Catherine Nevin: The trial and conviction of the 'Black Widow'
Nevin maintained her husband Tom was killed by raiders in Jack White’s pub in 1996
At about 4.30am on March 19th, 1996 the panic alarm flashed, lighting up a computer screen at the Bell Communications security company. A woman had discovered the body of her husband.
Not long afterwards, gardaí arrived at Jack White’s Inn, in Wicklow, where they found publican Tom Nevin slumped on the kitchen floor. A single gunshot had opened his chest. He appeared to have been writing at the exact moment of his death, a pen still resting in his hand, glasses on his nose.
Catherine Nevin sat nearby shaking, refusing to believe Tom was dead. She would say that she had been tied up in bed by raiders threatening to kill her. They tore the room apart for jewellery. A little later, when she heard two vehicles speeding away from the property, she freed herself and went downstairs where she tripped the alarm.
Some of this was true.
Tom Nevin was certainly killed in the home he shared with his wife, in March 1996.
Nevin, dubbed by the media the Black Widow, would come to be viewed as one of Ireland’s most notorious criminals; a woman so determined to rid herself of her husband she would plead with a number of would-be assassins to kill him. Seemingly oblivious to the dangers of airing her intentions so openly, she offered the proceeds of pub takings and life insurance payouts as incentives.
Photographs of Nevin coming in and out of court – well dressed with tinted glasses, shoulder-length blonde hair and thin lips that curled into the suggestion of a defiant smile – would fuse into the popular imagination.
The 49-year-old was frequently cast as a cold and brutally ruthless narcissist; a social climber and businesswoman who would only deal with important people, and who displayed a self-obsessed determination to “succeed”.
She was also seen as a woman who wanted to erase her husband and leave in his absence an otherwise perfectly intact version of the life they shared. By Tom’s death, she stood to inherit £1 million and gain full control of a mini property empire.
There are a handful of murders in Irish history that have become etched in the public consciousness. Many have similar arcs: spousal homicide, rich in detail of premeditation; killers whose grand schemes are foiled. By the time Nevin’s trial finished 17 years ago, she had become one of the country’s most darkly intriguing and compelling figures.
Jack White’s Inn by the side of the N11, the main artery from Dublin to Wexford, is still open today with the same name above the door despite its uncomfortable place in history. Its white exterior, pitched slate roof and neon lights are a familiar landmark.
It was here that Tom Nevin and his wife of 20 years had become a fixture of the community. Their employees recalled a woman who was impressed by people with social status and she would lavish them with charm, free meals and “special coffees” generously laced with spirits. She would scold her staff publicly.
Nevin attempted to link her husband’s death to the IRA, saying she had discovered his membership of the organisation three years into their marriage (the Garda Special Branch which monitored IRA activities had no file on Tom Nevin, indicating he had no connections).
By contrast, the accounts of Tom’s character that emerged during and after the trial were of a generous and hardworking man known as “daddy” to the pub’s younger staff. He had given a lift home to customers in the hours before his death.
His first wife, June O’Flanagan, told the Central Criminal Court his character was wonderful “and his morals were wonderful. He was very hard working and wanted to own his own pub one day – that was his dream – and his own home”. Her family, she said, had called him the “gentle giant”.
Intimate details of the Nevins’ lives would emerge later, dissected publicly for the benefit of a jury. A picture was painted of a troubled marriage, where there were thoughts of separation, and an intention by Catherine to buy out her husband’s half of the business.
“Tom and I did not have a troubled marriage, there was nothing wrong in our marriage,” Catherine Nevin would later insist. She also denied an affair with former garda inspector Tom Kennedy. She would describe her husband as a private man and while he had interests and “political friends”, he had prioritised their marriage over business.
From the moment gardaí arrived at Jack White’s on the morning of Tom Nevin’s murder, things didn’t seem to add up. More than £16,550 was taken from the premises that night and yet the burglary Catherine Nevin had described was missing many of the characteristics gardaí knew to look for.
Her bedroom was in a state of disorder after the “raiders” fled but did not appear to have been systematically searched. Jewellery had been scattered around but none was taken. A garda fingerprints expert found drawers discarded on the floor appeared to have been lifted from the sides and placed on ground.
None of the doors or windows in the pub showed signs of forced entry and none of the phones had been ripped out, although two were off the hook – one in Nevin’s bedroom and another outside the adjoining bathroom. She had not gone into her husband’s separate bedroom for help on the night of the attack. It seemed unusual that the curtains in the old dining room had been drawn closed.
A witness would recall how on the day of the murder, Catherine Nevin had told the staff they were not welcome to stay the night in the pub as they had often done after nights out.
While many of the circumstances seemed suspicious, and while investigating gardaí were confident they had their killer, there was still a lack of firm evidence – no forensics, no eye-witnesses, no admission of guilt. Circumstantial evidence alone would not be sufficient to convict.
However, gardaí built their case and Nevin was finally arrested in April, 1997. When she was later charged with murder and solicitation to murder, she was well on her way to becoming one of the most talked about and easily recognised people in the country.
The first trial collapsed when it became known the jury could be overheard. The trial had quickly turned into public spectacle as fascination in Nevin mounted; much of the attention turned to her appearance and demeanour, an aspect of the trial that would do much to define it.
