Bodies of mother and son (3) were found ritually slain, murder trial is told

 

A YOUNG mother and her toddler son were "ritually slain" and buried intertwined in a wood in Co Clare, a murder trial jury heard yesterday.

Imelda Riney was shot in the left eye socket at close range and her three year old son, Liam, had been shot in the left side of the head at close range, the Central Criminal Court was told.

And the body of Father Joseph Walsh, who was also shot in the left side of the head at close range, was found some 950 feet away in the same wood, prosecuting counsel, Mr Kevin Haugh SC, said.

Mr Haugh was opening the trial at the Central Criminal Court of Mr Brendan O'Donnell (21), a native of Co Clare but of no fixed abode, who has denied the murders of Imelda Riney, her son Liam, and Father Joseph Walsh in 1994.

Counsel said the jury would be satisfied Mr O'Donnell had shot dead all three victims. "When you hear the totality of evidence, you will be satisfied they were ritually slain in that fashion by Brendan O'Donnell and the appropriate verdict is murder," he said.

"These were the cold and calculating and well thought out acts of Brendan O'Donnell; he cleverly took steps to evade detection and acted in a sinister and most terrible way and the appropriate verdict is to find him guilty of all charges."

Mr O'Donnell, wearing a green anorak, blue shirt and patterned tie and denim jeans, was arraigned in court yesterday on 12 counts relating to events in Cos Clare and Galway in April and May 1994. He denied all the charges as they were read out by court registrar, Mr Paddy Morrissey.

The defendant pleaded not guilty to the murder of Imelda (29) and Liam Riney (3) on a date unknown between April 28th and May 8th, 1994.

He also denied the murder of Father Joseph Walsh (37) between May 3rd and May 8th, 1994 and falsely imprisoning Father Walsh on May 4th, 1994.

Mr O'Donnell plead not guilty to having, at Allendara East, Woodford, Co Galway, on May 7th, 1994, a BSA .22 Sportsman rifle and ammunition with intent to endanger life and for unlawful purposes.

He denied falsely imprisoning Ms Fiona Sampson and Mr Edward Cleary at Allendara East on the same date.

He also denied unlawfully exercising control over a car at Woodford, Co Galway, driven by Ms Sampson on May 7th, 1994, and of unlawfully exercising control over a vehicle driven by Mr Cleary at Allendara East, Woodford, on the same date.

A jury of six men and six women were sworn to hear the case after the arraignment and the trial opened formally around noon.

In his opening speech, Mr Haugh said the case had been the subject of a "media blitz" and had been accorded huge publicity. He told the jury they must ignore all of that, and all rumours and speculation regarding the case, and try it only on the evidence they would hear in court.

He said the State believed it would satisfy the jury that the defendant was guilty of all charges.

He said the background to the ease dated back to 1982 when Imelda Riney, who was born in Terenure, Dublin, struck up a romance with Mr Val Ballance, formerly of Clontarf, in London. They had two children, Oisin and Liam, who in 1994 here seven and three respectively, and lived in England.

The couple lived together until 1992 when the relationship began to deteriorate and Imelda Riney moved back to Ireland and went to live in Co Clare.

She bought a cottage in east Clare, near Scariff, and settled down there with the two children. She maintained good relations with Mr Ballance who came over regularly.

Mr Haugh said Mr Ballance came over to see Imelda and the children on April 24th, 1994.

On the morning of April 29th, a Friday, he rose early and went off to do refurbishing work on a school near Scariff, counsel said. He took Oisin to a neighbour and left Imelda and Liam in the house. Imelda was to visit him at the school later but never arrived.

Counsel said Mr Ballance collected Oisin from school later and returned to the house. Imelda was not there and her car was gone. The kettle was on the gas ring and was boiled dry because the gas was still on. Imelda's tobacco pouch was still there.

Mr Haugh said Mr Ballance was not unduly concerned. He made inquiries the next day and reported Imelda and Liam missing the following day, Sunday.

Counsel said the court would hear evidence from several people about events from the 29th. He said a Mr Lyons would say he saw a car around noon being driven by Imelda Riney and there was a man in the back. Mr Lyons would say that man was the defendant, Mr Brendan O'Donnell.

Another woman would also say she saw a car being driven by Ms Riney with a person in the back.

