Little to separate deadly serious from the bizarre

 

BACKGROUND:Any case that includes the charge of conspiracy to kill is serious. In this one, however, farce was ever near, writes Kathy Sheridan

FOR SEVEN weeks, Sharon Collins didn't cast a glance at her co-accused at the other end of the long, wooden bench. Essam Eid rested his head in his hands like a weary country doctor, blearily massaged his eyes, hugged and low-fived his lawyers, chatted happily to the exhibits officers behind him, and occasionally took notes. Collins, by contrast, efficiently chewed gum and drained bottles of water while keeping a junior legal on her toes with post-it notes for her counsel.

A chasm of empty space yawned between the two defendants. On a lively day, Eid might throw a sideways glance at her, mischief playing over his olive, moustachioed features. She pretended that he didn't exist.

Apart from her two sons Gary and David, and her former husband Noel Collins, the boys' father - who arrived each day to collect them - Collins had no personal friends in court, unless you (briefly) counted her partner, PJ Howard.

He was the alleged intended "hit", who, confusingly, was called by the prosecution, but turned defence witness by indignantly insisting that he didn't believe a word of the case against her - "It's totally out of character . . . In the eight years I've known Sharon, she has never asked for anything," - before planting a kiss on her lips and disappearing back to his Spanish penthouse.

Eid, a 53-year-old former poker dealer at the snazzy Bellagio casino in Las Vegas, had no personal supporters at all. Theresa Engle, his wife and accomplice, might have filled the role, until she turned from suspect to star State witness, before hightailing it out of the country immediately after her evidence, armed with Irish immunity in one hand and an American plea bargain in the other.

Engle, the fuzzy-haired brunette in the leather jacket and gloves, was only one of the intriguing characters in the case. Herself and Eid met while working in a Detroit casino when she was separated from Todd Engle, whom she had married no fewer than three times. She and Eid got married and moved to share the Las Vegas marital home with his first wife, Lisa.

Eid's counsel, David Sutton, was intrigued. "Is that a rather odd domestic arrangement or would that be considered normal in Las Vegas?" he wanted to know. "It's quite bizarre," agreed Ms Engle.

Equally odd was the soft timbre of her voice, a distinct departure from the "deep rasping smoker's voice" noted in FBI files.

More bizarre was her description of the mini laboratory she claimed to have set up with Eid in their home, after finding an internet recipe (mainly castor beans and acetone) for ricin, the third most deadly toxin known to man, by all accounts.

"You didn't test it on a passing mouse, or a porcupine perhaps?" asked Sutton. No. "You're an incompetent criminal, aren't you . . . You've been caught every time?" he suggested reasonably, since she was the only convicted criminal in court and Sutton's strategy was to demonstrate that the plot was a thoroughly asinine "shakedown", a kind of "Dial M for Money" rather than "Dial M for Murder".

Either way, despite her participation in two missions to Ireland and one to Spain, allegedly to carry out the hits on the Howards, she was the only one who escaped unscathed.

Any case that includes charges of conspiracy to kill is serious. In this one, however, farce was ever near. Here was the flirtatious

hitman touting his wares

on a comical website, featuring a breezy comic book mobster in a trilby hat and trench coat, brandishing a Thompson machine gun of a kind popular with Al Capone, according to Sutton.

There was Lying Eyes, the flirtatious "devil in the red dress", who haggled him down to a deposit of €15,000 for a hit on her partner and his two sons, and whose choice of the old Eagles song as an alias triggered many a nostalgic sing-along around the court.

Enter the 23-year-old Army private, aka "Judas69", who marched on to the same site, offered himself as an assassin - "if you got work, I will do it" - citing expertise in "handgun, rifle, sub-machine gun, shotgun, sniper, heavy gun, heavy machine gun, grenades, basic booby traps and limited poisons", apparently thinking it all a great joke until the arrival of another e-mail requesting some "strong poison".