Angered by the tone and focus of media reporting, Ms Justice Mella Carroll set about ensuring it was not repeated in the second trial. She said Nevin was “entitled to wear to court what she wants without it being dissected” and introduced specific restrictions on reporting, particularly in relation to “colour” articles which typically described the day’s proceedings outside of the evidence and legal interaction.
Photographs of Nevin’s arrival to court were prohibited, as was comment on her hairstyle, dress, jewellery, nail varnish, reading matter or demeanour in court.
The public fascination, however, would be rekindled when the details of Nevin’s crimes emerged over the weeks.
The verdict would ultimately come down to the evidence of three men. In order to arrive at a guilty verdict on the count of murder, the jury had to be convinced by one or more of their accounts of Nevin’s attempts to persuade them to kill. Without solicitation to murder, there could be no finding of murder.
Nevin first met William McClean in Dublin in the mid 1980s. During his evidence, McClean said the pair had a sexual relationship until 1986 and it wasn’t until four years later that she contacted him again to say she wanted a “job done”.
According to McClean, Nevin mentioned a figure of about £20,000 and told him she would get “the insurance money, the lot, everything” and that they could get back together if he helped. McClean said he told her “no f**king way” and walked away.
The Co Monaghan native had convictions for fraud but denied paramilitary connections.
Gerry Heapes, however, was a self-confessed former IRA man (a member of an active service unit in the mid 1970s) who told the jury Nevin had repeatedly come to him with suggestions on how he might kill her husband.
Approached in all about 10 times, he said he felt she eventually “got the message” that he wouldn’t help her.
In his evidence, Heapes said Nevin first suggested he could shoot Tom on one of his weekly visits to flats he owned on the South Circular Road in Dublin. It would be an opportune moment as he would have the pub takings with him. He also claimed she suggested planning her husband’s execution for the Phoenix Park.
“Every time I knocked back an idea she’d come up with another one,” he said.
One of these involved ambushing him after having a meal with Nevin. He told her he couldn’t do that because the bulk of the shot would pass through her husband and hit her.
“But it would look great,” she replied, “if Tom was to die in my arms.”
John Jones, the third of Nevin’s would-be assassins, was a TV salesman who ran a Sinn Féin advice clinic in Dublin.
In 1989, he told the jury, she had suggested the “proposition” of his getting the IRA to shoot her husband. Again, she requested this a number of times, insisting a “botched” hold-up was the best approach, but he refused to help her.
Nevin denied these allegations. In her highly anticipated evidence, she painted herself as the victim widow, a woman devastated by her husband’s death and adamant she had been tied up on the night the home-raiders killed him.
At one point the trial was delayed when Nevin was taken to hospital. Later, in the witness box, as she tearfully described her husband, sometimes her voice dropped to a whisper. Such was her demeanour in giving evidence, the prosecution asked the jury to take it into account when considering their verdict.
“When she was coming to the tricky parts, she dropped her voice, was audibly sniffling, but without any tears,” barrister Tom O’Connell noted, “and on the tricky bits, she was significantly low on detail.”
Nevin told the jury her husband was a “disciplined alcoholic” who would stay up drinking on his own in the pub, the way he preferred it. He would mix spirits into a glass of Guinness.
Tom Nevin had been shot at point blank range; it was an “assassination”, the prosecution said; and carried out as such. Big game gunshot cartridges were used and there was no indication anyone had tried to tie him up. He was shot in the side of the chest and died within five minutes.
The prosecution argued that Catherine Nevin either let his killers into the pub or had keys cut. Tom Nevin’s killer or killers had “inside information and superb intelligence”.
But Catherine Nevin described the moments immediately after she was informed of his death: “I just felt so sick, I was terrified, I was numb, I didn’t want to believe it, I was . . . it just couldn’t possibly have happened.
“I just wished I was dead as well.”
She dismissed the notion of a troubled marriage or any ideas of separating; or that she had had an affair with ex-garda inspector Tom Kennedy.
Her husband was a private man, she said to a packed courtroom, someone who “tried to keep his business life and his personal life confined to himself and myself”.
“I never at any stage of our married life wanted Tom out of my life, ever, Tom was a big, big part of my married life, and he always will be,” she said.
As for her husband’s alleged IRA links, Nevin said before she told her legal team, she had vowed to her husband never to breathe a word.
“You had your husband assassinated and you also tried to assassinate his character,” Judge Mella Carroll said after the jury returned guilty verdicts, after a record 29-and-a-half hours of deliberations and 42 days of trial evidence.
Nevin sat motionless in her seat, letting the finality of it seep through. There was no reaction as silence dampened a court room which had remained full to capacity. She maintained the same posture; sitting upright with her hands on her lap, staring impassively ahead.
Even after all this time, the identity of whoever pulled the trigger in the empty Jack White’s Inn remains unknown, but in a statement after the verdicts Tom Nevin’s siblings described their relief that “the person primarily responsible” had met with justice.
“We are particularly happy,” they said, “that the attempts to destroy our brother’s character have been entirely rejected by the jury.”
Afterwards, the crowds filtered out of the courtroom and into the round hall of the old Four Courts building where criminal trials then took place. Tom Nevin’s family gathered around, shaking hands, making phone calls and letting the verdict resonate. Outside, a prison van’s door opened and Catherine Nevin climbed inside. But she never stopped protesting her innocence. She lost an appeal in 2003 and in 2010, she lost an application to have her conviction declared a miscarriage of justice.
She was released from prison last September and died on Monday night.