A man guilty of attempting an elaborate bank heist represented himself in court today because he “doesn’t want to waste any more public money”.
John O’Connell (aged 48) of Roseberry Lane, Lucan and another man spent five nights tunnelling into an Offaly bank from a vacant building next door.
He was sentenced to five years by Judge Patrick McCartan after he changed his plea to guilty mid-trial.
When he was arrested O’Connell was wanted for a “copycat” offence six months previously where €250,000 was taken from an AIB. He has never been charged with the AIB offence.
O’Connell, who represented himself, pleaded not guilty to burglary, criminal damage and conspiracy to rob at the old Post Office, JKL Street, Edenderry on April 26, 2009.
Shortly after the trial began today however, he changed his plea to guilty on the burglary and criminal damage offences.
The prosecution accepted the pleas and O’Connell asked to be sentenced immediately. When Judge McCartan asked him if he would like professional representation he declined saying: “I don’t want to waste any more public money, your honour.”
O’Connell’s co-accused, John Foy (aged 48) of Cashel Avenue, Crumlin was sentenced two weeks ago for his role. He was sentenced to one year, in addition to a 12-year term he is already serving for a separate armed bank robbery
Before dismissing the jurors, Judge McCartan thanked them for their time and told them there was “a stack of evidence” proving the accused’s guilt. When the judge asked O’Connell why it took him so long to change his plea, he replied that he was “terrified” of going to jail.
“But you’ve been there before”, Judge McCartan said, noting O’Connell’s 16 previous convictions including one for indecent assault and a 10-year sentence for false imprisonment and aggravated burglary.
The judge called it “a very skilful and well thought out operation” and commended the owner of the vacant post office for alerting gardaí when he noticed signs of the tunnelling.
The men were caught in the act after gardaí observed them enter the building every night for five nights. They were arrested when the Emergency Response Unit moved in and incapacitated them using “a distraction device”.
A vacuum cleaner with a receipt, signed by O’Connell in its storage compartment, was also found in the building. The raiders had used it to clean up the dust from the tunnelling every night.
O’Connell pleaded with the judge to suspend part of the sentence, saying he has three young children and doesn’t “have the stomach for this sort of life anymore”.
He claimed his only role was to remove the brickwork in the bank wall and that he wasn’t going to be part of any armed raid. Judge McCartan rejected this and said he had given all the leniency he could to O’Connell.
Sergeant Kevin Quinn told prosecuting counsel, Mr Damien Colgan BL, that on April 20, the postmaster of the vacant post office in Edenderry noticed signs of interference with an interior wall that backs onto the Bank of Ireland.
He alerted the gardaí who set up a surveillance operation on the building. Every night over the next week gardaí watched Foy and O’Connell climb through a window into the post office where they removed bricks and mortar from the bank wall.
To get into the post office they had cut the metal bars on the window and replaced them with removable bars which could be replaced every night.
When they had finished every night they would hide the debris and their tools under the floorboards and replace the plasterboard on the wall to conceal the hole.
They also cut a lock on the gate and put it back together with a piece of wire to avoid arousing suspicion during the day. Inside they had hung a large black piece of fabric across the windows to block the view from the street.
By the time gardaí moved in at 2am on April 26, the men had cut a three foot by three foot hole though the wall and into the bank. The ERU entered and incapacitated the men using a stun grenade-like device.
In interview O’Connell claimed he was there because he had come up from Dublin to buy €10 worth of “hash” in the vacant post office.
O’Connell, a brick-layer and cement supplier, claimed in court that he was only there to do the brickwork however Sgt Quinn rejected this.
The sergeant said he believed O’Connell and Foy intended to rob the bank in daylight hours once they completed the hole.