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'frenzied attack' Sister of fisherman stabbed 40 times after row over missing crack cocaine says he was 'left to die like a dog'

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Darren Houlden arriving at Bray district Court in August 2019, charged in connection with the death of Stephen Kavanagh in Arklow.

Darren Houlden arriving at Bray district Court in August 2019, charged in connection with the death of Stephen Kavanagh in Arklow.

Darren Houlden arriving at Bray district Court in August 2019, charged in connection with the death of Stephen Kavanagh in Arklow.

The sister of a fisherman whose life was "so brutally and viciously robbed" after a row over missing crack cocaine has said 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 told the Central Criminal Court today.

The sister of Stephen "Apples" Kavanagh, Stephanie Kavanagh, said that the trial had been conducted "according to the fictional and fanciful tales" of the defendant Darren Houlden, who she said had portrayed himself "as a true victim of the crime".

Defence counsel Brendan Grehan SC, for Houlden, told the sentence hearing 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.

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".

Following a trial at the Central Criminal Court last December, Houlden (44), with an address at Meadowvale, Arklow, Co Wicklow, was found not guilty of murder but guilty of the manslaughter of Mr Kavanagh 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".

Mr Grehan, 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.

Former Deputy State Pathologist Dr Michael Curtis testified 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.

Evidence was given that Houlden drove to Arklow Garda Station covered in blood at around 12.35am 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 gardaí 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.

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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.

In an emotional victim impact statement today, Mr Kavanagh's sister, Stephanie Kavanagh, said that her brother 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.

At today's sentence hearing, Detective Garda Liam Flynn detailed the background to the event, telling prosecution counsel James Kelly BL that the accused had arrived into Arklow Garda Station covered in blood and carrying a large kitchen knife on a bank holiday weekend in June 2019.

Outlining the events that led up to the incident, Det Gda Flynn said Houlden had met Mr Kavanagh two days prior to attending the garda station, where it was agreed that both men and Ms Kearney would go to Houlden's house to consume drugs.

The court heard that Houlden was living in his parents house in Arklow at the time and had brought Mr Kavanagh to a pub on the coast, where a drugs "pick up or transaction" took place. They all returned to the accused's house and the party continued, where crack cocaine was smoked with a pipe through the Saturday night and into the early hours of Sunday morning, said counsel.

Around 10pm on Sunday evening, things started to "sour" in what would have been a "comfortable relationship" between the three individuals up to that point. Mr Kavanagh had hidden some drugs in the house and when he went to look for them they were missing. "A finger of suspicion as to where the drugs had got to was being pointed in the direction of Mr Houlden," said Mr Kelly, which led to raised voices, accusations and threats.

"In effect Mr Kavanagh threatened Mr Houlden that if the drugs weren't found he would make phone calls and people of a menacing sort would come and sort out the situation," said Mr Kelly. Phone calls were made by Mr Kavanagh and an impression was formed in the accused's mind that "a real, live, dangerous person" could cause a threat to him.

Mr Houlden attacked Mr Kavanagh with a knife and knelt on top of him in the upstairs part of the house. Ms Kearney had grabbed the accused's hand and "beseeched' him to stop what he was doing. "She said he promised to do that but said when she removed her hand he resumed the attack on Mr Kavanagh," said Mr Kelly.

Mr Kavanagh was dragged across the hallway to a different bedroom and the knife attack continued. Ms Kearney was concerned for her own safety and phoned 999.

During interviews Houlden admitted to having caused the death of Mr Kavanagh and presented "a narrative claiming he had been threatened and felt under threat". He was terrified that a further telephone call would be made, where his address would be revealed and people would be summoned to investigate the disappearance of the drugs, said Mr Kelly.

When asked to describe the knife, Det Gda Flynn said it was a four inch black-handled blade belonging to a kitchen set, which was used for peeling fruit.

An axe and hammer were found at the scene and Houlden told gardai that he had placed these two objects near the door "in some attempt to indicate" to Mr Kavanagh that he was not afraid of the threat and he was keeping them there for protection.

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

Under cross-examination, Det Gda Flynn agreed with Mr Grehan, defending, that his client had driven to the local garda station and handed a bloodied knife, "not in any threatening fashion", to an officer. The accused was in a distressed state at the time and "covered from head to toe in blood", he said.

Mr Grehan said that his client told gardaí that he had attacked a man, that it was his fault and "all him". He also told gardaí that he had only stabbed Mr Kavanagh "to stop him making a second call as the lads were on their way". Det Gda Flynn agreed with counsel that this account had not varied since then and the motivation for the attack came out of fear for his family.

The detective also agreed with Mr Grehan that there might have been quite a bit of paranoia due "to all the drug taking". He further agreed that it had not taken "Sherlock Holmes" to solve this case as Houlden had walked into the garda station with the instrument used and made admissions.

In re-examination, Det Gda Flynn agreed with Mr Kelly that the accused had "gone and sought out" Mr Kavanagh at his home earlier in the day and the drugs were ultimately found by the garda search team in Houlden's house.

Following this, Mr Grehan said there was no suggestion that there had been animosity between the pair prior to the killing as Houlden was providing a place where they could "indulge in drugs" and the deceased had been "supplying various matters".

The defence counsel submitted to the court that mitigating factors included the fact that his client immediately took responsibility for the incident and has an extensive history of "on and off drug abuse" since his late teens.

The lawyer said his client had no animosity against Mr Kavanagh and they did not know each other "terribly well" and had come together by chance, which ended with the tragic death of Mr Kavanagh by Houlden.

Mr Grehan read aloud to the court a letter of apology written by Houlden in which he said that "taking Stephen's life was the most unnatural of acts".

"I wish I could change what happened that night and I would do anything to slightly ease his family's pain. I didn't want this to happen and I am truly sorry," he said.

Ms Justice Carmel Stewart expressed her condolences to the Kavanagh family and thanked them for their statements. The judge remanded Houlden in custody until July 6, when he will be sentenced.

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 12.18am on the morning of May 6.

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