Three men have been convicted of multiple offences carried out as part of a vigilante attack on men guarding a repossessed farmhouse in Co Roscommon five years ago.
Following a trial that ran for more than three months, the jury at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court on Friday returned its verdicts after deliberating for almost 14 hours.
A fourth man facing charges in relation to the same incident was acquitted.
The trial heard that shortly after 5am on December 16th, 2018, a convoy of vehicles carrying about 30 to 40 men arrived at a recently repossessed farm property at Falsk near Strokestown. The men were variously wearing balaclavas, hoodies and yellow fluorescent jackets and armed with sticks with nails in them, pickaxe handles, a meat cleaver, baseball bats and a hurley.
Four security men were beaten and forced to the ground, had their shoes removed and their hands tied with cable ties. The windows and doors of the house were smashed, the men’s vans were set on fire and a German Shepherd dog was beaten unconscious and later had to be put down.
PJ Sweeney (44), a builder from High Cairn, Ramelton, Co Donegal; Martin O’Toole (58), a farmer from Stripe, Irishtown, Claremorris, Co Mayo; and farmer Paul Beirne (56), of Croghan, Boyle, Co Roscommon, were each found guilty of 15 of the 17 charges in relation to the incident.
The three men were found guilty of the false imprisonment and assault causing harm to Ian Gordon, Mark Rissen, John Graham and Gary McCourtney. They were further convicted of aggravated burglary, three counts of arson in relation to three vans that were set alight, criminal damage to a door of a house, violent disorder and causing unnecessary suffering to an animal by causing or permitting an animal to be struck on the head.
They were also each acquitted of robbery of a wristwatch from Mr Graham and one count of arson in relation to a car that was allegedly set alight.
The jury returned unanimous guilty verdicts in respect of the charge of violent disorder faced by O’Toole, Sweeney and Beirne. Jurors found the three men guilty by a majority of 11 to one on the 14 other charges of which they were each convicted.
David Lawlor (43), of Bailis Downs, Navan, Co Meath, was found not guilty of the 17 charges he faced.
The four defendants had pleaded not guilty to all counts.
Judge Martina Baxter thanked the jury for the attention and time they had given to this case and said she would excuse them from jury service for a period of 15 years as a token of appreciation.
She told Mr Lawlor he was free to go as he had been discharged from the indictment.
Judge Baxter ruled against defence applications made on behalf of Sweeney and Beirne for a continuation of their bail as she said the convicted men had lost the presumption of innocence. O’Toole has been in custody since last Tuesday when a bench warrant for his arrest was executed.
He had failed to come to court the previous Friday on the day he was due to give a closing speech in his defence, having fired his legal team the previous week. O’Toole repeatedly told Judge Baxter he did not recognise the court, used her first name and called her “a corporate banker”.
In the absence of the jury, he said there were “people from outside this country on the jury” and “with all due respect to them do they understand what a sovereign man is”. Judge Baxter said she believed he was deliberately obstructing the trial.
Judge Baxter remanded Sweeney, Beirne and O’Toole into custody to appear again before the court for a sentence hearing on June 30th.
Opening the prosecution case in February, Tony McGillicuddy SC told the jury that the four defendants stood accused of taking part in sustained and brutal violence that morning which was designed to terrorise the men working there.
The trial heard that in late 2018 High Court proceedings relating to a small farm holding in Falsk resulted in a repossession order for the house and 30 acres. KBC Bank had initiated legal proceedings for possession of the property in 2009 and the High Court granted an order for possession in 2012.
The owner of the property, Anthony McGann, lived there with his adult autistic brother and on December 11th, 2018, they were forcibly removed by private security personnel engaged on behalf of the bank. Video footage showing this eviction was the subject of some publicity and was a source of distress for the McGanns and the wider community, the court heard.
In the days that followed, a recorded interview at the farmhouse, in which it was stated that the eviction was carried out by Northern Irish “mercenaries” and showing security men still at the residence, circulated on social media.
On the morning of the attack a convoy, which included a cattle truck driven by Beirne, gathered at nearby Elfin before going to Falsk.
Four security guards described being tied up and beaten while four others managed to escape, with three of them jumping into the freezing waters of a nearby river.
Michael Kane testified that he saw the men with flashlights coming for him through the dark and he feared he was going to be killed. He ran into a nearby field and only returned to the site when he saw the lights of emergency vehicles.
Ian Gordon said he had a gun put to his head and was ordered to crawl on the ground and eat dog faeces. His security guard dog Quinn had lost control of his bowel moments after being repeatedly beaten over the head with a bat. The dog later had to be put down by a vet at the scene.
In Garda interviews, Beirne admitted driving men to Falsk in his cattle truck and driving them away afterwards. He claimed the plan was to peacefully take the property back but things got out of control. He admitted putting the front door in with a sledgehammer. His lawyers told the jury that Beirne genuinely believed the house still belonged to Mr McGann and that he was trying to “right a wrong” done to a neighbour.
After repeated denials, O’Toole eventually admitted to gardaí that he was at the house in Falsk on the night. The farmer said that “events were nearly over” when he was there and that things got out control. He denied assaulting anyone and claimed: “I thought it was going to be a show of hands”. He told gardaí that if they had stepped into the earlier eviction “this would never have happened”.
Sweeney denied having anything to do with the events that night and denied he was the man in the video footage. His lawyers said the process by which a local garda had identified him on the footage was flawed and contaminated by suggestion.
The prosecution also alleged that photographs taken at the Falsk property in December and a screenshot of a route map from Ramelton to Roscommon, taken on the morning of the attack, were found on Sweeney’s iPhone.
Patrick McGrath SC, defending, said there was no evidence Sweeney even had this iPhone in December and that the prosecution evidence that the images were downloaded from Sweeney’s “cloud account” on to the new phone was “utter speculation”.
The case was prosecuted on the legal principle of common design, which holds that if two or more people embark on a plan together to commit crimes, each person is criminally liable for anything done by the others.
The prosecution said that the defendants and others who went to Falsk all shared the common goal of getting the security men off the property and making sure they didn’t come back and to achieve this, the group engaged in sustained and brutal violence designed to terrorise the men working there.
Defending counsel said that there was no evidence their clients had entered into any plan, tacit or otherwise, to carry out the alleged offences.