Cold web of deceit behind cruel fraud

She lied, stole, swindled, claimed her father was dead and even faked her own death. But the saga of imprisoned Diane Connelly isn’t over yet, writes Caroline O’Doherty.

THEY do a good wake in Dungloe.

The people of the small Donegal town turn out in force to offer sympathies and support, to reminisce and reflect.

Even when the remains have yet to arrive home, they gather in strength, and where the deceased is not well known to them, they focus on passing that strength on to those who grieve.

But in the case of a wake that took place in the windswept community of a thousand people in December 2008, not even those who mourned, chief among them her devastated fiancé, could claim to know the woman who caused their pain.

She wasn’t dead for a start — she’d spun an elaborate lie to that effect. And then it emerged that her life was as much a lie as her death.

Her name, she said, was Diane Connelly, but it could be any of seven other names she has used. It is thought she is from Scotland but her Donegal accent is as good as her Scottish one and she can also pass for a Dub although she favours a neutral tone.

She may be 31 years old, as she most recently claimed, or 48 as a passport would indicate, or neither. She might have been married but claimed her husband died of drug abuse so whether he ever existed is not certain.

The only thing anyone is absolutely clear on is that when it comes to lying, she is true genius.

The extraordinary story of Diane Connelly came to light over the past week after court proceedings at opposite ends of the country.

In Donegal she got a three-year sentence for fraud and theft after a bizarre series of events that culminated in her faking an illness, a bereavement and then her own death.

A few days later in Kerry, she was ordered to pay back €30,000 she swindled from a hotel run by celebrity couple Bill Cullen and Jackie Lavin — offences for which she was separately sentenced to seven concurrent two-year prison terms in July last year.

At that time she was calling herself Diane McDonald although even then Gardaí were struggling to establish her real identity.

Diane Connelly or McDonald may also be Diane Harper, Marian Aitkenhead, Marian Fotheringham, Paula Fotheringham, Clare Reeves or Shannon Allen.

All bar the last name popped up on police computers in Britain when her fingerprints were circulated by Interpol at the request of Gardaí.

At least one of those names matches that of a Scottish woman who would now be 41 and who served two short sentences in the late 1990s for using a stolen credit card and attempting to forge signatures on stolen cheques.

It may be coincidence but the modus operandi and timeframe involved bring to mind Diane, who is thought to have first come to Ireland around 10 years ago.

SHE first came to Garda attention in 2005 after a hotel in Cork reported fraudulent transactions but she ran into serious trouble when she decided to have a go at swindling the five-star Muckross Park Hotel in Killarney.

She blagged her way into a receptionist’s job there in April 2006, waving a raft of convincingly glowing fake references. Within 10 days she had stolen €30,520 from the hotel, a portion in cash and the bulk in false refunds which she transferred to her then boyfriend’s laser card without his knowledge. She also had a credit card issued to her in the unsuspecting man’s name and used some of the stolen money to clear €1,800 in debt she ran up on it. The rest she used to pay for a new car.

The irregular refunds sparked concern at the hotel’s bank and Diane was fingered. She never denied what she had done but claimed she was motivated by the need to impress her boyfriend with whom she was madly in love.

He remains deeply embarrassed by the whole affair and had severed all ties with her by the time the case came to court for sentencing in July 2009.

While awaiting trial, Diane had left Killarney and lived for a time in Dublin and Fermanagh, again blagging her way into jobs. It was while she was in Fermanagh in January 2008 that she met Danny Walsh from Dungloe.

The quiet, hardworking lorry driver fell for the plump, pleasant girl and within a few months she moved in with him. In June 2008 they got engaged and Danny began building a house in both their names on a site outside the town.

For his trouble, Diane began forging cheques in his name, eventually stealing €27,000 from his accounts in two local banks. Towards the end of that year, Danny’s funds were running low.

To divert his attention, Diane told him her father had died in a plane crash in Canada — which later changed to Italy, and then to an Italian airline travelling between the US and Canada.

Then she told him she had found a lump and needed to go to hospital in Edinburgh for tests. She was in Derry when she rang to tell him she’d got word that her father’s body had been found and she needed to go to Canada to identify it.

In December she rang Dungloe parish priest, Fr Seamus Meehan, identified herself as Diane’s stepsister and asked him to bring the terrible news to Danny that Diane had died.

In almost 40 years as a priest, Fr Meehan had never been manipulated in such a cruel fashion and he remains deeply upset about the day he went to inform a distraught parishioner in all good faith that tragedy had befallen his fiancée.

Diane, meanwhile, made further calls and sent other messages to Dungloe, each time claiming to be a relative offering sympathies on her death. Those who gathered at the Walsh household for her wake had no reason to believe other than she had died.

Around this time, Danny contacted Gardaí about funds missing from his bank accounts. Detectives were more suspicious than he and began the search for the conveniently missing Diane. They tracked her on camera leaving a bank in Dublin three weeks after her supposed death.

Danny was devastated again — this time by the lies and betrayal. His mother took the news so badly, she became ill and had to be hospitalised.

In May last year, Diane was arrested in Co Wicklow where she was living and working under the name Shannon Allen. She remained in custody until her sentencing on the Muckross Park Hotel charges last July and was serving her time in Mountjoy Women’s Prison when she was brought before Donegal Circuit Court this week and sentenced to a further three years in jail.

A female Walter Mitty is how one local described her. Devious and cruel is another one’s take. It might be kinder to suggest she is in need of professional help but a psychiatric report was ordered at her trial in Killarney and no recommendation of that sort emerged.

Her saga isn’t finished yet. She is expected to be in prison — where her stay has so far been uneventful — for another 18 months to two years but police in Britain are then keen to talk to her.

They’ll hear some colourful stories, no doubt. The only problem will be which one to believe.

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