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Sunday 20 August 2017

HERO GARDA WHO PLAYED MASSIVE ROLE IN CRACKING THE ELAINE MURDER CASE

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The investigation into the murder of Elaine O'Hara involved tens of thousands of garda man hours, but it was the actions of a young officer that played a major role in the case going to trial.

While advances in technology such as the forensic analysis of data from mobile phones and computers as well as DNA and CCTV evidence played a huge part in the conviction of Graham Dwyer, it was the perseverance of Gda James O'Donoghue that led to the first breakthrough.

Gda O'Donoghue was in Roundwood Garda Station on September 11, 2013 when angler William Fagan arrived with items he and two other men had found in a bag while fishing at the Vartry Reservoir.

If it had not been such an unusually warm summer that year, the items might never have been discovered as water levels had dropped from the usual 20 feet to just two feet.

The hoard he collected from Mr Fagan included a rusty chain with sets of handcuffs, bondage cuffs, a ball gag, a blindfold with a Velcro strap and a turquoise hoodie and vest. He hung the hoodie and vest "in the drying room" of the station and placed the other items in tamper-proof bags.

By a crazy coincidence, two days later the remains of Ms O'Hara were found in Rathfarnham by a woman walking her dog, but Gda O'Donoghue was unaware of the identity of the woman whose remains were found.

Over the course of the following days he returned to the reservoir three times, finally entering the water to search for any other items once the visibility had improved.

Gda O'Donoghue, who is in his 30s, said he was overcome with a nagging feeling that "something was wrong" with the items. "It was odd, a very odd find. I felt it warranted further attention," he said.

"On arrival at the reservoir bridge, I looked into the water and it was very low, not normal. In my time up there I had not seen it that low."

On September 16, Gda O'Donoghue found a bondage mask with zips over the eyes and mouth, a knife with a black handle, a blue inhaler and a rusted chain with a bull ring.

Of perhaps even more importance, he discovered a set of car keys in the water that had some shopping loyalty cards attached to them, one for Dunnes Stores.

Gda O'Donoghue contacted the Dunnes and discovered that the card belonged to Elaine O'Hara, who had been missing from her Stepaside home since August 2012. He checked the garda Pulse system and discovered Ms O'Hara's remains had been found only three days previously.

An investigation was launched, and the Garda Water Unit was called in. Items of significance were discovered by the specialist officers who used metal detectors that led to the recovery of two Nokia phones that belonged to Ms O'Hara and Dwyer and were used by them to communicate with each other secretly as "Master" and "Slave".

The discovery of the phones and the confirmation that they were linked to Ms O'Hara meant officers were able to retrieve text messages.

A forensic examination of computers and other phones linked to Ms O'Hara, as well as items found in her Stepaside apartment, showed that one person above all others became a chief suspect, and this was Foxrock-based architect Dwyer.

Once the remains found in Rathfarnham were confirmed to be Ms O'Hara's, the investigation was handed over to local gardai.

It was led by Chief Supt Diarmuid O'Sullivan, Supt John Hand and Det Supt Kevin Dolan, all experienced officers based in the DMR South garda division and with more than nine decades of service between them.

Det Sgt Peter Woods from Blackrock Garda Station was the officer charged with the day-to-day running of the investigation, and dozens of gardai worked with him in the five weeks between the discovery of Ms O'Hara's remains and Dwyer's arrest on October 17, 2013.

After the arrest, Det Brid Wallace from the garda's Computer Crime Unit spent weeks going through Dwyer's computer and discovered images, documents and videos describing women being raped or stabbed as well as a video that featured Dwyer stabbing Ms O'Hara.

Garda crime analyst Sarah Skedd was able to link the mobile phones found in the reservoir to Dwyer from toll booth records. She provided a huge amount of evidence to investigators, including phone records for five mobiles, data retrieved from computers and phones and CCTV footage.

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One of the most important discoveries was semen found on a blood-stained mattress in Ms O'Hara's apartment which was to later match Dwyer's DNA after he provided a saliva sample.

However, it was the collection of DNA by gardai that proved to be one of the most controversial parts of the murder probe, and led to Dwyer's defence calling for the case to be thrown out on the basis that some gardai were running an "off-the-books" operation.

This related to the fact that Chief Supt O'Sullivan and Sgt Tom Doran searched Dwyer's green bin outside his home and seized Turtle Wax from it at 5am on September 27, 2013 for purposes of obtaining DNA. This was around three weeks before Dwyer was arrested and gave a voluntary DNA sample.

It emerged during legal argument that Det Sgt Woods, the lead operational garda in the case, had not been told about the bin search.

Gda O'Donoghue has received widespread praise for his dedication to duty. The Garda Commissioner sent him a letter of congratulations.

However, he remained modest. "I felt it was all in a day's work for the gardai," he said.

kfoy@herald.ie

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