Roy Webster: from one-night stand to murder

Killer’s story began on December 20th, 2014 at a Christmas party in Co Wicklow

Roy Webster was found guilty of the murder of Anne Shortall by unanimous jury verdict. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Roy Webster was found guilty of the murder of Anne Shortall by unanimous jury verdict. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

On Good Friday night 2015, Roy Webster dozed in front of the television with his wife Sinéad by his side. The children were in bed and there was a half-finished glass of wine on the table.

Outside, there was a dead woman in his van.

Webster built their home on his family’s land at Killoughter, a few kilometres north of Wicklow Town. It is a fine house, testament to his skill as a cabinet maker and handyman.

Earlier that day – April 3rd, 2015 – he completed a kitchen revamp for an Aileen Geoghan who, during his trial, described him as “an excellent worker, a very talented man”.

Driving around Wicklow in his van with his business name, Ashwood Kitchens, on the side, Webster was well-known and liked - described as “100 per cent genuine” which gardaí learned when they asked locals about the person who beat Anne Shortall to death with a hammer.

He took part in charity events and was described in court as a man of “impeccable character”.

What lay underneath

The Old Forge pub in Wicklow Town. Photographs: Nick Bradshaw.
The Old Forge pub in Wicklow Town. Photographs: Nick Bradshaw.

However, the visible surface to Webster’s life served only to hide what lay underneath.

The horrific tale began four months before that Good Friday evening – on December 20th, 2014.

Wicklow Town was abuzz with Christmas parties and Webster had joined his best friend Robert Fox and some former workmates for a meal and drinks at the Woodpecker in Ashford.

The Bridge Tavern, Wicklow.
The Bridge Tavern, Wicklow.

He was not a big drinker, but this night was a big one and they were all at it.

After eating they went to The Bridge, where they had a few more drinks. Now well on, they moved to The Old Forge where a louder, more boisterous atmosphere better suited the level of inebriation.

That was where the group splintered.

A couple of Webster’s friends remembered seeing him talking to a blonde woman, but they didn’t take much notice and one by one they drifted off. Fox was the only one who tried to get in touch. He phoned Webster and told him he had booked a taxi for them to share. But Webster told his friend he would make his own way home.

Instead, he went to home of Anne Shortall, the woman he met in The Old Forge, where they flirted like teenagers.

“I fancy you,” she said.

“I fancy you,” he replied. They kissed, or “shifted” as Webster would later tell gardaí.

Back at Anne’s, according to Webster, she invited him upstairs. He felt pangs of guilt, remembering his pregnant wife at home, but the lure of a one-night-stand was strong. They had drunken sex and passed out.

Shot out of bed

A little after 7am, Webster’s wife tried to call him but got no answer. She called Fox, who in turn called Roy. He answered, shot out of bed and got a taxi. When he arrived home his wife was upset. He told her he had slept on a friend’s couch before going to the spare bedroom to sleep off the previous night.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news but I’m pregnant.”

At her home on South Quay, on the opposite side of Wicklow Town, Shortall was having bigger problems than a hangover.

She was bad with money and had lost her first home after failing to make mortgage payments. Her husband Colin, from whom she had separated years earlier, continued paying his half for the sake of their children and only learned of the arrears when it was too late.

He continued to help his wife financially after she moved to South Quay, giving her money every month to help with rent and bringing up their three children. But the children were now adults and two of them had moved out, so, instead of giving the money to his wife, he started giving it to his children.

Anne, having not worked for more than 10 years, was fully reliant on social welfare to pay her rent, electricity and her addictions to alcohol and cigarettes. In the middle of 2014, her rent allowance payment was reduced by €200 a month, pushing her further into debt.

She suffered from depression and was taking prescription tablets as well as drinking heavily on a daily basis. Her son and two daughters were used to her routine - waking up in the late afternoon and drinking until the small hours.

