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12 Aug 2022

Kilkenny arsonist jailed for 11 years for manslaughter

KILKENNY

Speaking outside the Criminal Courts of Justice building today, Mr Nolan's family said: 'Gerry has and will never be forgotten by his family'

An arsonist who admitted killing a man after a garda cold case review of a 2006 blaze in North Kilkenny has been jailed for 11 years for manslaughter. 

The court was previously told that a woman who had given her then partner Martin Kelly an alibi during the investigation into the fatal fire in 2006 later came forward and changed her statement after he started a relationship with another woman.

Kelly has since amassed 196 convictions - including those involving violence and criminal damage by fire - and is deemed to be at high risk of reoffending.

Sentencing Kelly at the Central Criminal Court today, Mr Justice Paul McDermott said the 'very extensive' victim impact statements from Gerry Nolan's family had eloquently reflected the devastating and deep lasting effect of their terrible loss, the horror of the manner of the deceased's death and the fact that Mr Nolan had been denied justice as his family saw it for over 16 years.

The judge also said that setting fire to Mr Nolan's home went beyond an intention to frighten him and was an intention to terrorise him. It also showed the accused's shocking and callous indifference to the deceased's fate, he added. 

Last week, 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 Kelly set fire to the victim's mobile home. They said they will never forget the 'horrifying images' of the deceased's home engulfed in flames.

Speaking outside the Criminal Courts of Justice building today, Mr Nolan's family said: "Gerry has and will never be forgotten by his family. It has been a stressful and traumatic 16 years and today we have received some closure and justice for Gerry." 

The family also thanked gardai and their local community who have helped them over the years.

Last March, 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.

The Central Criminal Court heard during last week'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.

Before delivering the sentence today, Mr Justice McDermott said the accused was 19 years of age at the time he set fire to Mr Nolan's mobile home and that he was now 35 years old. His plea meant that he accepted that he was guilty of the gross recklessness leading to Mr Nolan's death, he added. 

Regarding the deceased's brother who lived in a nearby prefab, Mr Justice McDermott said they shared a close relationship, that William Nolan was awoken at 3.45am and had seen a male going in the direction of his brother's mobile home. "He heard glass cracking and saw flames coming from the mobile home, he ran out and was unable to gain access. He tried to break the glass on the door and couldn't succeed. He encouraged his brother Gerry to leave but the intensity of the flames made that impossible," he continued. 

Referring to Kelly's 196 previous convictions, the judge said more than 100 of them were for road traffic matters and some of them were concerning as they involved violence inflicted after this offence. He had been convicted on ten occasions of criminal damage, two of which involved fire, he added. 

The court has heard that Kelly's convictions include assault, criminal damage, 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.

Passing sentence today, the judge said Kelly had been repeatedly referred to probation services since he was 16 years of age, that he had abused drug and alcohol from an early age which led to his repeat offending and that he had been in custody for most of his adolescent years. He is also deemed at a high risk of reoffending, he said. 

Mr Justice McDermott said that Kelly had described what he had done as constantly 'eating at him' since 2006. The defendant said he had been drinking all day and that the offence was prompted by an incident where he went to his mother's house and had an altercation with his brother, he said.

Kelly, continued the judge, said he had only intended to frighten Mr Nolan and that he had seen the victim asleep on the night. Mr Justice McDermott said the accused had given very little thought to the consequences of his actions and that he couldn't bring himself to come forward at the time. He had also prolonged the suffering of the Nolan family and allowed another person to be implicated in the offence, he said.

Having regard to the gravity of the offence, the judge said it had been committed with a high degree of recklessness by setting fire to a mobile home where he knew Mr Nolan was living. 

He added: "Setting fire to a home goes beyond an intention to frighten, it's an intention to terrorise. Fire will by its nature spread and become uncontrollable. There is a very high risk of serious injury or death to a person, all the more so when the arsonist does nothing to ensure the damage is limited".

The aggravating factors in the case included that the fire was set "in the dead of night" without any intention to warn the deceased of the danger, that the accused drove to Mr Nolan's house intending to start the fire and that Kelly had left the scene without any consideration for the victim's safety or to save him from serious injury. 

"This showed the shocking and callous indifference to Mr Nolan's fate, that he [Kelly] had also arranged an alibi and that he did nothing to divert the investigation from the [other person] he knew," said the judge.

Mr Justice McDermott said it was the most serious offence of manslaughter and deserved the highest range of between 15 years imprisonment and up to life. He set the headline sentence at 17 years. 

In mitigation, the judge noted his guilty plea to manslaughter, his age at the time of the offence and his expression of sincere remorse for the killing which he said was welcome but had been a long time coming. 

In addition, the court took into account Kelly's difficult upbringing, the considerable level of drug and alcohol abuse in his home and the number of years that have passed since the commission of the offence. 

Kelly was sentenced to 12 years and six months in prison with the final 18 months suspended for a period of three years on condition he avail of education and addiction support. It was backdated to when he went into custody on November 2, 2021.  

The defence asked for liberty to mention the matter later today as they said the accused had spent some time in the Midlands Prison in Portlaoise prior to being transferred to Cloverhill Prison in November 2021. 

SENTENCE HEARING
At last week's sentence 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 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.

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.

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