Murder trial of Graham Dwyer a dark episode in 2015

Facade of middle-class normality disintegrated amid trial over Elaine O’Hara’s killing

Everyone’s normal shifted during the trial of Graham Dwyer for the murder of Elaine O’Hara earlier in 2015.

Over the course of 46 days, the facade of a man who appeared to be the epitome of middle-class normality - a 42-year-old architect living in Foxrock with his wife and children - disintegrated.

What was revealed was a person with a dark and twisted mind, and a sex scene that had allowed him to prey on vulnerable women.

On January 19th, the day the jury was selected, Mr Justice Paul Carney warned the case would be difficult for anybody squeamish.


Sexually exploited

However, as a story emerged over the following days and weeks of how the childcare worker was manipulated, sexually exploited and murdered, that adjective seemed hopelessly inadequate.

The trial was held in Court 19, on the top floor of the Criminal Courts of Justice. From almost the first day, members of the public queued to be allowed in and there were so many journalists that passes had to be issued and seats allotted.

From the outset everybody knew that this would be no ordinary trial.

On the opening day, prosecuting counsel Sean Guerin outlined how Elaine O'Hara's killing was "very nearly the perfect murder".

He told the court that against the odds, a pet dog had found O’Hara’s skeletal remains deep in a forest on Kilakee Mountain, on September 13th, 2013, only days after the Vartry Reservoir, near Roundwood in Co Wicklow, had given up its secrets.

A very dry summer meant water levels there were particularly low and the paraphernalia of O’Hara and Dwyer’s sex life had been spotted by passersby and recovered by gardaí, along with mobile phones, O’Hara’s keys and glasses.

The 36-year-old, who lived in an apartment at Belarmine, Stepaside, went missing on August 22nd, 2012. She had been being discharged from a psychiatric unit, and many involved in her case thought her death was a suicide until the evidence turned up.

Counsel told the jury he would prove Dwyer met O’Hara at Shanganagh in South Dublin on the day she disappeared, took her to Kilakee and killed her to fulfil his “deep-seated and passionately held desire to get sexual gratification by stabbing women”.

No forensic evidence

There was no medical evidence on the cause of her death, there was no eyewitness who saw Dwyer at the scene and there was no forensic evidence to put him there.

But a series of text messages between the two, along with disturbing documents written by Dwyer and video evidence he had filmed, would combine to persuade the jury beyond all reasonable doubt that Dwyer had murdered O’Hara.

During the early stages of the trial, the evidence fished from the Vartry Reservoir was brought into court to be formally identified.

Each item was taken from a neatly labelled brown evidence bag and held up for the jury to see.

The nature of some items was stark: a heavy leather mask, made to cover the whole head, with zips that closed over the eyes and mouth; a black ball-gag to be worn in the mouth to muffle sound and impede breathing, and leather restraints that attached to wrists and ankles.

There was nothing Ann Summers, slap and tickle about any of this. Each disturbing piece of apparatus spoke of a willingness to submit that many women would find abhorrent.

Early on, the court was shown CCTV footage taken in Belarmine outside the lift that led to O’Hara’s apartment. It placed Dwyer there, but it also revealed O’Hara’s vulnerability.

In one still, on the day she was murdered, she is seen carrying bags in both hands. She is also carrying a pink fleecy, but not as an adult might over her arm, but by the hood on her head, like a child.

Among the first witnesses to give evidence was Frank O’Hara, the victim’s father.

Suicidal ideation

He spoke of how his daughter had been hospitalised for suicidal ideation and self-harm, a recurring theme since her teenage years, but said she was in “good form” on the day she disappeared. His tone revealed his bewilderment at all he had learnt since her death.

As the trial progressed, other family members and friends of O’Hara and then of Dwyer gave evidence.

On February 25th, Gemma Dwyer took the stand. Word had got out that she was due to appear at 2pm and the courtroom, always full, was packed out. When she arrived, shortly before the allotted time, and before the judge emerged, the room fell into a deep and tense silence.