What her family did not know was that she was, by early 2015, many months behind on her rent and unable to clear her electricity bill, which was more than €2,000. Her landlord was fed up and asked a letting agent to move her out. On March 11th, she received an eviction notice telling her to move out by April 9th.

Phone records

Anne had a plan.

On March 25th, three months after her encounter with Webster, she called his phone for the first time. Records collected by gardaí showed the call was made at 3.26am. He tried calling her back four times the following day, but Shortall, who was sleeping during the day, did not answer.

When she woke up she text him and they exchanged 11 messages that evening, one of which stated: “I hate to be the bearer of bad news but I’m pregnant.”

Webster’s cozy life was threatened, so he agreed to meet Shortall on April 2nd, – Holy Thursday.

For Shortall, the plan was moving along well. She would tell Webster she needed £6,500 for an abortion and then use the money to pay her debts. So sure was she that Webster would pay up that she contacted her letting agent, Mary Broe, and told her she had the money owed plus six months’ rent in advance.

“I ain’t going anywhere,” she declared defiantly, telling Broe she would give her the money after the Easter weekend.

The meeting between Shortall and Webster on Holy Thursday was brief. He told her he wanted proof that she was pregnant. She said she would prove it the following day.

He spent the morning of Good Friday at Aileen Geoghan’s home, putting the finishing touches to her kitchen. He then drove to Bridge Street Books in Wicklow Town where he picked up Fancy Nancy and the Posh Puppy for his daughter. He had ordered them specially.

He texted Shortall asking her to meet at The Leitrim Lounge.

“On my way,” she replied.

Shortall left her house without her cigarettes or phone, something that would later puzzle her daughters. A chain smoker, they insisted she would never leave home for more than a few minutes without her cigarettes.

Roy Webster and Anne Shortall drove north in Webster’s van from the Leitrim Lounge and pulled in at Multimetals Recycling in The Murrough, a secluded spot visited mostly by dog walkers and hikers.
Roy Webster pulled in at Multimetals Recycling in The Murrough, a secluded spot.

She met Webster in Wicklow Town and got into his van. He drove to the Murrough – a coastal wetland area, a short distance to the north – and pulled up outside Multi-Metals Recycling, a secluded spot visited mostly by dog walkers and hikers.

What happened next is gathered from the interviews Webster gave to gardaí. He said he challenged her to prove she was pregnant and she told him she did not have to prove it, that it was true and he was the father. He said he told her he did not have any money for her and she got angry.

She threatened to tell his wife about their one-night-stand. He got out of the van and came around to her side, to reason with her, he claimed. But she kept on threatening him so he opened the side door of his van, grabbed the first thing he saw, a claw hammer, and hit her with it.

He told gardaí it felt as though he was watching someone else doing it, like watching a horror movie. He only remembered hitting her four or five times, but a pathologist’s report would show she suffered nine blows to the head.

Shortall fell quiet and Webster took duct tape from his van and used it to secure her hands. He then wrapped the tape around her head. He could never explain to gardaí why he did that, telling them on one occasion that he wasn’t thinking straight and on another that he thought it might help stop the bleeding. State Pathologist Prof Marie Cassidy said the tape blocked her airways and meant that if the hammer blows did not kill her instantly, the tape ensured she had no chance of survival.

For Webster, there was initial panic, but he said he then felt like he was back in his own skin.

Self control

The defence case in the trial was based on the idea that Webster was provoked by Shortall to the point where he lost all self control. Provocation is a legal principle that is often used in murder trials because, if accepted by the jury, it reduces the verdict from guilty of murder to guilty of manslaughter.

Before a jury is asked to consider provocation as a defence, the judge must give them a definition. Relying on previous judgments, they say the loss of self control must be “sudden and total” and be such that, for that moment, it “totally deprives the person of self control”.

A mere loss of temper is not sufficient and the accused person cannot manufacture the situation in which they then lose control. To help them make their decision, juries are told they are not to consider how a theoretical person would have reacted in the circumstances, but how the specific accused person would have reacted, given their character and circumstances.

