IT may go down as one of the least effective murder investigations in Irish history. Almost nine years to the day after Veronica Guerin was gunned down on the Naas Road, the inquiry into her death has just one success to its name, a conviction that is in serious danger of being overturned. But even worse than the lack of jail time served by her murderers is the growing possibility that the real killer, who fired six bullets into Guerin's body, may now be living in a foreign country, cosily relaxing with his family in a home on which the mortgage is being paid for by the Irish state.
More evidence exists against Charles Bowden, one of the 'supergrass' witnesses relied on by the state, but who has been since exposed as a liar, than against any other suspect. For his lies in court, he has been rewarded with a new life by the Irish government's witness protection programme. Behind him, he has left the remains of a tattered investigation, just one court appeal away from losing the single murder conviction it has secured.
Supergrasses were central to the entire investigation by the state into Guerin's murder, but their inconsistent, often untruthful evidence has cast doubt on whether such witnesses should have ever been used, or can ever be again.
Bowden, Russell Warren and John Dunne, who were, by their own admission, criminals involved on the periphery of a major drugs gang, are currently living under constant police protection in a foreign jurisdiction as a result of providing evidence claiming that drugs boss John Gilligan, criminal associate Brian Meehan, 39, and former addict Paul Ward, 40, took part in Guerin's murder at the Naas Road, Clondalkin, on 26 June 1996.
The trio's evidence asserted that Gilligan ordered and planned the murder, Meehan drove the motorbike on which the assassin travelled as a pillion passenger, and Ward helped to hide both the gun and the motorbike.
Both Meehan and Ward were found guilty in the Special Criminal Court of the charge of murdering the journalist.
But two courts, the Special Criminal Court and the Court of Criminal Appeal, have seperately raised questions about the reliability of the evidence provided by the supergrasses. Nine years on, Ward has been set free, Gilligan acquitted, while Meehan is seeking an appeal. Legal experts consulted by the Sunday Tribune believe that he has a strong chance of success.
From the onset, the investigation into the alleged role played by members of Gilligan's gang in killing the crime reporter became dogged with controversy.
Paul Ward was a drug addict and, it was claimed in the Special Criminal Court, had arranged to keep both the motorbike and the gun to be used in the assassination at his house.
Gardai seemed to have statements from Ward implicating himself in the murder . . . a series of admissions which were regarded as the first major breakthrough in the murder investigation.
But the garda evidence, taken on the evening of 17 October 1996 at Lucan garda station, became shrouded in controversy and was deemed to be inadmissable in the Special Criminal Court.
The court found it difficult to understand how two teams of detectives interviewed Ward in the station the following morning but were somehow unaware of the previous night's admission by Ward. It emerged in court that senior gardai only became aware of the sensational development in the case the day after Ward made the alleged admission, on 18 October.
The two detectives told the court that the notes were taken contemporaneously, at the time of interviewing Ward on the evening of 17 October.
But the comments of the presiding judge at Ward's murder trial, Mr Justice Barr, raised doubts about the garda evidence-gathering process.
"It indicates either incredible disorganisation in the murder investigation. . . or there was no memorandum of the interview at the time and it came into existence afterwards, " he said. The latter scenario would effectively accuse Gardai of concocting evidence.
Without an admission of guilt, the case against Ward had to rely solely on the evidence of one of the three supergrasses, Charlie Bowden.
Bowden told the court that Ward agreed to keep the gun and motorbike at his house.
Despite conflicting evidence that Ward was out of the country at the time the murder was allegedly being planned, and that there was a reasonable expectation that he would be in prison on road traffic offences on the date of the actual hit, he was convicted of murder in 1999.
But in March 2002, the Court of Criminal Appeal overturned this spectacularly, ruling that the evidence did not support the verdict against Ward.
Crucially, it found that the Special Criminal Court had been "misled by the confusing evidence and voluminous documentation placed before it" in making its reasoning.
And in a decision that may have a profound bearing on the conviction of Brian Meehan, it questioned the contention of the Special Criminal Court that Bowden had an incentive to tell the truth . . . out of concern that he may lose his protected witness status.
The Court of Criminal Appeal was dissatisfied that gardai had failed to uncover any significant corroborative evidence to support the claim that Ward had disposed of the bike and gun. And it was not willing to accept Bowden's evidence without independent corroboration.
In clear terms, Bowden was marked a liar and a selfconfessed accomplice in crime. His word alone was not good enough and the state brought Ward to trial with little else to go on. Ward's conviction was duly overturned.
The state's case against John Gilligan stumbled on the same ground. Russell Warren, who is now living abroad under constant protection, told the Special Criminal Court that he stole a motorbike on Gilligan's instruction sometime in June 1996. He said he was asked by Gilligan to go to Naas courthouse on the day of the murder. He tracked Guerin's movements and relayed this information by mobile phone to both Gilligan and Meehan.
Meehan was driving the motorbike, he claimed. Warren said he saw the hitman fire the bullets into the 36year-old journalist's sports car.
But numerous witnesses gave evidence that clashed with the account by the chief witness.
