May 12 CC Helen T

by Rodger Hara

(photo by Andrew Clark

Serendipity brought Helen Thorpe to Veronica Guerin’s story and the result was an Irish sort of symmetry.

Veronica Guerin was an Irish journalist who was murdered in 1996 while writing about the drug business in the Republic. Daughter of an accountant, she studied accounting at Trinity College in Dublin, worked for her father’s business for three years, then ran her own public relations firm for seven years before becoming a reporter for the Sunday Business Post and Sunday Tribune. Armed with her native intelligence, natural curiosity, business education and political experience, she developed a journalistic style that pursued information to its roots without regard for her personal safety. Her approach and interpersonal skills led to creation of trusting relationships with members of the Garda Síochána and the criminal community.

In 1994 she began writing for the Sunday Independent covering the crime beat using her knowledge of accounting to trace the flow of funds from criminal activities. She established a relationship with John Traynor, a convicted drug dealer who provided her with information that she included in stories, the publication of which led to shots being fired at her home and a confrontation at her front door with an armed man. Fearless in a foolhardy sort of way, in September 1995, she confronted John Gilligan, Traynor’s boss, about how he could maintain his extravagant lifestyle without any apparent source of income. Gilligan took exception to her question, attacked her and later threatened her family if she wrote about him.

Gilligan and several members of his organization met on June 25, 1996 and allegedly planned her murder which took place on June 26 as she was stopped at a red light on the outskirts of Dublin when two men on a motorcycle stopped next to her and the passenger fired six shots into the car killing her instantly. Had she lived, she would have spoken two days later at a Freedom Forum conference in London on the topic “Dying to Tell the Story: Journalists at Risk.”

Her death caused a national outrage and her funeral was attended by Ireland’s Taoiseach (elected head of state) John Bruton and hundreds of other mourners and was covered live by Raidió Telifís Éireann. Her death also led to the passage of legislation by the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) creating the Proceeds of Crime Act 1996 and the Criminal Assets Bureau 1996 that allowed the government to seize assets purchased with cash from criminal activities.

Charles Bowden, one of those at the June 25 meeting, was arrested and agreed to turn state’s witness. His testimony and subsequent investigations led to the arrests and convictions of Gilligan and over 150 other criminals. Brian Meehan, another of those at that meeting was convicted of her murder and received a life sentence.

In August 1996, Helen Thorpe was a writer for Texas Monthly Magazine and speaking by phone with Amanda Urban, an agent with whom she had worked. Ms. Urban had been contacted by Susan Lyne, a representative for the Walt Disney Studios, who was looking for journalists to do background research on different ideas that could be developed into screenplays. One of the subjects Lyne was interested in was Veronica Guerin and Urban, recalling Helen’s Irish roots, asked if she would be interested in the assignment. The daughter of Marie and Laurence “Larry” Thorpe, natives of Cavan and Dublin, respectively, she said yes, took a leave of absence from the magazine and opened the door to an interesting new chapter of her most interesting life.

Larry Thorpe was born in Dublin, attended school where he was taught by Christian Brothers with the Chieftain’s Paddy Moloney and left Dublin after graduating from the University of Dublin to take an engineering job in London at the BBC. Marie Brady of Virginia, County Cavan, left there to attend nursing school in London when she was 18. They met, married and gave birth to Helen. When she was a year old, Larry learned of a job opportunity with RCA in New Jersey, applied for and won it and moved the family to New Jersey. Helen was on her mother’s Irish passport with a dual Irish and British citizenship – and a green card until she was 21 when she became a U.S. citizen as she wanted to vote.

Graduating Magna Cum Laude from Princeton, she had early unpaid journalistic stints in Boston then went to graduate school at Columbia University where she earned a Master’s degree in English literature in 1989. From there, she worked briefly at the New York Observer and New Yorker Magazine before landing a job at Texas Monthly and moving to Austin, Texas in 1994.

