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Real-life Grinch freed after serving just one month for stealing €80k from playgroup

Our pictures show Avril O'Brien who stole from charity-run playgroup enjoying family time and takeaway
Avril O'Brien

Avril O'Brien

Patrick O'Connell

A real-life Grinch who stole €80,000 from a charity-run children's playgroup has been released from prison in time for Christmas - after serving just one month of her 18-month sentence.

Our pictures show convicted thief Avril O'Brien (51) skulking back to an Out-Reach centre in Dublin on Thursday night - after enjoying a takeaway with family members in her Tallaght home.

After dinner at the property, which was renovated with cash stolen from the Loreto playgroup in Tallaght, anorak-clad O'Brien was driven by a family member back to the Out-Reach centre at 9.20pm.

A source described O'Brien's rapid exit from her custodial sentence in the Dochas Centre as a 'Christmas miracle' as she was only given her 18-month prison sentence on November 3 this year.

Judge Martin Nolan handed down the jail term at Dublin Circuit Court after hearing how disgraced office manager O'Brien spent the €80,000 on home renovations, a mobile home in Wexford and family holidays to Florida.

The thefts would have led to the closure of the playgroup had kind-hearted director Sr Teresa McCullagh not raided her own pension and borrowed €25,000 from her religious order to foot unpaid bills.

Avril O’Brien at the Out-Reach centre

Avril O’Brien at the Out-Reach centre

Despite the gravity of her crimes, O'Brien served just one single month of the 18 handed down by the court behind bars in the Dochas Centre before she was moved to the Out-Reach centre on December 3.

At the Out-Reach Centre she is free to go out to work each day, enjoy the city and visit her family each day in Tallaght - a far cry from the life she would have been afforded inside a prison.

Our source told this newspaper: "It's not right.

"What she did to that poor nun and the other staff at the playgroup was really horrible.

"She might think it's some kind of Christmas miracle but everyone who knows what she did is disgusted."

Sr Teresa McCullagh said she considered O’Brien a friend

Sr Teresa McCullagh said she considered O’Brien a friend

Speaking with the Sunday World last month, Sr McCullagh outlined how O'Brien gained a position of trust in the organisation as she worked alongside her over 15 years.

"I took her on as a community employment CE worker. And she was good, hard-working and clever," she said.

"She had good computer skills, which is important nowadays, and she went up the levels there through Fetac.

"So, when the position came up of Community Employment supervisor, which included running the pre-school, she got the job."

Sr Teresa said O'Brien was being well compensated for her role, earning an average of €650 a week, and that as the years went by they became friends.

Sr McCullagh had been a friend of Avril O’Brien for 15 years

Sr McCullagh had been a friend of Avril O’Brien for 15 years

"I was working in the same office as her so, of course, we became friends and I got to know her whole family.

"I never realised that she was going on three holidays a year. I was often up at her house and I knew there was huge amounts of money being spent on it, but she would always make excuses.

Inevitably, because of O'Brien's non-stop pilfering, problems began to materialise with the group's cash-flow.

"Several times, when I was up home with my family in the North, I got a phone call from her to say there was no money to pay the wages that week."

Inquiries with the playgroup's bank, revealed O'Brien was regularly, and had for years, been transferring large sums into her own bank accounts while writing in the online banking notes that the money was being transferred to pay outstanding bills.

O’Brien is free to go from the Out- Reach centre during the day, a far cry from her prison cell

O’Brien is free to go from the Out- Reach centre during the day, a far cry from her prison cell

"The actual amount of money she took was €119,000," said Sr Teresa,

"The rent hadn't been paid and suppliers hadn't been paid and a lot of them were owed money.

"Initially we worked out that roughly €25,000 in bills were outstanding, but that grew to €30,000 when it was all worked through."

Board members contributed from their own resources while Sr. Teresa withdrew money from her own pension and borrowed €25,000 from her order to stave off closure.

Asked if O'Brien had ever said sorry or offered to pay back any of the money, Sr Teresa said she hadn't until the matter finally came to court.

"She never apologised to me … not until the first day we were in court and then she passed me a hand-written note, but again it contained a hundred excuses.

"I don't think she could ever admit to herself that she was a thief.

"She never offered to pay any of the money back. She never even acknowledged to me what she had done.

"She used to keep saying 'I'm not a bad person' … but deep down she must have known what she was doing was wrong."

O'Brien pleaded guilty to 11 sample counts of stealing money from the playgroup on dates between October 2013 and March 2016.

The court heard that a total of €119,000 was lodged into her personal accounts during the time period, but that the figure of €80,000 was agreed by both parties as O'Brien was owed some of the money.

However, Sr Teresa said it was not true that the playgroup had owed O'Brien any of the money.

She said she had only agreed to O'Brien pleading guilty to stealing €80,000 when she had refused to plead guilty to stealing the entire amount, in order that the matter could be concluded.

Sentencing O'Brien, Judge Martin Nolan said he accepted there was strong mitigation as outlined by defence counsel.

But, he continued, stealing from an employer "is a serious matter", particularly in this case where the relationship was personal.

He said there was "a sense of betrayal" there, which he could understand.

He sentenced O'Brien to three years imprisonment but suspended the final 18 months of the sentence on strict conditions, including that €12,000 be transmitted to the organisation within a month.

Sr Teresa said, despite O'Brien's horrific betrayal of a friendship stretching back 15 years, she felt sorry for her as she was led away to prison.

"She's made such a muck of everyone's lives - her family's lives, including her own.

"I do forgive her because I am not the kind of person to hold grievances.

"It's just I feel I was totally misled."

A spokesperson for the Irish Prison Service refused to comment on O'Brien's individual case.

He added: "Following an assessment process, women are moved from the Dochas Centre to live at the Outlook Programme in order to progress their positive sentence management.

"The women are required to be drug free and have, in general, been convicted of one-off offences."

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