Irish Militant Escapes ‘Troubles’ to Die in Bronx
It was no surprise when Hessy Phelan died too young, a police officer’s bullet in his head.
He had once belonged to a violent Irish Republican Army splinter group. Arrests for rioting and hijacking landed him in Northern Ireland’s jails for most of a decade.
But Phelan, 39, did not die a martyr; he did not even die in his beloved homeland. Nine years after fleeing the “Troubles,” a drunken Hessy Phelan was killed by an off-duty New York City cop, authorities say--shot point-blank in the face, Jan. 21, 1996.
The cop tells a different tale: The 5-foot, 100-pound Irishman killed himself after a daylong drinking binge. Officer Richard Molloy says the tiny, drunken man snatched his gun and committed suicide.
On Monday, three years after the bullet from his .38-caliber weapon killed Hessy Phelan, Molloy goes on trial for murder. He says he fears the verdict might be moot, believing the dead man’s IRA pals plan their own justice.
Conflicting Versions of Shooting
Phelan’s family and friends call Molloy a liar. The happy-go-lucky Phelan was not suicidal, they say, but planning a reunion with an old roommate. And it was no surprise, they charge, that Molloy wound up killing an innocent man.
Molloy, a second-generation cop assigned to the Bronx, amassed 74 commendations and more than 400 arrests over an 11-year career. But there were allegations of brutality and two lawsuits against him, including a pending $18-million assault case.
“I’d been hearing about Molloy in the neighborhood,” recalls Graham Friel, co-owner of the Oak Bar in Bainbridge, a heavily Irish enclave in the Bronx, where Phelan downed his last drink. “A lot more came to light after the [Phelan] shooting.”
The elfin Phelan was “very much a local character,” says New York attorney Martin Galvin. “He was involved in supporting political prisoners.”
No surprise there: Phelan was once among their ranks.
Patrick Heslin Phelan grew up one of five children in Londonderry, a militant IRA outpost and the site of 1972’s “Bloody Sunday” massacre. Like many other locals, he embraced the often-violent cause of Irish nationalism, joining the Irish National Liberation Army.
A botched carjacking in 1977 nearly killed him; Phelan dodged bullets as a cohort died on a Londonderry street.
Over the next 10 years, Phelan was in and out of British jails, once attempting escape by squeezing his diminutive frame inside a prison pool table. He grew tight with the IRA brethren during their time behind bars.
Released in 1987, Phelan moved to the United States and lived with his sister in Connecticut before relocating to the Bronx.
“He was here one week and he said, ‘I’m not going back to Derry,’ ” recalls his sister, Martina Boback, her voice choked with emotion. “There was no way he was getting involved with the ‘Troubles’ again.”
Phelan took a job as a house painter and started anew. “He didn’t talk much about the past,” says his roommate of five years, Brian Brolly. “He just got on with his life.”
Phelan’s supporters don’t paint him as a saint; he liked his liquor a bit too much, and a few drinks turned his tongue sharp. But they can’t imagine what words could have caused his death that night at the Oak Bar.
Molloy’s girlfriend, barmaid Maggie McGrath, had grown tired of Phelan’s drunken prattle. She asked Molloy to toss Phelan out, and the cop steered him into McGrath’s nearby apartment.
The three had a history: McGrath had previously dated a Phelan pal named Barney Logue, taking up with Molloy after Logue’s death. Phelan did not look kindly on her new relationship.
According to Molloy, the drunken Phelan began throwing up in McGrath’s apartment--and yet, at some point, was still able to steal the cop’s gun. Phelan jammed the weapon against his left eye and fired, Molloy said, telling investigators that it was a suicide.
But the medical examiner determined the bullet’s angle made the officer’s version improbable. A different scenario surfaced: Phelan taunting Molloy until the infuriated cop, bent on shutting him up, fired a single gunshot.
Botched Evidence, Questions of Motive
The new story gained believers after a third man in the apartment, Cormac Lee, spoke with authorities. Lee said he walked in from the kitchen to see Phelan dying and Molloy’s hand returning from the back of his pants.
It appeared, Lee said, that Molloy had just returned his weapon to his waistband. “You saw nothing,” Molloy allegedly announced.
Defense attorney George Vallario dismisses the autopsy and Lee’s tale, claiming the prosecution is being driven by pressure from Phelan’s family and the local Irish community.
“What is Richie’s reason for killing this guy?” Vallario asks. “He had nothing against this guy. Hessy Phelan was just a poor soul.”
“You think a little drunken man can take a gun off a big sober cop?” bar owner Friel asks. “That’s what swayed me.”
Police botched the evidence that could have quickly cleared Molloy: Phelan’s hands were never bagged and checked for gunpowder residue, Vallario says.
And the lawyer insists stories of Phelan’s good spirits are exaggerated. Phelan was depressed by the recent deaths of his father, uncle and best friend and was resigned to a life away from Ireland, the lawyer says. He was drinking heavily.
In the end, Phelan’s death caused many involved to revisit the “Troubles” that he’d so eagerly left behind. The initial suicide ruling, coupled with a nine-month delay in the indictment, conjured up parallels to British injustices.
“There are cases where people get shot by British troopers and some sort of whitewash goes on,” Galvin explained. “For the family and for the Irish community here, that was deeply felt.”
Preliminary hearings were held in a courtroom divided; the hatred inside was palpable, Vallario says. Phelan’s mother twice made the trip from Ireland, and other friends and relatives stared down Molloy and his backers.
Vallario insists the IRA threats are real, that Molloy has already been the target of vandalism and hang-up phone calls. Married to Maggie McGrath last year, Molloy now has more to lose: The couple had a son in January.
“That’s our biggest fear,” the lawyer said. “These are not playboys. These guys mean business.”
Brolly, Phelan’s old roommate, abandoned the Bronx for sunny Florida. One day after receiving word of Hessy’s death, he received something else--a letter from Phelan, mailed several days earlier.
“It was all about how he was looking forward to my coming out to stay with him,” Brolly recalls. “The very next day it came. The next day. Reading this letter, it was weird. He didn’t sound suicidal to me.”