Anatomy of a Car Crash: Part 4 – the verdict
The first road deaths of 2014 occurred near Ballina, Co Mayo on New Year’s Day. Peter Murtagh reports on the inquest
At about 4.40am on New Year’s Day, two men died in a collision on a high-quality stretch of the N26, near Ballina, Co Mayo. They were the first fatal road deaths of 2014.
In the months since, Peter Murtagh has been investigating this crash and its aftermath.
On October 30th, the official investigation into the collision ended with an inquest, where a jury of six men and two women drew their conclusions about its causes.
It was a crisp autumn morning outside the court house in Ballina, Co Mayo. Three inquests were scheduled for October 30th; Gearóid Scully and Terry Beagan’s deaths would be dealt with as one case as they died in the same incident.
The two-storey courthouse is well-maintained, painted China blue and pale green. It is on Kevin Barry Street, a road known as the N26 when it exits the town – the road on which Scully and Beagan had died in the early hours of New Year’s Day.
In early summer, the garda leading the investigation, Garda Kevin Carey, had finished interviewing all the individuals he judged necessary to complete his inquiries. Carey sent the file to the Ballina District Officer, Garda Supt Gerry Donnelly, who forwarded it to the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).
It was the Garda view that there was no third-party culpability and therefore no one to prosecute for the crash.This decision is ultimately made by the DPP, whose office reached the same conclusion. By early autumn, the file was back with Ballina gardaí with the decision: no prosecution; the inquest could go ahead.
Day of the inquest
On the day of the inquest, people wandered in and out, waiting for proceedings to begin. The atmosphere was relaxed; no barristers or huddled last-minute conversations. Gardaí involved in the road crash investigation chatted among themselves and to relatives. The family liaison officer, Garda Brian Murphy, had become close to family members and loved ones as they went through the stages of their grief.
At one end of the room, under the fanlight window, relatives and friends of the deceased sat on flip-up seats, five rows of nine seats, a little like a lecture theatre.
Lorraine Devlin, partner of Gearóid Scully, sat in the second row, beside Pamela, one of his sisters. Also there were his elderly parents, Gerard and Kathleen, his sisters Sharon and Catherine, his sister-in-law Jacqueline, and his sons Alan, Gerard and Seán.
Two rows behind them, a little to the left, sat Karen McHugh, Terence Beagan’s partner, and a man. In front of them all were two rows of seats for the jury.
In charge was the coroner, Dr Eleanor Fitzgerald, a Crossmolina-based GP and daughter-in-law of long-serving but now retired coroner for north Mayo, Dr Michael Loftus, with whom she shares a medical practice. Sitting with her was Kathleen Killeen, her registrar. To their right was the witness stand.
Dr Fitzgerald explained the proceedings to the now-packed courtroom. She swore in the jury – six men and two women – before Supt Donnelly began the presentation of evidence. Days before, Dr Fitzgerald had reviewed the case and the work of the Garda and decided what evidence was central to establishing the identities of the deceased, where and how they died, and what evidence would be heard.
Sometimes witnesses are called in person; sometimes they are questioned by the coroner after their statements to the Garda, known as a deposition, has been read into the record. Depositions may also be read without the person being present.
Supt Donnelly called his first witness – Garda Carey. His deposition gave an overview of the crash and how he and his colleagues reacted to events. The four-and-a-half page statement described in detail the events of the night, how he co-ordinated colleagues, liaised with other emergency responders and professionals, such as the coroner’s office and pathologist Dr Fadel Bennani, and his subsequent interviews.
When Supt Donnelly had finished reading Garda Carey’s statement into the record, Dr Fitzgerald noted that the bag Terry Beagan had in his car when it crashed had contained his belongings. “From that, it could be deduced that Mr Beagan was leaving [the Mount Falcon Hotel] altogether?” she asked Garda Carey.
“Yes,” he replied. Dr Fitzgerald praised him for a thorough investigation and released him from further questioning.
Other gardaí gave evidence, including forensic investigator Sgt Gabriel McLoughlin, who talked through his 22 photographs of the crash scene, and Det Sgt Jim Cadden, who examined both deceased men’s mobile phones. Sgt Cadden said he was certain Gearóid Scully’s phone was not in use at the time of the crash.
