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25/07/2021

National: Man who admitted stabbing fisherman 40 times after row over missing crack cocaine is jailed

Man who admitted stabbing fisherman 40 times after row over missing crack cocaine is jailed

A man who was wearing blood-stained clothes and carrying a knife when he walked into a garda station and admitted to stabbing a fisherman 40 times after a row over missing crack cocaine has been jailed for ten years for manslaughter. 

As trial judge Ms Justice Carmel Stewart was expressing her condolences to Stephen "Apples" Kavanagh's family today, Tuesday, the deceased's sister Kim Kavanagh stood up and held a framed picture of her brother to the courtroom saying: "That's my brother who was hacked to death 40 times and had his throat cut by him."

The judge went on to explain to the deceased's sibling that there were "a myriad of factors" that the court was obliged to consider. However, Ms Kavanagh said: "My brother's life is worth seven years. We will be appealing so don't worry."

Following a trial at the Central Criminal Court last December, Darren Houlden (44), with an address at The Crescent, Meadowvale, Arklow, Co Wicklow, was found not guilty of murder but guilty of the manslaughter of Mr Kavanagh (37) at the same location in the early hours of May 6, 2019. He had pleaded not guilty to murder but guilty to manslaughter. 

The jury unanimously accepted the defence case that Houlden had "lost control and snapped" when he stabbed Mr Kavanagh in a "frenzied attack". It was the defence contention that "fear" was at "the heart of the case" and the accused was not only afraid for "his own skin" but that the victim had also threatened his family, which had "set him off". 

Defence counsel Brendan Grehan SC, representing Houlden, had asked for a verdict of manslaughter on the basis of the partial defence of provocation, which can reduce an intentional killing from murder to manslaughter. 

Last month at the accused's sentence hearing, another sister of Mr Kavanagh's, Stephanie Kavanagh, told the court in her victim impact statement that her brother's life was "so brutally and viciously robbed", saying that her 37-year-old brother had 40 stab wounds on his body and was "left to die like a dog." "Think about that, he had more stab wounds than his age," she added. 

Stephanie Kavanagh went on to tell the hearing that the trial had been conducted "according to the fictional and fanciful tales" of the defendant Mr Houlden, who she said had portrayed himself "as a true victim of the crime". 

Former Deputy State Pathologist Dr Michael Curtis gave evidence that Mr Kavanagh died after receiving "around 40 knife wounds" to the head, neck and face, which included the slicing of the right jugular vein and the thyroid artery, which cut the pharynx in the victim's throat.

The trial heard that Houlden drove to Arklow Garda Station covered in blood at around 00.35am on the morning of May 6 following a weekend of smoking crack cocaine and taking a medley of drugs with the victim and his girlfriend. The accused handed a "bloodied knife" to the member-in-charge at the hatch of the public office and told him: "It's my fault. I attacked him. It's all on me." 

Houlden told gardai in his interviews that Mr Kavanagh was angry when he discovered that his cocaine was missing and made a phone call to someone saying: "There is trouble down here, your stuff has been taken, get bodies down here."

The accused told detectives that he begged Mr Kavanagh not to make a second phone call after the victim threatened him that "gangsters" would bring him to "the woods" and shoot him over the missing cocaine. 

Whilst Mr Kavanagh was making the second call on the upstairs landing, Houlden said he was "like a lunatic" and "went into a rage" as he "went for" the deceased's brain with the knife. 

Mr Kavanagh's girlfriend Rachel Kearney gave evidence that she saw the accused "slaughtering" and "overkilling" her boyfriend. The witness said that Houlden was on top of her partner and had his knees on his back as he stabbed the victim. 

Mr Grehan said that it had not taken "Sherlock Holmes" to solve this case as his client, who was "covered from head to toe in blood" and carrying a knife, had walked into a garda station and admitted stabbing the deceased. 

Before delivering the sentence on Tuesday, Ms Justice Stewart said it was quite clear and understandable that Mr Kavanagh's family had difficulty accepting the jury verdict but she pointed out that "the jury had spoken and the court was bound by the jury verdict".