In Las Vegas, there was the FBI special agent who raided the home of Eid and Engle and, confronted with a possible find of ricin, the third deadliest poison, etc, in one of the world's most paranoid nations, she does not evacuate the area, have the coffee grinder analysed or advise the hapless Lisa Eid to get the hell out of there - she hands her camera to Lisa and asks her to take pictures for the Irish media.

A similar imbalance is noted in Limerick Prison, where Army ordnance men get kitted out like spacemen in chemical warfare suits to take apart Eid's cell; they find a contact lens container with suspected ricin (which he'd been contentedly sleeping beside, apparently), and bear it gingerly to their commandant, whose own protection, sensationally, consists of - um - rubber gloves.

IN LOS ANGELES, there is Collins's literary mentor and confidante, the elusive Maria Marconi - "attractive, taller than me, about five feet seven inches, straight blonde shoulder-length hair, sallow clear skin, brown eyes, little make-up, about 47, well-groomed . . . drove a yellow sports car" - the woman said by the prosecution to be an entirely imaginary friend, never seen or heard of from Clare to California, physically or technologically, despite the best efforts of several more of those laconic special agents, shipped over to give evidence.

Marconi, claimed Collins, was the source of her woes, the woman who blackmailed her or caused her to be blackmailed on foot of an injudicious letter - written while "pre-menstrual", she claimed - about PJ Howard and some unorthodox sexual practices. Collins said she only began to confide in Marconi because her "one good friend" had had a child with Down syndrome, and relationship problems.

She had better luck with the double proxy marriage

executed in Mexico, via proxymarriages.com, where love means never having to show up for the wedding. And the "groom" needn't know a thing about it. Even more remarkable is the fact that Collins applied for and got an authentic Irish passport using the $1,200 Mexican "marriage" certificate, despite the sceptical response from the Irish embassy in Mexico to an earlier query of hers, saying they had never come across a proxy marriage in Mexico and "doubted strongly that it would be possible".

There was the late night identity parade in Ennis involving Eid, an Egyptian whose features include a very large moustache and a sallow complexion, where the other participants sported no moustaches and just one had a sallow skin-tone, and he was in his 30s. Eid was the only one in his 50s.

And there was the Limerick builder, John Keating, summoned for the prosecution, but who - like PJ Howard - ended up proving quite advantageous for the defence.

His contribution was to give an alibi for Sharon Collins for a time when crucial e-mail exchanges were being charted between Lying Eyes and the hitman.

After this, Keating found himself ensconced in the bowels of the Four Courts with two detectives for three and a quarter hours, and asked to surrender his diary and phone records for forensic analysis.

Then a Stena Sealink witness was summoned to shatter his credibility by insisting there was no computer record of a UK journey in 2006 which Keating said he took shortly before meeting Collins. The witness roundly dismissed Keating's incentive points as any kind of proof of travel. But the witness turned out to be wrong on every point. The records do exist; Keating did travel; the points are proof of travel. He was the last witness in the case when he showed up for vindication last Friday. No one from Stena was there to say sorry.

And of course, there was Collins herself, the 45-year-old mother of two sons, with a separation behind her before the age of 27, confirmed by a church annulment and divorce. One of three Coote sisters, one a psychologist and one a teacher, whose parents separated when Sharon was in her late teens, she did her Leaving Cert at 17, followed by a computer course in Limerick NIHE which she failed to finish.

In court, she was portrayed as a veritable walking cliché of the sassy, blonde temptress with the knowing smile and get-rich-quick schemes (pyramid-selling, fitted kitchen franchises, aerobics teaching, novels ghosted by internet writers), prone to over-familiarity with detectives, the DPP and strange men on sites like proxymarriage.com, with a devotion to astrology and weight-loss websites, Da Vinci Code-type thrillers and annual pilgrimages to Lough Derg.

She was a martyr to migraine, pre-menstrual tension and asthma, and above all, had an unquenchable yearning to marry her live-in millionaire - "I wanted to belong" - who had decided not to marry her and had actually signed a letter to that effect.

