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29 Jun 2022

Woman who gave then-partner alibi for fatal Kilkenny fire changed statement, court hears

Family of 'kind and gentle soul' Gerry Nolan tell of pain and trauma of their loss

KILKENNY

Victim: The late Gerry Nolan, who lost his life in a fatal fire in Castlecomer in 2006

A woman who gave her then-partner an alibi during an investigation into a fatal fire almost 16 years ago later came forward of her own volition and changed her statement after he commenced a relationship with another woman, the Central Criminal Court has heard.

The family of 'kind and gentle soul' Gerry Nolan told the court that he was killed 'in a severely sick and horrendous way', when then-teenager Martin Kelly, who has now amassed 196 previous convictions, set fire to the victim's mobile home in Castlecomer, Kilkenny almost 16 years ago. They said they will never forget the 'horrifying images' of the deceased's home 'engulfed in flames'.

The Central Criminal Court also heard during today's (Monday's) sentence hearing of Martin Kelly that William Nolan pleaded with his brother to get out of the mobile home as it melted away but could only hear Gerry Nolan say: "I'm not able". 

Evidence was also given that the deceased was very badly burned and completely unrecognisable when emergency services gained access to the caravan.

Last March, Martin Kelly (35) of Church Avenue, Castlecomer, Kilkenny pleaded not guilty to murder but guilty to the manslaughter of Gerard 'Gerry' Nolan (44) on July 24, 2006, at Deerpark, Castlecomer, Kilkenny.

In 2020, Kelly had been charged with the murder of Mr Nolan but Sean Gillane SC, for the DPP, said earlier this year that the plea to manslaughter was acceptable to the State.

VICTIM IMPACT STATEMENTS
William Nolan, the deceased's brother, told the court in a victim impact statement that he was 'abruptly woken' by shouting on July 24 and that he will never forget the 'horrifying images' of his 'brother's home ablaze'. He said the incident has left him 'very vulnerable' and that their family is no longer complete without Gerry.

"Our family is broken, my brother isn't coming back and I don't know where I am supposed to go from here," he said. He said that Gerry bought his mobile home about 20 years ago, that he was happy living there and that he [William] would stay with him. "What happened to him is in my head everyday. I feel sadness all the time when I think about what happened. He was my best friend and I really miss him," he added.

Gerry Nolan's son Chris Nolan, who was 23 at the time, told the court in a second victim impact statement that the incident had ruined his life, that he had to be put on tablets for depression, that he doesn't like leaving his house, that he hasn't been able to work since the incident and that his social life is 'gone out the door'. He said he hoped he would be finally able to move on with his life when his dad got the justice he deserved.

Margaret Nolan, the deceased's sister, said in her statement that Gerry was a 'kind and gentle soul who everyone had a good word for' and that his life had been taken in a 'severely sick and horrendous way'.

"The pain and suffering for me got harder to live with and to know the person responsible was let go unpunished and free made the burden harder," he said.

Another sister Eileen Nolan asked in her statement how could such a good-hearted and gentle person suffer such a 'wretched death'. She said her world stopped on July 24, 2006 when the phone rang. She lies awake at night haunted by the thoughts of her brother's screams for help and said that her pain will never go away. She said her family are 'engulfed in grief' and that they have been given the ultimate life sentence.

"I miss him every day, he won't get the chance to celebrate his 60th birthday next week. Words will never describe how heartbroken I am, nothing I can say will bring my brother back to this world," she said. 

Two other brothers also gave victim impact statements in which they described the traumatic impact of Gerry's death for the past 16 years.

SENTENCE HEARING
At today's sentencing hearing Detective Inspector Sean O'Meara told Mr Gillane, prosecuting, that the incident took place in the early hours of July 24, 2006 at Deerpark in Castlecomer, which was Mr Nolan's family home where he had been reared as one of 12 children.

At the time, Mr Nolan's mobile home, which had two bedrooms and a dining area, was placed on concrete blocks in the back garden of the premises. Mr Nolan, who was known locally and well liked, had a practice of sleeping on the sofa in the living area, the court heard. 

The deceased's brother William Nolan had a similar arrangement in that he lived in a prefab beside Gerry. 

The family home at Deerpark was unoccupied at the time and was one of a series of cottages. Gerry Nolan was not married but had a son, said counsel.

In the afternoon and into the evening of July 24 2006, Gerry Nolan spent some time drinking in the 'Coalmine Inn' in Castlecomer and spoke to a number of people. At 12.50am, Gerry was driven to his mobile home by a local hackney operator, who said the deceased was in good form and chatting. 

William Nolan was present in his prefab but did not hear his brother Gerry return. They had spoken in the early afternoon but not thereafter, said the Inspector. 

