Brother of vulnerable pensioner says he was ‘helpless’ as sibling burned in home

Not possible to identify Gerry Marron’s body due to ‘charred condition’ of his remains, court heard


The brother of a “trusting, gentle” and vulnerable pensioner, who was killed after a teenager with an intellectual disability set fire to his home in Co Monaghan, has described the “agony” of arriving at the scene only to stand “helplessly” on the roadside as his sibling “burned to death” inside.

The court also heard on Friday that it was not possible to identify 61-year-old Gerry Marron’s body due to “the charred condition” of his remains and instead his siblings had to provide their DNA to officialy identify the “gifted” tradesman

The family sat beside “a closed coffin” at his funeral “only imagining” what their brother looked like inside and the pain he must have suffered.

Patrick Marron told the Central Criminal Court that his brother had been “open to exploitation” and the family were concerned for his safety saying: “I witnessed first hand Gerry being harassed and intimidated in his own home, which I was gravely concerned about”.

Mr Marron’s sister, Ann Doogan, told the court in a second victim impact statement that the remnant’s of her brother’s house following his “excruciating death” was “like something out of a horror film” with the fridge and lampshades melted from the intense heat of the fire.

Last March, Aaron McDonagh (21), of no fixed abode, pleaded guilty to manslaughter for killing Mr Marron by setting fire to his house five years ago on March 21st, 2016.

He has also pleaded guilty to committing arson without lawful excuse on the same date in that he did damage by fire to a dwellinghouse at St Macartans Villas, Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan, the property of Mr Marron, intending to damage such property or being reckless as to whether such property would be damaged and intending by the said damage to endanger the life of another or being reckless as to whether the life of another would be thereby endangered.

At the defendant’s sentence hearing on Friday, a victim impact statement was read to the court by Gerry Marron’s brother, Patrick Marron, who said that they came from a family of eight and Gerry was six years younger than him. “We were taught to respect other people and their property and grew up with that ethic,” he added.

Mr Marron said his brother worked in the building trade and was “highly respected” by those he worked for. “He was foreman on numerous jobs in Monaghan and Dublin with local building contractors. He was recognised as a gifted tradesman and was sought by many to give his ideas on building projects and to carry out construction work,” he said.

The witness said he saw the work Gerry had carried out around his own home with his “gifted hands” and it brought back good memories.

He added: “Sadly in the early nineties Gerry’s life took a turn for the worst, he was hospitalised for some time, later suffering a stroke and then being diagnosed with an acquired brain injury from which he never recovered. This resulted in him no longer being able to return to work.”

Mr Marron said his brother lived in his own home in St Macartan’s Villas with the assistance of home care help and family members. “My sister Ann would look after his medical and laundry needs over weekends and as Gerry was no longer able to carry out maintenance jobs to his home himself, I would help him out on occasion doing minor repairs to his house,” he said.

“Since Gerry’s illness his vulnerability was clear to be seen, as he had to use a walking stick to get around. In the months prior to Gerry’s death, we as a family became more aware of Gerry’s increased vulnerability. He was open to exploitation and we were concerned for his safety. I was so concerned about different events at his home, that I had to contact gardaí a number of times in the months prior to the fire and Gerry’s death,” he continued.

“I witnessed first hand Gerry being harassed and intimidated in his own home, which I was gravely concerned about and as a result I reported what I had witnessed to An Garda Síochána on a number of occasions. Gerry’s great neighbours also contacted both myself and Ann at different times, extremely concerned for his welfare. Sadly the frequency of these interferences at Gerry’s home added greatly to our fears for Gerry’s safety. Again we reported to gardaí,” he said.

Sadly, Mr Marron said, his “worst fears came to pass” in the early hours of March 21st, 2016, when they were awoken by a phone call to tell them about “the shocking news” that Gerry’s house was on fire and to come quickly. “That night life changed for me and my family forever. We immediately drove to Gerry’s home hearing sirens and seeing flashing lights as we approached. At his home all we could see were fire brigades, Garda cars, smoke and panic everywhere,” he said.

He continued: “I was so terrified for Gerry’s life and I tried to get into Gerry’s house but I was held back and told it wasn’t safe. I was in shock and terror and felt weak, feeling absolutely sick in the pit of my stomach. Some neighbours came to comfort us as we stood helpless on the road outside Gerry’s home as he was burning to death. All hope vanished when I was told later that night my brother had not survived.

“We were then informed that the area was being cornered off to allow forensics to carry out their investigation and as a result it wouldn’t be possible for any of the family to enter his home to see him. We remained at the scene for many hours and didn’t get any sleep. We were all in shock and grief. Our agony was prolonged for the next few days as the investigation of the scene continued, with all the thoughts of Gerry’s body lying in there churning in my mind”.