The judge said things had "deteriorated" on the Sunday evening when Mr Kavanagh went looking for drugs which he had acquired earlier that day and then "appeared to be missing". The finger of suspicion, the judge said, was pointed in the direction of the accused man.

Ms Justice Stewart noted that the tragedy of this event was that the drugs were subsequently found in the house and a phone call made by Mr Kavanagh, which she noted was of "no real threat", had gone "unanswered". She said the situation then "escalated" due to the amount of drugs that were consumed that weekend. Houlden had "ransacked" the house looking for the missing drugs and placed an axe and hammer inside the front door at one stage, she said.

Referring to Houlden, the judge said it was accepted by the jury that the accused had attacked Mr Kavanagh "out of fear" that a further phone call would be made. Houlden then inflicted "gruesome and horrific wounds" on the deceased, "some forty wounds in total", she said.

Referring to the two emotional victim impact statements given by Mr Kavanagh sisters, Stephanie and Kim Kavanagh, Ms Justice Stewart said she had considered the impact of the offence on the family and how they had been "clearly impacted greatly" by their brother's death.

The judge said that Houlden had expressed his sorrow for what had happened to Mr Kavanagh and the suffering he had caused to the victim's family. "I can appreciate that it is of cold comfort to the Kavanagh family but these are the matters that have been put before me," she noted. 

In a letter of apology to the victim's family, Houlden said that taking Mr Kavanagh's life was "the most unnatural of acts" and he wished he could change what had happened that night and was "truly sorry". 

Having regard to the gravity of the offence, the judge said she would place the offence for the killing of Mr Kavanagh at the upper end of the higher scale and set a headline sentence of 14 years.

In mitigation, she noted his early guilty plea to manslaughter, his expression of remorse and the contents of the probation report. 

The court heard that Houlden has 13 previous convictions which include assault causing harm, possession of drugs and forgery. 

Due to the mitigating factors, Ms Justice Stewart said she would reduce the headline sentence of 14 years by three years resulting in a sentence of eleven years. The judge then suspended the final 12 months of the eleven year sentence for a period of two years. The ten year sentence was backdated to May 7 2019, when he went into custody.

Ms Justice Stewart said she wanted to express her condolences to the deceased's family and was mid-sentence when Mr Kavanagh's sister, Kim Kavanagh, stood up and held a framed picture of her brother to the courtroom. Ms Kavanagh pointed at the picture and said: "That's my brother who was hacked to death 40 times and had his throat cut by him."

Addressing Ms Kavanagh, the judge said she had taken the statements made to the court into account and explained that there were a myriad of factors that the court was obliged to consider. 

In reply, Ms Kavanagh said: "My brother's life is worth seven years. We will be appealing so don't worry."

The trial heard that Mr Kavanagh's phone records showed that he made a call to his friend Rory "Tar" Kavanagh at 10.24pm on May 5.  Under cross-examination, Mr Kavanagh agreed with Mr Grehan that the deceased man had asked him to go to the accused's house in Meadowvale that night. However, the witness denied that the victim had asked him to come to Meadowvale because some of his crack cocaine had gone missing and he wanted help with the problem. 

The court also heard that an unsuccessful call, lasting one second, was made from Mr Kavanagh's phone to another friend, Jason Farrell, at 00.18 on the morning of May 6. 

VICTIM IMPACT STATEMENTS

In an emotional victim impact statement delivered last month, Stephanie Kavanagh said that her brother Stephen was "not a statistic", had a beating heart and felt emotions and pain. "We never thought we would have to sum up someone's life before they had finished living it," she said.

Ms Kavanagh said the deceased was a son, brother, uncle and friend, who had a passion for fishing and boats. Her mother had "an unbreakable bond" with her son that could not be "rocked" and they needed each other like "one needs fresh air", she explained. "He was a mammy's boy and once when his trawler was sinking he rang mum before the coastguard to say he loved her," she added.

Ms Kavanagh said her sister Kim and the deceased were particularly close. Kim has been "deeply affected" by the death of her brother and the trial was "particularly difficult" for her as she was "hurting beyond belief," she said. 

