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Dead Man Talking: Mark Heffernan

This Interview posted by Sam Blake on 27 March 2012.

Sometimes you meet someone who leaves a lasting impression. Mark Heffernan is one of those people.

At only twenty-eight he has fitted more success into his life than most people can even dream of. Growing up in Carew Park, Southill, a local authority estate in Limerick, leaving school at sixteen, by the time he was eighteen, Mark had set up in business as a DJ and had over fifty DJ’s working for him, covering over 90 per cent of DJ gigs in Limerick.

Success breeds success and Mark was delighted when pirate radio station Kiss FM approached him to do a weekly show. Within a month he had taken the radio station over and rebranded it as Wave FM. A natural event organiser, he began running teenage events alongside the radio station  At the time he was sharing an office with Roy Collins. Roy gave Mark the Federation branding he had used for a club in Blackpool – Mark’s Federation was a huge success. Over 1,000 teenagers regularly attended the events, to see some of the biggest acts in the industry. Eventually they launched events in Cork, Tipperary and Enniskillen and The Gerry Ryan Show even got on board to recommend them.

Then in October 2007, at the age of 23, Mark was approached by Joe Clarke and Pat Barry of the Trinity Rooms in Limerick – one of the top clubs in the country – with a proposal to open a superclub in Newcastle West, Limerick. Mark jumped at the chance and within forty-eight hours they had signed a three-year lease.

Then it all started to go wrong – just as spectacularly as it had gone right.

The project became all consuming as problem after problem delayed the opening of the club. Mark told me, “it was on my mind from the moment I woke up to last thing at night, there was no time for anything else.” Mark’s DJ business began to slip, and with every penny invested – and used – in the new business, Mark and his partners realised they needed another cash injection to get the club open. Mike Bridgeman was approached as a possible investor. He liked what he saw and handed over a cheque for €20,000 to get the new club finished.

They employed Mike Shaughnessy, to manage the club – he had experience and knew the local market.The club opened on 15 February 2008 with an invite-only night – packed to capacity, there were 1,500 people lined up outside, hoping to get in. The second night was equally successful. Mark and his associates were confident that club would be in the black in no time and they expected to clear €1 million profit within a year.

After the club closed on the Saturday night, they were enjoying a celebratory drink when the manager came over with the weekend’s takings of €43,000. He didn’t want to take responsibility for the cash and Bridgeman agreed to take it home and put it in his safe until Monday.

Mark was enjoying his first day off in two months when he received a phone call from Bridgeman to say the cash was €15,000 short, and Bridgeman had already been to Newcastle West to accuse Mike Shaughnessy, in the middle of the street, of stealing the money. Shaughnessy resigned his position immediately and within twelve hours their huge success had turned into a bigger nightmare. Mark shook his head when he explained to me what had happened – he still can’t believe that Bridgeman didn’t speak to him before making accusations. The obvious thing to do was to hold a meeting in the club on Monday and try and get to the bottom of it.

The following weekend the club was empty. It was boycotted by the locals because of Shaughnessy’s treatment.

Within weeks the relationship between Mark and Bridgeman had deteriorated. Bridgeman was causing huge problems with the staff and wouldn’t sign cheques to pay the creditors. He was demanding to be repaid his investment. Then Shaughnessy notified the directors that he was going to sue for libel and unfair dismissal.

A meeting was called between the directors and the investors at the company’s auditor’s offices but Bridgeman didn’t show. It was decided that unless Bridgeman signed up to be a director he should not have any role in the day-to-day running of the club.

Bridgeman launched a series of bizarre protests outside the club, trying to stop customers going in. Even with the protests, the club was doing well. Mark organised a range of special evenings, including fire-breathers, dancers and special guests.

Then Bridgeman threatened to kill Mark and his family.

Mark reported this straight away to the gardaí, who followed him home to make sure that there was no one waiting to attack him. He decided that he should move back to Carew Park, where he felt he would be safer because he knew the area and people knew him – it would be easier to could anything suspicious. He installed a state-of-the-art security system and even built a panic room in the centre of the new house.

On 12 July 2008 two gardaí arrived at Mark’s house to tell him they had received intelligence that there was a threat to his life and his life changed completely. He could no longer take his young son to school and could never travel in the same car as him.

As if he wasn’t under enough pressure at this point, just as Mark collected celebrity Jodie Marsh for a personal appearance at the club, his solicitor rang to say they had lost their late licence, and would have to close at 12.30 a.m. Mark knew it was the end. When the local sergeant arrived to enforce the closure. Mark told the staff and Jodie to have a party, but he knew his dream was over. He locked the doors for the last time and went home.

In September Mark’s father arrived at his house ashen faced. He had received a phone call from John Dundon the infamous gangster, who had recently been released from prison. Dundon said he wanted to talk about money owed to Bridgeman. Mark telephoned Dundon immediately and explained that his father had nothing to do with the club. Mark explained the situation and told Dundon that if Bridgeman wanted the keys to the club he could have them. Dundon said, ‘You can’t be fairer than that’. Mark thought the situation was sorted.

Mark was in the front garden of his house in Carew Park, when a car containing Patrick ‘Chucky’ Pickford, Gareth Collins and Christopher McCarthy, all members of the notorious McCarthy/Dundon gang, pulled up and Mark knew he was in trouble.

