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Stephen Penrose: Garda’s son described as ‘most dangerous person I have ever met’

Killer who spent years covering up his crime, and had killed before, is convicted

Five metres from the grave, the metal detector pinged. The Garda divisional search team dug down into the woodland soil to investigate, hoping they would be met with a distinctive but familiar sight.

"It was very peculiar," Garda Padraig Nolan told the Central Criminal Court. "The knife had been placed straight down into the soil."

Seven years earlier in 2009, on wasteland in Co Meath, another blade had been buried in exactly the same manner. It had been pushed nose first into the ground by a killer who had used it to knife a man to death during a drugs robbery.

It was the same man who detectives investigating the disappearance of Philip ‘Philly’ Finnegan in September 2016 had, just days beforehand, released from custody after 10 evasive interviews.

Penrose didn't do it on his own; he didn't do it because of something Philip Finnegan did to him. He was certainly tasked by somebody

This man was double killer Stephen Penrose, a garda's son described by one source as "the most dangerous person I have ever met" and a man who "should never get out of prison".

Stephen Penrose and Philip Finnegan met each other in April 2016, when Penrose was in custody on firearms charges. The two quickly became "pals".

However, it is now believed that Penrose befriended Philip with the intention of killing him. He had “relentlessly” phoned the 24-year-old to get him (Penrose) out on bail and Finnegan helped securing Penrose’s eventual release on August 8th, 2016.

When Philip disappeared just two days later, it was Penrose he had gone to meet. His last words to his mother Angela were a simple: “I’ll see you later, Ma.”

Three weeks later, in an interview room at Kilmainham Garda Station, detectives witnessed at first hand the competing sides to Penrose's personality.

Apparently sincere

Questioned about what at that stage was still a missing person’s investigation, he began in apparently sincere fashion. “I want nothing more than for his mother to know I had nothing to do with what happened,” he told officers.

However, he later went on glibly to recount rumours he heard that Philip was "sitting in Jamaica eating a Big Mac" or had been "chopped up" in the Dublin mountains.

It is now believed Penrose lured Finnegan to Rahin Woods in Co Kildare under the pretence that drugs, firearms or money had been hidden there. Some investigators worked off the theory that Penrose had persuaded Philip to dig the shallow pit where his decapitated body was eventually found, curled up in a foetal position. He had been repeatedly stabbed in the back.

The motive remains unclear, even now. Some believe it was because Finnegan owed money to a leading crime figure, others say this remains a theory. Others believe that both men were at the bottom of the criminal ladder with few ties to organised crime.

In his trial last month for Philip Finnegan’s murder, Penrose had told the court that his defence case was “made up totally” of an allegation that another man was involved in Philip’s murder.

He questioned Philip’s mother on the stand, an experience she described as “more torture” for a family already in deep pain.

‘Slagging match’

During the cross-examination, Angela Finnegan agreed she remembered telling gardaí about a "slagging match" between a man, who cannot currently be identified, and her son.

She went on to tell gardaí: "[The named man] is a relation of someone in Portlaoise Prison who threatened him. A few months later, Philip got a call from this person in Portlaoise Prison. I was standing beside Philip when he got the call. The man just said to Philip that he was going to take him off the map and have his head blown off."

Penrose then asked Angela if she now believed that this named man’s cousin in Portlaoise Prison was involved in any way in the murder of Philip.

“Yes, I do,” she replied.

One source says that, due to a lack of evidence, this allegation falls short. However, “there was certainly another party involved,” they add.

“Penrose didn’t do it on his own; he didn’t do it because of something Philip Finnegan did to him. He was certainly tasked by somebody but that person is unknown,” the source said.

It is Penrose’s capacity to flip between calm and “manic” states which makes him “so dangerous”, a source says.

At times, he could appear empathetic. In his 2010 trial for the murder of David Sharkey, Penrose took to the stand in his own defence. There, he apologised to the Sharkey family and broke down as he told the court: "I'm so sorry... I never meant for this to happen."

Decapitated body

In his most recent trial, Penrose had also issued his apologies. Having murdered Angela Finnegan’s son, decapitated his body and made several attempts to burn it, Penrose began his cross-examination of her with: “Angela, I apologise for having to question you in any way but I just have to go through a couple of things.”

The 38-year-old was also prone to fits of pique. At one point in his trial he shouted that a garda inspector was “telling bullshit about me” and clashed with the trial judge, who warned him he would be taken to the cells and banned from participating in his own trial if he continued to “ballyrag” witnesses.

Penrose characterised his trial as a “miscarriage of justice” and refused to continue attending, saying he would represent himself “from the cells”.