At 3.45am, William Nolan awoke to hear his dogs continuously barking and heard what he thought to be a "push at the door" of his prefab home. "He looked out of his prefab and saw a male, someone other than the accused, heading in the direction of Gerry Nolan's mobile home," said Mr Gillane.

Following this, William Nolan heard the sound of glass cracking and saw flames coming out of his brother's mobile home. William Nolan was unable to gain access to Gerry's mobile home and grabbed a machete to break the glass.

William Nolan repeated to his brother to get out of the mobile home and heard Gerry said: "I'm not able", said Mr Gillane.

Despite William Nolan's best efforts he was forced to move backwards with the intensity of the flames and the emergency services were called but they were unable to rescue the deceased. The mobile home very quickly engulfed in flames. Its roof burned off and its sides started to fall off very quickly, said counsel. 

Gerry Nolan's remains were found in the front left hand side of the mobile home when the emergency services gained access.

"They noted the sides and roof of the mobile home had melted away completely and were extensively burned," said Mr Gillane.

The main area of fire damage was to the sitting room. Two internal locks on the mobile home were found in a locked position. No source of ignition was capable of being identified, said counsel.

Mr Gillane said the deceased was very badly burned and completely unrecognisable. A post mortem was carried out which showed that Gerry Nolan was alive when the fire started and that the cause of death was the inhalation of smoke and fire gases. 

The Inspector said an investigation by An Garda Siochana commenced, which focused on Kelly and the other man identified by William Nolan as being the person present at the scene that night. 

The investigation revealed a connection between the accused's SIM card and a mast in the Castlecomer area in the early hours of July 24. 

The accused, said Mr Gillane, was spoken to by gardai on July 31 but he denied any involvement in the matter.

A formal identification parade was carried out in December in which the accused man and the other man participated in. William Nolan picked the other man out of the parade.

The Inspector said the accused was in a relationship with a woman at the time of the incident and they were living at an address in County Tipperary. The woman made a formal statement to gardai in which she initially indicated that she had been out with Kelly on July 24 before she returned home with him. The woman also indicated to gardai that they both had access to a car and it was not moved that night.

"She also indicated that the accused was in bed with her when they woke up the following morning," said counsel.

Mr Gillane said the investigation team had very little direct evidence of what had transpired in terms of the fire and that investigation 'ran into sand to an extent'. 

In 2015, Mr Gillane said gardai in Kilkenny and Carlow were directed to re-examine the case under Superintendent Derek Hughes and that the accused's then former partner admitted to detectives that she had not told the truth in her earlier statement. She told gardai that Kelly had in fact left their address in a car in the early hours of July 24 and that he had made remarks to her that he was responsible for setting the fire.

"She described a number of occasions where he made remarks consistent with being involved in the arson [attack] and burning the mobile home including 'I killed Gerry Nolan'," said the witness. 

In 2017, Mr Gillane said that William Nolan made a further statement indicating that he may have made a mistake regarding the first identification and that Martin Kelly looked more like the person he had seen in the garden that night.

The court heard that Kelly has 196 previous convictions which include assault, criminal damage - two of which involved fire - burglary and entering a building with intent to commit an offence. He also has a conviction for endangerment which involved him driving a stolen vehicle at a member of An Garda Siochana. 

Under cross-examination, the Inspector agreed with Michael Bowman SC, defending, that his client had been 19 at the time of the offence, that he did not have the easiest of upbringing with the presence of alcohol and drug use and that he 'fell out' of the formal education system at a very young age. 

There was nothing of forensic evidence to link Kelly to the scene and that his plea was his first acceptance of wrongdoing, said Mr Bowman.

The Inspector agreed with counsel that William Nolan had initially identified another person but was not specific and then at a later stage he had identified this person by name. Kelly had stood in the 'same lineup' from which William Nolan had picked the other person out, said the witness. It was only later that William Nolan indicated that he may have made a mistake. 

The Inspector also agreed with Mr Bowman that the accused's former partner had come forward of her own volition after the accused had commenced another relationship with another woman. 

In his submissions, Mr Bowman said his client offers an unqualified and unreserved apology to the Nolan family for what transpired in 2006 and that he takes complete responsibility for his actions. 

Counsel said the accused had started the fire with a cigarette lighter when intoxicated and told his probation officer that he had only intended to frighten the deceased and not cause his death. Kelly accepted that he had prolonged the Nolan family's suffering and pain, said Mr Bowman. 

The barrister said Kelly had used drugs and alcohol over the years to cope with the grief and shame of what he had done and told a psychologist he felt a big relief that he no longer had to live a lie.

Mr Justice Paul McDermott remanded Kelly in custody until next Monday, when he will be sentenced.

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