A 21-year-old man has been jailed for eight years for killing a vulnerable pensioner by setting fire to his home five years ago.
Aaron McDonagh (21), of no fixed abode, had pleaded guilty to the manslaughter of 61-year-old Gerry Marron on March 21, 2016. He was 16 at the time.
McDonagh, who has a learning disability, also pleaded guilty to committing arson on the same date by setting fire to Mr Marron’s house at St Macartan’s Villas, Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan, intending to damage it or being reckless as to whether it would be damaged and intending to endanger another’s life or being reckless as to whether the life would be endangered.
Mr Justice Michael White noted that Mr Marron had lived alone and was vulnerable because of a previous accident. He used a walking stick and needed ‘help and supervision from a very loving family’ of siblings and nieces and nephews.
However, he was being taken advantage of by youths, who used his house for unsupervised drinking. Just weeks earlier, a family member had tried to intervene in one such case, and was confronted by Aaron McDonagh.
Justice White quoted from the victim impact statement delivered last month by Mr Marron’s brother, Patrick Marron.
"In the months prior to Gerry's death, we as a family became more aware of Gerry's increased vulnerability. He was open to exploitation and we were concerned for his safety. I was so concerned about different events at his home, that I had to contact gardaí a number of times," he said.
"I witnessed first-hand Gerry being harassed and intimidated in his own home, which I was gravely concerned about and as a result I reported what I had witnessed to An Garda Siochana on a number of occasions. Gerry's great neighbours also contacted both myself and Ann at different times, extremely concerned for his welfare. Sadly the frequency of these interferences at Gerry's home added greatly to our fears for Gerry's safety. Again we reported to gardaí," he said.
Sadly, Mr Marron said, his "worst fears came to pass" in the early hours of March 21, 2016.
Justice White noted that on the evening before he was killed, at least two youths, including Aaron McDonagh were drinking in Mr Marron’s home. Emergency services were called to a fire there at 1.30am. Mr Marron was inside and couldn’t be rescued. He died of smoke inhalation.
Gardaí soon became aware that the fire had been started maliciously, with the seat at the front door, near the fuse box.
McDonagh firstly denied his involvement but eventually, after evidence was put to him, he admitted what he had done.
The judge noted that Mr Marron’s siblings had given eloquent victim impact statements in court. He had also received victim impact statements from other siblings, a nephew, neighbours and friends.
“All deeply moving statements,” he remarked.
He also considered a lot of documentation handed in on behalf of the defence.
“The court has a duty to protect society,” he said.
“He was 16 at the time and was in law a child,” he noted, however. “He also has a mild to moderate learning disability.” He took these into account when assessing McDonagh’s culpability.
He said that the aggravating circumstances included that the death was of a vulnerable person in horrific circumstances, and the devastating impact on his family. He described McDonagh’s history of exploiting the victim as a ‘very nasty aspect of his behaviour’.
He set a headline sentence of 12 years, but reduced it after taking his mitigating circumstances into consideration. These included McDonagh’s plea of guilty and background of severe depravation.
He said that McDonagh’s remorse has been very late coming and noted a report stating that he had little victim empathy.
He sentenced him to nine years in prison, with one year suspended, and said that it was essential that he be supervised in the community on his release.
McDonagh then entered a bond to engage with addiction, mental health, housing and education services and to attend therapeutic appointments on his release.
The sentences were imposed concurrently and backdated to 18th March 2019, when McDonagh went into custody.
Mr Marron’s nephew, solicitor Justin Murphy, spoke outside the court afterwards on behalf of the family.
“Today brings closure in the case of our dear brother and uncle, Gerry Marron, as a sentence has been handed down,” he said.
“It has been a long, painful five years since Gerry died so tragically in his own home, alone, with no goodbyes,” continued Mr Murphy.
“While we as a family are glad this is over today, it will never be over for us as a family,” he added. “We will have to live with the many sad memories of how Gerry died so horrifically.”
He and the Marron family then thanked everybody who helped to bring the case to this point, including ‘Gerry’s great neighbours’, the Gardaí for their endless, painstaking time and work, the judiciary, the legal system, the local emergency services and ‘all who helped in any way’.
Mr Murphy concluded: “May Gerry now rest in peace.”
At the defendant's sentence hearing today, a victim impact statement was read to the court by Gerry Marron's brother, Patrick Marron, who said that they came from a family of eight and Gerry was six years younger than him. "We were taught to respect other people and their property and grew up with that ethic," he added.
Mr Marron said that his brother worked in the building trade and was "highly respected" by those he worked for. "He was foreman on numerous jobs in Monaghan and Dublin with local building contractors. He was recognised as a gifted tradesman and was sought by many to give his ideas on building projects and to carry out construction work," he said.
The witness said he saw the work Gerry had carried out around his own home with his "gifted hands" and it brought back good memories.
He added: "Sadly in the early nineties Gerry's life took a turn for the worst, he was hospitalised for some time, later suffering a stroke and then being diagnosed with an acquired brain injury from which he never recovered. This resulted in him no longer being able to return to work."