Mr Marron said that the family member chosen “for the gruesome ordeal” of identifying his brother’s body was told that this would not be possible “due to the charred conditions Gerry’s remains were in”. “We had no chance to say goodbye or ever see him again. As a result of no visual identification being possible in Drogheda mortuary, myself and my sister Ann were requested to attend the local Garda station to have our DNA taken to officially identify Gerry’s remains,” he continued.

Referring to the funeral, Mr Marron said hundreds of people came to sympathise and share their grief with the family as they sat beside “a closed coffin only imagining” what their brother Gerry looked like in it and the pain he must have suffered, the court heard. “Only photographs of Gerry on the coffin as we shared memories of times passed. This will remain with me forever,” he said.

Mr Marron said he suffers from sleepless nights, fear, anxiety, stress and “in particular visions of Gerry burning and not being able to save him”. He said he will have to live with “this torment” for the rest of his life. “The manner of Gerry’s death has caused ongoing havoc in my life. If Gerry had died of natural causes I would be able to come to terms with it and it would be much easier to accept, but to be taken from our life instantly in such a cruel and callous manner, burned to death, dying in pain, suffering alone and no goodbyes to any of his family — nobody knows the devastation that this has caused,” he remarked.

He continued: “These years are my retirement years. I never expected to spend my retirement days tidying up the mess caused by this callous and reckless act. We never expected Gerry to leave this world in this way. RIP Gerry.”

Some months later, Mr Marron said, he and his siblings had to “face the grim reality of cleaning up the aftermath of the fire”. “On first entering the house the first thing I noticed was the imprint of Gerry’s body on the charred carpet. That image stays with me. Again, one can only imagine what he must have suffered while lying on that floor”.

In regards to the clean up of the house, Mr Marron said it was sad to see his brother’s television melted, family photographs destroyed, “the plastic of his music centre distorted from the intense heat of the fire”, where he regularly played his much loved country music and ballad CDs and tapes. “He enjoyed the simple things of life,” he added.

“While looking at the damage of Gerry’s house, we can appreciate that only for the prompt action of his good neighbours to call the guards and the fire brigade, there may have been more tragedy that night. I dread to think what would have happened to the adjoining houses and the people asleep therein,” he said.

In summary, Mr Marron said that his brother was the type of person who saw good in everybody. “It’s very sad to think that someone so trusting and gentle in personality died in such a horrific manner........burned to death in his own home. Unfortunately, these are the horrific memories that me and my family have to carry for the rest of our lives due to this callous act.”

Horrific circumstances

In a second emotional victim impact statement today, the deceased’s sister, Ann Doogan, said her brother had died alone “in such horrific circumstances”. She said the “horrendous manner” in which her “dear brother died” has affected her in so many ways. “That night is forever etched in my memory and I often wonder did he call for any of us,” she said.

“He was a kind, caring and considerate brother, a man at the heart of his local community, often referred to by locals as a ‘gentle giant’,” said Ms Doogan.

“Even sometimes while watching television, when a scene appears of a burning house or I hear the sound of a fire brigade it throws up so many images in my mind. Having witnessed the remnants of Gerry’s house following his excruciating death, I can still envisage the outline and silhouette of his walking stick on the ground in such a black, charred and grim scene. It was like something out of a horror film. The fridge and even the lampshades upstairs were melted,” she said.

The hardest part of it all, she said, was sitting by Gerry’s closed coffin as “there was no other option as he had been burnt so badly”. “His radiant smile beamed out from a framed photograph on top of his closed coffin of a much happier time celebrating his surprise 60th birthday gathering. This in itself along with feelings of anger and frustration at how this rotten and callous act had been mulled over and dealt with by the justice system from then up until now has only compounded my heart-breaking grief even further,” said Ms Doogan.

Extensive fire damage

At Friday’s sentence hearing Detective Sergeant Kieran Regan, of Carrickmacross Garda Station, detailed the background to the blaze, telling prosecution counsel Shane Costelloe SC that gardaí and emergency services were contacted around 1.30am on March 21.

Det Sgt Regan told Mr Costelloe that a neighbour, who had got as close as possible to the fire, informed gardaí that Mr Marron was inside the house. There was “extremely extensive fire damage” to the terraced house and efforts were made to save Mr Marron but they were unsuccessful, said the lawyer.

Outlining the events that led up to the incident, Mr Costelloe said that immediate enquiries were conducted at the scene and two youths had been seen in or about the house that night and into the early morning.

One of the youths who was identified as McDonagh, the barrister said, went from door to door, trying to get a cigarette lighter. “Other items found in the immediate vicinity of the house were marks on a car parked outside the house and someone had defecated in or about that area,” he indicated.

A full investigation was conducted, Mr Costelloe said, and arising out of an entirely unrelated matter officers became aware that a Garda Maloney had attended at Mr Marron’s home on the previous day. On March 20, the court heard, Gda Maloney had spoken at length with Mr Marron and was able to tell the investigation that the house was in good order and recently cleaned.

