's death, still concern the Tuohey.
Questions about the gathering of witness statements have been put by RTÉ Radio to the Garda commissioner but his response does not deal with them. Questions about the changes in the statement of Geraldine were put to the commissioner but again his reply does not to address them. Questions about the Garda's apparent conclusion that Shane committed suicide have also not been addressed. π
(Philip Boucher-Hayes is RTÉ Radio's investigative-unit reporter)