Mr Marron said that his brother lived in his own home in St Macartan's Villas with the assistance of home care help and family members. "My sister Ann would look after his medical and laundry needs over weekends and as Gerry was no longer able to carry out maintenance jobs to his home himself, I would help him out on occasion doing minor repairs to his house," he said.
"Since Gerry's illness his vulnerability was clear to be seen, as he had to use a walking stick to get around.
"I was so concerned about different events at his home, that I had to contact gardaí a number of times in the months prior to the fire and Gerry's death." he continued.
"I witnessed first hand Gerry being harassed and intimidated in his own home, which I was gravely concerned about and as a result I reported what I had witnessed to An Garda Siochana on a number of occasions. Gerry's great neighbours also contacted both myself and Ann at different times, extremely concerned for his welfare. Sadly the frequency of these interferences at Gerry's home added greatly to our fears for Gerry's safety. Again we reported to gardaí," he said.
Sadly, Mr Marron said, his "worst fears came to pass" in the early hours of March 21, 2016, when they were awoken by a phone call to tell them about "the shocking news" that Gerry's house was on fire and to come quickly. "That night life changed for me and my family forever. We immediately drove to Gerry's home hearing sirens and seeing flashing lights as we approached. At his home all we could see were fire brigades, garda cars, smoke and panic everywhere," he said.
He continued: "I was so terrified for Gerry's life and I tried to get into Gerry's house but I was held back and told it wasn't safe.
"All hope vanished when I was told later that night my brother had not survived.
"We were then informed that the area was being cornered off to allow forensics to carry out their investigation and as a result it wouldn't be possible for any of the family to enter his home to see him. We remained at the scene for many hours and didn't get any sleep. We were all in shock and grief. Our agony was prolonged for the next few days as the investigation of the scene continued, with all the thoughts of Gerry's body lying in there churning in my mind."
Mr Marron said that the family member chosen "for the gruesome ordeal" of identifying his brother's body was told that this would not be possible "due to the charred conditions Gerry's remains were in".
"We had no chance to say goodbye or ever see him again. As a result of no visual identification being possible in Drogheda mortuary, myself and my sister Ann were requested to attend the local garda station to have our DNA taken to officially identify Gerry's remains," he continued.
Referring to the funeral, Mr Marron said hundreds of people came to sympathise and share their grief with the family as they sat beside "a closed coffin only imagining" what their brother Gerry looked like in it and the pain he must have suffered, the court heard. "Only photographs of Gerry on the coffin as we shared memories of times passed. This will remain with me forever," he said.
Mr Marron said he suffers from sleepless nights, fear, anxiety, stress and "in particular visions of Gerry burning and not being able to save him". He said he will have to live with "this torment" for the rest of his life. "The manner of Gerry's death has caused ongoing havoc in my life.
"These years are my retirement years. I never expected to spend my retirement days tidying up the mess caused by this callous and reckless act. We never expected Gerry to leave this world in this way. RIP Gerry."
Some months later, Mr Marron said, he and his siblings had to "face the grim reality of cleaning up the aftermath of the fire". "On first entering the house the first thing I noticed was the imprint of Gerry's body on the charred carpet. That image stays with me. Again, one can only imagine what he must have suffered while lying on that floor".
In regards to the clean up of the house, Mr Marron said it was sad to see his brother's television melted, family photographs destroyed, "the plastic of his music centre distorted from the intense heat of the fire", where he regularly played his much loved country music and ballad CDs and tapes. "He enjoyed the simple things of life," he added.
"While looking at the damage of Gerry's house, we can appreciate that only for the prompt action of his good neighbours to call the guards and the fire brigade, there may have been more tragedy that night. I dread to think what would have happened to the adjoining houses and the people asleep therein," he said.
In summary, Mr Marron said that his brother was the type of person who saw good in everybody. "It's very sad to think that someone so trusting and gentle in personality died in such a horrific manner........burned to death in his own home. Unfortunately, these are the horrific memories that me and my family have to carry for the rest of our lives due to this callous act."
In a second emotional victim impact statement today, the deceased's sister, Ann Doogan, said her brother had died alone "in such horrific circumstances". She said the "horrendous manner" in which her "dear brother died" has affected her in so many ways. "That night is forever etched in my memory and I often wonder did he call for any of us," she said.
"He was a kind, caring and considerate brother, a man at the heart of his local community, often referred to by locals as a 'gentle giant'," said Ms Doogan.
"Even sometimes while watching television, when a scene appears of a burning house or I hear the sound of a fire brigade it throws up so many images in my mind. Having witnessed the remnants of Gerry's house following his excruciating death, I can still envisage the outline and silhouette of his walking stick on the ground in such a black, charred and grim scene.
The hardest part of it all, she said, was sitting by Gerry's closed coffin as "there was no other option as he had been burnt so badly".
"His radiant smile beamed out from a framed photograph on top of his closed coffin of a much happier time celebrating his surprise 60th birthday gathering. This in itself along with feelings of anger and frustration at how this rotten and callous act had been mulled over and dealt with by the justice system from then up until now has only compounded my heart-breaking grief even further," said Ms Doogan.