The troubled life and complicated death of ‘Jack’ Watson
The homeless man’s criminal past in Australia has changed the story around his death
A photograph of Shane “Jack” Watson outside Leinster House, before details of his past became public. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Last Tuesday framed photographs of Shane “Jack” Watson and Danielle Carroll sat on a ledge outside a shop on Suffolk Street, in the middle of Dublin, in memory of two people who had died in tragic circumstances. They had briefly become the public faces of a crisis, sparking outrage at the Government’s failure to provide sufficient or suitable accommodation for the homeless.
That day the Irish Sun newspaper reported that Watson, who was 51, had a string of convictions in Australia, where he lived for all but eight years of his life. His crimes, committed over two decades, included indecently assaulting a girl, of which he was found guilty in 2008. He was considered such a threat to the public that two years ago Australia deported him back to Ireland, the country of his birth.
By Thursday evening Watson’s photograph was gone from outside the clothes shop where his body had been found a week earlier. That of Danielle Carroll, a mother of two young sons who died in her emergency accommodation in Co Kildare, remained.
Home Sweet Home said it was shocked by reports that Watson had been deported from Australia and that the vigil had been cancelled out of respect for his victims
In less than a week the narrative had completely changed. The focus was no longer on how Watson died but on how he lived. His crimes had changed the story.
A vigil organised by Home Sweet Home, the homeless campaign group that had helped Watson, giving him work and lodgings in the vacant Apollo House office block on Tara Street that they occupied last Christmas, was cancelled. The group said it was shocked by reports that Watson had been “deported from Australia for very serious crimes” and that the vigil had been cancelled “out of respect for the victims”.
A few days earlier, before they were aware of his history, campaigners had held a vigil outside Dáil Éireann, to remember Watson and raise awareness of the plight of the homeless. A Chinese lantern lit in his memory slowly floated over Leinster House.
Pace, a State-funded organisation that helps released prisoners readjust to society and avoid reoffending, criticised the group’s decision to cancel the vigil in a post on Twitter. “Two-tiered homelessness. Worthy vs unworthy?? Home Sweet Home group cancel vigil in memory of homeless man that died,” the group said, linking to a newspaper article about the abandoned event.
“There seems to have been this step back, that once people knew he had sexual convictions his death seemed to be less tragic,” Lisa Cuthbert, Pace’s chief executive, says. “But he still died because of failures in the system, and that needs to be not lost. People end up on the bottom of the ladder for multiple reasons. We have complex people who end up in homelessness for reasons that may not be as easy to sympathise with as people whose rent has gone up and are evicted.”
Watson’s troubled life is as complex as the circumstances surrounding his death. Australian court records tell a distressing story of family disputes, broken relationships, alcoholism, a litany of crimes, years living on the streets, and moving across the continent, from Victoria to Queensland to Western Australia.
Watson had used a number of aliases; he was convicted for the vast majority of his crimes under the name Jack Steele.
Born in Ireland on August 1st, 1966, to an Irish father and Australian mother, Watson was one of five children. When he was six his mother brought him and his siblings to Australia. His father stayed in Ireland. Watson, who remained an Irish citizen, living in Australia on a visa, never had any contact with him again.
While Watson was still in school – the family had settled in public housing in the Melbourne area – his mother formed a relationship with a man who frequently assaulted him and his older brother. The man beat them with a belt, including its buckle. The neighbours sometimes called the police.
Watson was so unhappy that he left home at the age of 15. He found work straight away, and he remained in steady employment in the retail industry for two decades.
His first brush with the law arose from a personal tragedy. During Watson’s first long-term relationship, when he was in his 20s, a daughter was born but lived for only 10 days. The day before she died, and anxious and upset, he assaulted a man who had complained about the length of a call he was making from a phone booth.
Watson pleaded guilty to causing injury intentionally, and on August 20th, 1991, having no prior convictions, he was released on a nine-month order to perform 50 hours of community work.
After the death of their daughter Watson’s relationship with the mother broke down. Struggling to cope, he began to “self-medicate” with alcohol.
He then formed a relationship with another woman. They later married and had two children. Watson continued to drink but remained able to work and provide for his family.
He then went into business with his brother, in the roofing trade. It ended in disagreement, but he was still able to earn a living: Watson bought his first house at the age of 25 and paid off the mortgage by the time he was 30.
