‘He’s Jekyll and Hyde’: The inside story of an Irish barrister and conman
TV review: This is no Netflix true-crime exposé, but an exercise in journalistic diligence
Patrick Russell pleaded guilty in 2019 to the theft of €215,000 from a Kildare company. Photograph: Collins Courts
Paul Murphy’s chronicling of the life and crimes of a serial fraudster, in RTÉ Investigates: Barrister & Conman – The Patrick Russell Story (RTÉ One, 9.35pm), is forensic and shocking.
Russell’s scams are detailed at length, and the case is made that the Garda and Director of Public Prosecutions should have intervened far earlier than they did. (Russell finally received a four-year sentence for theft earlier this month and is currently in Mountjoy Prison.)
But Russell himself remains largely a mystery. Was it greed alone that motivated him? Or were darker demons at play? The question is never entirely answered.
So this isn’t the kind of true-crime exposé you might binge on on Netflix. It is, rather, an exercise of journalistic due diligence as Murphy traces Russell’s progress from defrauding his neighbours in Finglas to running a complicated wheeze involving fake addresses in Manchester and endless assurances to his victims that the money he owed was on its way.
In all, RTÉ Investigates tracked down more than 60 men and women who, over 30 years, were defrauded to the tune of €8 million.
“He’s Jekyll and Hyde,” says one man unlucky to cross paths with Russell. “He’ll convince people he can do good. But Hyde is never far away.”
That’s as close we come to unpicking the central imponderable: what sort of person could skate by on the underdog raffishness Russell apparently possessed in abundance while defrauding dozens of people? Especially in Ireland, a country where there is no such thing as a secret and everybody knows everybody else’s business?
Here, the viewer wants to know more. It’s not the sort of programme that attempts psychoanalysis, but a more exhausting delve into Russell’s life, might have proved illuminating.
Still, even this straightforward account of Russell’s crimes is shocking. When one of his neighbours, Esther Wilson, suffered life-changing injuries in a cycling accident, he talked her mother into entrusting to him a portion of the settlement – then had to be taken to court to finally hand it back. And the Wilsons were among the lucky ones.
Russell had by then gone on to enter a business relationship with the former taoiseach Albert Reynolds. And he qualified as a barrister in 2001, notwithstanding the fact that the Wilson family had already been forced to go before a judge looking for their money.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Esther’s sister, Margaret. “I thought to myself ‘this man has judgments against him and he’s actually practising law’.”
He finally gave the Wilsons their cash back in 2004. Days later he paid €2.5 million for a home on six-acres (that he no longer owns) in Co Dublin.
The Wilsons were only the beginning. David McDonald, a Carlow-based businessman who hired Russell as a tax specialist, lost hundreds of thousands. “That’s another thing that sucks you in: he doesn’t talk down to you,” he says. “He talks with you.”
The roll-call of victims grew longer and longer. Russell took €100,000 from the musicians Foster and Allen; €800,000 from a businesswoman based in Offaly; €400,000 from the golfer Damien McGrane.
He would finally attempt one scam too far, and in 2019 he pleaded guilty to stealing €215,000 from the owner of a small trucking company in Kildare.
But as Murphy points out, Russell could have already been behind bars had the DPP and Garda acted on the information presented years earlier.
There will always be people such as Russell. The slowness of Ireland’s public institutions was arguably the real theme here.
“It is the policy of this office not to comment on individual cases, and we will not be providing a representative for interview,” is the frustrating response from the DPP when asked why it didn’t prosecute Russell on the basis of information furnished by the Garda fraud bureau.
One of the final scenes is of Murphy accosting Russell with a boom mic.“No comment, no comment, no comment”, a still inscrutable Russell says as he crosses the road. We have learned about his crimes but not about the mind that orchestrated them.