Counsel said that cans of Carling Lager and the remnants of a Chinese takeaway were found in the front room of Mr Marron’s house. Fingerprint lifts were taken from the bag belonging to the takeaway and the provenance of the beer was investigated, said Mr Costelloe. “A very detailed perusal of CCTV footage was collated and it was ascertained that a number of youths had bought a Chinese takeaway and cans of Lager on March 20,” he said.

McDonagh was one of the youths identified in the CCTV footage and the cans of lager found at the scene came from the same batch sold in the off-licence that night, the court heard.

McDonagh and another person were arrested and fingerprints and DNA samples were taken from the defendant.

During his first interview, McDonagh denied all knowledge of setting fire to the house and looking for a lighter. However, the finger lifts taken from the container belonging to the Chinese meal matched McDonagh’s, said Mr Costelloe.

In other interviews, McDonagh denied setting fire to the house again but told gardaí that he was looking for the cigarette lighter for the other youth or Mr Marron. “He said he knew Mr Marron but persisted in his denial of having anything to do with setting the fire,” said the lawyer.

A forensic engineer was attained by gardaí to perform an inspection of the site and it was determined that the fire had been set in or about the front door of the house in the vicinity of the fuel box. Mr Marron’s body was found adjacent to that area, the court heard.

Mr Marron’s cause of death was inhalation of smoke and toxic gases as a result of the fire. “It was established that he was alive at the time the fire was set and had inhaled poisonous toxic gases and died. It was not possible to identify if there were other injuries to his body,” said the detective.

During the investigation, it emerged that there was an extensive history between McDonagh and Mr Marron. Mr Costelloe said that this did not pertain just to the deceased but also between the defendant and Mr Marron’s immediate family. “There was an incident two weeks prior between McDonagh and the family of the deceased that led to the minor assault in respect of a family member [the Marron family],” said the detective.

A decision was made by gardaí during the investigation to search the halting site where McDonagh lived and items found in his home included a key which was subsequently identified as being the key which opened a medicine cabinet in Mr Marron’s home. “This was put to him during his detention and he denied all knowledge,” said the detective.

Personal papers belonging to Mr Marron were also found in the defendant’s home and again he denied all knowledge.

The court heard that McDonagh has 11 previous convictions which include possession of knives, burglary, theft, handling stolen property and trespass.

The detective said McDonagh was 16 years of age and in school at the time of the offence and was a resident of Carrickmacross.

Referring to Mr Marron, Mr Costelloe said that he was a working man, who had suffered a significant head injury which led to him finishing his career as a carpenter 15 years before the event. “He was of limited ability, not unable, but he wouldn’t have been fully capable. He was of limited means and his own extended family took a very day to day hands on approach in relation to his finances and making sure the house was clean,” said the barrister.

The detective agreed with counsel that Mr Marron’s home had been used by youths as a place where they could go to drink over a period of time. “Mr Marron wasn’t particularly happy about this but he couldn’t do anything about them coming into his house,” said Mr Costelloe.

Under cross-examination, the detective agreed with defence counsel Michael Lynn SC that his client suffered from an intellectual disability at a mild level and was with an older person on the night. He also agreed that McDonagh had a difficult family background and experienced an upbringing without any boundaries and structures and was deprived. The detective further agreed that McDonagh had lost the benefit of The Children Act as he was not charged until three years after the offence and was by then 18 years of age.

Notwithstanding McDonagh’s intellectual capacity and youth at the time of the offence, Mr Costelloe said the Director of Public Prosecutions considered it to be in the highest category of severity.

Mr Lynn said that mitigating factors were his client’s age, intellectual disability, family upbringing and guilty pleas.

Referring to his family background, the defence barrister said life had been very unstable for his client with eleven people living together in a caravan at times. A report handed into the court referring to McDonagh’s traumatic experiences set out evidence of the defendant’s adverse child rearing experience, his neglect, parental criminality, peer rejection, poor academic performance, poverty and food scarcity, which Mr Lynn said was of important context and background within his culpability for the offence.

He said McDonagh was intoxicated on the night and began abusing substances at 14 years of age.

In his submissions, Mr Lynn asked the court to take into account McDonagh’s family circumstances, where a previous social worker had noted long-standing concerns with his personal care and well-being.

Mr Lynn read aloud to the court a letter of apology written by McDonagh, in which he expressed his sorrow to Mr Marron’s family and said he could not make up for what had happened. He said he was deeply sorry and hopes one day that the deceased’s family will forgive him.

Mr Justice Michael White remanded the defendant in custody to July 23rd, when he will be sentenced. He expressed his deepest sympathies to the Marron family saying that it had been a long time since Mr Marron’s death and it was clear from the attendance of his extended family in court that he was a much loved uncle and brother. “He was a man in his prime until his illness and became someone who was very vulnerable and had been looked after carefully by his family,” he added.