How Graham Dwyer preyed on the weakest
A depraved, small man with a staggeringly unshakable air of confidence
Graham Dwyer. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times
The most remarkable feature about Graham Dwyer in the waiting hours and throughout the trial was a staggeringly unshakable air of confidence. He was polite to his prison escorts, even chatty, and overheard at one stage predicting he would be dining on steak and wine on Saturday. He napped a lot in the holding area off the courtroom and when brought out for the occasional jury question, often stood chatting to his father, hands in pocket, smiling, rested, relaxed.
A small man of about 1.65 metres (5’5”), neat, clean-shaven, with a distinctive down-turned mouth, dressed in a well-cut suit, shirt and tie, nothing about him betrayed the fact that he had been in continuous custody since his arrest in October 2013, a fact of which the jury was unaware.
His father Seán, a courteous, likeable man from Bandon, Co Cork, believed to have worked two jobs to fund his son’s college education, was his stalwart throughout the trial. Seán Dwyer occupied the little reserved bench a few feet from him, usually accompanied by one of his children, his daughter Mandy in particular, or – on occasion – his wife, who fell ill during the trial and wasn’t present for the verdict.
During the trial, Graham Dwyer was far from a fearful or supine client. It was he who ruled out the option of manslaughter, taking endless notes behind a shield of folders and Post-it pads, watching his individual monitor in the manner of a mildly interested professional witness. On rare occasions, when the evidence became particularly repulsive, he lowered his head and flushed a deep pink. But the only time he appeared tearful was when a transcript of one of his Garda interviews relating to his small children, was being read to the court.
Court 13, a bright airy room in normal times, often lost the battle with the body heat generated by determined posses of chatty groups of women and solitary men, some of whom travelled long distances and began to queue at 8.15, before battling their way to a seat.
A 50-something man in jeans and anorak, boasted he hadn’t missed a minute of it: “I’m here in the public interest,” he said sharply when challenged for a seat in the bench next to the O’Hara family. Others crammed into the bench behind, perspiring, removing jackets, rustling sweet papers.
A woman was overheard asking another: “Have you seen Fifty Shades of Grey?”
“Yeah,” came the answer, “but it wasn’t a patch on this.”
As the prosecution built its slow, careful, technical case, brick by brick, it also unveiled a level of depravity few people would have encountered beyond the pages of the most gory, misogynistic thrillers.
When first arrested, Dwyer’s greatest fear was of his photograph appearing under the headline, “Architect arrested for murder” (ironic for the man who rejoiced in the username “architect” in his alt.com profile). When texts were quoted from the slave/master phones, he argued: “This is the most private thing . . . I’m worried about my wife and job. . . I think I would like to preserve my marriage, thanks very much.”
He clearly believed he would outsmart them all. Detectives felt obliged then to advise him not to rely on his “standing in the community”. But many onlookers, right to the end, surveyed that veneer of confident, middle-class ordinariness and thought he might just get away with it.
“ Everything to titillate and stimulate the public. Sex and lots of it - kinky sex, middle-aged professional [man], woman with dark secrets.” And, he reckoned, there was a lot of technical and forensic evidence which would be “perfect for an episode of CSI”.
That was only partly true. Elaine O’Hara was more than her “dark secrets”. As is often the case, it was the victim’s most intimate life that was invaded and laid bare. In court one morning, beneath the bench in front of her distressed family, lay a newspaper that had devoted two-thirds of the front page to the headline “Elaine’s ‘sex site’ profile”, with ticked boxes listing kidnap, spanking, collar and leash, slapping, mummification, knife-play.
Evidence from her family, from staff and patients she confided in at the St Edmundsbury mental health facility – where she had been admitted 14 times since the age of 16 – and extracts from her diary gave us a glimpse of a heavy smoker who could be sharp and witty who was training to be a Montessori teacher.
But this was also a woman who as a 12-year-old girl had been pitifully confused about her sexuality and about how to deal with her desperate craving for security and companionship. She found it hard to trust people and said she had no “safe place”. If people were nice to her, she didn’t believe it was genuine because she didn’t deserve it. “I wasn’t born for life. No-one likes me, I’m a bad person,” she told Prof Anthony Clare seven years before her death.
It became manifest in the need to be tied up, to cut herself to release her anger and tension, to be “owned” and humiliated. She had tried to reach out and make new friends via the website, makefriendsonline.com though her alt.com profile invited those interested to call her “f**k meat”. But Elaine was someone who “never really grew up”, who “just wanted to be loved”, said family members.
There was no pleasure or release in the sexual act for her. “She didn’t like sex,” Dwyer told detectives. “All she wanted was to be in a position of no control.”
In therapy, the possibility of having been sexually abused as a child was raised, but she denied it.
He was in a profession for which he had a particular technical talent. He played in a rock band and liked remote-controlled model planes and fast cars although he could ill-afford the cars and flipped them frequently. His architect wife had lost her job in the crash and he had taken heavy paycuts and was deeply in debt as a result of the move to Foxrock at the height of the bubble in 2007.