Counsel said there would be evidence that the defendant visited his grandmother in the Eyrecourt area on the night of Friday 29th.

He said a burned out car was found in woods on Saturday, April 30th, the day after Ms Riney disappeared, but through a series of misfortunes it was not identified as Imelda Riney's car until some days later. He said the incorrect registration number and chassis number were initially given.

That same afternoon a number plate and a piece of a car bumper were found by a farmer on his land but he did not initially regard them as significant.

On Sunday, May 1st, Mr Ballance reported Liam and Imelda missing, Mr Haugh said. There would also be evidence that the defendant visited his grandmother at lunchtime that day.

On Tuesday, May 3rd, Father Joseph Walsh was the main focus of attention, counsel said. He was last seen going into his house at Eyrecourt, Co Galway, about half past midnight. He was due to say Mass early on the morning of Wednesday, May 4th, but did not turn up. He was later reported missing.

Mr Haugh said the burned out Ford Fiesta found at a wooded area was identified as Imelda Riney's that same day. The following day, a taxi driver would tell the court, he saw a blue Opel Astra car and would identify a man at that car as the defendant.

He said Father Walsh owned a blue Opel Astra and the jury would be satisfied that Brendan O'Donnell was driving Father Walsh's car on May 5th, 1994.

Counsel said there would be evidence of a car being burned at Williamstown Pier, Whitegate the following day, May 6th 1994. That car was later identified as Father Walsh's.

A man doing milk rounds saw a man he believed to be Mr Brendan O'Donnell in the Williamstown area on the following morning, counsel said. He reported the sighting to the gardai.

That same morning a Ms Fiona Sampson was abducted by the defendant from her home and forced to drive the family car at gunpoint, Mr Haugh said. She drove the car some seven or eight miles and then drove it off the road.

He said Mr O'Donnell forced Ms Sampson, who was barefoot and wearing a nightdress, to walk along rocky and boggy ground. Mr O'Donnell had a gun, counsel said.

He said Mr O'Donnell went to a house and tried to get a car but the owner discharged a shot to prevent this.

Mr Haugh said Mr O'Donnell then tried to take a car belonging to Mr Edward Cleary. He said Mr O'Donnell put Ms Sampson as his prisoner into the car and tried to get Mr Cleary to drive but Mr Cleary stalled the car.

At this stage the area was surrounded by gardai and a helicopter was also surveying the scene counsel said. Gardai surrounded the car. A garda fired two shots at the rear wheels and Mr Cleary grabbed the barrel of a gun held by the defendant which discharged into the roof of the car.

Gardai then grabbed the defendant and pulled him from the ear, Mr Haugh said. He was arrested and taken away.

Counsel said the jury would be satisfied that the defendant had abducted Imelda Riney and her son, Liam, on April 29th and had murdered them. He said no one knew what happened between then and when Mr O'Donnell was arrested.

He said the Cregg Wood area was searched and the bodies of Imelda and Liam were found. Both had been shot at close range with a single .22 bullet. Imelda had been shot through the left eye socket and Liam in the left side of the head.

Not far from where the bodies of Imelda and Liam were found the body of Father Walsh was uncovered, counsel said. He had also been shot at close range in the left side of the head.

The jury would be satisfied Mr O'Donnell had abducted Father Walsh from his home, he said.

There would be evidence that when Mr O'Donnell was grabbed by gardai, he had a gun and bullets in his pocket, Mr Haugh said. He also had a box with a large number of bullets, counsel added.

He said the bullets from all three victims were of the same type of bullet found on the defendant. "The proper and only verdict is guilty on each and every one of the charges preferred against him," Mr Haugh said.

Yesterday's hearing also heard evidence from Garda mappers and photographers. Det Garda Gerard Scanlan presented maps of locations relevant to the trial to the court, including aerial photographs of areas of Co Clare and Co Galway.

Det Garda John Malone said he had compiled photograph albums for the trial. He had taken photos of areas in Cregg Wood where the bodies of the three victims were found, the witness said. The photographs were shown to the jury.

He said he was present on May 7th, 1994, when the defendant had given his jacket and other items of clothing to gardai. The defendant had removed seven .22 bullets from the back pocket of his jeans and these were given to a garda.

The trial continues today before Mr Justice Lavan and the jury.