Ms Kavanagh said she lived around the corner from where her brother had been "murdered" and her eldest son wished he had been there to help his uncle, when he was fighting for his life. "Can you imagine living around the corner from where his life was so brutally and viciously robbed," she remarked. 

She said that her brother was only 37 years old at the time of his death and he had 40 stab wounds. "Think about that, he had more stab wounds than his age," she commented. 

Ms Kavanagh said her mother had given birth to four children and was now only left with three as her son had been taken so suddenly from her. "She will spend the rest of her life trying to understand and comprehend what has happened," she said.

She said the fact that someone could say the words "I wanted to kill him" was "truly unbearable". "Those are the words of a narcissist who describes himself as a soft person," she said.

She highlighted that one cannot conceive the "unimaginable pain that comes from the taking of his life". "It is an ongoing, never ending saga of torture itself. My sister is so angry that she doesn't know where to put it and my mother cries every day in a hopeless, helpless reality. A loss like this fragments a family," she said.

Ms Kavanagh said her brother received multiple stab wounds to the back of his head, neck and throat. She said his hands had been "severely damaged" in the efforts to protect his head that day. The funeral undertakers, she said, had to put gloves on his hands as the knife had destroyed the skin on them. 

"Do you know what it is like to feel angry and sad all the time. Do you have any comprehension of how it is to feel incomplete every single day. Our family had to wait 556 days to find out what happened to Stephen. All we knew was that he was stabbed and did not know how many times he was stabbed. We didn't know he was repeatedly stabbed in the back of the head as his attacker knelt on his back," she said.

She said it was "nothing short of cruelty" for a mother and family to hear for the first time in court the manner in which a dying man "met his ending" and how her brother's voice box had been sliced with the knife. "The fact his voice box was stabbed meant he couldn't cry out for help," she added. 

She said the "perpetrator" had been allowed to portray himself during the trial as a "true victim of the crime" despite evidence given that Mr Kavanagh had told Houlden that he was "killing him" during the knife attack. "Darren chose to consider stabbing him nonetheless," she said.

She said it haunted their family to think about the fear that their brother must have felt that night and he did not deserve to die in that way. "So many stab wounds in so many places. It disturbs us to think about the pain. He left him on the floor to die like a dog without asking a neighbour to call an ambulance," she said.

She said her family would never be able to forget the lack of regard shown for her brother as the "frenzied attack" continued. She said they were "haunted by the pain" that her brother would have felt, when he had his "flesh ripped apart" and they will forever be grateful to Ms Kearney for her attempts to intervene during the attack. She said his death had left "a gaping hole", which cannot be filled and she did not envy "the judge's job" in this case.

The witness stressed that her brother was never involved in gangland crime as he had been portrayed during the trial. "I felt the trial ran its course according to the fictional and fanciful tales of Darren Houlden," she said, pointing out that the missing drugs had been later found in the accused's bookcase in his bedroom.

Mr Kavanagh's other sister, Kim Kavanagh, also entered the witness box during Houlden's sentence hearing to deliver a second victim impact statement on behalf of her family. "If I thought the funeral was going to be hard, my god this trial has been a hundred times harder," she began. 

She said her brother was a fisherman who was gifted with his hands and was happiest when he was at sea rather than on land. She said "lies" had been given during the trial "making out" that he was a gangland figure. "He never gave up and fought and begged for his life. The evidence in the trial showed that Houlden had stepped over my brother and never rang an ambulance," she continued. 

"Darren Houlden called to my mum's house looking for Stephen that day. He came looking for Stephen," she stressed. Ms Kavanagh said her mother had rang her son asking who Mr Houlden was and now she had "to live with the fact that if she hadn't made that call they would never have met".

She said her brother had dreamed of getting his own boat and had been left an inheritance by his uncle prior to his death. "The joke around the house was 'don't call me Stephen anymore, I'd prefer if you call me skipper'. All he ever wanted in life was his own boat," she said.

"We are here today to beg for justice that my brother's life meant something, I've never known so much evil in my life. We will never hear his voice again, we are heartbroken and it has destroyed all of us," she said. 

"He was stabbed 40 times and his throat was cut twice. For the rest of our lives we will be haunted by this," she concluded. 

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