She worked for the magazine until 1999, met then-brewpub owner and future Denver Mayor and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper when he crashed her 37th birthday party in 2000 and married him in a Quaker ceremony in Austin in January 2002. They have a son, Teddy, who will be ten years old this July.

Having gone to Ireland every other summer growing up, she was very comfortable being with her mother’s large extended family in Cavan and her father’s smaller family in Dublin so was intrigued by the prospect of going there as a journalist for the first time. It was a trip in which she learned more about Irish culture in the month she spent there than she had in all her other trips.

Her family there became like cultural anthropologists, providing her with a sense of who Veronica Guerin was and helping her understand how things work; her interactions with the Garda, Guerin’s colleagues and members of the criminal community taught her that the pace of life and business is slower and more casual in Ireland than in America. She tried to speak with members of Guerin’s family but they were still grieving and declined her request. One of her uncles who owns property in Dublin became her guide to the city, providing her with a narrative background of neighborhoods and their inhabitants, the differences between them and an understanding of the cultural and political landscape.

She looked into the criminal element, leaving her phone number with various members (who she described as “…very scary people”) and even visited the home of John Gilligan once. Shortly after that visit, the car she drove there that she’d borrowed from an aunt was broken into – she thinks it was coincidence, but doesn’t know for sure. When asked if she was frightened or felt she was in any danger, she said that “It was a calculated risk and they would probably not harm a second journalist.”

Eventually, she was able to make contact with John Traynor, who by then had fled Ireland and was living in Malaga in the south of Spain. He agreed to meet with her so she flew to Spain where she spent six hours talking with him – while he drank at least 20 pints of beer. She didn’t tell her family about her trip but did leave word with a Garda she’d met – who had been a close friend to Guerin. (Traynor has since been arrested in Amsterdam and is awaiting extradition to the United Kingdom.)

Her final treatment of the Veronica Guerin story was submitted to Disney where Jerry Bruckheimer, Producer, and Joel Schumacher, Director, picked up the option and produced the movie that was released in 2003. Helen was paid for her research and spoke with Carol Doyle as she was writing the screenplay. She says that “The movie is fantastic! I was afraid that it would depart from the reality of who Veronica was but they nailed it! It’s fast-paced, dramatic and faithful to reality of the story and person as I understood it.”

A statue honoring Guerin stands in the Dubh Linn Gardens on the grounds of Dublin Castle. In May 1997, her name was added to the Freedom Forum Journalists Memorial in Arlington, Virginia where the names of journalists who died in the line of duty are listed. At the ceremony, her husband, Graham Turley, said: “Veronica stood for freedom to write. She stood as light, and wrote of life in Ireland today and told the truth. Veronica was not a judge, nor was she a juror, but she paid the ultimate price with the sacrifice of her life.”

Since doing the research for the film, Helen has taken on new roles as First Lady of the City and County of Denver and First Lady of the State of Colorado and has continued to write. Essays about those roles appeared in Glamour and 5280 magazines and she did an article for Westword about the experiences of an illegal immigrant in the Denver Public Schools.

She had hoped to write a book about the discrimination being faced by immigrants from South Africa and Brazil in the meat packing plants of Ballyjamesduff at the height of the Celtic Tiger’s roar but could find no takers at the time and now the roar is a whimper.

She has since had better luck with a book published by Simon and Shuster in 2009 called Just Like Us in which she follows the lives of four girls who are high school seniors in Denver; all are children of illegal immigrants, two of them have papers, and all face similar issues in dealing with life. The Washington Post named it one of the books of the year for 2009. Now in its 10th printing, the book has sold nearly 20,000 copies and Helen spends much of her time doing book talks around the country.

Teddy has already been to Ireland twice and Helen hopes that there are many more trips in his future so that he can acquire that part of his heritage and gain exposure to a second culture. As the grandchild of Irish-born grandparents, he is eligible for Irish citizenship, should he choose to pursue it – and with the head-start he has, odds are good that he will.

To learn more about Helen Thorpe’s life, read the biography on her website

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