Paramedic Eddie Scully (no relation to Gearóid Scully) gave a graphic account of how he and his colleague Wolfgang Schmidt witnessed the crash and very nearly became part of it.
Tom Lenehan, floor supervisor at the Broken Jug pub, gave evidence describing his extraordinarily lucky escape that night on encountering a car driving on the wrong side of the road.
The deposition of Mount Falcon Hotel owner Alan Moloney was read into the record by Supt Donnelly. In it, Moloney described knowing Karen McHugh, Terence Beagan’s girlfriend, and her sister, Fiona, from childhood.He described the early hours of New Year’s Day, when members of the McHugh party drank in the hotel bar.
“At approximately 3am. . . Karen left [the Bar] and she was the last to leave from the group she was in. I am unsure who she left with,” he said in his deposition. “I believe that Terence had left prior to Karen as Karen and Clodagh [Keating, her friend] both told me later that day that they persuaded Terence to walk back to the [Lakeside] Lodge and made sure he did not drive as he was fairly drunk at that stage when he was leaving the bar.”
The deposition of Clodagh Keating was then read. In it, she contradicted Moloney’s account, saying that she, Karen McHugh and Terence Beagan left the bar together at about 2.30am.
“When we arrived back, Karen and Terence went upstairs to bed at approximately 2.45am,” she said, adding that she then answered some texts and emails before going to bed herself.
The night went well
Supt Donnelly called Karen McHugh and Dr Fitzgerald asked her to swear the oath and to read aloud the declaration at the top of her deposition: “I hereby declare that this statement is true to the best of my knowledge and belief and that I make it knowing that if it is tendered in evidence I will be liable to prosecution if I state in it anything which I know to be false or do not believe to be true . . .”
In her statement, read by Supt Donnelly, McHugh described the nature of her and her friends’ visit to the Mount Falcon and the progress of the evening – starting with the visit to Jordan’s bar in Ballina, then back to the hotel for dinner and drinks at the hotel bar afterwards.
“I had four or five glasses of wine over dinner and Terence had much the same, I would think,” she said. “At the bar, I had two or three pints. I am unsure how much Terence had to drink.”
It continued: “The night went very well and enjoyable. Terence and I did not have any argument or tensions all night.”
Confirming Clodagh Keating’s recollection, she said she, Beagan and Keating left the bar together at about 2.30am and went to bed. She heard nothing until three gardaí and Alan Moloney woke her in the morning and told her the news.
Terence Beagan, she added, was in good form; she had no idea why he left the hotel. “It still remains a mystery to me,” she added.
The deposition read, Dr Fitzgerald put a number of questions to her. “Would you have said that you were in a coma, or comatose, that you didn’t hear Terence get up?” asked the coroner.
“Well I didn’t hear him get up. I was crashed out,” McHugh replied.
“Alan [Moloney] isn’t here so I can’t really ask him or cross-examine him,” said the coroner, “but, you know, in order to establish exactly what happened, to come to the truth, from the point that you are definitely saying that Terence left [the hotel bar] with you?”
“I am 100 per cent sure Terry left with me. One hundred per cent sure,” replied McHugh, adding she did not know why Moloney would think otherwise.
“We walked down [to the lakeside cottage from the hotel main building], there’s a lake, we stood at the lake together, I remember that vividly,” she says.
Dr Fitzgerald: “Were you planning to go back [to Dublin] early the next day?”
McHugh: “No. I had a young girl, Sinead [with us]. Her parents were coming to collect her at 10am. . . and then the plan was we were going off hiking with the kids. . .”
Dr Fitzgerald asked Karen McHugh why she thought Terence Beagan had left the cottage at 4.30am with his bag packed?
McHugh: “Well, I don’t know. We’ve gone over it, we’ve all discussed it, tried to figure out what did he think he was doing? Right into Ballina? First of all we thought he had gone to get cigarettes, did he want to get food, something like that. . .”
The coroner then raised another possibility: She asked McHugh how well she knew Beagan, and whether debt or some financial distress had caused him to act rashly, without spelling out precisely to what she was alluding?
McHugh: “He was calm, relaxed, easy-going kind of a guy. I mean this is not Terry. . .”
Coroner: “When alcohol gets into someone, anything can happen.”
McHugh’s evidence over, Lorraine Devlin then confirmed, briefly and through tears, that she identified Gearóid Scully’s body in the morgue.
