A man who assaulted an elderly woman in her home while armed with a hatchet and threatened her during a burglary received an eight year prison sentence at Galway Circuit Court this week.
Joseph Crawford (35), with addresses at Corrach Bui in Rahoon and Limerick City, pleaded guilty to Assault causing Harm against a woman, who was 73 at the time of this incident, and Aggravated Burglary for breaking into her apartment there and burglarising it while armed with a hatchet.
Detective Garda Fergal Kilbane said that at 7:30am on April 28, 2018, Gardaí were dispatched to a burglary at St Enda’s College on the Threadneedle Road in Galway City.
At the school the guards met Ms Betty Hernon, the vice-principal of St. Enda’s, who told them that an elderly employee and resident at the school had been assaulted by a burglar.
The elderly victim, who is now 75, has lived in an apartment at St. Enda’s ever since she started working there when she was 16.
At 6:17am that morning, a man in a balaclava gained entry to the school by breaking a bathroom window Detective Kilbane said.
Roughly twenty minutes later the victim was woken by a noise, and when she opened her apartment door she was met by a man wearing a balaclava, and armed with a hatchet.
Crawford pushed her back inside the apartment and shoved her to ground, causing her to suffer cuts to the back of her head.
He then threatened her with the hatchet and “ransacked” the apartment Detective Kilbane said, stealing €250 in loose cash.
During this time she managed to reach an alarm pendant that was on her bedside table, and press the panic button. This sent an alarm to Ms Hernon, who came to the school.
The ordeal was not over yet, as Crawford forced the woman to go downstairs, demanding that she tell where the school safe was.
At this point he was disturbed by the arrival of Ms Hernan, and fled the scene through an emergency door.
The victim had to be taken to University Hospital Galway, where she received stitches for two lacerations to the back of her head.
CCTV footage taken from the school showed the burglar drinking from a water bottle, which he left behind at the scene of the crime.
Crawford was identified as a suspect after inquiries, and when he was arrested a DNA swab was taken, which matched samples taken from the bottle. He made no admissions when interviewed Detective Kilbane said.
The victim did not attend court herself, but wrote a victim impact statement which was read out by Detective Kilbane to the Circuit Court.
In it she said that “Colaiste Enda is my home,” and has been for most of her life. She feared for her life that night due to Joseph Crawford’s aggression and threatening manner.
“He smashed a bottle of wine off my fridge and he waved a hatchet in my face,” she wrote, adding that she required stitches as a result of the assault, and had to move out of her apartment for three weeks, which was a lonely experience for her.
She still sometimes feels unsafe in her own home, saying that “there are nights I wake up wondering if he will break in again.”
Change of Plea
Crawford had originally been charged with six counts of burglary, aggravated burglary, assault causing harm, false imprisonment, criminal damage, and robbery.
He had pleaded not guilty to all charges and the case was due to go to trial this week.
A jury was sworn in on Monday for the case, with evidence to commence the next day.
But on Tuesday morning his barrister Mr Barry White SC said that there had been developments overnight, and there would be no need for a jury trial.
He was rearraigned on the counts of aggravated burglary and assault causing harm, pleading guilty to both charges.
Ordinarily it could be weeks between a conviction, or guilty plea, and sentencing in a criminal case.
But the defence said that Crawford was anxious to have the matter dealt with quickly, and sentencing was put into Thursday, during the week while the Circuit Court was still sitting in Galway.
At the sentencing hearing Mr White said that this plea, “albeit at the 11th hour and the 59th minute,” meant that the injured party did not have to come into court, which would be of some relief.
He also said, and Garda Kilbane agreed, that Crawford was unaware that someone was on the premises at the time, and hadn’t been targeting her.
Crawford had only meant to break into the school, which he believed to be unoccupied, and try and find money there.
Judge Francis Comerford also accepted this while passing sentence, but added that while he did not target this elderly woman, it did not dissuade him when he realised there was someone there.
He “put her in as much terror as possible in order to obtain money,” the judge said, and even after assaulting her, he then “terrorised and threatened” her to try and force her to show him where the safe was.
The violence involved in the aggravated burglary, and assault, made it an offence of “extreme gravity” he said.
The judge also noted that while the lacerations she suffered were not extreme, any injuries to an elderly person can be very dangerous.
Judge Comerford praised the woman for the “great fortitude and courage, and presence of mind” she showed in activating the panic alarm that called help.
The defence said that Crawford has struggled with addiction, and that drugs and alcohol have been his “downfall” for much of his life.
He has very little education, suffering from learning difficulties, and has had very little in the way of opportunity in life Mr White argued.
He has also suffered from homelessness in the past, both in Ireland and England.
“I don’t propose to beg you for a favourable sentence, but I do ask for a merciful sentence,” he said.
The court heard that Crawford has 86 previous convictions, including 12 for burglary, three for robbery, and two for assault.
He also took a bench warrant in this case, leaving the country for England in November 2018, and failing to appear before the court.
However, in December of 2018 he voluntarily returned and surrendered himself to Gardaí. He has been in custody on these charges ever since.
Judge Comerford said that he could see “very little in the way of mitigation” in this case, acknowledging the guilty plea, but noting that there was no cooperation with Gardaí, who had a very strong case anyways, and that the plea came at the last minute.
For the aggravated burglary the judge imposed and eight year prison sentence, suspending the final 18 months.
A concurrent sentence of three and a half years was imposed for the assault charge, and both sentences were backdate to December 2018, when he went into custody.