It emerged that despite giving numerous prior statements to gardai, it was more than a year after the murder before Warren said he witnessed the shooting. And not once did he tell gardai that it was Gilligan who asked him to go to Naas that day.
He also claimed that he exited the scene down the hard shoulder of the Naas dual carriageway, but witnesses said this lane was congested with end-to-end traffic. Much of the evidence was also in direct contradiction of evidence which he gave in the Meehan murder trial.
The Special Criminal Court could not accept the evidence from Warren. Mr Justice O'Donovan, presiding, noted the claim by Gilligan's defence lawyers that Warren's accusations were "a figment of his deceitful imagination".
There was "no corroboration whatsoever of Mr Warren's evidence with regard to Mr Gilligan's complicity in the death of the late Veronica Guerin", he concluded.
Meehan remains the only person to have been convicted. But that too could soon unravel before the eyes of gardai.
The protected men look increasingly dubious as reliable witnesses to anything.
Charlie Bowden has already admitted that he lied in court.
He was discounted as a witness after denying claims that he was trying to make himself a "saleable commodity" by selling his fabricated testimony as part of a book or media deal. Defence counsel produced evidence that Bowden had actually contacted Sunday World crime reporter Paul Williams and offered to collaborate on a joint publication effort.
The most damning claim in court came from Meehan's counsel, John McCrudden QC. The distinguished lawyer argued that rather than coming forward to the court to present a clear picture of the events leading to Guerin's murder, Bowden was in fact covering up the fact that he was the hired killer.
"The evidence was circumstantial, but the circumstances are compelling, " McCrudden claimed. Bowden is a former soldier. He is trained in using heavy weapons and was a proficient marksman.
McCrudden's case is convincing and has won several high-profile people over to the argument. The prospect of this argument being accurate underscores the shambles and confusion that has dogged the state's efforts to bring Guerin's killers to justice.
If true, it means that the Irish state has paid over 1m to protect and house the man who killed one of the most respected and effective journalists in the country.
Meehan is now set to appeal his conviction and, given the doubts raised about Warren's testimony in both the Gilligan and Ward cases, the prospect that the evidence on which he was locked away will be overthrown looms heavily on the horizon.
If this occurs, the largestever murder investigation undertaken by gardai will be effectively back to square one. After nine years, thousands of garda man-hours and over 4m on witness protection funding, it looks more probable than possible that Veronica Guerin's murder will go unpunished and unresolved.
THE GANG: Who they are, and where they are now
JOHN GILLIGAN Gilligan, 53, is serving a 28-year sentence for his involvement in a major drugs gang.
He was tried in 2001 for the murder of Veronica Guerin but was acquitted, in a major blow to the garda investigation into the journalist's killing. The criminal assets bureau (CAB) is seeking to seize his Jessbrook estate in Kildare.
BRIAN MEEHAN Meehan, 39, of no fixed abode and formerly of Clifton Court, Dublin, and Stanaway Road, Crumlin, is serving life for the murder of Veronica Guerin, as well as concurrent sentences of 20 years and 12 years for drug offences and five years for firearms offences. He was a member of Gilligan's 'Greenmount Gang' which imported and sold cannabis. He is appealing his murder sentence.
PAUL WARD Ward, 40, from Crumlin, south Dublin, was convicted in 1999 in relation to Guerin's murder, but this was overturned in March 2002.
He was released from Portlaoise prison in the past fortnight having completed a 10-year sentence for his part in a riot at Mountjoy prison in 1997, in which five prison officers were held hostage.
PATRICK HOLLAND 'Dutchy' Holland, 66, is serving a 20-year sentence at Portlaoise prison for possession of drugs with intent to supply, reduced to 12 years on appeal. He was identified in court as the hitman who shot Guerin by Charlie Bowden, but has never been charged with the crime. He insists that Bowden lied. Two weeks ago, he told the Sunday Tribune that Bowden had fired the fatal shots.
JOHN DUNNE Dunne, 48, is a former international freight manager for a Cork company. He worked at a warehouse in Cork and brought boxes of drugs from the facility to the car park of one of a number of hotel or pub car parks in the midlands. He is believed to be living in a foreign jurisdiction. Under the terms of the witness protection scheme operated by the state, his mortgage is paid for and he is provided with access to employment and has constant protection.
RUSSELL WARREN Warren is originally from Tallaght. He claimed that he stole the motorbike on the order of John Gilligan, to be later used in the assassination of Guerin. His evidence in the case against the gang leader was found to be unreliable. He is living in a foreign jurisdiction. Under the terms of the state's witness protection scheme, his mortgage is paid for and he is provided with access to employment and has constant protection.
CHARLIE BOWDEN Bowden, aged 42, is originally from Finglas in Dublin, and was responsible for minding the guns and safe-houses for Gilligan's gang and ran the drug-distribution operation from a warehouse in the Greenmount Industrial Estate.
A black-belt in karate and former army corporal who was discharged for beating up a new recruit, Bowden is also a highly-pro"cient marksman.
He is living in a foreign jurisdiction after providing mostly unreliable evidence against Gilligan, Ward and Meehan.
June 12, 2005