March 17, 2010

Irishman awaits sentencing for armed robbery of bank


— By

Niall Clarke
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Niall Clarke


Niall Clarke
click image to enlarge

Niall Clarke


The Associated Press

Back in 2002 in Ireland, Niall Clarke seemed to be on the fast track. The award-winning computer science graduate of Dublin's Trinity College was working with the software company he had helped launch during his senior year.

For the past 15 months, however, Clarke has sat in the Cumberland County Jail, far from his native land, awaiting sentencing for an armed bank robbery that's likely to keep him behind bars for the better part of a decade.

Clarke, who had no prior criminal history and whose crime has baffled former colleagues and co-workers, is scheduled to be sentenced Tuesday in Bangor by U.S. District Judge John Woodcock.

Clarke, 27, pleaded guilty 13 months ago to a four-count indictment stemming from the Oct. 4, 2006, holdup at the Bank of America branch near the Bangor Mall.

Pulling a ski mask over his face as he entered the bank, Clarke pointed a loaded handgun at a teller as he handed her a black mesh bag and told her to fill it with cash. He pointed the gun in the direction of a bank manager and ordered him to put down a telephone. Clarke kept the gun pointed at bank employees and a customer while backing out the door.

His criminal career ended minutes later when police spotted the getaway car and stopped him on Interstate 95 in Orono.

Officers found the loaded weapon, 25 rounds of ammunition in the glove compartment and the mesh bag filled with $11,125.

Clarke's arrest and the events leading up to it have confounded his family and friends in Ireland, who plan to be in court to speak on his behalf at the sentencing.

After leaving Ireland, Clarke traveled and worked, according to his attorney, Richard Hartley. Clarke's travels took him to the United States and South America, where he held temporary and part-time jobs that ranged from construction to diving. He was a certified diving instructor.

Clarke arrived in Boston on Jan. 24, 2006, but overstayed his three-month travel visa.

He eventually moved to Portland, where his application for a driver's license listed a Cushman Street apartment as his address.

The prosecution said Clarke's last full-time job was as a substitute teacher in Ireland in 2003 and that he had more than $30,000 in debts at the time of the robbery.

A state motor vehicles official who met Clarke during a St. Patrick's Day celebration in Boston and helped him get the license said Clarke told him he was working as a carpenter.

Michael and Mary Clarke of Kilrush, County Clare, who visited their son in jail after his guilty plea, told the Bangor Daily News that he was mentally ill.

In April, Clarke moved to withdraw his plea and pursue an insanity defense.

But he changed his mind after a psychological evaluation found that mental illness did not prevent him from knowing what he had done was wrong.

In legal papers, Hartley said mental health will be ''a core issue'' at Clarke's sentencing, and a psychiatrist will detail his mental condition in support of a lighter sentence.

Armed bank robbery carries a maximum sentence of 25 years. The separate crime of using a firearm during the robbery carries a minimum of seven years that must be served consecutively.

Federal sentencing guidelines call for a range of 33 to 41 months for the combined counts of armed robbery, making a false statement to obtain a firearm and possession of a firearm while in the country illegally.

Assistant U.S. Attorney F. Todd Lowell recommends 41 months on those counts, followed by the seven-year mandatory minimum.

''The defendant has committed an extremely serious and frightening crime that endangered the lives of many innocent people,'' Lowell wrote.

For his part, Hartley is seeking something below the guidelines, which are advisory.

Hartley has been in touch with Clarke and said ''he's holding up fine'' in jail.

The lawyer said there's a chance Clarke could serve part of his sentence in Ireland, but only if Clarke asked and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons approved.

While Clarke's motive remains a mystery, friends and former co-workers who plan to speak on his behalf will express grief at the tragic turn his life has taken.

''They will illustrate clearly for the court that Niall Clarke is someone who had a tremendous amount of promise as a young entrepreneur, as a student and as a family member,'' Hartley said. ''A lot of people in Ireland are committed to him.''

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