At his 2010 trial, he had struck a more sympathetic tone. Penrose told the court that he was a heroin addict when he killed David Sharkey, having started smoking the drug after his infant child had died.

Penrose's father corroborated this account, in what was the first of two murder trials held against his son. Paul Penrose – a respected and now retired garda who had worked in the force as a mechanic – described his son as having a "very serious" substance abuse problem at the time of the killing.

Stephen, he said, had been living out of the family home for about six years and was living rough a lot of the time.

Paul Penrose said his son would contact him by phone from time to time but would not contact the family home directly. He said he always tried “to be there” for his son.

He said his son called him at around 10.30 on the evening of May 17th, 2009, to ask for a lift. This was after Penrose had knifed David Sharkey to death and fled from gardaí in Dunsink Lane, where he had left the blood-soaked body in the boot of the victim's own car.

‘Spaced out’

Paul Penrose described his son as being “spaced out” and “clearly on something” when he picked him up. He said Stephen was “talking rubbish” and “rambling”.

Last October, in the Philip Finnegan murder trial, Paul Penrose again found himself on the witness stand.

He recalled that on August 8th, 2016, the day his son was released from custody, he drove him to meet Philip Finnegan. The victim and his son had embraced each other “in a big hug” he said, and he went on to describe Philip as a “very nice fella” and “very friendly”.

He also told the trial that Stephen and Philip had been chatting away in his car “as if they knew each other all their lives”.

He also recalled telling Stephen about seeing a Garda press release about Mr Finnegan on August 12. Reading from the statement he made to gardaí, Paul Penrose said: “This morning Stephen rang me on a different number. He could tell I wasn’t in good form. He asked me was I okay. I told him I saw the press release about Philip on the news. He said, “What was that about?” I told him he was missing since Wednesday.”

The story Penrose went on to relate to his father was much the same as the one he would later recount to gardaí in an effort to keep them away from the shallow grave where he had left Philip Finnegan’s body.

At the 2010 trial, Penrose said he had planned to rob heroin from David Sharkey on the evening of May 17th, 2009, but the scheme went wrong and he was killed.

The trial also heard evidence that Penrose bought the knife he used to kill David Sharkey at around three o’clock on the day. After receiving a text message to say the victim was ready to meet him, Penrose replied: “get him to leave it till six o’ clock...den I be ready for him [SIC].”

'A panic’

On the witness stand, Penrose said that when Mr Sharkey arrived at the Navan apartment, Penrose told him he had to go out to his car to get the money for the drugs. However, Penrose said the deceased would not let him out the door and produced a small knife, saying he wanted his money or the heroin back.

He said that when Mr Sharkey pulled a knife and “made a swipe” at him, Penrose pulled his own knife out of his trousers and stabbed Mr Sharkey “three or four times”.

He told gardaí: “It was all a panic...nothing was premeditated, he pulled a knife on me.”

“I hadn’t intended stabbing the young fella,” Penrose said.

In fact, David Sharkey was stabbed 13 times. The 18cm-long blade penetrated to a depth of 13.5cm and travelled through his heart, stomach and liver. His shoulder bone was also broken.

In 2010, after pathologist Dr Margaret Bolster had shared the results of her examination of the burnt, partially skeletonised remains of Philip Finnegan, gardaí were struck by an almost identical pattern of attack.

There were 13 stab wounds to Philip’s body, including wounds to the stomach and liver. The majority of the stab wounds were to his back, with cuts to the left arm and hand showing he had tried in vain to defend himself. His shoulder bone, too, had been broken. Attempts to burn his body had been unsuccessful.

After he had killed David Sharkey in 2010, Penrose said he panicked and decided to put the body in the boot of Mr Sharkey's own BMW. He drove it to a spot close to a halting site on Dunsink Lane in Finglas, north Dublin, where he planned to burn the body.

In a remarkable twist of fate, he was interrupted by patrolling gardaí and ran from the scene before he could destroy the evidence. Penrose was arrested two days later and confessed to the killing.

‘Lost control’

During his 2010 trial, Penrose’s lawyers acknowledged that he used excessive force but told the jury it was “no more than he thought necessary because he lost control”.

They argued that the extent of the victim’s injuries was evidence of this loss of control and claimed the notion that the killing was planned and premeditated was “illogical and defies common sense”.

After nearly six hours of deliberations spread over two days, the jury accepted the defence case and acquitted Penrose of murder by a majority 10/2 verdict. He later received a nine-year jail sentence for manslaughter and was finally released on February 5th, 2016.

After the verdict, the court heard how the Sharkey family were hurt at how David’s body was treated after his death and at how he had been portrayed during the trial.

In December 2010, seven months after Penrose was cleared of murdering Mr Sharkey, the Central Criminal Court heard a woman, who had helped Penrose dispose of the body and clean the murder scene, give a differing account.

