A father-of-four has been sentenced to nine years for causing the death of Coleraine pensioner Bertie Acheson.
Mr Acheson – who would have turned 75 on Thursday – died after he confronted Paul Toland in the kitchen of his Glenmore Gardens home in the early hours of April 30, 2012.
Toland, formerly of The Cedars in Antrim, was told he will serve four and a half years in custody – the greatest period the law allowed Mr Justice Weir to impose – with a further four and a half years spent on supervised licence when he is released from prison.
Passing sentence, Mr Justice Weir spoke of the devastating consequences Mr Acheson’s death has had on his family, particularly his widow Sheila, who has not been able to return to the home she shared with her husband.
Telling Toland that his actions had resulted in Mrs Acheson losing her lifelong partner and companion, Mr Justice Weir said it was clear the Antrim man had preyed on his victim in a pre-planned robbery.
Belfast Crown Court heard that at the time of the offence Toland had been working for a company which sold and repaired vacuum cleaners.
In his line of work, Toland had visited the Achesons on March 19, 2012, and during that visit Toland became aware that Mr Acheson kept a stash of money on top of a kitchen cupboard.
Telling the court Toland found the chance to help himself to this money “too great to resist”, Mr Justice Weir said Toland and a second person drove his work van from his home in Antrim to the Acheson house, where he broke in by smashing a bedroom window.
The smashing glass woke Mrs 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.
Toland 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 Acheson lifted her purse out of her bag, which Toland grabbed before fleeing. The purse contained £335 in cash.
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 whilst Mr Acheson had a pre-existing heart condition, 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.
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. The pensioner also had bruising to his 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 defend himself.
Mr Justice Weir spoke of the “catastrophic” effect Toland’s actions have had on the family, and highlighted the fact that Mrs Acheson had been “quite unable to return home”. He told Toland: “The damage you have done to this family ... can never be repaired.”
Toland pleaded guilty to the manslaughter of Bertie Acheson, and also of robbing £335 cash from Sheila Acheson.
A probation report revealed that Toland has expressed remorse for causing the death of Mr Acheson. However, the judge told Toland: “Unfortunately your remorse didn’t manifest itself in telling the police what you had done when you learned of his death. Instead, the family had to endure a painstaking police investigation over a period of time before they connected you with the crime.”
Members of the Acheson family were present for the sentencing, but declined to speak to the media.