In his statements to gardaí, Webster used phrases such as “she had me against a wall”, and spoke of how he could see his world coming down as Shortall threatened his family and livelihood. He also spoke of the incident as though it were an “out of body experience”, like watching someone else carry out the attack.

In those circumstances, it was possible for the defence to introduce the provocation defence on the grounds that he was no longer the master of his own mind, driven to extreme violence by the actions of Shortall.

As with every part of a criminal trial, it is up to the prosecution to prove all aspects of the case beyond a reasonable doubt. It follows that when the defence of provocation is raised it is up to the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the person was not provoked.

If the prosecution fails to do so, the jury must find in favour of the accused person and find the person not guilty of murder, but guilty of manslaughter.

The seven women and four men began their deliberations on their verdict on Wednesday afternoon. Mr Justice Patrick McCarthy had told the jury they must bring back a unanimous verdict as to whether Mr Webster is guilty of murder or of manslaughter. On Friday, they returned with their unanimous verdict - guilty of murder.

Drank coffee and chatted

After killing Shortall, Webster put her body in the back of his van and drove to a Centra shop in Ashford. He called his wife but she did not need anything.

Roy Webster’s home at Ash Bre in Ashford.
Roy Webster’s home at Ash Bre in Ashford.

He then returned home, drank coffee and chatted with Sinéad again. His only concern seemed to be that he had a small cut on his arm, which he said he got while doing a tiling job that morning. He ate dinner, put his child and baby to bed, had a glass of wine and fell asleep in front of the television.

But the net was already tightening.

At Shortall’s house, herdaughters Emma and Alanna were worried. They checked their mother’s phone and found the message exchange with Webster that revealed she had planned to meet him at The Leitrim that afternoon.

Webster’s slumber was interrupted shortly after midnight by his phone ringing. He answered and a girl’s voice asked: “Is my mam with you?”

He told her she had a wrong number and that he did not know what she was talking about. Emma and Alanna texted and called, but he ignored them until they threatened to go to the gardaí.

He texted back, saying: “All I know is she is going to meet a friend in London. As far as I know she is going out at about 7 tonight.”

Social media

Emma and Alanna went to gardaí who started a missing person search. Anne’s disappearance was big news and almost immediately Webster’s name was associated with it on social media. But he continued with life as normal.

On the Saturday he went shopping and was only reminded of the presence of Shortall’s body when he went to fetch something from his van that evening. He transferred the body to his workshop, on the grounds of his home, and covered it with some wooden boards.

That evening he received a phone call from a garda who wanted to know if he had any information about Shortall’s whereabouts. Webster said he met her on Good Friday, but she got out of his van at the Murrough, walked towards Wicklow Town and that was all he knew.

On Easter Sunday, Webster had a “pyjama day”.

Gardaí, meanwhile, were trawling through CCTV footage and could find no evidence that he let Shortall out of his van at the Murrough.

Roy Webster pleaded not guilty at the Central Criminal Court to murder but guilty to the manslaughter of Anne Shortall (47) on April 3rd, 2015.
Roy Webster and Anne Shortall.

On the Tuesday, Det Sgt Fergus O’Brien went to the Webster home, Ashbree, and Sinéad invited him inside and asked why her husband was being linked to this missing woman.

At first she seemed annoyed, but then turned on her husband saying: “Have you anything to say that you are not saying.”

He initially denied it, but she persevered.

“Did you hurt her, Roy? Did you hit her Roy?”

His head went down and he started to cry. “I did, I hit her with a hammer,” he said. “She’s in the workshop.”

Sinéad fell to her knees, their baby in her arms.

As the confession continued, family members started to arrive. His parents, his sister, his in-laws.

“It was a very emotional scene,” said Det Sgt O’Brien, a man who has seen more than his fair share having previously prosecuted Catherine Nevin, among other high-profile Irish killers.

Webster has been in custody ever since that day.