Then his marriage ended, however, and his drinking increased. Watson started a third relationship that produced another two children.
Watson developed what a judge later described as an unhealthy sexual interest in his neighbour’s 13-year-old daughter
Between August 1991 and August 1999 he was convicted of 16 offences in five court appearances, including a number for violence. Some arose from his consumption of alcohol. At this stage he had no convictions for sexual offences.
By 2000, when he was in his early 30s, he moved to the suburb of a major Australian city where his mother lived. He continued drinking, concealing his vodka intake from people close to him, and started another relationship, with a neighbour. But he also developed what a judge later described as “an unhealthy sexual interest” in the neighbour’s 13-year-old daughter.
On March 1st, 2001, when he was 35, Watson was in a car with the girl, on his way home from a supermarket. He grabbed her hand and told her that he liked her and that when she turned 18 he wanted to have sex with her.
“You’re joking,” she said.
“No, I’m serious,” he replied.
Then, at the front door of her house, he kissed and touched her.
Watson inappropriately touched the girl again within the next six months, at a party in her house after she had consumed alcohol.
After his marriage broke down Watson became homeless. He lived with another neighbour, and then moved into the girl’s home for about two months, before she told her mother what Watson had done, and he was forced to leave.
When police interviewed him, in February 2002, he denied any sexual misconduct and claimed the girl had made up her account.
In the years that followed, Watson had no stable home life. He stayed with friends or lived on the streets, moving around Australia. Between 2004 and 2005 he was convicted of a number of public-disorder offences in Queensland, and the following year, in Western Australia, he was convicted of violent behaviour, including unlawful wounding and assault. He was imprisoned for 12 months.
When he was released he was extradited to the state of Victoria. In September 2007 the girl he had indecently touched, who by then was 21, was extensively cross-examined about Watson’s behaviour, and in January 2008 he pleaded guilty to two counts of committing an indecent act with a child.
At a county-court hearing in April that year Judge Jeanette Morrish sentenced Watson to an “effective” prison sentence of two years, suspending all but 204 days that he had served before sentencing.
The judge said that Watson had spent time in custody reflecting on his conduct and considering his future. In considering his sentence, she noted his expressed hope to find a job, stop drinking and rebuild his life.
“You have drawn on your past positive experiences of establishing a stable home life and regular employment, all of which was ruined as a result of your abuse of alcohol and your offending,” she said.
Watson failed to turn his life around. After his conviction and imprisonment in Victoria, Watson faced 12 more court appearances in Queensland. Two prosecutions relating to assault causing bodily harm, from 2013 and 2014 – the year before Australian immigration authorities deported him – were still in progress when he died.
The Irish Times understands that An Garda Síochána knew about Watson’s sexual offences, having been notified of them when he was sent back to Ireland. Informed sources said Watson was therefore monitored, as required under the Sex Offenders Act, after his return to the Republic.
Watson repeatedly came to Garda attention for being drunk in public, and for then being threatening and abusive
In the last year of his life on the streets of Dublin he was a familiar figure to the Garda. Watson based himself mainly in the north inner city, often loitering in a warren of streets off O’Connell Street, and stayed at St Bricin’s Military Hospital, which opened as an emergency hostel three years ago, after an especially cold winter resulted in several deaths. He repeatedly came to Garda attention for being drunk in public, and for then being threatening and abusive.
When he died at least six bench warrants and estreatment orders were active against him. (An estreatment order enforces the forfeiture of bail money after a breach of the bail terms.)
“These are the crimes of chaos, if you want to call it that, that we see with many rough sleepers who drink a lot,” one source said. “Some of them can’t get it together to turn up in court when they’re supposed to and then run into problems, fast, with a judge who has granted them bail.”
Watson’s crimes have overshadowed the tragic circumstances of his death on a Dublin street. Lisa Cuthbert of Pace says he was invisible as a homeless person and will become invisible again in death because of what he did in his life.
“If we are going down that route, if that is the narrative, then it is a concern,” she says. “If the homeless services can’t take people, then where do they go? If people on the soup run knew he had convictions for sexual offenses, would they have turned him away?
“It is easy to wash our hands. As a society we cannot afford to do that.”