Sinéad Geraghty, then aged 24, was not part of Penrose’s murder trial. She told detectives that after Mr Sharkey had arrived at her apartment complex, Penrose had wanted to weigh the heroin in her hall and she had left the two men on the stairs to her apartment.

Geraghty said she was in her sitting room when she heard the victim shout: “You can have it. Just take it.”

She said she ran out and saw Penrose approach Mr Sharkey with the knife and Mr Sharkey throw the drugs at him. Ms Geraghty asked Penrose what he was doing just before he stabbed his victim.

The court heard that Geraghty was a drug addict at the time who used to buy drugs from Penrose and said she felt threatened by him. She was later jailed for five years having pleaded guilty to assisting an offender.

Last seen

Philip Finnegan was last seen alive with Stephen Penrose just before 4pm on August 10th, 2016, at a garage in Edenderry in Co Offaly, a few kilometres south of Rahin Woods. He was murdered shortly afterwards.

Later that evening, Penrose sought medical attention in Kilcock for a wound to the inside of his left wrist.

He declined to give any explanation to gardaí as to how his injury came about and did not make a complaint about being assaulted.

In his first set of interviews, Penrose told gardaí that he had been with Mr Finnegan on August 10th and they had travelled in his car to a location near Kilcock, a considerable distance away from Rahin Woods, where they had been attacked by a group of men. Penrose said he was stabbed in the wrist and could see Finnegan being beaten by other men as he drove away at speed.

This was the first of many untrue accounts given by Penrose to gardaí in an attempt to divert the attention of investigators away from Rahin Woods.

On August 31st, 2016, Penrose was arrested for withholding information in relation to a serious assault on Mr Finnegan, who was then the subject of a missing person investigation.

Penrose again gave gardaí multiple accounts of where he had last seen Philip Finnegan, secure in the knowledge that they had not found a body.

But his luck was about to run out.

Human remains

By pure coincidence, on September 2nd – the same day that Penrose was released from custody on the withholding charge – a man out walking his two dogs in Rahin Woods found human remains that turned out to be the body of Philip Finnegan.

Dog walker Mick Kelly said he saw "something sticking out of the ground like a plant" and found what he thought was "meat" or flesh on a stick when he "rooted" in behind it. It was 23 days since Philip had disappeared.

The body had been fully buried, and one of the dogs had dug up the victim’s foot.

The grave was 32 inches deep, typical for a shallow grave as anything further reaches into the subsoil, making it more difficult to dig. Investigators were met with the gruesome sight of Philip Finnegan’s decapitated body, which was in an advanced state of decay.

Among the finds was a garden glove that had sustained substantial fire damage and had been buried close to the knife. A DNA profile generated from the bloodied glove matched the DNA of Penrose, evidence that was instrumental in getting Penrose charged with murder.

The missing-person investigation became a murder investigation on September 4th.

Penrose was rearrested on November 16th, 2016, on suspicion of the murder and read a handwritten statement to gardaí, which said: “I had nothing to do with Philip’s killing. All this had nothing whatsoever to do with me and that’s why I tried to distance myself from it.”

Penrose remained steadfast in his denials and continued to elaborate on his ever-shifting story.

He told gardaí that he witnessed Finnegan being stabbed in the back during the attack by a group of men. The defendant gave a “new suggested location” of Edenderry as to where he had last seen his friend on August 10th.

Gardaí later asked Penrose why he had not given the location of Edenderry in his first interview. “I had to protect my life and my family’s life, that’s why,” he said.

‘This damns you’

Gardaí told the accused: “Do you wish to tell us the truth? Here is your left-handed glove full of your blood. You murdered him, you buried him and burned him. Your DNA is in that glove. There is no getting away from it. This is going nowhere. This damns you. Tell us what happened up in those woods.”

Penrose replied: “I’ve told you from day one I’ve no involvement in Philip’s death. I told you I didn’t kill Philip. I wasn’t in the woods.”

In his final interview, Penrose moved nearer the location of Rahin Woods when he told gardaí that he and Finnegan had been attacked by a group of men at “a forest”, having arranged to collect firearms from them.

When asked about a caravan he had mentioned, Penrose said: “Look it’s near a woods where you pointed, I think you pointed to Rahin Woods, it was a house before the woods. I was never in the woods.”

On November 15th, 2021, the convicted killer, last of Newtown Court, Malahide Road, Coolock, Dublin 17, was found guilty by unanimous jury verdict of murdering Philip Finnegan (24) at Rahin Woods, Rahin, Edenderry, Co Kildare, on August 10th, 2016.

He had at all times denied the charge.

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