As he awaited a verdict, Frank McCann sat in the courtroom, engrossed in a book about “the perfect murder.”
The book, “Total Eclipse,” has been described as “engrossing” and “scary,” which could easily be words attributed to McCann’s own story.
He himself had played the role of a distraught husband as he tried to get away with killing his wife Ester and the 18-month-old child they planned to adopt.
But as the evidence for what happened on September 4, 1992 became clearer, his own story crystallized into a Irish Independent title: “A swimming superstar and a caring father but in reality a freak”.
This week Indepedent.ie watched McCann on the streets of Dublin after serving nearly 30 years for double murder.
He is out on parole later that year, which terrifies Esther’s family who think he is “an actor and a manipulator until something goes his way”.
The most important names in this article are not household names. They are Esther and Jessica McCann, who will be 30 dead next month. But other names to feature include George Gibney, Derry O’Rourke and father Michael Cleary.
Frank McCann was a high-flyer in Irish swimming circles who valued his reputation more than the life of his wife and child.
The month leading up to the fire at his family home in Rathfarnham was a busy time for the publican.
In June 1992, he was a senior official on an international swimming outing in Florida prior to the Barcelona Olympics. The team included top athletes Gary O’Toole and Michelle Smith.
At home, he and Esther were trying to officially adopt his sister Jeanette’s child.
Diary entries reveal how Esther had helped care for Jeanette during her final weeks of pregnancy and was in the Coombe for Jessica’s birth.
It had seemed like the perfect fit for the couple who desperately wanted a child and for the single mother who still wanted to see her daughter grow up.
“We were thrilled and a bit concerned that Jeanette may have made her decisions too quickly. She, however, felt it was the best possible arrangement for you and was sure we would be good parents to you,” Esther wrote at the time.
But unbeknownst to Esther, the adoption process was about to reveal a secret.
Her husband had fathered a child with a 17-year-old swimming student with special needs, and that baby, born just three months after Frank and Esther married, was adopted with the help of father Michael Cleary.
The cleric later told Esther’s family that he used her as leverage to get financial help for the teenage girl.
When someone known to the teenage swimming student learned that McCann was looking to adopt Jessica, she took her secret to the authorities, knowing it would challenge her personality and suitability as a father.
Esther noticed delays in the adoption application but died before finding out the truth.
She was also unaware of the sexual abuse scandals that were to break out over George Gibney and Derry O’Rourke whom she would have welcomed into her home on occasion.
One of Gibney’s young victims has since recalled meeting with McCann in his role as Leinster swimming chairman to raise his concerns.
“He said he ‘hoped f**k’ he didn’t break while he was president,” the victim said.
In 1993, Gibney was charged with 27 counts of indecent assault and unlawful carnal intercourse, but left the country and never served jail time.
Derry O’Rourke served nine years of a 12-year sentence for a series of sexual abuse of girls as young as 10.
At the time of the fire, McCann was allegedly having sex with a 16-year-old girl.
In the fall of 1992, Esther was concerned about how long the Adoption Council was taking to make a decision. She rang the bell several times for news and was finally given an appointment for September 7 to discuss the matter.
Esther told her sister that she planned to date Frank for unexplained delays. He knew the net was closing in on his double life, but rather than risk public humiliation, he plotted to kill.
Three days before the appointment, he installed a gas bottle and a blowtorch in the Butterfield Avenue house and went to work in his pub in Blessington.
The lifeless toddler still had her pacifier in her mouth when the firefighters arrived at her. Esther was found on the landing trying in vain to reach Jessica. McCann arrived on the scene and played the role of a worried husband perfectly.
During Garda’s investigation, McCann attempted to blame someone with a personal vendetta against him, or even his wife, who he believed may have smoked in the house and started the fire.
As the murders approached, he had concocted a series of false threats against him and daubed paint on his pub which read: “Burn, you bastard”.
It turned out that he had made three more unsuccessful attempts to kill them, including one where Esther’s car’s brakes failed.
Jeannette’s boyfriend never saw her child, but he brought a wreath to her funeral. Apparently, at McCann’s request, he was asked to go to the back of the church.
McCann was arrested and charged in April 1993. His first trial was suspended when he used a bottle of cologne to set himself on fire at the courthouse.
The second trial took place in 1996, where McCann was convicted and sentenced to two concurrent life sentences.
The front title of the Irish Independent on August 16, 1996, read: “The Life of a Heartless Fireball Slayer”.
Over the decades, Esther McCann’s family has always dreaded the day of her release.
This week we photographed McCann (62) walking alone and unsupervised from Mountjoy prison to a charity run training center in the south town center where he is understood to be taking a course to help people with criminal convictions.
“He is a cold-blooded murderer. How can he be allowed to walk the streets of the city is incomprehensible. It’s not even tagged. He was given a life sentence, and a life sentence seems fair for anyone who killed a child,” Esther’s sister Marian Leonard said.
“He looks strong and fit. It’s scary. It’s like he’s been in a time warp. We’ve all aged, but he looks like he walked out of a gym,” he said. she added.
It is understood McCann is due to appear before the Parole Board later this year and believes his eventual release is close.
But Marian Leonard and his daughter, who is also called Esther, have said they believe he should never be released.
Esther said she felt nervous when she was in town now that McCann had more freedom.
” I am nervous. I look over my shoulder. I’ve started limiting my trips with my friends in town now,” she said.
One morning this week, McCann left Mountjoy morning dressed in shorts, a t-shirt and a light jacket, and strolled past Mater Hospital and a web of streets in the north town center which brought him past the Garden of Remembrance and onto O’Rue Connel.
No one recognized him as the double murderer whose actions shocked the country nearly three decades ago.
He then spent nine hours at the training center before walking back to the prison by a slightly different route.
When approached by Independent.ie he refused to answer any questions about his plans upon his release and whether he had any remorse.
McCann spent much of his life sentence in Arbor Hill Prison where he gradually gained more freedoms, such as being allowed to work in the gardens and clean the officers’ areas.
In March last year he was moved to Mountjoy’s progression unit, and although it was seen as a further step towards his release, McCann was unhappy with the move and barricaded himself in his cell.
“We are told he is a model prisoner, but we have seen that when something upsets him, he becomes unpredictable and shows his true colors. He is an actor and a manipulator until something goes wrong round,” Marian said.
The last entry in Esther McCann’s diary was made exactly 30 years ago today, July 30, 1992.
It read: “My darling daughter Jessica, you have grown up to be a beautiful child. You have now been walking for a little over a week and have given up hanging on to the wall, seeking your own independence. A cup of tea and a daisy while constantly talking about daddy, oh mommy and mommy’s baby. Lots of talk and every day brings new joys of all kinds…”