Frank McCann: "consummate actor" and calculating killer

 

WHEN the jury in the McCann murder trial told the judge at 6.20 p.m. on Thursday that it had still not reached a unanimous decision, it is thought the main point of disagreement was Frank McCann's relationship with baby Jessica.

As subsequent events showed the panel was very close to unanimity when recalled. But while the six men and six women were apparently convinced of McCann's intent to murder Esther, some were troubled by his apparently genuine affection for the child.

The logical conclusion of this line of thinking could have been a surprise verdict: guilty on Esther's murder and not guilty of Jessica's.

The jury's concern may have related to a part of McCann's November, 1992, confession that the defence rather than the prosecution stressed in its summary. This has him recalling that on the night of the fire he took Jessica from her cot and played with her for a while before tucking her in again to sleep.

But Esther's sister, Marian Leonard, doubts the events described actually happened: "I know what Jessica was like and if he'd picked her up at that time he'd never have got her down again.

"And he was not an affectionate father. He was quite clinical about changing her and he was very efficient. But he never cuddled her, at least in public. Esther used give her to him for a kiss at bedtime, but if she didn't do it, he never would."

In the same statement, in which he gives a confused, emotionally charged description of starting the fire, he makes apparent reference to the refusal of the Adoption Board to sanction the adoption of his 18 month old niece: "I was going to finish it all. I was going to clean up the whole mess: me, Esther and Jessica."

Describing himself standing in the doorway of his home, he continues: "I have to get away. I don't want to go but it is my fault. I am the problem." Later, he adds: "I need to get away but I can't go from everything. I can't leave them. I can't leave without them." Further on, he says he would "do anything to get them back".

A man who was close to the investigation describes McCann as a consummate actor" who was always in control of the situation, even when he appeared to be distraught. The source adds: "I think he'll go down in history as an exceptional killer. It was so clinical, that's what strikes you about it."

With one notable exception, McCann was calm and apparently in control throughout the trial. When the court was in session, he was often slumped in the seat, hugging himself. At almost all other times, he engaged in constant, intense conversation with his legal team and with the prison guards who sat on either side of him, clenching and unclenching his hands to make his point. Gardai spoke of his ability to cast people "under his spell".

During the long last day of his trial, he remained in the courtroom. When not talking he read, first the newspapers and then a novel - a murder mystery. At one point, during lunch, he sat reading the book alone on a seat beneath the court staff bench, unflanked by his guards.

Gardai believe he was at all times in control of events, orchestrating his defence and directing his lawyers. The single apparent exception to this image came on August 1st when, while on the stand, he suffered what appeared to be a panic attack. Even some of the more cynical observers were convinced when he began to hyperventilate and shake violently.

But others, including Marian Leonard, think this too was part of the act. She left the courtroom when it started, because she claims she knew what was coming: "Medical students get shown how to bring on hyperventilation in order to know how to deal with it. It's easy. Frank would have dealt with young swimmers hyperventilating all the time and he knew how to start and stop it. He taught me how to do it."

But he may have overestimated his ability to convince. One senior Garda, half jokingly, said, McCann had assumed the ordinary rank and file gardai investigating him to be "stupid", and this had contributed to his downfall. Certainly, important leads in the case were given voluntarily by McCann himself, in attempts to mislead or deflect the investigating team.

A statement by him on the day after the fire - well before he became a suspect - over whelmed gardai with so many possible leads that when none of them checked out, the suspicion inevitably fell back on him. Equally, a conversation with the gardai some weeks later in which investigators believe he was "pumping" them for information on the inquiry - rebounded on him.

He had invited Sgt Patsy Glennon to his house for a quiet chat but the garda later made a very detailed memorandum of the four hour conversation, which gave important clues on the way McCann was thinking. Sgt Glennon - whose affable and easy going exterior belied his efficiency - came in for special treatment from the defence during the trial, in which he was branded a "wolf in sheep's clothing".

Although the prosecution case was that he killed Esther and Jessica because he didn't want his wife to learn the reason for the Adoption Board decision, it is difficult for anyone involved to understand such a drastic course. Investigators concluded that the ultra respectable image which he had created and which had taken him to a position of respect in business and in swimming administration were dearer to him than anything else.

Esther's 83 year old mother Mrs Bridget O'Brien, agrees: "He could have taken Esther into his confidence and he'd have found her very understanding. But he was too proud, and it wouldn't have done his image in the swimming world to have a scandal like that. So be killed his two best friends - his only friends. The people who would have stood by him no matter what happened."

In a 1985 feature article in The Irish Times, the then 25 year old Frank McCann was interviewed about his new business, Irish Craft Coopers. He had been among 24 craftsmen laid off by Irish Distillers and was described in the article as the "last apprentice cooper in the country".

The feature goes on to note that coopers had traditionally been "the aristocratic grouping in the working class of their day and aligned themselves politically with the dominant forces in society", including the loyalists in the 1820s, the Fenians in the middle of the century, and later Parnell.

The article continues that this was evidence of their wish to gain "a strong foothold in influential places" and concludes: "The scene was changed but there are some individuals, like Frank McCann, maintaining a link with an ancient lineage.