So far, so normal. But it was the paper-thin veneer between that persona and the murderous, sadistic predator within that played on the worst fears of every woman – or those not showering him with fan-mail in Mountjoy, at any rate – who watched this case.
A man whose wife knew nothing of his predilections or activities that peaked during each of her pregnancies, until gardaí arrived at her door one morning in October 2013. A man who stored pregnancy scans and his children’s photographs in the same hard drive as video files depicting rape, mutilation and throat-slashings and a story about a young woman’s “terrified face, contorted with pain, fear and rage, mouth open and stuffed with the ball gag” and the subsequent violation of her corpse. A man whose big ambition was to achieve a rape/murder by the age of 40 – which he was rapidly approaching at the time.
Dwyer’s own counsel described much of the material from his computer as “deeply misogynistic”. Remy Farrell began his closing arguments by quoting an account of a rape and murder found on Dwyer’s computer: “I had always fantasised about killing ever since I was a teenager and I got hard every time I had a knife in my hand, wielding the power, knowing that I could decide who lived and died. Just like my hero. God.”
And like Elaine O’Hara, his fantasies seemed to have been embedded long before adult life had put its stamp on him, although the case offered no evidence as to why. He was barely 20 when he told a girlfriend – the mother of his grown son – that his fantasy involved “stabbing a woman while having sex with her”, and began to bring a kitchen knife to their bed.
It was that view of women as sub-human and the icy calculation that gave the case its terrifying edge. For Dwyer, murder was not about eliminating an inconvenient woman for anger, lust or greed. The pleasure was in the simultaneous rape, torture and knife murder of a woman. Any woman.
It was evident in his thoughts about choosing a victim. He went about finding an empty house with “a pretty attractive young estate agent . . . Hammer her while her back is turned, Cover her head . . . Gag, rape her. Stab her over and over”.
He considered lurking around the car park of a hiking spot like Killakee, “late in the day and if the last car was girly looking, the chances are a suitable victim might be walking on her own”. He pondered getting a “suitcase big enough [to remove the body] and target small women”. His routine packing for a weekend away in Newcastle, included chloroform, a knife and rope.
Instead, it was the profoundly fragile and friendless Elaine O’Hara. She searched for companionship on a conventional dating site called Match.com and turned to Alt.com, a site where she called herself “helpmelearn-36/F” and said she was into “knife- play”. Catnip to Graham Dwyer.
No doubt, as Remy Farrell predicted, books will be written (in fact, a few are well in train) and films will be made about this case. He triggered a rare outburst of laughter in court 13 when he suggested that prosecution counsel Seán Guerin would be played by Benedict Cumberbatch and young Mr Farrell himself would be played by George Clooney.
It certainly has the makings of a CSI episode, as he also predicted (the scene-of-crime series also found on Dwyer’s hard drive). A series of almost supernatural coincidences, by which conscientious members of the public and a persistent local garda recovered items, including the vital master and slave phones and keys, from a reservoir, and linked them to skeletal remains found 40kms away, followed by inspired, technical investigations and old-school legwork were involved. Anyone involved in or who followed this case has learned one salient fact: digital privacy of any kind is a myth. Without each link, Dwyer might have committed the perfect crime.
It is also true that the “kinky sex” element played a role in the immense interest in the case. People who knew nothing of BDSM were hearing about heavy chains, wrist and ankle bed restraints, leather masks and more exotic accoutrements and sexual practices that few believed existed beyond the relatively bland pages of Fifty Shades of Grey.
By a bizarre coincidence, the film version, heavily marketed as erotica for women, was released in the same week as a procession of men – most of whom had come into contact with Elaine O’Hara through a BDSM website – found themselves in the witness box, blinking in the public glare.
The prosecution suggested she had been “groomed” by Dwyer on that site; the defence argued that “it takes two to tango”. In another forum, perhaps, the central issue would be the nature of true consent (a cornerstone of the BDSM code of conduct, according to practitioners).
Video clips showed O’Hara screaming and bound in chains, while being stabbed during sex. Similar clips featured other gagged, restrained and blindfolded women, their faces pixillated for the court, probably unaware they were being videoed. One of them in particular, has reason to fear for her anonymity.
Elaine O’Hara tried to break away from him. He taunted her that she would never get a partner because she was “old, and fat, a smoker, disobedient and needy” and reeled her back in by suggesting they could have a baby together. At one point, she suggested she might have been pregnant.
The texts between them leading up to August 22nd, 2012, paint a profoundly painful picture of her final hours. That was the day she was discharged from St Edmundsbury psychiatric unit. She had inquired about work shifts for the following week and was planning to volunteer at the Tall Ships event the next day. She asked Dwyer not to “mention killing for a while until I settle back to life. Please sir”.
In response, he sent instructions on how she should prepare, wash, shave and dress her body for what lay ahead, warning her she would have stab wounds that would bleed. “Leave your iPhone at home. Just bring your slave phone and keys.”
The final text read : “Go down to shore and wait.”