Christopher McCarthy approached Mark and said he had been given word from ‘inside’ that Mark was to hand over money that was owed to Bridgeman from the club or there would be serious consequences.

From 2009 Mark Heffernan and family were subjected to a sustained campaign of threats and intimidation as the McCarthy/Dundons tried to extort money and force him to pay the €80,000 debt to Bridgeman that he didn’t owe. He explained that as well as the threat to him, his family suffered, “I had a first cousin whose car windows were broken, my grandparents had rocks thrown through their windows.”  I asked him if he had considered paying. He told me “You’d think that paying them off would be the end of it. But if you pay them, they think you owe them and they keep coming. If you can’t pay, they’ll have you working for them.” Mark explained, “If you know the McCarthy Dundons you know how they operate. They don’t just come after you, they come after your family, everyone down to your third cousins. They are prepared to get the message through to you through them. I had to think on the wider scale and think of my family. They couldn’t have someone like me refusing to pay them, it wouldn’t look good for their credibility. Every time I said no, they couldn’t accept it. It kept going to the next level.”

Mark was told he was a dead man, that his family would be burnt out of Limerick. On 9 April 2009 the seriousness of the situation was brought home to Mark when a friend phoned and told him that Roy Collins had been shot dead in his father’s casino in the Roxboro Shopping Centre, close to Mark’s house. Everyone knew who was behind the murder.

For two years Mark lived his life in fear of the gang, always looking over his shoulder, always afraid for the safety of his young family. “I changed times and routines, moving around, setting it up to look like I was staying in one place when I was actually staying somewhere else. From a young age I’d been aware of security – when I was twelve I opened the front door and three gunmen burst in looking for money. That stayed with me and I’ve always been careful.”  Mark was constantly looking over his shoulder and didn’t leave home unless absolutely necessary – if he did venture out, he wore a Kevlar vest.

The situation reached boiling point when Mark was cornered by the armed gang in a cul-de-sac and confronted with an open car boot. A high-speed chase through Limerick ensued as Mark drove over pavements and traffic islands to escape certain death. “I was trying to lead them on a loop around the outskirts of Limerick, hoping that the gardai would could lay a trap for them,” he says in Dead Man Talking. “It was a bit of a risk, but I was keeping up a speed of 120 km/h and I didn’t think they could catch me as long as I had fuel. But when I glanced in the rear view mirror, they were closing in on me….I was 100 percent certain now that if this situation continued, I was going to be killed,”

Mark decided enough was enough. Aware that his own life and that of his extended family could become even more difficult if he assisted the Gardai, he resolved to testify against the McCarthy/Dundon gang in court. Mark’s testimony gave the State enough evidence to put seven members of the McCarthy/Dundons behind bars, including Jimmy Collins, the gang’s recruiter. Mark’s evidence gave Limerick some reprieve from the gang warfare that was tearing the city apart for over a decade, from drug dealing and armed robbery to abduction, torture and murder.

Offered a place in the witness protection programme, Mark realised that while he might be safe living a new life, his family would still be at risk, so for him, leaving Limerick really wasn’t an option. He said, “I had many options to move to Spain or the UK, but that was the easy option. I knew while I was in Limerick my family was safe, but if I left they would be targeted.”

Finally Mark decided that he would no longer be intimidated. In 2011 Mark set up the charity Changing Lives, which is bringing the youth of Limerick together and uniting them through sport so that another generation is not lost to drugs and violence. Mark told me, “I wanted to get to the youth – when they get to the age of 14 or 15 they get targeted by the gangs. After planning so many events for teenagers, I knew I could speak to them, to stop them becoming involved in gangs, to show them that there were opportunities and to give them guidance to those opportunities.”

Dead Man Talking is an amazing book, a testimony to one man’s bravery when facing an incredible evil. Written with ghost writer Darren Boyle, Mark explained the process, “We went over what happened and Darren made notes, then he went away and wrote it up. We went backwards and forwards many times. I remembered new things and he worked them in.” Dead Man Talking has already hit the Number 1 slot in iBooks, I’m sure it will do as well in the print charts.

I asked Mark why he wrote the book. “It was a story that had to be told. There’s been lots on blogs and in the news about what was happening. It was time to set the story straight.” I asked him if he was still afraid for his life, “Every day. My life is like a military operation. I can’t just go to the shopping centre. I have to go in one vehicle, change to another one, go back to collect the first one, but that car has to be checked. I can’t relax.”

On March 17th four McCarthy Dundon associates were jailed for a total of more than 31 years at the Special Criminal Court in Dublin, for offenses which included violent disorder, and demanding money with menaces.

Christopher McCarthy, aged 28; Garreth Collins Keogh, aged 28; and his father Jimmy Collins, aged 48, were each jailed for seven and a half years. As the Irish Examiner reported, “They were sentenced by the non-jury court for their part in trying to extract €80,000 from night club promoter, Mark Heffernan Jr.”

In the week that Stephen Collins left Ireland with his wife and grown up children, unable to cope with the pressure of 24 hour protection after the murder of his son Roy any longer, Mark’s decision to give evidence and stay in Limerick is all the more significant.

(c) Sam Blake 2012