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28 Jan 2022

Man jailed after firing gun at Offaly halting site

Man jailed after firing gun at Offaly halting site

Man jailed after firing gun at Offaly halting site

A father-of-four who discharged a firearm at a Co Offaly halting site and could be heard saying "I'll kill you all, man, woman or child and I'll blow your brains out" has been jailed for six years. 

Passing sentence on Tuesday, Mr Justice Michael MacGrath said "a rather horrifying picture of the events" had been provided to the court of children, who ranged in ages from ten months up to six years, taking cover under a caravan. 

"I have little doubt that this was an extremely frightening event for all present at the site," he said, adding that people in their caravans and passersby were "terrorised" by what they had seen. 

The judge refused to impose a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years on the accused man saying that there was "evidence of hope" that a relationship between the two feuding families could be fostered into the future.

The Central Criminal Court previously heard that "bad blood going back awhile" had existed between the Quilligan and McDonagh families but it "was all in the past now".  

Simon Quilligan went on the run after the attack for 19 months before he was eventually extradited back from the UK. In a letter of apology to the victim's family, Quilligan said: "I cannot express how sorry I am. I wish to continue the family relationship between the Quilligans and McDonagh families."

Following a trial at the Central Criminal Court last December, the jury found Quilligan not guilty of attempting to murder John McDonagh at Ardan Way, Tullamore, Co Offaly on May 5, 2018.

He was also found not guilty of intentionally or recklessly engaging in conduct, namely, the discharge of a firearm, which created a substantial risk of death or serious harm to another. He was further found not guilty of making a threat to Melissa Cowman, intending the said Melissa Cowman to believe it would be carried out, to kill or cause serious harm to Victoria Doherty.

However, the jurors found Quilligan guilty of possessing a firearm with intent to endanger life on the same occasion. He was also found guilty of making a threat to Sandra O'Brien and Victoria Doherty, intending them to believe it would be carried out, to kill or cause them serious harm on the same occasion. The defendant was further found guilty of damaging property, to wit, a window of Victoria Doherty's caravan, intending to damage such property or being reckless as to whether such property would be damaged on the same date. 

Quilligan (38), with an address at Blackberry Lane, Athlone, Co Westmeath had denied the seven charges. 

Before delivering the sentence today, Mr Justice MacGrath said Quilligan had driven a UK vehicle to an unofficial halting site, issued threats to several people before discharging a firearm on a number of occasions. Mr McDonagh was picking up rubbish with a number of children at the time and "a rather horrifying picture of events" had been provided to the court in which the children had taken cover under a caravan, he said. The court heard that three females and nine children, ranging in ages from ten months up to six years, were present in the vicinity at the time. 

The judge said Ms O'Brien had described one child as being "the colour of death", when he emerged from the caravan as he was so frightened. "I have little doubt that this was an extremely frightening event for all present at the site," he said, adding that he was satisfied that Quilligan had attempted to conceal his weapon under a cloth, which had proved unsuccessful.

The judge also remarked today that neither Ms O'Brien nor Ms Doherty wished to provide victim impact statements to the court. However, he said Wayne McDonagh's wife, Victoria Doherty, had testified at the accused's sentence hearing that she had no harsh feelings towards Quilligan and she looked forward to continuing good relations with him. 

Referring to the accused's wife, the judge noted that she had written a letter to the court explaining that one of their children had health difficulties and another child suffered from psychological issues. She said the accused was a great father, supportive of their family in every way and he wanted to rekindle his relationship with the McDonaghs. The court heard she suffers from depression and had difficulty coping with four young children on her own.

In a letter of apology to the victim's family, the judge said the accused's wished to continue the family relationship between the Quilligans and the McDonaghs and said he was "extremely sorry from the bottom of my heart" to the McDonagh family, his own family and everyone involved in the case. 

Mr Justice MacGrath said an issue had arisen concerning whether Quilligan was in possession of a weapon that was capable of discharging live rounds or whether it was an air pistol. However, he said prosecution counsel Sean Gillane SC had submitted that the Firearms Act did not distinguish between different types of firearms. The judge said any doubt concerning the firearm must be resolved in favour of the accused.

He said Mr McDonagh had given evidence that the sound of the firearm, which was never recovered, was "just like air" and had described the gun to gardai as being just like an airgun. 

The judge said forensic tests on Quilligan and his car did not reveal any firearm residue but the court must be conscious of the evidence from forensic scientist Dr John O'Shaughnessy that these particles can be lost through movement, hand washing and dissipate over time. He also said Dr O'Shaughnessy was satisfied that a hole in a nearby road-sign was caused by a bullet and not an air rifle but it was difficult to date the bullet hole. 

The judge said that where a person is convicted of an offence under section 15 of the Firearms Act, the court shall specify a term of imprisonment of not less than ten years as the minimum term of imprisonment, unless the court determines that by reason of exceptional and specific circumstances relating to the offence, or the person convicted of it, it would be unjust in all the circumstances to do so. The court is entitled to take into regard any matter which it considers appropriate, he added. 

The judge said "evidence of hope" that a relationship between the two families can be fostered into the future could be regarded as one of these exceptional circumstances specific to the offence and it would therefore be unjust to impose a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years on the accused. However, he said the court must also take into account the harm caused to society by the unlawful use of firearms. 

He said the aggravating factors were the defendant's 38 previous convictions, which spanned over twenty years in this jurisdiction and four other separate jurisdictions. He said of some "considerable concern to the court" was his conviction for the illegal transport of weapons in the city of Ghent in Belgium. 

Another aggravating factor in the case was the fact that people in their caravans and passersby were "terrorised" by what they had seen, he said. 

