Saturday, 22 July 2006

Tragedy of my gangland brother

Saturday July 22 2006
He was one of the most vicious thugs ever to emerge from Dublin's violent gangland underworld.

Shane Coates was the leader of the notorious Westies, one of the city's most feared and hated drug gangs.

He and fellow Westies member Stephen Sugg carved out and defended their territory with beatings, intimidation and torture. They showed no mercy, and ultimately no mercy was shown to them.

Their bodies were exhumed from a concrete grave in Spain this week, over two years after they suddenly disappeared. Their lives had a grim inevitability.

After being forced to flee Ireland, they tried to muscle in on the lucrative drugs trade on Spain's Costa Blanca. But they overstepped the mark and were clinically dispatched by somebody even more vicious than they.

Coates, however, did not have the usual criminal credentials - quite the opposite, in fact. His family background in the west Dublin suburb of Blanchardstown was highly unusual for a man with such a voracious appetite for crime. He grew up the third of 11 children. All but two of them went to college. His brother Christian, a year older than himself, is a scientist at Trinity College.

The family has a long musical history going back many generations. The first Coates to arrive in Dublin from England in the 1800s opened a piano factory. A distant English relation, Sir Eric Coates, was a renowned composer whose best-known piece is the theme music for the popular BBC radio show Desert Island Discs.

Shane Coates was 34 when his brutal life was brutally ended. When his body was finally located on Tuesday, his family heard it on the radio. They were later officially informed by gardai. They were upset, but not particularly surprised. After he vanished in Spain in February 2004 - apparently taken away at gunpoint - they didn't immediately fear the worst. But they gradually resigned themselves to the truth.

"Shane was a bit of a black sheep," Christian admits. "He just started hanging around with the wrong crowd when he was a kid and then got himself into all sorts of trouble."

Their father, Norman, in his early 60s, is a singer, saxophonist and drummer who played in a succession of pop groups in Dublin from the 1960s to the 90s. He also had a garage adjacent to the family home where he did car repairs. Shane's late mother Gina, English-born of an Italian family, was an upholsterer.

Christian is an immunologist and researcher who works at the Trinity College medical unit in St James Hospital, Dublin. He speaks Italian and French and is learning Arabic. "Four of us in the family are scientists," he said.

Like nearly all his brothers and sisters, Shane would probably have gone on to third-level education. As it turned out, he barely sat his Leaving Certificate; he was in prison at the time. But some of his grades were higher than those achieved by Christian.

According to his brother, Shane started to get into trouble in his mid-teens. "He started hanging around bonfires and joyriding. He was dyslexic, so he used to get into trouble at school. He was put into a corner at school and he started rebelling against that.

"He should have been looked after at a younger age. He should have gone to a special school that could have helped him."

As a youngster, he sometimes worked with his father in the garage. When he was only 10 or 11, he rebuilt an entire car engine. "He did it under the supervision of my Dad, of course, but he did everything himself.

"He was actually very, very good at school work, but he had a problem with authority. If a teacher gave out to him or chastised him in any way, he'd go mental."

According to Christian, his brother ran into major problems when he was in second or third year in secondary school. A particular teacher developed "a bee in his bonnet" about Shane and started giving him a hard time.

The situation deteriorated to the point where a number of physical altercations took place. It culminated in a serious fight between the two, as a result of which Shane was expelled.

His life went from bad to worse, and there was little anyone could do.

"My father had an awful time with him. I think he tried everything really. But Shane just rebelled against everything," said Christian.

Other disasters quickly followed. Shane was injured in a car crash while joyriding. In Mountjoy Prison, he became involved in a rooftop demonstration. This resulted in him being transferred to prison in Cork where, his brother recalls, he was put into something approaching solitary confinement for six months. "The way he described it, he was on 23-hours lock-up. He was allowed out for one hour a day into his small courtyard with a 20-foot wall. He got battered by the prison guards. When he came out he was gone mad."

There was nothing anybody in the family could do to pull him back from the brink.

"You could talk to him; he was very logical. But he didn't want to hear anything. Every time he got in trouble, the whole family was there trying to help, but it was just the same thing again a couple of weeks later."

Christian says only one other member of the family has ever been in trouble, and then only on one occasion. Shane was very much the exception.

Shane's notoriety inevitably reflected badly on the family. But Christian says the people he works with are very understanding. "Coates was a very well-respected name in Dublin."

He himself was dragged into the mess 11 years ago when gardai burst into his rented house early one morning and arrested him, thinking he was Shane. The gardai gave him "a few digs" and he spent two days in hospital. He later sued and received £29,000 (€36,000) in an out-of-court settlement.

He recalls that one newspaper at that time carried a story with three photographs - himself, Shane and Tony Soprano. "You just have to laugh at these things. But when normal people see them, they think 'my God. . . ' It would obviously make them conclude that he comes from a family of lunatics."

Shane had three children with his English partner, Parveen. The couple separated some years before his death. The children are aged between 12 and six. His two eldest, boys, are national champions in karate and have represented Ireland in the sport.

"They're great kids," he says. "We bring them training every week. They're top of their class at school as well. Obviously, they are very upset at the moment. But they have their family there to support them."

Even in the worst times, Shane always stayed in touch with his family. "He contacted home all the time. He'd never leave it more than a week or two. He was very

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