When her name was called, she took the long way round to the witness box, behind the dock, not passing in front of her husband. And as she gave evidence, her blonde bob screened her face from his view.

She detailed their normal middle-class life before identifying a spade, found near O’Hara’s remains, as one that had disappeared from their garden.

In February, men who'd made contact with O'Hara through alternative websites such as Alt. com appeared in court. Their evidence revealed a hardly known social sexual scene.

‘Degradation and blood-letting’

Terms were used that were probably never heard before in an Irish courtroom: degradation and bloodletting, wax-play, light kink. The court was told ordinary sex, the loving, pain-free kind, was “vanilla”.

One man called himself “Dublin Master”, there was also a “Master William”, and a “time2killindublin”.

An assumption that this latter individual was interested in killing was cleared up when a female garda shook her head at journalists and said “he was bored; he had time to kill in Dublin”.

The minds of some of us attending the trial had become accustomed to seeing the worst intentions in everything.

Some of the contents of O’Hara’s computer were revealed in February, including shocking and violent images of women who were hanged or stabbed. Buried deep in the hard drive were traces of her contacts with Dwyer.

In early March, evidence began of the contents of Dwyer's computer. Mr Justice Tony Hunt cleared the court of the public.

One document Dwyer authored described a fantasy rape in Newcastle. Peppered with the realities of his life, it was shocking and sordid.

Another document outlined how Dwyer would kill American woman Darci Day.

Psychiatric problems

This vulnerable young woman, who also had a history of psychiatric problems and self-harm, had been in touch with Dwyer on the internet, but they had never met.

While counsel read out his handiwork, Dwyer sat, bent almost double in the dock, as though trying to hide himself, his red face partially covered by his steepled fingers, his eyes closed.

There were gasps from the jury and unguarded looks of revulsion, as Dwyer’s words, unthinkable for most people, detailed graphically how he would rape and kill her.

The cruelty and loathing required, the depth of hatred of women that was needed, for any man to imagine and take pleasure from imagining such acts, was beyond reason for most people.

When the reading was complete, Dwyer sat straight again, his pallor returned to normal, and his expression was once more that of a respected architect and father.

The object of his imaginings, Darci Day, gave evidence in March via video-link from her home in Maine. She wore half-gloves that covered her wrists and palms, as she spoke of how Dwyer had shared his fantasies of stabbing women. He had offered to kill her if she wanted to die.

Later in March, the court was emptied again to show videos discovered on one of Dwyer’s computers.

These were of him having sex with women in restraints and stabbing some of them, including O’Hara. Though video monitors were tilted slightly away from journalists, they could still be seen.

Screams of pain

The sights were disturbing, but the sounds of muffled cries, the screams of pain and the whimpering were what made the most impact.

At times, covering the trial felt like stepping into darkness, but it was a darkness that could be walked away from - only the O’Hara family had to live with it.

The more the trial progressed, the more respect there was for gardaí involved in the case.

Their discovery and deciphering of text messages, backed up on computers that were thought to have been erased, was meticulous.

The fingertip searches at the bottom of the muddy Vartry Reservoir that recovered so much vital evidence, and the painstaking piecing together of Dwyer’s movements through phone records, all played a vital part.

Manipulative killer

Before summing up the case, prosecuting counsel scrupulously went through a series of text messages, sent between Dwyer and O’Hara in the last days of her life. They gave a unique insight into the modus operandi of a manipulative killer.

After seven and a half hours of deliberation, the jury emerged on the afternoon of March 27th, 2015. All present held their breaths and then sighed with relief when the verdict was delivered - guilty of murder.

As the jurors walked from the courts building a short time later, tired no doubt and relieved at the end of the long-running and demanding trial, it was hard to resist applauding them.

Fiona Gartland

Fiona Gartland

Fiona Gartland is a crime writer and former Irish Times journalist