The pathologist Dr Fadel Bennani then outlined the results of his postmortems on both bodies and confirmed the medical causes of death in each cases. He said that Scully had no alcohol in his blood but the toxicology results for Terry Beagan told a very different story.
The legal blood/alcohol limit in Ireland is 50 milligrammes (mg) of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood. Dr Bennani said that Terence Beagan’s blood/alcohol level was 210 – more than 300 per cent above the legal limit.
The legal urine/alcohol limit in Ireland is 67 milligrammes (mg) of alcohol per 100 millilitres of urine. Beagan’s level was 278 – also 300 per cent above the limit.
Terence Beagan’s blood also contained trace elements of cocaine, a Misuse of Drugs Act, schedule 2, illegal drug in Ireland, and another drug, levamisole, which is used by vets to combat worms in animals . . . and by cocaine dealers to bulk up the powder.
Referring to Beagan’s blood/alcohol level, Dr Bennani describes 210 as “very high”.
“At 210 you cannot think,” he told Dr Fitzgerald.
The summing up
Terry Beagan was in this state when he left his and Karen McHugh’s cottage at the Mount Falcon Hotel, at 4.42 am on January 1st, with his bag packed and apparently intent on not returning, despite plans having been made for later in the day, and drove along the N26 in a high-powered Mercedes.
The man who died with him, Gearóid Scully, was the wholly innocent victim of a bizarre set of circumstances and coincidences outside Scully’s control.
“The driving of Terence Beagan caused the accident,” said the coroner, summing up. She described his behaviour as “reckless”.
“As a result of that, two lives were lost.”
The jury returned verdicts of accidental death in both cases, while noting that a contributory factor was the quantity of alcohol and drugs in Terry Beagan’s system.
A roadside shrine
Terry Beagan’s funeral took place in the Church of the Holy Redeemer, in Dundalk, on Sunday, January 5th, 2014. The church, a modern circular amphitheatre-style building, was packed.
The man remembered by his family and friends was not the man whose reckless behaviour had just led to his own and another’s death. This was Terry the loved son, brother and partner; the artistically talented man with a zest for life and a passion for music.
A man, in short, who was more than the manner of his passing.
Karen McHugh’s poignant letter of love and farewell to him, read by her sister Fiona, summed up her feelings.
“I loved you with all of my heart and I feel as though something has been wrenched out of me,” she wrote. “Why such a loving, gentle man would be taken from us so suddenly, I will never know.”
His coffin left the church to the strains of Pink Floyd’s Shine on You Crazy Diamond. He was buried at Calvary Cemetery in Ravensdale, Co Louth.
Gearoid Scully was waked for three days in the house he and Lorraine Devlin hoped would be their new home. His open coffin was placed on the pool table he often used for assembling his fishing gear.
He too was more than the manner of his passing. He left a legacy of love in those whom he loved, and who loved him in return – his parents and siblings, children, his partner and his many friends.
Dozens of people came to pay their respects: relatives, his former wife Catherine, and friends from his taxiing, political and angling circles.
His son Alan sat with him for two nights. Lorraine sat with him for one night, staying with him on her own until dawn sunlight banished the darkness. She talked to Skull throughout the night; she wanted that time with him.
After the wake, he was taken to Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. In the cemetery’s small chapel, his friend John McAree spoke about him; Alan spoke about his father; Sharon, who was not interviewed for this series, spoke about her brother.
“My personal plea,” she said to those present, “is that you live your life without regret [and] make sure that those you care about know how much they mean.”
The N26 from Ballina to Foxford is today the same road it was last New Year’s morning. The only difference now is that on the grass verge where Gearóid Scully died, a small shrine has emerged.
It began almost immediately after the crash – seven bouquets were laid by the scarred and oil-marked grass and a small wooden cross was planted, with a skull-shaped pot for a candle, reflecting Scully’s nickname, “Skull”. There’s a teddy bear, left by the grand-daughter of a friend from Belfast. In the centre is a Cross of Lorraine.
Lorraine Devlin has changed jobs. She hoped the move would help. She got a new tattoo recently on her right forearm. “Skull”, it says simply, and beside it there’s a small red heart.
“I keep think he’s going to come home,” she says sitting in her living room.
But he’s gone forever. She knows that now.
- Series concluded