A Dublin man has been found guilty of murdering his ex-girlfriend after using a fake Facebook profile to lure her to a city hotel when she cut contact with him.
Eric Locke strangled mother-of-one Sonia Blount with his hands and the cable of her phone charger, and suffocated her by forcing her t-shirt into the back of her mouth with such force that he broke her teeth.
The 35-year-old, with an address at St John’s Park East in Clondalkin, had pleaded not guilty to her murder, but admitted causing the 31-year-old’s death in a room at the Plaza Hotel in Tallaght on February 16 2014.
Locke had argued that he was suffering from a mental disorder at the time and that this diminished his responsibility. The defence, which falls under the Insanity Act, can result in a verdict of not guilty of murder, but guilty of manslaughter.
However, after just an hour and 33 minutes deliberating, a Central Criminal Court jury of eight men and four women reached a unanimous verdict of guilty.
The trial heard that Locke had met Ms Blount in October 2013 when he began working in the glue factory, where she had worked for almost a decade. They began dating but, in Locke’s own words, were never boyfriend and girlfriend; she had previously been in an abusive relationship with a dominating partner.
The jury heard that they went to a comedy gig in January 2014 but had a row when Ms Blount attracted the attention of other males while out smoking. Locke called her a slut and she ended the relationship the following day.
The court heard the hundreds of text messages that followed between them, in which he pleaded with her for another chance and she pleaded with him to let her be. He did not, but instead walked off the job and sent her a text message threatening suicide.
The court heard that this had worried her sick and resulted in her not sleeping or eating. She had called the gardai, who had tracked him to a hotel using his mobile phone signal. He was arrested under the Mental Health Act and taken to hospital and discharged.
He sent her a long letter apologising for what he had done, but also told her that he thought she would have stood by him. He said he would have done so had it been the other way around.
The court heard the content of many more text messages between them. He still wanted to meet, but Ms Blount said he did not need to explain anything. She remained friendly and enquired about his health and treatment. She reassured him about returning to work, which he did.
However, on returning to work, he sent her text messages accusing him of blanking him and enquiring about a rumour that he was stalking her.
She said she hadn’t heard the rumour, but asked him to stop staring at her at work. She voiced similar concerns to friends, saying he was freaking her out.
She eventually blocked him on Facebook and the text messages between them also stopped. He then sent text messages to his sister, telling her that he and Ms Blount were back together but claiming that she was ‘ripping him off’.
He asked if an acquaintance could hack into Ms Blount’s Facebook account. He could not, so Locke asked if he could hack into her email. This couldn’t be done either.
Locke already had a fake Facebook account in the name of Shane Cully. It was complete with photographs and friends. He used the profile to befriend Ms Blount and they began sending messages to each other.
They decided to meet for sex in the Plaza Hotel on the night of February 15. She said she was nervous, that she had never done anything like that before. She checked in around 9pm but he didn’t arrive until, after about a dozen insistent requests, she agreed to have a keycard at reception for him so he wouldn’t have to knock on the door.
The jury saw CCTV footage of him arriving at the hotel shortly before midnight, getting the keycard and taking the elevator to the third floor. He had put on a hat by the time he left the elevator and walked to her room.
The rest of the evidence came from what Locke told investigating gardai and three psychiatrists. The accounts varied but, in his last account to gardai, he said that she was shocked to see him walk through the door. He said he had just wanted to talk to her and this is what they had done. He said they had consensual sex.
He had told the psychiatrists that he had planned to tie her to a chair and force her to listen to an account of his pain. He had brought to restrain and scare her: a pellet gun, masking tape and cable ties.
He said that she screamed when she saw these and that he panicked and strangled her. He said she had caused the obvious scratches on his face and had asked what he was doing while he strangled her.
He said she was making sounds so he put her top into her mouth to silence her. He said he dressed her, put a Do Not Disturb sign on the door and left.
The jury saw footage of him dropping his mobile phone in a drain outside the hotel and running from the scene just over five hours after his arrival.
He claimed he made two suicide attempts afterwards but couldn’t go through with the due to vivid thoughts of his family. He handed himself into gardai that evening.
The defence asked for a verdict of manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility due to a mental disorder. Patrick Gageby SC called two psychiatrists, who testified that Locke met the criteria. The first, Dr Sean O Domhnaill, diagnosed him with Pervasive Developmental Disorder.
Another psychiatrist had been called by the defence but was dispensed with just before he was about to give evidence. The jury did not receive his report.
The prosecution called a psychiatrist as a rebuttal witness. This doctor advanced the opinion that Locke may well have had a personality disorder, but not a mental disorder necessary for the defence of diminished responsibility.
The prosecution argued that Locke knew well what he was doing was wrong. Remy Farrell SC, prosecuting, pointed to his insistence on having a keycard for the room, saying this showed he did not want to be found out when Ms Blount would look through the peephole.
He said there was evidence of anger and rage, wholly consistent with vengeance and retribution.
“While Eric Locke was strangling the life out of her, she was fighting for her very life,” he said in his closing speech.
Mr Justice Michael Moriarty told the jury that Ms Blount seemed like ‘an entirely likeable and decent young lady’.
He reminded the jury of her injuries and that Locke had dressed her after he had killed her. He described this as ‘no mean feat’, reminding the jury of the pathologist’s evidence in that regard.
He said that the question the jury had to ask itself was whether diminished responsibility came to Locke’s rescue.
He reminded the jury of the evidence of the three psychiatrists, noting that Dr Seán Ó Domhnaill ‘had not gone near the book of evidence’ before interviewing Locke. The judge said it seemed Dr Ó Domhnaill had merited some of the stern criticism meted out by prosecutor Remy Farrell SC.
Justice Moriarty pointed out that, while it was conceded that Locke had perpetrated the fatal act, the prosecution still had to prove the intent to kill or cause serious bodily harm.
“Even if you are to reject diminished responsibility, that does not automatically mean a conviction of murder should flow from that,” he said. “The other elements for murder have to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.”
This speed with which this was done, an hour and 33 minutes, resulted in gasps throughout the packed courtroom. However, the jury had been told to return to court at that time and it was not made known how quickly the verdict had actually been reached.
The announcement of the guilty verdict led to shouts of ‘yes’ followed by applause. Members of Ms Blount’s family and friends embraced each other before leaving the court following the two-week trial.
Mr Justice Michael Moriarty remanded Locke in custody for sentencing on Friday morning, when victim impact statements will be heard and the convicted murderer will receive the mandatory life sentence.