The judge set the headline sentence at ten years imprisonment. 

In mitigation, the judge noted the accused's apology, the letter written by Mrs Quilligan and the family circumstances. He said the court must also take into account the interpretation of the jury's verdict and would therefore reduce the headline sentence from ten years to eight years.

He said the court must also have regard to the accused's rehabilitation and the added hardship of serving a sentence during the Covid-19 pandemic. Some incentive must also be given to the defendant that his desire for better relations between the two families "can bear fruit", he indicated.

Mr Justice MacGrath sentenced Quilligan to eight years imprisonment with the final two years suspended.

He was also sentenced to two years imprisonment on each of the two counts of threats to kill or cause serious harm and six months for criminal damage. The man's sentences are to run concurrently and were backdated to December 11, 2019. 

At last month's sentence hearing on February 17, Superintendent Eamonn Curley told prosecuting counsel Sean Gillane SC that the event occurred on a bright summer's day at a halting site in Tullamore, where several families were residing including the McDonaghs, Sandra O'Brien and Victoria Doherty.

Outlining the events that led up to the incident, Supt Curley said a number of children were helping Mr McDonagh "clean up" the caravan site around midday, when a dark vehicle with a UK registration "screeched" to a halt. 

The court heard that Quilligan alighted from the vehicle, approached the caravans and could be heard calling out to Mr McDonagh: "I've got you now John". Quilligan was carrying a firearm and wearing a pair of gloves at the time. 

The court heard that three females and nine children, ranging in ages from ten months up to six years, were present in the vicinity at the time. The accused went on to discharge the firearm a number of times, said Mr Gillane, adding that evidence was given during the trial that something had hit a nearby road sign. 

Mr McDonagh ran from the scene, through a hedge and "made his way at speed" to a resident's garden. The accused was subsequently identified by a number of residents from the site. 

Ms Doherty testified that Quilligan had approached her caravan and told her "he would blow her head off". Ms O'Brien indicated that the defendant could be heard saying "I'll kill you all, man, woman or child and I'll blow your brains out". The accused broke the window of Ms Doherty's caravan with the firearm, which was partially covered with a cloth or bag. 

Quilligan then left the scene in his car and certain individuals had seen the firearm pointing out of the vehicle. 

Gardai learned that other witnesses in the vicinity had seen children "take cover" under a caravan. Ms O'Brien described her child as being "the colour of death", when he emerged from the caravan as he was so frightened.  Another person said they saw a saloon type car parked outside the halting site and "two cracks" could be heard coming from the gun which was being pointed at the caravans. 

Gardai commenced an investigation and Quilligan became a person of interest. The jury saw CCTV footage of an individual's car being followed in the direction of Blackberry Lane in Co Westmeath before a man ran from the car into his house. 

Following this, Mr Gillane said Quilligan presented himself at Athlone Garda Station and confirmed that he was the same person who had alighted from the vehicle earlier that day. He was arrested but nothing of evidential value arose from his interviews. A black Kia Optima was later seized from the accused and it was confirmed that the car had been in the Portlaoise area that morning before it went in the direction of Tullamore. 

Forensic scientist Dr John O'Shaughnessy gave evidence at the trial that he had found a hole in a nearby road-sign, which he said provided strong support for the suggestion that it was a bullet hole from a firearm. The firearm was never recovered. 

The court heard that Quilligan has 38 previous convictions in Ireland and four other separate jurisdictions. These include burglary, possession of knives and illegal transport of weapons.  

The superintendent testified that the father-of-four left Ireland on May 18, 2018 and was subsequently extradited back from the UK. He has been in custody since December 11, 2019. 

Under cross-examination, Supt Curley agreed with defence counsel Padraig Dwyer SC that much of the evidence in the trial was challenged and Mr McDonagh had testified that the weapon discharged at the scene had created "air like sounds". 

The witness also agreed that the people present at the site knew Quilligan because they are related to him through marriage or blood. He further agreed with the barrister that an independent witness had given evidence that the person seen firing a weapon had been a back seat passenger in the car as it left the site. 

Mr Dwyer called a cousin of the accused, Victoria Doherty, to take the stand and she told the court that she was married to Wayne McDonagh and her brother-in-law was the victim John McDonagh. She agreed with the barrister that there had been positive interactions between the McDonaghs and Quilligans over the years. She said: "I've no harsh feelings against Simon Quilligan and I do have a relationship with him and I look forward to continuing that relationship in the future. Everything is over and forgotten about". She agreed with Mr Dwyer that reference was made in the trial to "bad blood" between the accused and Mr McDonagh, which had been "going back a while".

In a letter of apology to the McDonagh family, Quilligan said: "I cannot express how sorry I am. I wish to continue the family relationship between the Quilligans and McDonagh families."

The lawyer said the most serious offence his client had been found guilty of by the jury was possession of the firearm with intent to endanger life. Mr Dwyer submitted to Mr Justice Michael MacGrath that he was "at large" to determine a "just and fair sentence" if he found exceptional circumstances in the case, which would make it unjust to impose a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years on his client. 

In mitigation, Mr Dwyer asked the court to consider that the defendant wished to reconcile his differences with the injured parties, which he said had occurred in the context of a feud between two families and arose out of "bad blood" between Quilligan and Mr McDonagh. He submitted that "this was all in the past now". 

Mr Gillane said the Firearms Act did not distinguish between different types of firearms and there had been no evidence presented at the trial which urged that the firearm was an air pistol.

"The evidence from the ballistics was that the bullet hole couldn't be caused by an airgun," he added.

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