The widow of Coleraine pensioner Bertie Acheson has not returned to the martial home since her husband lost his life following a confrontation with a burglar, a court heard on Friday.
Mr Acheson (72) died after he struggled and was subsequently assaulted by Paul James Manolito Toland, who targeted the couple’s home in the early hours of April 30, 2012.
Belfast Crown Court heard that 41-year old Toland, formerly of The Cedars in Antrim, drove from his home to Coleraine with the intention of robbing Mr Acheson as he knew there was a pile of cash sitting on top of a kitchen cupboard.
Employed as a service engineer for a local vacuum sales and repair business, Toland had visited the Acheson home in March 2012 when the pensioner agreed to update his vacuum cleaner system.
It was during this visit that Mr Acheson alerted Toland to the fact that he kept money on top of a kitchen cupboard - and it was the knowledge of this money which sparked events that led to the death of a much-loved husband, father and grandfather.
Mr Acheson’s death, the court heard, has had a “devastating and ever-lasting consequences” on the family, especially his widow Sheila.
Toland - who admitted causing the unlawful death of the pensioner - smashed a window to gain entry to the elderly couple’s Glenmore Gardens bungalow. The smashing glass woke Mrs Sheila Acheson from her sleep, and when her husband got out of bed to investigate, he was confronted by Toland.
Mrs Acheson, who was 70 at the time and who was described in court as a woman suffering from limited mobility and arthritis, remained in the bedroom where she heard the intruder ask her husband for money. Mr Acheson responded by telling Toland, “I will give you the keys to the car. Take what you like and go.”
A struggle between the two men ensued in the kitchen, during which the pensioner was grabbed or choked around the neck, was punched in the face and was left on the ground, out of breath. oland then entered the couple’s bedroom, and told Mrs Acheson “I want money. I want money. If I don’t get money I will kill your husband.”
Using a walking stick to get out of bed, Mrs Atcheson lifted her purse out of her bag, which Toland grabbed before fleeing. The purse contained a total of £335 in cash.
After the intruder left, Mrs Acheson called out to her husband before ringing her daughter Sandra, who lived nearby. When Sandra arrived at her parents home a short time later, she noticed the door at the side of the house was open. She then discovered her father lying face forward on the kitchen floor.
The emergency services were called, and when Mr Acheson was turned over there was blood and fluid on his face and on the floor.
A post mortem revealed Mr Acheson died of “coronary artery atheroma in association with pressure on his neck, and emotional and physical stress.” The pathologist’s view was that the emotional stress of finding an intruder in his home, coupled with the physical stress of being involved in a struggle with the intruder, played their parts in precipitating a heart attack.
Crown prosecutor Ciaran Murphy QC said Mr Acheson sustained several injuries in the fatal altercation, including “injuries suggestive of pressure applied to the neck, such as grasping of the neck or the neck being held in the crook of an elbow.”
Mr Acheson also had bruising to his nose and cheek, lacerations to his lip and a blunt trauma to his face which was consistent with “a blow being delivered.” In addition, the pensioner had bruising to his arms which suggested he was trying to defence himself.
Following Mr Acheson’s death, police launched an investigation which including tracing anyone who had been in recent contact with the pensioner. Enquiries revealed that Toland, in his capacity as a service engineer, had visited the Acheson home on March 19.
When he was spoken to, Toland said he had met Mr Acheson through his work and that during the service call, Mr Acheson told Toland to “jump on the counter” in the kitchen and take money that was located on top of a kitchen cupboard, which the pensioner said amounted to around £2,000.
When he was arrested on October 31, 2012 and cautioned about the fatal incident, Toland initially said he didn’t have anything to do with the pensioner’s death.
Belfast Crown Court heard that part of the evidence against Toland was linked to his work van, was captured on fixed cameras being driven from Antrim to Coleraine and back again during the early hours of April 30.
This footage, Mr Murphy said, showed the white vehicle “at relevant times and at relevant locations.” He also said Toland was linked to the scene via “DNA findings.”
Branding the incident as “pre-meditated”, Mr Murphy said that while it was accepted Toland was unaware of his victim’s underlying heart condition, he did squeeze the pensioner’s neck and punch him in the face.
Mr Murphy spoke of the breach of trust on Toland’s part, and of the “gross breach of privacy” he carried out on two people in their 70s. He also said that since the break-in, Mrs Acheson has not been able to return to the home she shared with husband.
It also emerged today that Toland, a father of four, has 18 previous convictions for burglary - something which he didn’t disclose to his employers.
Defence barrister Gavan Duffy QC spoke of the “high level of remorse” shown by Toland and said that if his client could undo what happened, he would, adding: “It was certainly never his intention on this night that his actions would have led to the death of Mr Acheson.”
Mr Duffy told the court that Toland’s intention was to take the money from the top of the kitchen cupboard and that he never anticipated a confrontation. He also pointed out that when Mr Acheson collapsed, Toland “didn’t appeciate the extent of his medical condition” and that he didn’t realise this condition was “potentially life-threatening.”
Pointing out that his client made no attempt to disguise his identity, he also spoke of Toland’s criminal record and said that the last offending was 20 years ago.
After hearing submissions from both the Crown and defence, Mr Jusice Weir said he wanted time to consider”everything that has been said, both in writing and orally” and said he will sentence Toland - who was remanded back into custody - for the manslaughter of Mr Acheson and the robbery of Mrs Acheson at 2pm on Thursday.