Donegal man sentenced to 15 years for role in Strokestown attack

A Donegal man has been sentenced to 15 years in prison for his role in an attack at a repossessed house in Co Roscommon.

44-year-old PJ Sweeney of High Cairn, Ramelton has been sentenced along with 58-year-old Martin O’Toole of Stripe, Irishtown, Claremorris and 56-year-old Paul Beirne of Croghan, Boyle, Co Roscommon.

The three men were convicted of multiple offences carried out during an attack by a “mob” on security guards at a repossessed farmhouse at Falsk, Strokestown on December 16, 2018, including aggravated burglary, violent disorder and criminal damage to a door of a house.

Mayo farmer O’Toole of Stripe, Irishtown, Claremorris; Sweeney, a builder of High Cairn, Ramelton, Co Donegal; and cattle farmer Beirne of Croghan, Boyle, were also found guilty of false imprisonment of and assault causing harm to Ian Gordon, Mark Rissen, John Graham, and Gary McCourtney.

They were further convicted of three counts of arson in relation to three vans and to causing unnecessary suffering to an animal by causing or permitting an animal to be struck on the head.

Following a trial of over three months, a jury at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court returned guilty verdicts in respect of 15 charges faced by the three men, but acquitted them of robbery of a wristwatch from John Graham and one count of arson in relation to a car.

A fourth man – David Lawlor (43), of Bailis Downs, Navan, Co. Meath – was found not guilty of the same 17 charges.

Imposing sentence today Judge Martina Baxter said a “ mob” arrived with weapons arrived at the property in a rural location in the early hours of the morning.

She said this was a “well executed plan” and the group were there to “make a point about repossession” and to “terrify the security men” to ensure they never came back.

Judge Baxter said the group arrived at the property to “cause havoc” and intended that the people there would leave and “never come back.”

She said the defendants were “part of and actively participated” in events and  the evidence demonstrated  “extensive planning and pre-mediation” on the part of those involved.

She said these were “highly organised and deliberate crimes” which included an element of “calculated cruelty” designed to create “fear and terror”.

Judge Baxter said this case falls into the “exceptionally serious category of offending” and the defendants had a “high degree” of moral culpability.

Judge Baxter said there was an “large absence of mitigation”  in this case, due to the lack of contrition and the “absence of humanity”. She said she took into account that the men had never been in custody for serious offending before and their family circumstances.

Judge Baxter noted the maximum sentence for false imprisonment is life imprisonment and the aggravating features in this case include that the injured parties faced humiliation and violation of their bodily integrity.

She said the evidence showed Mr Gordon was “singled out for particular attention” and was beaten and humiliated in a  “truly callous” manner. She imposed a sentence of 15 years on each of the three accused for the false imprisonment of Mr Gordon.

She handed them 14 year sentences for the false imprisonment of the other three security guards, 13 years for the aggravated burglary,  ten years in respect of the violent disorder and arson charges, eight years for the criminal damage count and five years in relation to the charge of animal cruelty. All sentences are to run concurrently and are backdated to the date they entered custody.

Judge Baxter said there was no proof before the court of rehabilitation and she declined to suspend any element of the sentences.

Around 60 supporters and family members of the three defendants were present in court during the hearing.

There was heckling and shouting in court as the sentences were handed down. One person shouted “what a joke” and another said “you should ashamed of yourself judge”.

The court previously heard that a group of around 30 armed men smashed their way into a house at a recently repossessed rural property at Falsk, just outside Strokestown, Co Roscommon  at around 5am on December 16, 2018.

These men were armed with weapons, including a baseball bat, a meat cleaver, a hurley, a stick with nails in it, and a chain saw; and they attacked the security men who were guarding the property.

Mr Gordon, Mr Rissen, Mr Graham, and Mr McCourtney were each assaulted and sustained various injuries during the attack. A dog belonging to Mr Gordon was also struck on the head and later had to be put down due to the seriousness of its injuries.

During the trial, the prosecution said the men who went to Falsk all shared the common goal of getting the security men off the property and making sure they didn’t come back and that to achieve this, the group engaged in violence designed to terrorise the men working there.

It was the State’s case that the three accused men and others had gone there to take back the house for the previous owner Anthony McGann and his brother, who had been forcibly removed from the property during a court-ordered eviction five days earlier.

The case was prosecuted on the legal principle of common design which holds that if two or more people embark on a plan together to commit crimes each person is criminally liable for anything done by the others.

Before imposing sentence, Judge Baxter asked O’Toole, who was representing himself,  if he wished to address the court or to seek the assistance of counsel.

O’Toole said: “I’ve been denied the right to a free and fair trial because my legal team refused to take my instructions, that’s all I have to say”.