By Patrick Markey
Hessy Phelan was sad and angry, his behavior had become increasingly erratic after a friend’s death and he seemed capable of killing himself, the wife of Richard Molloy, the police officer accused of killing Phelan, told a Bronx court this week.
Maggie McGrath’s appearance at Bronx State Supreme Court came toward the end of defense witness testimony as Molloy’s trial on second-degree murder charges entered its fourth week.
Molloy is charged with fatally shooting Phelan, a Derry native, inside a Bronx apartment more than three years ago. A 10-year veteran of the New York Police Department, Molloy has said that Phelan grabbed his service revolver out of its holster and shot himself in the head in an apparent suicide.
But the prosecution charges that it would have been difficult for Phelan to shoot himself, alleging that Molloy fired the fatal shot. Molloy, the prosecution charges, has a history of drunken gunplay, and had jammed the muzzle of his .38 revolver into Phelan’s left eye socket before pulling the trigger.
As has been the pattern over the last 10 days, defense witnesses continued to present Phelan as a troubled man, whose stability had been undermined by depression over the death of a close friend and his time as a prisoner in Northern Ireland.
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Phelan served a decade in Northern Ireland’s Maze prison for offenses related to his membership of the IRA splinter group, the Irish National Liberation Army.
In a week of mixed testimony, the court heard from more police witnesses, as Molloy’s defense attorney, George Vallario, tried to bolster evidence that the officer’s handgun could have been easily removed from its holster.
Wearing a beige suit and scarf, Maggie McGrath took the stand on Monday and Tuesday to describe the hours leading up to the moment Molloy and Phelan left the bar where she was working and went to her apartment.
Alternatively appearing calm, argumentative and left incredulous over the prosecution’s line of questioning, McGrath said Phelan had argued with several patrons through the night of Jan. 20, 1996. First with the bar owner, then with McGrath’s brother and again with two other customers at the bar, Phelan showed outbursts of anger, McGrath said.
That is why she asked Molloy, then her boyfriend, to take Phelan out of the bar.
"I felt he was either going to hurt himself or hurt someone else," she said.
McGrath said that after the 1995 death of Barney Logue, whom she described as Phelan’s confidante and support, the Derryman’s guilt affected his behavior.
"He developed a stutter. He became very dependent. There were more outbursts of anger," McGrath said. "He just was lost. He was drinking heavily and I wanted him to get counseling," she said.
Asked by Vallario if Phelan had tried to harm himself before his death, McGrath recounted an early morning incident from Christmas 1994. After leaving the bar together, Phelan had bolted from McGrath and "hunkered down" on the road in the middle of traffic, she said.
"He sat and talked, talked about Christmas in Long Kesh, the loneliness," she said.
Asked by Vallario whether she thought Phelan could have killed himself, McGrath responded, "Yes."
McGrath also offered several points of testimony that clashed with the evidence presented by Cormac Lee, who had rented a room in her apartment and had been in his bedroom when the fatal shot was fired.
But the prosecution, drawing heavily from McGrath’s previous statements, worked to present Phelan’s last hours in the Oak Bar in a very different light. Walking through the events of that evening, prosecutor Brian Sullivan pointed out what he characterized as differences between the testimony McGrath had given to a grand jury in 1996 and her statements during the trial.
"Is it a coincidence that you changed your testimony from that of the grand jury?" he asked.
Sullivan asked McGrath whether Phelan was in good humor earlier in that evening. While McGrath said that she could not judge Phelan’s mood, Sullivan quoted from a statement she had given previously, which read: "I think Hessy and I danced or something because the jukebox was on."
McGrath firmly denied prosecution questioning on whether she had fabricated stories about Phelan’s death coinciding with the anniversary of Logue’s death, and that the two men had shared a cell in prison.
Had she told an Internal Affairs Bureau detective that Phelan talked about suicide while in the Oak Bar? Sullivan asked. McGrath could not recall. Had she falsely told people that Phelan had died on the exact anniversary of Logue’s death? the prosecutor asked. Absolutely not, McGrath replied.
Sullivan also questioned McGrath on the manner in which Molloy and Phelan left the bar together. Didn’t Molloy twist Phelan’s arms up his back, lift him off the bar stool and drag him out of the bar? he asked.
"No, he didn’t do that. In fact, Richie and Hessy had a few words together," McGrath said.
But hadn’t she called out, "Take it easy on him?" Sullivan asked.
McGrath said she may have said take it easy, but it was not because Molloy had manhandled Phelan out of the bar.
Another prosecution witness, Irene McSorley, also testified on Wednesday that she talked to Phelan after she found him drunk and sobbing at the Oak Bar months before his death. McGrath had asked her to take him home and talk to him, she said.
Phelan felt guilty about the death of Logue, she said, and felt that if he had been more attentive Logue would not have been left dying in hospital.
Phelan had indicted to his head with his finger in a gun-like gesture while saying perhaps "one of these days, right between the eyes," a motion McSorley took as an indication of his suicidal tendencies, she said.
"It looked like a gun motion in the context of what he was saying," McSorley said.
During the prosecution’s cross-examination, McSorley said it was not unusual for someone to be crying in a bar after the loss of a friend. Asked whether she had formed her impression of Phelan as a suicidal person from their first meeting with him, McSorley said, "That’s fair to say."
McSorley also testified that Molloy had given her an account of what happened shortly after returning from a meeting with his lawyer. Had Molloy told her that he had taken Phelan to the sofa and reached out to wipe his mouth when he heard a pop or a bang, Sullivan asked.
"That’s correct," McSorley said.
Also testimony given during the last week:
€ A New York Police Department firearms and tactics expert told the court that the holster used by Molloy could have popped open with a jostle or a bump.
"It doesn’t take much to open it," Det. William Stagnitta told the court.
When asked by Judge Steven Barrett could he feel the gun being removed in several different ways, Stagnitta said he could feel the tug of the weapon leaving the holster.
€ Internal Affairs Bureau detective Amparo Jurado Gunsher testified that she had been told by the ME’s Jacobi Hospital office that the shooting could possibly be a suicide.
The detective also testified that Martin Stewart had told her he was not surprised Hessy Phelan had killed himself.
During a Feb. 6 interview at the Bronx DA’s office, Jurado said, Cormac Lee had testified that Molloy had possibly seen him when the two men came into Maggie McGrath’s apartment on Jan. 21, 1996.
"I think he seen me because I was standing looking at him," Lee told Jurado.