THE €12 MILLION man, of course, was PJ Howard, a property owner from Ennis, Co Clare, who made his money from rentals, in a business now run by Robert and Niall, his sons by his only marriage. PJ was a man "with a bit of a temper . . . you wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of him".

He was separated from his wife and had lived with his partner, Bernie Lyons, until she died of cancer in February 1998. This had left him "devastated", said Collins.

But while it might have seemed a bit soon to be meeting someone new, he was lonely and needed a woman to look after him, as men do. Plus she had noticed him around Ennis a long time before, when she was nine or 10, and he was a grown man (of 25 or so). So, "when I saw him coming into my shop , I knew he was coming for me. It was almost like a premonition."

It culminated in an invitation to her and her sons to stay over Christmas and there they remained, moving out only for a few days around Bernie's first anniversary, when "he wanted to be alone".

While living with PJ, her flexi job as a clerical assistant in the business (for which she was paid €850 a month, in addition to a stipend of €1,000 a month from PJ), enabled her to join PJ on his lengthy sojourns to his Fuengirola apartment - a penthouse over two floors with a plunge pool - plus a boat called Heartbeat(named after his quadruple bypass in 2000).

When his wife died of a brain haemorrhage in 2003, Collins thought they could get married, although, as she told the DPP, PJ wasn't keen. In his evidence, however, he said they had wanted to get married very much and he had proposed and surprised her with an engagement ring (to add to the Rolex watch) - an engagement that "went down like a lead balloon" with his two sons, she informed the DPP.

By one account, the wedding was to be in Dromoland Castle (where she'd had her 40th birthday in the sports complex). After discovering that prenuptial agreements were not legally binding here, he pulled out to protect his sons' interests.

The pair went ahead with the trip to Italy in autumn 2005, and in Sorrento they said "a few prayers" in church but never got married, he said. She said they got dressed up and pledged themselves to each other and agreed to refer to each other as husband and wife. Although they had drawn up a document for their solicitors, confirming that there would be no "official marriage ceremony with a third party", he didn't object when Collins told her friends there had been a marriage and a couple of months later, they held a reception for 40 at Admiralty Lodge in Spanish Point, paid for by him, where they even cut a wedding cake. But even PJ Howard was unaware that around the same time, Collins was also effecting the Mexican "double proxy" marriage.

COME APRIL 2006, a partially retrieved e-mail from Collins, which logged an automated response from The Gerry Ryan Show, suggested that all was not well in the relationship. She found herself in an "unbearable" situation, she wrote.

She accused her partner of using prostitutes and transvestites while in his Spanish holiday home, and said she never had a moment's peace ; he would constantly pester her to have "strange sex", to "pick up a stranger and have sex with him" or "have a threesome with a male escort and myself . . . He even told me he would love it if I would work as a prostitute and that this would really turn him on." He would take her to swingers' clubs and even though she had refused to take part, she said she had "witnessed things that I sincerely wished I never had to see".

An e-mail from Lying Eyes to  Hire_hitman@yahoo.com, recovered from Eid's Las Vegas home by the FBI, was couched in similar language, with the addition that her husband wanted to control every aspect of her life, had a dreadful temper, black moods and tantrums, used "appalling language" and made sure she had no money. Because of her vulnerable position, "his boys are going to suffer now . . . I wish so much that it didn't have to be like this, but then again I know that if my husband was dead and they were still here they'd screw me anyway . . . I want to protect myself and my boys."

From there, depending on where you stood in court, the entire affair teetered further into farce - or into a serious plan to poison two innocent young men and kill their father.

Sharon Collins's next step? There was talk of literary ambitions during the trial, and she mentioned that PJ had been encouraging her to get into magazine writing. "I'll write a book yet," she told the DPP in one of her voluminous letters.

There is reason to believe that that particular ambition at least is intact.