'terrible loss' | 

Man jailed for life for murdering ex in Cork car fire was ‘obsessed’ with her

Leonard arranged to meet Ms O'Keeffe at the wooded area but within minutes of her arrival he threw two gallons of petrol into the car and set it on fire.

Victim Mary O'Keeffe

Eoin ReynoldsSunday World

An "emotionally manipulative" man murdered a woman he had become obsessed with by setting fire to his car while she was inside, the Central Criminal Court heard today.

Michael Leonard (63) of Hillcrest, Glenosheen, Kilmallock, Co Limerick was today sentenced to life imprisonment after pleading guilty to the murder of 72-year-old Mary O'Keeffe at a woodland at Doneraile, Co Cork on February 4, last year.

The court heard that Leonard arranged to meet Ms O'Keeffe at the wooded area but within minutes of her arrival he threw two gallons of petrol into the car and set it on fire. A post mortem showed that she was still alive when the fire started.

The victim's granddaughter Nicky O'Keeffe cried as she told the court of her grandmother's love of music and dancing, her generosity and her kindness. She said: "Mary O'Keeffe will be forever in our hearts, she is deeply loved, sadly missed and will never be forgotten. We like to think she is happy, dancing in the sky.

Before sentencing Leonard to the mandatory term for murder, Mr Justice Paul McDermott described it as the "most horrific attack carried out by fire that led to this poor woman's death".

He added: "There has been a terrible loss inflicted on this family and I can only express my sincere condolences to them." When he passed sentence there was loud clapping in the court from people who had known Ms O'Keeffe.

Detective Sgt James O'Shea told Anne-Marie Lawlor SC, for the Director of Public Prosecutions, that Ms O'Keeffe lived in Mallow in Cork and was a widow at the time of her death. She had three sons, eleven grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

She was in excellent health and worked as a cook, starting at 6am most mornings. The accused, who has no previous convictions, worked for Coillte but was retired at the time of the murder.

Det Sgt O'Shea said Ms O'Keeffe came to know Leonard in 2016 as they both regularly went to dances. They formed a relationship for a time but in 2019 she made it clear she no longer wished to continue seeing him.

Michael Leonard

This "greatly upset the accused man", Gda O'Shea said and communications between them that were discovered during the garda investigation suggested he was "emotionally manipulative" in making her remain in contact with him.

One witness who knew both of them told gardai that he was "smothering her and she didn't know what he was capable of".

During the Covid lockdowns, Ms O'Keeffe was able to cut contact with Leonard but CCTV showed that from Christmas 2020 to her death the following February, he visited the area around her home 45 times. In the 13 days before her death he was near her home 12 times while phone messages he had sent her indicated he told her he was elsewhere.

Gda O'Shea said Leonard had an "increasing obsession in relation to her movements and an extreme interest in a person he believed to have been in a relationship with her."

CCTV also indicated that Leonard had gone to the village where that man lived and stayed in a hotel there on his own.

On the day of the murder Ms O'Keeffe and Leonard arranged to meet at Doneraile and both travelled separately in their own cars. She parked in an area "off the beaten track" about 750 metres form the main Mallow to Mitchelstown Road.

She arrived at 2.19pm and the investigation showed that she got into his car and by 2.23pm he had poured two gallons of petrol from a bucket into the car and onto Ms O'Keeffe and set the car on fire.

Leonard suffered burn marks to his own face and left the area on foot before calling his former wife who arrived at the scene at about 3.22pm. She handed her phone to a fire officer who heard the Leonard say: "You won't find me, I'm far away, I can't live with what happened."

Leonard's daughter arrived at the scene shortly after that and she was able to tell gardai where her father was using an app on her phone.

Gardai found him 2.5 kilometres away in the River Awbeg, about 12 metres from the bank. They rescued him from the river and he was taken to hospital before being arrested the following day.

Dr Margot Bolster carried out a post mortem on Ms O'Keeffe's remains and concluded that the cause of death was extreme third degree burns associated with inhalation of carbon monoxide by reference to a fire in a car. She was alive when the fire started, Det Sgt O'Shea confirmed.

Leonard made admissions during his fourth garda interview and said that he was "aggrieved" that Ms O'Keeffe had been lying to him. He said it was "terribly hurtful to be lied to like that, it eats away at you".

He said he did not go there with the intention of killing her but Gda O'Shea confirmed that Leonard had an open bucket containing two gallons of petrol in his car before Ms O'Keeffe arrived.

Nicky O'Keeffe told the court that her grandmother was known to her family as 'Moll'. She would travel anywhere in Ireland for a dance if one of her favourite singers was playing and at home she always had two radios playing, one in her kitchen, the other in her sitting room.

She was a talented knitter and would give away the jumpers, scarves and blankets she created. If anyone insisted on paying, she would use the money to buy them a gift.

When the family heard on the radio about a body being found at Doneraile, she said: "We heard the devastating news that some poor family would be receiving. Little did we know we would be the family receiving the absolutely heart-wrenching news that it was our beautiful, kind, loving, heart of gold Moll, who had been killed."

She said they could not understand why someone would do such a terrible thing and added: "Every time we had to share the news with another family member another piece of our hearts broke."

The weeks and months that followed were "extremely hard" and the nightmares were "day and night". "It was the last thing we thought of at night and the first thing we thought of in the morning."

She said: "She was a positive, happy person who had the ability to make every situation better. Her smile and laugh will live in our hearts forever."


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